The origin of the “Oriental Riff”, The Aladdin Quick Step.

Da da da da-da da-Dun dun dun…

We’ve all heard it, from Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas, or Turning Japanes by The Vapors, to Passage to Bangkok by Rush. It was even a theme used in the 1989 video game Super Mario Land.

I don’t think it would surprise many to learn this little riff isn’t actually Asian in origin. But where did it come from? How did it come to symbolize an Asian theme, albeit in what would now be considered a tacky way?

It turns out the year was 1847. Thomas Edison was born, Nitroglycerin was just invented, and a musical/vaudeville show entitled The Grand Chinese Spectacle of Aladdin or The Wonderful Lamp debuted. Never mind that it was a dubious, okay incorrect mixing of Middle Eastern lore and China. The show had a piece called “The Aladdin Quick Step” which contained this motif.

Of course it helps that in 1847 the average person in Europe or The United States couldn’t have pointed to China on a map of China. Audiences definitely wouldn’t have any way to know whether a piece of music had any authenticity to it’s claimed source.

According to the site there were other appearances of similar themes not long after. One being The Indian Polka (1852), another being Chinese Gallop (1871). So for whatever reason, this one little nine note riff came to symbolize anything “Asian” in Western Culture for over a century. It has been a convenient, even if meaningless, way to represent something exotic. I mean, those cats were fast as lightning!

Peter Harris

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