Joshua Landis sent me a 1945 recording of the famous American jazz musician, Slim Gaillard, singing a tune entitled “Yep-Roc Heresay”, the lyrics of which are almost entirely in Arabic. Take a listen below and see if you can make out what he’s saying.
That’s right, he’s singing about food: yabra (i.e. stuffed graped leaves), harisseh (a semolina dessert), kibbeh bi-siniyyeh (a dish of meat and bulgur), lahm mishweh (grilled meat), etc.
A great tune. So what’s the back-story? I’ve been able to dig up various bits and pieces, but perhaps one of the readers can help out. The Wikipedia page on Gaillard suggests that he was reading from an Arabic menu, while this page claims that it was an Armenian menu, and that the song was actually “banned on at least two Los Angeles radio stations for its suspicious lyric references to drugs and crime…” (!)
The song has since become something of a standard, as evidenced by this rendition by what looks like some kind of wedding band. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so hysterical. Who knew that Levantine cooking lent itself so well to vocalese?)
One other question I had about this song was its title: Yep-Roc Heresay. After puzzling over it for a moment, I realized that it was a botched transliteration of the first two words of the song: “Yabra… Harisseh…” I can’t really tell if Gaillard’s own pronunciation is wrong or whether some record company executive couldn’t figure out what he was saying.
What’s interesting about this little error is that it has taken on a life of its own. There is a record company based in North Carolina called Yep-Roc Records, whose owners named it after the Slim Gaillard tune. I intend to send them a link to this post, suggesting that they rename their company “Yabra Harisseh Records” for the sake of authenticity.
In the meantime, I’ve come across another tune (“Arabian Boogie”) where Slim sings in Arabic; you can listen to it below.