The Sounds of the '60s: How Dick Dale, the Doors, and Dylan Swayed to Arab Music
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "Al' America: Travels Through America's Arab and Islamic Roots", by Jonathan Curiel, The New Press, 2008.
When it comes to pop music, the '60s will always be remembered for Hendrix, Dylan, Joplin, and groups like Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but the early part of the decade produced a sound that was equally revolutionary in the history of rock 'n' roll. Surf music was the music of choice from 1960 to early 1964, producing hit after hit. Emanating from the beach cities of Southern California, this music featured doo-wop-like harmonies and reverberating guitar riffs that made listeners want to move and dance. The Beach Boys were the most successful group in parlaying surf music's softer side to a mass audience, but Dick Dale was the one who begat the genre with his signature songs, including one that remains a hit to this day: "Miserlou." The tune reached new levels of popularity with its inclusion in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction", which overlayed Dale's aural freneticism with a stylish storyline that produced one of cinema's most acclaimed movies.
In fact, "Miserlou" inspired Tarantino to make "Pulp Fiction", so taken was the director by the tune's epic sound and the way it could musically anchor a two-hour blockbuster.
What was Dale's inspiration for "Miserlou"? His Arab roots. Dale's real name is Richard Monsour -- his paternal grandparents were born and raised in Lebanon -- and as a young man growing up in Boston, Dale spoke Arabic and listened to Arabic music. Dale's uncle, who was a musician, taught him how to play the Lebanese goblet drum, called the Al America derbeki.
As importantly, Dale watched his uncle perform a mesmerising song on the oud -- a composition with Arabic and Turkish origins. That song was "Miserlou," which means "The Egyptian" in Turkish. (Misr is the Arabic word for Egypt.)
When Dale was 11, his family moved to Southern California, where (besides really learning how to surf) Dale became a professional musician. The way that Dale explains it, he was performing at the Rendezvous Ballroom, a club near Newport Beach, when a young fan around 10 years old asked if he could play a song using just one guitar string. Dale told the fan to attend the next night's concert and he would get his wish -- except that Dale had no idea how he'd keep his promise. Later that night, Dale remembered his uncle playing "Miserlou" on one string. Dale also harkened back to the goblet drum, whose fast rhythms he adopted for his rendition of "Miserlou."
The result: A surf song with origins in the Arab world. This was in the late 1950s. When Dale released "Miserlou" on a record in 1962, the song quickly became his most demanded number. "So many people call it a Greek folk song, but it's actually an Arabic song because 'Miserlou' means 'The Egyptian,'" Dale tells me, before repeating some of the song's lyrics -- in Arabic. "The words [are], 'Wenak habibi winta habibi.' That means, 'Where are you, my sweetheart?'"
The impression that "Miserlou" is Greek stems from the fact that the first person who recorded it and credited himself for the song was a Greek artist, Nicholas Roubanis. This was during the early 1940s. Historically, "Miserlou" was performed in Greece, but in the country's east, which has large numbers of Muslims and belongs to the region called Thrace, which overlapped with Turkey. Jewish musicians also adopted "Miserlou" from that region. "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," scholar and author Yale Strom told National Public Radio.