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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Misirlou:
The Story Behind the Song

 

By Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin

 

Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

The Greek title of the song "Misirlou" is a Greek pronunciation of the Turkish word Mısırlı which means "Egyptian girl." Before the 20th century, ethnic Greeks lived in large numbers throughout the Ottoman Empire, in what is now modern-day Turkey, the Levant, and Egypt. Therefore, occasionally words from Arabic and Turkish languages will show up in Greek rebetiko songs, and lyrics from this vintage music often speak of "Arabian" women. There are also many Greek words used in the Arabic and Turkish languages.

The original Greek lyrics tell of a forbidden love between a Greek (Christian) man and an Egyptian (Muslim) woman. Because of the religious and ethnic differences, the subject was quite risqué for its time. The lyrics don't specifically mention religion, it's simply implied by the nationalities of the man and woman. The complete translation is available elsewhere on this web site.

"Misirlou" is in the rebetiko style of music, which was born in Smyrna (known today as Izmir, Turkey) and Constantinople (known today as Istanbul, Turkey) among the Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Arabs and Jews. It thrived and traveled among the Oriental port cities including Alexandria, Egypt and Syria. Later, it found its permanent home throughout Greece and among the Greek diaspora abroad. It is false to assume that this genre was exclusive to the Greek port city of Piraeus. Many Greek refugees from Anatolia (Asia Minor, present day Turkey) were dispersed throughout mainland Greece, including in Thessaloniki.

Misirlou

 

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Beginnings

Copyright and Earliest Recording

The copyright for this song was registered by Nicholas (Nikos) Roubanis, although some in Greece say that the song is older, and Roubanis merely claimed a melody that already existed.

There are many old photos on the Internet of vinyl records from the time showing that Nikos Roubanis and Tetos Demetriades worked together to create the original release of "Misirlou". An old rebetiko book in my collection, titled and dated July, 1927, corroborates this. These sources state that Roubanis composed the 1927 release and Demetriades sang it. Therefore, it’s appropriate to conclude that Roubanis was indeed the composer in his collaboration with Tetos in the United States.

However, controversy about the song's origins remains to this day. A strong rumor suggests that "Misirlou" was originally performed in Greece by Mike Patrinos band; however, I have not found recorded evidence to prove that statement. (Regardless, it seems very plausible that it could have happened.)

Nikos Roubanis submitted a copyright claim to the music in 1934. Roubanis is credited for changing the original heavy Zeibekiko melody to a more Oriental tone. In my previous statement regarding the slow Zeibekiko, it shows that there could have been another Greek composer who was the original. Unfortunately, the original Zeibekiko version and composer have yet to be found. Roubanis was teacher of Byzantine music.

The first known recording of "Misirlou" was made by Theodotos (Tetos) Demetriades, in 1927. Later, in 1930, official recordings were released by Michalis (Mike) Patrinos and Danai Stratigopoulou.

An Incorrect Internet Claim

Some web sites have incorrectly claimed that "Misirlou" was written in 1919 by a legendary Egyptian music composer, Sayed Darwish. This claim is based on the fact that Darwish wrote a song called "Bint Misr" (also sometimes known as "El Masreya") which is Arabic for "Egyptian Girl". Apparently, because both "Bint Misr" and "Misirlou" mean "Egyptian Girl" in English, these people think they might be the same song.

However, the two songs are very different from each other. This performance of the song "Bint Misr" by Sayed Darwish shows that it sounds nothing like "Misirlou".

Misirlou

 

Misirlou

 

Misirlou

 

Misirlou

 

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Legends in the Making:
The Musicians

Who were these fascinating men that made a mark around the world with this exotic song?

Theodotos Demetriades

Theodotos Demetriades, nicknamed Tetos, was a rebetiko singer, the original artist to record "Misirlou", which he did in 1927.

It's unclear exactly when Demetriades was born. Estimates range from 1897 to 1901. He was born in Constantinople (the Greek name for Istanbul).

He moved to the United States in 1921, which is where he was living at the time he recorded "Misirlou." He died in New Jersey in 1971 from throat cancer.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo is of Tetos Demetriades.

Tetos Demetriades

Nicholas (Nikos) Roubanis

Nicholas (Nikos) Roubanis was born in 1880. At age 25, he went to Egypt to work as a music conductor, in the service of its king.

In 1925, he relocated to the U.S. and became a professor at Columbia University in New York.

Roubanis also composed liturgical music for the Greek Orthodox church in America. In 1965, he retired to Greece, where he died three years later.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows Nicholas Roubanis.

Nicholas Roubanis

Mike Patrinos

Michalis (Mike) Patrinos, a rebetiko singer, was originally from Smyrna (the former name of Izmir, Turkey). He sang his version of "Misirlou" in the accent of that area, so that it sounds like "Mousourlou". He recorded his version of "Misirlou" in Athens, Greece in 1930, and in New York City in 1931.

His Life

Mike Harris Patrinos was born in Mani Lakonia (southern Greece), in 1890. His birth name was Konstantinos Kalogeras. In the early 1900's, he worked in Dexameni, Athens, then moved to the U.S. and lived there from 1914 to 1929.

When Patrinos moved back to Greece, he settled in Patra, which is how he earned the nick name of Patrinos. He also was known by the nickname of “Amerikanos” because usually any Greek who had lived in the U.S. would also be called “The American”.

He decided to take on the new stage name of Dino Theodoropoulou. The names he used in America were Mike (Mihali) Harris Patrinos and Dino Theodoropoulos.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows Michalis Patrinos as a young man in 1914, holding a Karagiozi shadow theater puppet.

Mike Patrinos

Patrinos' Shadow Theater Legacy

Patrinos is famous internationally for his contributions to the song "Misirlou" (which he pronounced "Mousourlou" due to his regional accent). However, in Greece he was a famous actor in Karagiozi, which is a shadow theater popular and Greece and Turkey, and this is the legacy that Greeks remember him for.

In the Karagiozi circuit, Patrinos wrote his own plays and compositions. He also mentored countless rising stars.  

Patrinos was the first to take advantage of a microphone in presenting Karagiozi performances, and he played music on the gramophone. His only daughter, Sophia Kalogera, is remembered as the first and only female Karagiozi performer. Today, the family home in Patras, Greece is a museum known as “Karagiozi House”.

ABOUT THE IMAGE: The drawing shows a sample character from Greek Karagiozi shadow theater.

Karagiozis

 

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Some of the Greek Versions

Many Greek recording artists have released their own versions of this song. Here is a partial list.

  • Theodotos (Tetos) Demetriades, 1927
  • Michalis (Mike) Patrinos, 1930 in Athens, 1931 in New York
  • Danai Stratigopoulou, 1930
  • Maria Karela with Spiros Stamos Orchestra, 1941
  • Sofia Vembo, 1947
  • Manolis Aggelopoulos, 1976
  • Glykeria Kotsoula, 1998
  • Maria Konstantinidou-Stamatiou
  • Mia Theodoratus
  • Dimitrios (Jimmy) Makulis

Greece

 

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Around the World

English lyrics for "Misirlou" were created in 1940 by Bob Russell, Fred Wise and Milton Leeds, and recorded in 1941 by Mitchell Ayres. These lyrics were entirely different in their meaning from the originals.

Other versions of the song were recorded in other languages. Some, such as the French version by Dario Moreno, remained more faithful to the original meaning of the song.

The 1962 release of a surfer guitar version by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones opened a new chapter in the popularity of this song. Dale's father and uncles had been Lebanese musicians. Dale saw his father playing "Misirlou" on one string of an oud (a Middle Eastern lute), and he decided to try it on a guitar, but with a surf rock flavor. Soon, other surfer bands and rock bands were creating their own versions as well. Dick Dale's version of "Misirlou" was given new life when the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction used it on the soundtrack.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows Mitchell Ayres, the first vocalist to release a recording of "Misirlou" with English lyrics by Russell, Wise, and Leeds.

Mitchell Ayres

Instrumental Versions

As of January 2017, a search of eMusic (one of the commercial music download sites) revealed 601 versions of this song to choose from! Here is a sampling of some of the musicians from around the world who have recorded it:

  • Surf and Rock Instrumentals
    • Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, 1962
    • Ventures
    • Beach Boys, 1963
    • California Guitar Trio
    • Rick Gale and the Surf Riders
    • Astronauts, 1963
    • Surfaris
    • Trashmen, 1964
    • Bobby Fuller Four, 1965
    • Agent Orange, 1981
    • Red Elvises, 1996
  • Other Instrumental
    • Unclassical Piano
    • Harry James, 1941
    • Jan August, 1946
    • David Rose, 1947
    • Rhythm Stylists, 1947
    • Leon Berry (organist), 1953
    • Arthur Lyman, 1958
    • Eugene Nemov, 2006
    • 2Cellos, 2011

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Harry Saroyan is one of the musicians who has recorded a version of "Misirlou" for use by belly dancers.

Harry Saroyan

Languages Other Than Greek

Musician

Language

Year

Mitchell Ayres English 1941
Woody Herman Big Band English 1941
Miriam Kressyn Yiddish 1943
Clovis el-Hajj Arabic 1944
Dario Moreno French 1953, 1958
Chubby Checker English 1962
Connie Francis English 1965
Edo Lubich Croatian ?
Reuben and Vart Sarkisian, under the song title "Ine Orre", lyrics by Reuben Sarkisian Armenian 1950's
The Devil's Anvil, lyrics by Gail Collins are different from most English versions English 1967
Gino Cudsi e Dorine, under the song title "Missirlù" Italian 1967
Zeki Müren, under the song title "Yaralı Gönül", lyrics by Suat Sayın Turkish 1971
Paul Baghdadlian, uses Reuben Sarkisian's lyrics, but released under the song title "Anoush Yar" Armenian 1970's
Staniša Stošić, under the song title "Lela Vranjanka" Serbian 1972

By Musicians Who Recorded for Belly Dancers

Musician

Album Title

John Bilezikjian Dream of Scheherazde
George Abdo The Art of Belly Dancing
Harry Saroyan (in English and Spanish) Saroyan Sings Cairo
Pangia Pangia, Volume 1
Scott Wilson Live at Jebon
Desert Wind Gaia, Earth Goddess

 

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Dancing to It

There are three types of dances that can be done to "Misirlou", depending on what kind of underlying rhythm is used with it:

  • Tsifteteli (belly dance)
  • Zeibekiko
  • Line Dance Popular among non-Greek folk dancers in North America
  • Back in the day, was also used for karsilamas and hasapiko

Tsifteteli (Belly Dance)

"Misirlou" has long been a favorite song among tsifteteli dancers (often referred to in English as belly dancers) in North America. In particular, versions of "Misirlou" played slowly have been popular since the 1970's in North America for dancing with a large piece of sheer fabric often known as "peplo" in Greek or a "veil" (in English).

Dancers will make an entrance to fast music with the fabric wrapped around their bodies. They will then use a slower song such as "Misirlou" to bring a quieter energy into their performance, remove the peplo, and dance with it. This segment of the performance often includes sinuous movements such as undulations, hip circles, and infinity (figure 8) movements.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Panayiota does a belly dance performance.

Panayiota

Zeibekiko

This is a solo urban Greek improvisational dance. Zeibekiko dance used to be a men’s dance, although in the last few decades women have also begun to dance to it. It was brought to the Greek mainland by refugees from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in the 1920's.

There is a specific 9/8 musical rhythm associated with the zeibekiko, and sometimes the song "Misirlou" is played with that rhythm. When it is, then it would be appropriate to dance the zeibekiko to it.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The man in the photo is Mike Patrinos in 1924, also sometimes known by the stage name Dino Theodoropoulos. He was one of the singers that many Greeks associate with this song. His version is often referred to as "Mousourlou" because of his accent.

The "Folk Dance"

In North America, the song "Misirlou" is used for a fakelore line or circle dance that is popular with folk dance clubs. The dance itself is also typically called "Misirlou" as well. The dance was invented in 1945, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The detailed story behind this made-in-the-U.S. "folk dance" appears elsewhere on this web site.

There's no harm in doing this dance recreationally, so long as you understand it does not accurately represent Greek dance and probably wouldn't be the right choice for an event that celebrates Greek culture.

Mike Patrinos

 

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Related Articles

 

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About the Author

This page was contributed by Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin, who is happy to share her culture and music she grew up with! Here's how Panayiota describes her background:

I always love engaging with intelligent like-minded people, especially artists. I love sharing anything and everything about my Hellenic culture and upbringing, especially music and dance. A conversation with me will bring you back to America's favorite Greek-American movie by Nia Vardalos called My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I love investigating Greek culture, history, music, and dance. Speaking of investigating, I think I missed my calling, I probably should have been an investigator. Instead, I use those skills to dig and dig and dig tirelessly, often times falling asleep on my laptop... just to find the truth. But, most importantly, accurate truth. For me personally, and other respectable folklorists, my culture and accuracy are very important. Each generation of ethnic born artists has a duty to do the best it can to pass down our traditions as was taught to us. We have been given this artistic gift to be the gatekeepers of our heritage and culture.

Panayiota

 

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