One Random Single a Day #91: “Mah Nà Mah Nà” (1968) by Piero Umiliani

At this point in this One Random Single challenge, I’m falling so far behind that, while there still remains some hope for me to catch up in the near future, I’m not stressing out to much at keeping it to the one-a-day standard that I initially intended on. For the most part, I just want to indulge in the larger intentions of this challenge – that being the actual fact-finding and general enjoyment of the songs that I embark on throughout these next coming months. From now on, I just want to immerse myself as fully as possible into the music that I do find interesting, while moving past the ones that I don’t as quickly as possible. Sure, that requires a little bit of bias to get through the challenge. But this is my blog anyway, and I can do whatever the hell I want.

Anyway, the song in question today falls in exactly the kind of music in which I wish I could just live forever. Piero Umiliani was an Italian composer of film scores, having been pretty active and relevant in the field from the 50s to the 80s. Although the bulk of his work comes from the boom of exploitation films that sprang into popularity in the 60s and 70s, he has provided scores from a large variety of work including spaghetti westerns, giallo, and even softcore porn. While many aren’t quite as familiar with him as they would with some of his contemporaries, like Riz Ortolani or Ennio Morricone, his work is nonetheless vital in sculpting what we now recognize as the Italian sound in film scores.

But of course, that is not what he is best known for. No, his major push into mainstream relevance comes with this nonsense song, “Mah Nà Mah Nà”. I’ve heard of it before this challenge – and you probably have as well – but I can’t ever say that I ever really thought of it much as an officially released, charting single, even though it totally was! It has always just been a part of my cultural understanding; something like “Y.M.C.A.” or “We Will Rock You”, where I don’t really remember the circumstances surrounding the first time I heard it. It’s just always kind of been there. Most people recognize it from its comedic usage in Sesame Street or The Muppet Show, or perhaps any of the number of ads, movies, TV shows, comedy skits, and other media outlets. As history has it, though, it was first used in the mondo documentary film Heaven and Hell, which focuses on the rampant sexual lifestyles of a variety of social groups in Sweden. This documentary was apparently banned for featuring, among other things, extensive nudity, lesbian night clubs, and swingers parties – all with the beloved “Mah Nà Mah Nà” jingling away in the background. This is definitely not what I have in mind when those first few iconic bubbly notes ring off!

Nonetheless (and weirdly enough), it found an audience and became a hit in many countries. It made its American debut in the 14th episode of Sesame Street in late 1969 and eventually peaked at #55 on the Hot 100. Although many would consider this a novelty song. the novelty label was actually sort of forced upon it through its decades of utilization across countless comedy platforms. On The Benny Hill Show, it essentially stood toe-to-toe with the “Yakety Sax” as a reflection of the comedic bits in a variety of the show’s sketches. With its composition consisting of little more than a recognizable melody, simple instrumentation, and lots of weird wordless scatting, I guess the aforementioned novelty factor of this record practically invites itself. (Side note: While researching on this song for this review, I stumbled upon this resource put together by an individual who spent eight years researching Umiliani and this song specifically! Check it out, it’s fascinating stuff.)

But I’ve barely even gotten around to describing the actual song itself! Well, there’s not too much else to it. One other thing I found out is that, while the song is wholly credited to Umiliani himself, he is not featured on the recording at all. On the contrary, the signature bouncy, bossa nova-esque backing instrumentals are performed by a group of session musicians who call themselves Marc 4. These undoubtedly make up the strongest qualities of the entire recording, with special kudos going toward the jazzy keyboard (which gets its own solo at the outro of the song) and the infectiously tropical percussion. Additionally, the wacky vocals famously featuring a monotone male vocalist and sweeter, bubblier female singer were performed by Italian musician Alessandro Alessandroni and his wife Giulia. There’s not much else to say about these wordless melodies, except that with how ridiculous the mere concept of this recording it, is makes total sense that Henson would think this to be a blast to parody.

It runs at a little under two minutes… which is actually perfect, considering that the tune’s entire schtick would have gotten old very, very quickly had it ran for any longer. Nonetheless, this also makes this really hard to review. As I mentioned earlier, this ripple effect of this track is ubiquitous. Much like the impossibility of listening to any recording of “The Blue Danube” or “Also sprach Zarathustra” without 2001: A Space Odyssey imagery floating through the mind’s eye, it’s hard to listen to this one without connecting it to any of the various context clues its decades of cultural history has given it. It’s so simple, repetitive, and strange that I doubt many of its very first listeners would’ve thought to give it more than a moment’s care. As it stands, then, the song as a piece of cross-referential pop culture is more interesting than the song as an enjoyable piece of music. It sure is adorable though, which I think explains its long-standing appeal the best.

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