Skip Global Navigation to Main Content

Guitarist Dick Dale Brought Arabic Folk Song to Surf Music

How surf music's roots stretch all the way to Lebanon

By Steve Holgate | Washington File Special Correspondent | 14 September 2006
Dick Dale

Dick Dale, king of the surf guitar, comes from a family of Arabic musicians. (photo courtesy of Dick Dale)

Portland, Oregon – Dick Dale, the “King of the Surf Guitar,” still youthful and energetic at 69, has been playing for more than an hour to the packed crowd, rocking them with such classic surf music riffs as “Pipeline,” his own version of “Ghost Riders” and even the old chestnut, “Fever.” He has moved quickly from one song to the other while his two sidemen, who appear to be at least 40 years younger, work to keep up.

Now it is time to ratchet the energy up one more notch. So he turns to one of his biggest hits, a cult-favorite, the lightning-paced, blow-down-the-walls sound of … an Arabic folk tune?

Yes. And Dick Dale can show us that there is nothing more American than the Arabic sound of classic surf music.

It seems too strange to digest at first, that “Misirlou,” Dale’s most widely recognized tune, is based on an Arabic-language song, or that a number of his surf music classics have a distinctively Arabic sound. After all, what speaks more purely of that all-American California lifestyle than the high-energy, good-natured twang of surf music? Yet, in the portentous chords of Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve” and in some of the early Beach Boys music – when they are not borrowing from Chuck Berry – the discerning ear can pick up not only the sounds of California beach communities, but a tantalizing hint of Beirut, Lebanon, Damascus, Syria, and Cairo, Egypt.

And if, in Dick Dale’s driving lead guitar and amazingly quick picking, you hear something of the tarabaki drum’s insistent rhythms and can see a classic Middle Eastern belly dancer sweeping across the floor, you are getting close to the source of the paradox.

In fact, this legendary guitarist’s name at birth was Richard Monsour – a name in which he still takes great pride, even if it does not sound as good on stage as Dick Dale. And the Middle Eastern roots that influenced his distinctive sound are long and deep. His paternal grandparents came to the United States from Beirut. His father, though born in Boston, spent most of his childhood in Lebanon, and Dale himself grew up speaking Arabic.

More important for the future of surf music, Dale came from a family of Arabic musicians. “My uncle taught me how to play the tarabaki, and I watched him play the oud. We used to play at the Maharjan” – a Lebanese nightspot in Boston – “while my relatives belly-danced,” he recalled during a recent interview with the Washington File. Though only a boy when he took up the instrument, Dale’s early tarabaki drumming proved such a huge influence on his guitar playing that he says he is still simply playing drums on his guitar strings. “It’s the pulsation,” he says of his distinctive sound, saying that whether he is playing guitar, trumpet or piano, “they all have that drumming beat I learned by playing the tarabaki.”

When the Monsour family moved to Southern California in the 1950s, Dale picked up a new passion for surfing. That passion soon led to the birth of a new genre of music. “I didn’t really think of it as surf music,” he says now. But when he began to play his unique high-energy sound at concerts in the beach towns near Los Angeles, his fellow surfers quickly dubbed him the King of the Surf Guitar. To anyone who knew him, the sound of the surf came across strongly in his music.

So did his Arabic heritage, which, through a promise to a young fan, gave Dale what may be his signature tune. The fan was a young boy who attended one of Dale’s first concerts and asked if Dale could play a song on one string, as Middle Eastern oud players can. Dale said that he could and promised to play it at his concert the following night. “That night I went to bed and couldn’t sleep,” he laughs now. “I was almost crying,” he says, for fear he would not be able to keep his promise. “Then I remembered my uncle playing ‘Misirlou,’” on one string.

Yale Strom, an ethnologist and artist-in-residence at San Diego State University, says that Misirlou – “The Egyptian” – is played in distinctive Arab modalities and has characteristic Eastern Mediterranean syncopated rhythms that usually are played by the drums.

So, for a guy who claims that he is playing the drums even when he is on guitar, the solution came quickly. Dale said that he got up the next day and started playing the tune slowly, then with increasing speed, bringing in the lightning-fast rhythms of the tarabaki, until he had what he needed. “Misirlu” remains perhaps Dale’s most widely recognized tune, especially after its use as the theme music for the 1994 hit film Pulp Fiction.” More recently, the Black Eyed Peas have recycled the tune as part of their latest hit, “Pump It.”

On the strength of several hits and a string of electrifying concerts, Dale developed a new genre, blazing a path for surf musicians such as the Ventures and the legendary Beach Boys, who used to play as an opening act at Dale concerts. Though some of these acts eventually reached greater popular heights than Dale, who did not wish to undertake the long tours on which musical fame and fortune often are built, they all knew they were in his debt.

If other musicians understand the debt they owe to Dick Dale, Dick Dale understands the debt he owes to Arabic culture and Arabic music. While enjoying a career resurgence that has made him popular again, Dale is teaching his son, Jimmy, also a talented musician, to speak Arabic and to appreciate the unique sound of his family’s traditional music. “It’s difficult to play,” Dale says, “Very difficult. But it’s a beautiful sound to one who has been raised with it.”

More information on Dale and his music is available on his official Web site.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

Dick Dale

Dick Dale poses for a portrait on June 2, 1997. (© AP Images)

  • Keywords: