Dress British Drink Yiddish: Surf Music, the Original Gypsy Punk

A quick note at the start of this: I have used the phrase "Gypsy Punk" in the title of this post, and it will occur again in this series, but I don't prefer it. Firstly, the word "Gypsy" is a complicated one, and there are many in the group it denotes, the Roma people, who consider it a slur. Roma people sometime use the term, and that is their prerogative -- many of the members of the Gipsy Kings are Roma, and so obviously I do not have an issue with their choice of band name. But there are a lot of performers in Gypsy punk bands who are not Roma, and even if they claim Roma influence in their band, it's not a term they are entitled to. Worse still, the music sometimes represents an idealized or exoticized version of Roma life, and some of it has no particular Roma influence, so the phrase can be misapplied at best, and an example of a crass sort of musical colonialism at worst.

That being said, I like a lot of the music, and wish there was a better term for it. Gogol Bordello has a song titled "Immigrant Punk" that I sometimes use as a substitution, but even that doesn't work especially well, as only a small percent of immigrants come from the Balkan and Slavic countries that primarily influence this music. One of the downsides of being a blogger in Omaha is that I don't get to name musical genres; however, an upside is that I still get to complain about it.

But my complaining is done. I'm not even going to begin with Gyspy punk, but with a precursor: surf music.

You'll note that the title of this blog post begins with "Jukebox at the Jewish Bar," and that's how I have conceived of this project. As you may recall from my previous post, in my weird little head I have conceived of a Jewish bar that serves the same function to American Jews as Irish bars serve for Irish-Americans, as a place where nostalgia meets contemporary ethnic culture meets food and drink. But it's not enough for me to imagine such a place existing -- the real fun comes from thinking about what drinks I would serve, and how I would decorate it, and what music I would put on the jukebox.

I'm starting with surf music, which may seem like an odd place to start. It is. I could have started with a sort-of "old folks night," where I play ancient Yiddish platters, or a lounge night, or a jazz night, where I play Jewish versions of those genres. All would be appropriate in a bar, and I will get to all of them.

I suppose I'm starting with surf because I feel like I'm the only one that thinks the genre is somehow Jewish. I should note that I define "Jewish" pretty broadly -- my Jewish bar wouldn't be limited to songs by Jews about Jewish topics, but would be expansive, including music that draws from the same well as Gypsy punk. I don't think it is possible to point at some music and say "that is Jewish" and other music and say "that is Russian" when Jews so frequently acted as the professional musicians of Eastern Europe, alongside Roma musicians. There was an album back in 1993 by the Hungarian folk band Muzsikás called "Máramaros: The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania," consisting largely of music the band had learned from Roma performers, and that album sort of perfectly sums up the cultural cross-pollination that happened between Eastern Europe's gentiles, Jews, and Roma peoples.

And so we leap forward to surf music, which has these influences buried in it, and Dick Dale, who created the surf guitar sound. Dale is often credited as being Lebanese, he was also of Belorussian extraction and born and raised in Boston, and while he claimed blues artists and jazz drummer Gene Krupa as his primary influences, his music seemed as much borrowed from the sorts of songs you might hear at an ethnic wedding or Bar Mitvah. These include his legendary performance of "Miserlou," an ancient Turkish/Egyptian song that has long been a favorite among Klezmer bands; Dale had heard first the song played on a oud by his uncle.

 Dale also recorded a similar version of "Hava Nagila," filled with slashing power chords and a deep, heavily reverbed lead guitar, and this is the Dick Dale song I would include on my jukebox.

Every surf instrumental band since has owed a debt to Dale. Surf can claim a lot of influences, and it is easy to pick out Mexican sounds and Hawaiian sounds in the music, but there always seems to be those Eastern European/Near-Middle Eastern chords and scales lurking in the background.

Some bands have made this explicit, with songs that reference these influences directly. Here is a list of some of these, and all would be on my jukebox:

1. "Cossack" by The Barons. I know almost nothing about this band, except that they apparently hailed from the Dartford, Kent and released this in 1961, which, if true, is astonishing. The song sounds classically surf, but precedes Dick Dale's "Miserlou" by a year. Let's call it parallel evolution. I don't know why they chose to call this twangy, uptempo number "Cossack," but it has a minor-key quality to it, and it is possible to imagine Cossacks leaping about to it.

2. "Russian Roulette," The Nevegans. Obscuro surf rock from Las Vegas, they released this propulsive song sometime around 1963, and it's a delight: Russian music meets pipeline surf meets Tequila saxophone.

3. "Exodus," The Lively Ones. The Lively Ones were a superb 60s surf band, and produced an entire album of Latin-tinged songs called "Surfin' South of the Border" in 1964. For whatever reason, the included Ernest Gold's theme to the Zionist epic film "Exodus," and it was a masterstroke -- the band managed at once to make the melody a moody beach epic and something that sounds suspiciously like the theme to a western movie, including clopping horse hooves. The Jewish experience has never been this cowboy before.

4. "Ukranian Dance#13" by The Red Elvises: The Red Elvises, formed by Russian expats in Los Angeles, have perhaps done more to explore the link between surf and East European music than anyone else -- this song is off a 1997 release called "Surfing in Siberia." The song starts with a guitar riffing through a minor key scale while the singers wail like chanting pilgrims, and then settles into a Henry Mancini spy-movie groove which propulsively speeds up, interrupted by occasional shouts of "Hey!," as though a folk dance had broken out.

5. "The Cossack" by The Space Cossacks. This Washington DC surf band, formed in 1996, had one theme, but my God what a theme: Surf music inspired by the Cold War space race. They put out at least four albums of the stuff, with song titles like "Solaris Stomp" and "Cossack Rocket Patrol," and almost all of their songs would be just right on my imaginary jukebox. This 1998 release is frantic and swirling, and I suppose I was attracted to how delirious it seemed, but feel free to rifle through their material and find the song you like the most for your own bar.

6. "Skating Red Square" by Phantom Surfers. Surf bands all borrow from Dick Dale, as I said, but the Phantom Surfers went right to the source, recording an album with the legendary guitar player in 1996. They also have the delightful habit of performing in Zorro-style masks and had Mad Magazine artist Jack Davis illustrate the cover of their album "The Great Surf Crash of '97," so I am predisposed to liking this band. As it happens, they have also repeatedly returned to Dale's oud-style guitar scales, as on this song, from their 2000 compilation "A Decade Of Quality Control." The melody is deliberately a pastiche of Russian melodies, including the same sorts of cries of "Hey" that The Red Elvises favor.

7. "Bubamara" by Los Venturas. Apparently there is a surf scene in Belgium, which produced Los Venturas. "Bubamara" is, as near as I can tell, a surf version of Goran Bregović's song of the same name from the 1998 Serbian romantic comedy "Black Cat, White Cat" by Emir Kusturica. The film was originally intended to be a documentary about Roma music, and so this rollicking melody may be the song on this list that most directly lifts from Roma folk music.

"Avienu Malkainu," The MelTones. Montreal surf band The MelTones followed Dick Dale's lead in 2003, adapting a traditional Jewish song as a surf song as Dale had with "Hava Negila." The MeTones chose one of the moodiest songs from Jewish prayers, "Avinu Malkeinu" from the Jewish high holidays, and it works perfectly. Who wouldn't want to face down a tubed wave while begging musically for repentance?  

8. "Kol Nidre," Meshugga Beach Party. A project of Mel Waldorf, who was the Mel in the MelTones, this Bay Area band takes the promise offered by the MelTones "Avienu Malkainu,"and turns it into pure novelty. The band dresses in black caftans, flowing beards, and sidelocks when they perform, and every single one of their songs comes from Jewish tradition. They also happen to be a first-rate surf band, as demonstrated in their 2003 version of the Kol Nidre, re-imagined as a sort of surf march, to the rattattat of marching drums, with whaling, psychedelic guitars in the background.

9. "На Молдаванке (On Moldavanka)," Gulag Tunes. Gulag Tunes seeks to re-imagine popular Russian songs in a variety of styles, and with this 2007 release they borrowed the melody of an older song -- I think it's "Smuglyanka," a song written in 1940 to celebrate female Bessarabian rebels. It's an effective surf song, but the folk melody comes across unusually strongly. Unlike other songs on the list, which lampoon cliches in Eastern European music, this one sounds genuinely Eastern European.

10. "Raskolnikov's Revenge," The Secret Samurai. A 2011 release from this San Diego band, named for the fictional antihero of "Crime and Punishment." The band describes themselves as follows, and somehow they manage to pack all of it into this one song: "Morricone-inspired solar apexed gunfight staredown hymns cross-pollinate with Kuraswawa battle drone. Czarist soundscape entanglements morph into snake charm surf rock silhouettes."