Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Mazel Tov: Dick Dale's Hava Nagila

When an Israeli friend of mine got married last summer, she was trying to think of a unique version of “Hava Nagila” to play after the traditional breaking of the glass. Without question, I told her the most original version I know is Dick Dale & His Del-Tones’ surf-rock arrangement from the mid-'60s.

Although Dale became an amateur surfer in Los Angeles, he was actually born in Massachusetts to a Lebanese father and Polish mother. Although I suspected that there probably wasn't much of a surfing legacy there, my friend Naomi Boxer (with tongue-in-cheek) asserted otherwise. "On a historical note, regarding Poland and surfers, perhaps you have made a slight oversight here? Have you not heard of the (in)famous Minsker Boys? There is strong historical evidence that they were a Jewish group of surfers from the city of Minsk. Usually part of Poland but slurped up by Russia during The Partition of Poland. According to the cultural lore that I've heard, they surfed the Black Sea in the earlier part of the 20th century in home-made (by their mothers of course) water-proof clothing with layers of chicken fat for warmth. The image that the Minsker Boys evokes certainly flies in the face of traditional Eastern European Jewish stereotypes." Who would have guessed?

In any case, Dale developed an interest once his family relocated to Orange County, California (where there are more Republicans than surfers). Dale's musical influences were Middle Eastern which he would integrate into what became his frenzied guitar style. (His uncle was apparently a virtuoso oud player.) Most contemporary audiences became familiar with his work when Quentin Tarantino used Dale’s cover of “Misirlou” in the opening credits of Pulp Fiction (1994). His playing style with its quick machine gun attack was far removed from the twanging reverb developed by contemporary Duane Eddy. The liner notes from one of his collections explains his approach quite eloquently:

“While he is primarily known for introducing the use of guitar reverb that would give the guitar a ‘wet’ sound, which has since become a staple of surf music, it was Dale's tremolo picking that was his trademark. Since Dale was left-handed he was initially forced to play a right-handed model, much like Jimi Hendrix would do a few years later. However, he did so without restringing the guitar, leading him to effectively play the guitar upside-down (while Hendrix would restring his guitar) and often plays by reaching over the fretboard rather than wrap his fingers up from underneath. Even after he acquired a proper left-handed guitar, Dale continued to use his reverse stringing. Dale is also noted for playing his percussive, heavy bending style while using what are, for most guitarists, extremely heavy gauge string sets.”

That percussive rhythm also set him apart from other surf rockers and guitar driven instrumentalists like The Ventures.

After playing Dick Dale to my friend, she excitedly found her “masterpiece” for the wedding. "The Bubbies will jump up and take notice," she remarked. Indeed they did. Here’s the song that got them hopping:

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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