One of the few English language channels we have here is NHK World, the Japanese national broadcaster. It’s a good mix of documentaries, tourist features and news so it’s a popular choice when we can’t find anything on any other channel. This happens quite often…
On this particular jump we hit a short musical program called Blends. Traditional Japanese instruments are used to play a western piece of music. There’s some information about the instrument, but it’s best to tune in just after the music starts so you can spend the time guessing what the terribly familiar but oddly strange piece of music is.
This particular program focused on a kokyu, the only traditional bowed instrument in Japan. It has a very long neck, a square-shaped body and is played balanced vertically on the knees facing away from the player. With three strings and the playing position it was very reminiscent of the kemence from traditional Turkish music.
The music began and DH (Dearest Handyman) exclaimed that the piece was Turkish. I was a little skeptical, I could hear some Turkish overtones, but it was familiar to me from somewhere else. Somewhere not Turkish, but I couldn’t quite place it.
A quick search brought us the name, Misirlou, and the first result was Dick Dale and the Dell Tones. Now I placed the song. It was on the soundtrack for Pulp Fiction. Dick Dale recorded the piece after a bet that he could not play a song on a single string. Coming from a Lebanese-American family, he remembered his uncle playing this piece on the oud, speeded it up and made it rock ‘n roll.
The Lebanese connection brings us closer to Turkey. The name itself sounds Turkish being very similar to mısırlı, meaning someone from Egypt. Working backwards, the song was first recorded in 1927 by a Greek rebetiko musician Teros Demetriades. He was born in Istanbul and lived there until moving to the US in 1921. Another version was recorded in the 1930s by Michalis Patrinos, orginally from Izmir, in Athens.
It’s most likely the song originated in Anatolia, but there’s no single person or group who can claim full ownership. Versions of the song are known to Turks, Greeks, Arabs and Jews, all of whom were present in Anatolia in the beginning of the twentieth century and many were scattered throughout the world after the First World War.
The Greek words refer to a girl from Egypt, with sweet looks lighting a fire in the heart and lips dripping honey. The Greek version does include some Arabic words. There’s a klezmer version with Ladino words. The Jewish singer from Izmir, Dario Moreno, recorded two versions in French, one with new words and one a direct translation of the Greek. Most Turks know the song from the Zeki Müren version from the 1970s recorded under the name ‘Yaralı Gönül’. These new words refer to the wounded heart, left as a memento and the longing for an end to the pain and grief.
From somewhere in Anatolia, this song has travelled through genres from rebetiko to jazz and surf rock, though languages from Turkish to Yiddish and ended up on a traditional Japanese kokyu. It’s a good reminder that the world was interconnected long before the internet. Though the difference is these days it only takes a few minutes to trace the connections from the comfort of your own couch.