Slim Gaillard and his Mysterious Stuffed Grape Leaves

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.

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39 thoughts on “Slim Gaillard and his Mysterious Stuffed Grape Leaves

  1. how funny,what a great find!
    “masari… ba7”

    Posted by Blackstar | March 22, 2010, 6:05 pm
  2. Maybe Slim is actually Sleiman. How has he not been added to every list online listing famous *lebanese* musicians

    Posted by Amo Mike | March 22, 2010, 6:53 pm
  3. QN,
    I did note a while back your wish list for the Ken Burns Jazz collection. I happen to be also a big fan of jazz and the blues but I have not heard this tune before.
    I have a friend of mine who is a well respected sax player and jazz historian He has written many books about jazz and is one of the well known reviewrs. I do not see him more than once a week but I will sure let you know if he sheds any light on this interesting song/ditty.

    Posted by ghassan karam | March 22, 2010, 6:55 pm
  4. what great find! many thanks 🙂

    Posted by SL | March 22, 2010, 7:28 pm
  5. Gaillard seems to have grown up in Detroit, which probably explains the Lebanon connection. Wonder why Eminem hasn’t done and updated rap version..

    Posted by mo | March 22, 2010, 8:12 pm
  6. Brilliant 🙂 No I am hungry and I want Arak

    Posted by Joujolie | March 22, 2010, 10:16 pm
  7. I add this information to the Wikipedia site on Gaillard when I discovered his use of Arabic.


    “Arabic is sprinkled about Gaillard’s songs. The song “Yep-Roc-Heresay” 3:07 – 1945 is a good example. This song is made up almost entirely of Arabic food names. The title of the song is taken from the first two words of the song, which are “yabra'” or in Arabic “يبرا”, which means “Dolma” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yabra%27 or stuffed grape leaves. The second word is “[harisseh],” which is a sweet desert made from semolina flour – http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Harisseh-Middle-Eastern-Sweets/Detail.aspx

    Other Arabic words used in the song are: Burghal (burghal), Mahshi (stuffed), kibbeh bi siniyyeh (kibbe in a dish), anna biddi (I want), Masari bahh (No money), banadoura (tomato), ruzz (rice), eidi maksura (I am broke), Arak (Arabic: عرق, pronounced [ʕaraq]) (a liquorice liquor) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arak_%28distilled_beverage%29, laham mishwi (grilled meat), basl (onion). This may be the first jazz song in Arabic! Some say he was reading from a menu of an Arabic restaurant, but this does not explain for his use of phrases such as, “no money” or I am broke.” It makes one wonder if Gaillard had a Lebanese or Syrian girlfriend who cooked for him? Here is a version on Youtube: http://www.thefilter.com/WebVideo/29818530-Yep-Roc-Heresay

    In the last few days someone has added this bit….

    “The actual origin from these phrases comes from his time living in Detroit. He was out of money by the time he made it to Detroit and was turned down a job at Ford. An Armenian woman named Rose Malhalab took Slim in, where he lived in the basement of her and her husband’s beauty shop on Woodward Avenue. She cooked much Arabic food for him, explaining Slim’s entire song.”

    Do you add this? Where did you find this info, if you did?

    This is fascinating. I was going to claim Gaillard for Syria, but his use of “Sa’idi” as “Good day” is typically Lebanese and not used in Syria to my knowledge.

    A great write up. This must be the first connection between Jazz and Arabic?

    Thanks, Joshua

    Posted by Joshua Landis | March 22, 2010, 10:28 pm
  8. Josh

    I didn’t add that bit; fascinating addition, thanks.

    I’ve got my brother hot on the trail, trying to track down Slim’s daughter and get some more information.

    I was wondering whether or not Syrians said “Sa’idi” (which is not so much “Good day” as “Good evening”). Seems to peg it as Lebanese, but then again I know of more Syrians who say “yabra” than Lebanese. I think we typically say “wara2 3arish” or “wara2 3inab”.

    As for Arabic and jazz… I’m waiting on Ghassan to ask his musicologist friend about that.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 22, 2010, 10:39 pm
  9. and if i am not mistaken h’risseh, as a sweet, is also syrian and nabaq (i think it’s the name of the place) on the way to Aleppo from Damascus, is famous for its h’rissheh. i often stop there to have some. great post elias. thanks. must get the song.

    Posted by anissa | March 22, 2010, 11:30 pm
  10. Unbelievable!How come we never heard of this marvel?As for “harisseh” being the Syrian sweet Anissa is talking about, I very much doubt it!There is no mention of “nabaq” anywhere in the song, and the list is all about “mezze” taken with arack: yabraq, harisseh, kibbeh siniye, la7m mechoui… But what I loved most was the bit about “ido maksoura, masari ba7”!

    Posted by Georges Melki | March 23, 2010, 12:50 am
  11. One more thing: Slim Gaillard couldn’t have been reading from a menu, Armenian or otherwise: there is no such thing as “ido maksoura” and “masari ba7” in a menu!

    Posted by Georges Melki | March 23, 2010, 1:11 am
  12. Very interesting fined. I only have some remarks on “[harisseh],” is not a sweet as you are saying it is a dish that is usually cooked in villages in Beka valley like Zahly and Dair el ahmar. a meal with wheat and meat cooked on low heat for many hours. The sweet is named after the dish because it comes out kind of mush so on.

    Posted by kt | March 23, 2010, 2:05 am
  13. You’re right kt, the harisseh here is the dish you’re talking about, and it’s not limited to Zahleh and Deir el Ahmar: all Lebanese villages have it, and it’s a near-must on Assumption Day (15 August).
    Digging a little further, I found this site http://www.hepjazz.com, which has this to say about the song:” Gaillard’s jive talk language, known as “Vout” or “Vout Oreenie”, was so misunderstood that the record “Yep Rock Heresy” was even banned by a radio station for being “degenerate”. However the offending lyrics was simply Slim’s vocal rendition of an Armenian restaurant menu”. This is where the “Armenian menu” story comes from…Well, for Americans, Armenian, Lebanese or Syrian, who could tell the difference?

    Posted by Georges Melki | March 23, 2010, 3:15 am
  14. What a treat you’ve offered us guys! I’m having fun looking at everyone from the sidewalk…A couple of things to add, from my part: apparently, harisseh, hareessah, harissa, has as many meanings as spellings? The one I’m familiar with comes in a tube, like tooth paste, is very red and very hot, not sweet at all (it is the north African version of harissa).

    Playing the game of speculation, I was going to propose the hypothesis that the guy lived in an Arabic speaking environment, or was close to it somehow. Once, or maybe recurrently, he heard that list of arab meals shouted out –let’s say it was a way of attracting customers at the time- and liked the sound of it. The contradiction between the appealing sound of the meals offered and his inability to buy them would be the trigger for creating the song. The way he goes with yabra!, hrisseh!, sounds to me more shouting than singing, and it is apparently been understood that way by the successive players of the song.

    Then I listened to a song where Gaillard is –supposingly- singing in Spanish. His rendition of the language is pathetic comparing to his rendition of Arabic. Maybe he didn’t speak Arabic, but the phonetics are in my opinion too good for the average American who would have just overhead the language. Seeing the gap in his rendering of the two languages, I believe now that he “understands” what he is saying in Arabic, and would say that he’s been exposed to Arabic a lot: family background perhaps (I would say maternal side), very close neighbors, was he adopted or somehow protected by Arabic speaking people?

    Posted by mj | March 23, 2010, 4:45 am
  15. QN,

    I dont think Slims daughter is going to be able to help – This was written by someone at least claiming to be her on a youtube version of the song:

    “As Slim’s daughter, I got a huge kick out of this this morning. I had never heard this before. My brother Mark and I LOVE it! Showed my grandson, he thinks it is hilarious at 11. Anyway, thanks for posting this. It means alot.

    Jan Gaye

    I def. think there is a Detroit-Arabic connection – (how far back does the Lebanese community in Detroit go?)

    Posted by mo | March 23, 2010, 5:59 am
  16. QN,

    I would think Jashua Landis and you are totally wrong regarding the origin of the “menu”…It does seem to be from an armenian menu. It is well known that armenian restaurants have all these dishes…
    Yaprakh is referring to grape leafs (in Turkish)
    Herriseh is a Traditional Armenian dish for thousands of years.
    Dolma is also Armenian for stuffed eggplants or zuchinis…

    Harrisseh is a traditional Armenian dish as well as Dolma…It could be the Armenian menu was that of Lebanese Armenian. Most Armenian restaurants do have the Dolma, harisseh and mshoui!!

    Posted by danny | March 23, 2010, 7:39 am
  17. Danny

    Could well be an Armenian menu.

    Who knows?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 23, 2010, 8:20 am
  18. Since we are speculating let me take a crack at it. I think that both Danny and mj are right. I do believe that it is an Armenian restaurant and that he is shouting the words and not reading them from a menu. If I am to make a guess I would say that he was duplicating that food orders by the waiters are placed at the kitchen/order window. (lahem mishweh, kibbeh saynieh …).

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | March 23, 2010, 9:55 am
  19. Another note to mention kibbeh be saynieh is defiantly a Lebanese dish so is Arak it is simlar to many other drinks but Arak is defiantly Lebanese. As for Dolma it is from Iraqi origin here is its recipe if any is interested. http://www.aklaat.com/appetizers/dolmairq_appt.htm
    The Armenian menu is usually very rich and has great dishes. The way the song is repeated seems more of Levantine background than Armenian. But again who knows?

    Posted by kt | March 23, 2010, 3:55 pm
  20. Aniss is absolutely right about Nebek and Harriseh. Nebek, a Christian town outside of Damascus is the ur source of Harriseh in Syria. Services and buses often stop on the way past so their customers can delight in the delicate but very sweet confection.

    Posted by joshua Landis | March 23, 2010, 4:33 pm
  21. love this, as it reminds me of home in memphis, tennessee, and home in beirut all at the same time.

    Posted by Jessica | March 24, 2010, 5:56 am
  22. As jazz gave way to rock, there were some very clear Arabic influences on early rock and roll. Check out this article about Dick Dale (who has a Lebanese parent), and how subsequent artists like Bob Dylan were well aware of famous Arab contemporaries like Um Kalthoum.


    Needless to say, our cultures have been more intertwined than we often like to think.

    Posted by Al Haraka | March 24, 2010, 6:30 pm
  23. Thank you for the link Al Haraka. Fascinating and very informative article, for old and young…

    Posted by mj | March 25, 2010, 2:20 am
  24. mj,
    Although I found the arabdetroit.com link to be informative and interesting yet I was not surprised by it. I would have been surprised had there not been cross fertilization.
    The idea of cultural insularity might have been much more applicable centuries ago but greater mobility has changed all that and for the better. I do not think that there are many fields, if any, in an open society that do not have major influences from communities and regions all across the world.
    Just as a simple illustration of this point in the field of show business is the fact that a large troupe of riders and acrobats with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show were Lebanese.(That was more than a hundred years ago).
    It is clear that I wanted to take this opportunity to promote my belief that contamination trumps authenticity :-).

    Posted by ghassan karam | March 25, 2010, 8:21 am
  25. Dear Ghassan,. I believe in cross fertilization big time, and cultural insularity, of course, doesn’t exist. Even when living in extremely insulated places, people have come from somewhere else, and nobody is ever culturally “virgin”. I would also be ok with “contamination”, but, frankly, I was held off by the Thesaurus:

    “Main Entry: contamination
    Part of Speech: noun
    Definition: adulteration
    Synonyms: contagion, corruption, decay, defilement, dirtying, disease, epidemic, filth, foulness, impurity, infection, pestilence, plague, poisoning, pollution, radioactivation, rottenness, spoliation, taint

    Antonyms: cleaning, cure, healing, purification, sterilization ”

    You’ll agree with me that it is difficult to adhere to such a horrible concept, even if only intellectually and armed with lots of irony! (smiley here)

    Posted by mj | March 25, 2010, 8:46 am
  26. Apart from that, only ignorant people have that kind of preconceptions about culture. The slightest step taken towards any other culture, especially when in vicinity, shows already how much your culture owes to others. And when one goes deeper into that foreign culture, it starts finding traces of one’s own. Moreover, the more one knows about others, the more one sees and regrets the possible weaknesses in the knowledge of its own culture. Rooms with windows that take you to more rooms with more windows…all of them with a view, as long as one keeps his eyes open.

    Posted by mj | March 25, 2010, 9:07 am
  27. Mj,
    You might be right that word “contamination” carries lots of baggage and maybe distracts from the point that one is trying to convey.
    I have borrowed this concept , including tha exact word usage, from the well known philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. I don’t want to speak for him but I imagine that he must have spent lots of time trying to find the best descriptive term in this case and probably found out that contamination is a good word to describe the opposite of purity. Besides it has a shock value that wakes up the audience/students who are drifting:-)

    Posted by ghassan karam | March 25, 2010, 9:19 am
  28. There is also a song in spanish that says “contaminame, mezclate conmigo” (do contaminate me, do mix with me) which uses the word in that sense .
    I understand the intellectual or philosophical “boutade”, that would strip the cultural –ethno, race, you name it- purists of all sorts of their main argument. Still, it’s like a peacenik shutting an RPG so people would listen to his anti-arms message! Given the ugly consonance of “contaminating”, aren’t you necessarily admitting/declaring that the “intruder” culture has something of bad, or inferior?

    Posted by mj | March 25, 2010, 10:18 am
  29. @Joshua and Qifa

    Sorry, I know this post is a bit old (not sure if you will even see this response), but I added that part on wikipedia about him living with Rose Malhalab in Detroit. I contributed to the page just to add more info, but didn’t think anyone would actually be interested (glad I can help though!). After checking up on it again, I noticed this page.

    Some more info on it: Rose Malhalab is my great-grandmother. I have added this information from what she told me while she was living and from what I watched in an old documentary about Slim. If you want more info, definitely contact me.

    Posted by Mark | September 26, 2010, 8:44 pm
  30. Thanks for the info, Mark. Most interesting!

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | September 27, 2010, 9:25 am
  31. Dear Mark,

    Many thanks for these additions. Very interesting and best to you. Joshua

    Posted by Joshua Landis | September 27, 2010, 9:46 am
  32. I saw Slim quite a few times in the 1980s, when he was performing at a hotel lounge in Portland, OR. He loved to sing songs about food! A song on one of his albums I have is Matzoh Balls (“matzoh balls-oroonie, gefilte fish-ovouti!”); he also sings about grape leaves, and has a song called “Avocado Seed Soup Symphony.” He was fabulous.

    Posted by Janet | April 15, 2014, 5:01 pm
  33. You guys may find this interesting:

    Finally got around to uploading this old video I had about Slim.

    Posted by Mark | April 20, 2014, 11:04 pm
  34. Sorry if the above link does not work. This one should.

    Posted by Mark | April 22, 2014, 7:32 am
  35. Three of my four grandparents were Lebanese, and our families lived in an east Austin neighborhood with just about all of the other Lebanese people in the city. One of the Lebanese families operated a jukebox business back in the 78 rpm days. One of the employees saw and heard this record and so the word spread around the Lebanese community. My aunt bought the record and we played it over and over so much that I knew it by heart, even though I only understood the names of the foods that I was raised on. I still have that old 78 record in my possession, though it is quite worn after about 70 years of playing.

    Posted by Frank Garza | October 7, 2015, 12:21 am
  36. Slim stayed with my grandma on Ohio steel in Detroit.

    Posted by bob olesko | May 2, 2016, 4:19 pm
  37. In the late 1930s and early 1940s my Uncle Joe Shikany owned Shikany’s Restauant on Highland Avenue just north of Hollywood Blvd in Hollywood. Slim Gaillard was a good customer and friend who always bypassed American food for Uncle Joe’s and Aunt Elizabeth’s Lebanese cooking.

    Posted by Jim Hamra | January 2, 2020, 6:04 pm
  38. This is a great discussion – I’m currently writing an article about Slim Gaillard and food (he also wrote songs about Ashkenazi jewish cooking – matzo balls, gefilte fish, bagels etc.)

    A few of the commentators were wondering about the origins of Slim’s encounters with Arabic and Levantine food. His multi-cultural, multi-national, lingual life was a very interesting (and mysterious) one.

    He was probably born in Cuba to an Afro-Cuban mother and a German Jewish father. His father was a ship’s steward and Slim sometimes accompanied his dad on trips as a kid. As a young teenager they were travelling around the mediterranean when Slim (apparently) accidentally missed the time to board the liner and was subsequently left alone in Crete. He seemingly learned some Greek and interacted a fair bit with merchants from Syria/Lebanon (forgive me, my knowledge of the area is a bit vague), as well as a working as a ship’s cook around the med.

    He eventually made his way to the US, and his life continued to be just as interesting…

    So that goes some way to explaining his knowledge of arabic/levantine cooking. Though of course as a couple of people mentioned above he had further encounters with similar cuisine in Detroit and then NY and LA.

    Posted by Sam Berlin | April 26, 2020, 12:49 pm
  39. Hello, I am Slim Gaillard’s son. I totally enjoyed your article on my dad. I know Yep Roc Records, Glenn Dicker and Tor. In fact I did a Happy Birthday Tribute to my dad with them that they will show every year around his birthday. Think it’s on you tube. Any rate those are both some my favorite songs my did. I would love something you could write that could capture the energy of its significant to the Armenian and Arab communities. Also to help the young Vouties to experience. Thanks for doing this.
    Mark Gaillard

    Posted by Mark Gailard | October 30, 2022, 1:10 pm

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