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'Misirlou,' from Klezmer to Surf Guitar

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'Misirlou,' from Klezmer to Surf Guitar

'Misirlou,' from Klezmer to Surf Guitar

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

That's what many of you did last week after hearing a piece by Joh Kalish. It focused on Lionel Ziprin's efforts to preserve the recordings of his grandfather, Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, an Orthodox rabbi who lived on New York's Lower East Side. This is one of the tunes the rabbi sang.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

NAFTALI ZVI MARGOLIES ABULAFIA: (Singing in Hebrew)

HANSEN: Many of you pointed out that the melody bore a striking resemblance to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MISIRLOU")

Unidentified Man: Up, up, ha!

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANSEN: That's Dick Dale and his Del-tones' rendition of the tune "Misirlou" from 1962, which gained renewed popularity when it was used in Quentin Tarantino's film "Pulp Fiction" in 1994. Turns out there are many versions of this melody, from klezmer to string quartet to 1950s exotica acts. Pete Seeger sang it in Carnegie Hall, which prompted us to try to find out the origins of this haunting tune. We called artist Yale Strom, adjunct professor of ethnography at New York University, to ask him about it.

YALE STROM: I guess the first to put it down to notation--so that often's the one who often claims that there's a guy--you know, Nikemos Patrenous(ph). He was a Greek gentleman who did it both in Greece in 1930, I believe recorded it, and in 1931 in New York. That's one of the earliest, if not the earliest, recording of this song.

Nicholas Roubanis I believe in the '40s--he is the one who copyrighted it and put his name to it. And often in America when we have folk music and we know it comes from the folk and we don't know exactly where originally it started, that person gets all the credit and the royalties, so he does. So I believe--not believe; I know it's much older than from the 1940s, and it's obviously something from the 19th century. And the rightful composers, we'll never really know.

Group of People: (Humming along with melody)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

STROM: It's Greek-Turkish. I mean, the Greeks will claim it for themselves, and the Turks often say it's theirs. It's definitely from the region where the Greeks and the Turks were, you know, sharing common land--I often say the Traccia area, Thrace, which would be the western part of Turkey today. I mean, the Greeks have been playing it for a long time. It was sort of in the rabbinical fashion; it's a type of slow circle dance.

So there were Jewish musicians, East European origin, Ashkenazi, who lived in Constantinople then it was known as, eventually Istanbul. And they would travel up through Bulgaria, up through Romania, Bucharest, Yasche(ph), going even into Ukraine and traveling back and forth as musicians do. And I'm sure they heard the melody and brought it back. I'm sure they brought back and were influenced by many Greek and Turkish melodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

HANSEN: So how did "Misirlou" find its way from the Middle East into the iconic sound of American surf guitar?

(SOUNDBITE OF "MISIRLOU")

HANSEN: Dick Dale's grandparents were born in Lebanon. As a child, he remembers hearing his relatives play "Misirlou," which means "The Egyptian," on the Middle Eastern lute called the ud.

DICK DALE: And I would listen to them play it on the ud while I was playing on the darbukkah, the Arabic drum that you hold in your lap. It was actually played (imitates melody), like that, and the beat is (imitates beat). And they would come out dancing the belly dances, and the men would put money--dollars bills, 20-dollar bills, whatever--yeah, they would tuck it into their costumes, you know, the bras, the veils. And I had relatives that would dance these dances. So I started playing it on the guitar, and I was playing it that way on a single string in that rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MISIRLOU")

DALE: And when I came to California and we opened up--reopened up the Rendezvous Ballroom in Newport Beach, California, which we later filled to the walls within 30 days by going from school to school and showing them what we did. So what happened was I'm standing there going (imitates guitar noise)--strumming--and this one little kid, he was probably about 10 years old. He looked up at me and he says, `Can you play something on a single string? Like, can you play a whole song just playing on a single string?' So I said, `Come back tomorrow night, son. I'll do something.'

I had no idea what to do. So I went home and I laid down in bed and, boy, I just about cried myself to sleep because I says, `Oh, my God. Everyone's going to find out that I'm a big fake.' And I said to myself, `What could I do?' And I picked up the guitar and I started playing the only thing I could think of, "Misirlou," and I played it at that slow beat. So that night I said, `You know, it's too slow. It's not exciting like this kid wants.' And so what happens is I started doing it as if I was playing drums (imitates guitar sound)--one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. That's the turnaround that you would do on a drum. So I was doing that with the pick, so I just started going faster and faster. I went (imitates melody)--and I was doing that.

And then I goes, `Well, wait a minute. Do it faster. Go (imitates guitar sound). ' So (imitates guitar sound)--like that. And I went (imitates "Misirlou" melody). And that got the kid all excited and they went crazy.

HANSEN: And the rest is pop music history.

You can hear excerpts from several versions of "Misirlou" on our Web site, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MISIRLOU" )

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