THE STORY (..."VIVA LA SAUNA SVEDESE")
It all starts in June 1968, on a very hot afternoon spent for the most part in a recording studio. Piero Umiliani is completing the soundtrack for the movie Sweden, Heaven and Hell by movie director Luigi Scattini, who is also present in the studio with the musicians hired for the recording.
Only the background music for a few short scenes is still missing. In one of these scenes, a group of girls is running in fur coats on the snow and then enters a sauna with only towels wrapped around their bodies (see section “YoUmiliani”). In no more than a minute the Maestro improvises a refrain with three notes, rhythmic and catchy, which he entitles “Viva la Sauna Svedese”.
At that moment no-one understands the potential of that tune. In fact, Umiliani does not include it in the soundtrack album published with his Omicron label (LP OM 0014) but includes it only later in the library Long Playing “Psichedelica” (LPM0015) issued in 200 copies and not intended for sale.
The movie is released in Italian theatres on September 4, 1968 and is a big success. It is a year of cultural and social revolutions and in Italy, still a conservative country, the myth of Sweden and its shocking freedom attracts a large audience to view Scattini’s film. The large box office proceeds determines the release of the movie also in other countries and, after Japan and France, there is an agreement with Avco Embassy Pictures for the American distribution.
The cover (detail) of the musical score of Mah-Nà Mah-Nà distributed all over the world by Carlin Music Corporation.
On October 25, 1968 Umiliani sends to Edward B. Marks Music Co. (today subsidiary to Carlin Music America Inc.), located in New York City, the entire soundtrack with the tracks not included in the Italian album and proposes to them a sub-edition for the American market. In the accompanying letter, there is a list of the most relevant tracks which however leaves out “Viva la Sauna Svedese”.
After a couple of months, Joseph Auslander, at the time artistic director at Marks Music, gives his approval and on December 27 Umiliani receives a letter with the agreement.
But there is more…
Among the 28 tracks, covering more than ninety minutes of recording, Auslander and his staff listen over and over again to the 106 seconds of “Viva la Sauna Svedese”, struck by the musicality of this simple and brilliant tune. They decide that this tune must become the main movie theme, to be publicized and released as a single. There is one problem: the title is too ugly and too hard to pronounce. The track has to be renamed with a title that could be sung and easily remembered all over the world. After listening to it once more, at 136 West 52 street in NYC the new track title is decided: the unforgettable and nonsense Mah-Nà Mah-Nà.
The Mah Nà Mah Nà single is issued by Ariel Records label with the melodic “You Tried to Warn Me” on the B side. The track length is extended to 2’12, to fit a radio broadcasting time schedule. This single is an immediate hit. Bill Gavin, one of the greatest American radio performers, includes it in “The Gavin Report”, a “Top Tips” listing used by deejays to decide the content of their programs. The tune, broadcasted by several American radio stations (WLS, WMCA, KYA), receives an enthusiastic response from the public. Hundreds of radio listeners call FM Station operators to ask the title of the track, as WRIT speaker Tex Meyer recalls (cfr. The Gavin Report # 758 August 8, 1969).
The determinant push towards success is provided by The Red Skelton Show where Umiliani’s tune is used as background music for a recurring blackout sketch. The jingle becomes part of pop culture, a short and happy tune no one can resist. Carol Danell, the American singer who worked with the Maestro in the “Fuori l’Orchestra” TV show and for the soundtrack of the movie I Piaceri Proibiti (1962), gives Umiliani this great news.
“Piero, you know – says Carol calling from NYC – here everybody is singing Mah –Nà Mah –Nà. You wrote it, didn’t you?”
Umiliani, incredulous and happy, contacts Mr. Auslander of Marks Music who confirms the sudden success of the tune.
The American publisher organizes a big party to celebrate. Personalized kazoos are given to all guests and together they join in a funny performance of Umiliani’s tune (who unfortunately could not attend the party for work reasons).
Umiliani goes to New York a few months later and he finds at the entrance of Marks Music offices a billboard that says: ” M is our lucky letter: Manhattan, Malaguena, More and now… Mah-Nà Mah-Nà”.
The song enters American charts, an event occurring only to very few Italian artists, and on 6 September 1969 it peaks at no.5 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart and no.44 on the CashBox chart, but the best is yet to come.
In the evening of November 27,1969, people watching on TV the 14 episode of Sesame Street Fever, the series with the characters created by Jim Henson, see a strange performance. A funny character, called Mahna Mahna, performs “Mah Na Mah Na” (here the English spelling of the title is without hyphens and accents). It is a huge success, so the performance is immediately repeated. In fact, three days later, the same character appears on the Ed Sullivan Show and again in 1971.
In 1973, the performing character is renamed Bip Bippadotta and it now has longer hair – or whatever it is- and a wilder expression.
In 1976, in the first episode of The Muppets Show the tune is performed by the same character with two friends called the Snowths. The Muppets/Mah-Nà Mah-Nà combination is now indissoluble. At this point, Umiliani’s theme reaches the peak of its success and it is commonly referred to as “The Muppets’ Song”. Many believe that the song has been composed especially for the show and do not know its real story. In the UK, the series is a hit. In 1977, the single peaks at no. 8 in the UK charts and the Muppet Show soundtrack album featuring the Muppets’ version goes to no.1, ousting the Beatles’ “Live at Hollywood Bowl” from first place.
In 1986 and 1989, Jim Henson’s characters perform the song in the Sesame Street series. Then, the “Muppets’ Song” video goes on the web, where it is seen and downloaded by millions of surfers.
In 1997 Pandiani’s Right Tempo label re-issues the unabridged version of the album “Sweden, Heaven and Hell” in a single CD format.
Today the three notes of “Mah-Nà Mah-Nà” belong to our collective memory. They are global patrimony of cultural music and its refrain is known and recognized all over the world. On May 6, 2000, La Repubblica, in an analysis of the lounge phenomenon, places Mah-Nà Mah-Nà no.1 on the “Cocktail Music” list.
The popularity of the tune is so huge that it almost overshadows the author. New generations of listeners all over the world are surprised to discover that the author is a Florentine maestro, a jazz pioneer and composer of more than 150 soundtracks. With typical tuscan humor, Umiliani often thought about the over 2000 themes he had composed and wondered how that “worthless” tune had given him international recognition.
Since 1968 Mah-Nà Mah-Nà has been used in movies and in TV and radio sketches, commercials, series, jingles and so on.
The most significant international performances are: two episodes of the Benny Hill Show (1978); Samir Ghanem’s performance in Arabic (entitled “Ayez Anam”) for the Egyptian TV (1991); the group version in the BBC series The Office (2001); the “Phenomena” duet with Kermit the Frog and actress Sandra Bullock in the Muppets’ Tonight (1996); Shaun Micallef’s performance for his Australian TV show; the version in the BBC Comic relief show (2005); the country-bluegrass-cabaret version by the Asylum Street Spankers in SideShow Fez (2008). Also, in 2005, Pittsburgh area band Mr. Devious writes a parody of Mah-Nà Mah-Nà and names it “Puhlahmahlu”, dedicating it to famous Pittsburgh Steelers football player Polamalu.
For what concerns advertisements many international brand names have picked this tune to promote their products: Dr.Pepper Cherry Vanilla Cola, the Scottish energetic drink Irn Bru, the Italian Moretti beer, the Australian Banana Boat sun cream and BN biscuits.
MAH-NA' MAH-NA' TODAY (...and FOREVER)
The story of Mah-Na’ Mah-Na’ is endless. There will always be a different version, a new remix or performance. One of the last versions is the one performed by young German star “Lilly” (Alina Freund) and dragon Hector in the movie "Lilly the Witch: The Dragon and the Magical Book” produced in Germany ("Hexe Lilli") by Walt Disney Pictures and directed by the Oscar winning director Stefan Ruzowitzki. This collaboration goes beyond the cinematographic event. It's one of the many evidences of the timeless quality of this tune as a truly universal theme, just like all Walt Disney movies.
COVER & REMIXES
Since 1968, Mah-Nà Mah-Nà has been interpreted by a large number of artists. In recent times, is has been sampled in new compositions. In 1970, Umiliani’s Omicron label issues a few hundred copies of a single (OM 301) with the caption “The Entire World Sings Mah-Nà Mah-Nà”.
The most famous covers are: the French version by Henri Salvador, the versions by Giorgio Moroder, Dave Pell Singers, Leroy Holmes Orchestra, Arthur Fiedler, Hugo Winterhalter and Right Tempo remixes with various international Dee Jays. Finally, the horn-driven version by Cake peaks number 13 in the best cover chart in the New York Post. What follows here is a list, certainly not complete, of the artists who recorded alternative versions of Mah-Nà Mah-Nà. Next to the artist name is listed, if different, the new title of the tune. In 2011 The Fray covered the track for the OST of The Muppets' movie.
- Giorgio Moroder (45 giri First 5008)
- Henri Salvador ("Mais No, Mais No")
- Hugo Winterhalter (LP "My Favorite Broadway and Hollywood Music", Musicor MS-3184A)
- Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops Orchestra (LP "Arthur Fiedler Superstar", Polydor 80215)
- Leroy Holmes Orchestra (LP "the new Provocative Films", United Artists Records LST 6742)
- Stop Studio Group (45 giri Barclay Records, BLY 061153)
- Dave Pell Singers (LP "Mah-Na-Mah-Na", Liberty Records, LBS 83356)
- Las Voces de Espana (45 giri, Penelope PE 8006)
- The Great Unknowns (45 giri, Major Minor D 560A)
- Mahna Mackay (45 giri Parlophone)
- Ed Lincoln (LP "De Savoya Combo", Savoya Discos SV8002)
- Carlo Andrei (45 giri, Polydor Mexico 45-43)
- Electronic Concept Orchestra (LP "Cinemoog", Mercury SR 61279)
- Travellers (45 giri "War Das en Leiben", Fontana Records 269 414
- Enoch Light (LP "The Best of the Movie Themes", Project Total Sound 3 PR 5046SD)
- Hot Butter (LP "More Hot Butter", Musicor MS 3254)
- Norrie Paramor (LP "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World") BBC Records BBC REB 180
- Rolph Kuehn (LP "Happy Discothek") Basf Records CRA 003
- The Muppets (45 giri, Pye PY 140260, LP "The Muppets Show" Pye NSPH 19)
- Per Alm & Co. (45 giri, Philips 6084 061)
- Lipstique (LP "At the Discoteque", Mercury SRM-1-1195)
- Gil Ventura (LP "Sax Club n. 17", EMI 054-18342)
- Ṃa (CD "Syngur Login Vio Vinnuna", Smekkleysa SM)
- Gonzo (CD Maxi Singolo, UCR Records 001-6)
- Candy Dates (Maxi Singolo "Gimme Manna", WEA 4509-99843-0)
- Cosmix feat. Ernie & Friends (CD Maxi Singolo, BMG 74321 34339 2)
- K-Taro Katanami "Sweden, Heaven & Hell" (CD "Sushi 3003", Bungalow Records BUNG 006)
- Skin "The Muppets Song" (CD "Perfect Day", Parlophone 27543)
- Paul Kuhn (CD "Go, Party, Go!" Emi Electrola 7243 8 36984 2 4)
- Space Ghost "Muh Nu Muh Nu" (CD "Space Ghost's Musical Bar-B-Que" Rhino 72876)
- Vanilla "No Way, No Way" (CD Maxi Singolo "No Way, No Way" EMI 7243 8 84732 2 7)
- C. Coccoluto e S.Martinez (12" Mix "Mah Nà Mah Nà Remix Proiject 1", Easy Tempo MET 201
- G. Sato & D.J. Massive (12" Mix ""Mah Nà Mah Nà Remix Proiject 2", lato A, Easy Tempo MET 202
- R. Sebbag (12" Mix "Mah Nà Mah Nà Remix Proiject 2", lato B, Easy Tempo MET 202
- P. Scotti (12" Mix "Mah Nà Mah Nà Remix Proiject 3", lato A, Easy Tempo MET 203
- Karminsky Experience (12" Mix "Mah Nà Mah Nà Remix Proiject 3", lato B, Easy Tempo MET 203
- D.J. Smash (12" Mix "Mah Nà Mah Nà Remix Proiject 4",lato A, Easy Tempo MET 204
- Sweet Dick Willy, Zhoubi/Zebla (12" Mix "Mah Nà Mah Nà Remix Project 4", Easy Tempo MET 204
- Mr.Mo (CD Maxi Singolo, EastWest Records 8573-83076-5)
- Pato Fu "Made in Japan" (LP "Isopor", BMG 7432169638-2)
- Masami Nakagawa (CD "Magic Flute Tango") Camerata Records 544
- The Manhas Manhas (CD "The Office Party", Hit Label AHLCD P45)
- Zeltinger Band (CD "Rare fur Bares", Spectre Media 070)
- AA.VV. ("Vulcanology.it Remixes", Right Tempo, SNC)
- Mek Pek (CD "Mek Pek og Habbasuterne n.3, Monkey Music)
- That Handsome Devil "Hey, White Boy"
- Cake (CD "B-Side & Rarities", Upbeat Records 0001)
- Lipstick (CD "La Paranza", Blue Music)
- Sharing Time (CD "Inside Out A Cappella", InsideOut A Cappella Records)
- The Tune Robbers (CD "The Tune Robbers Play Pop Classics", Countdown Media)
- The Demigodz (CD "The Demigodz", Demigodz Entertainment DGZ-422-2)
- Mr. Pickwik (CD Maxi Singolo "T.V. Funtime", Hallmark Music)
- The Montreal Children's Workshop (CD "Favorite Tunes of The Muppets", Tinseltown Rec.)
- Finger & Kadel (Maxi Singolo "Mana Mana", Gimme 5 013)
- Hektor & Lilli (CD singolo, Sony Music 88697 46314 2)
- Robotnik (CD "Brodo", Maison Musique CD 494)
- Lee Hancock Ensemble (CD "Magia do Brasil") ESM Records
- Pier Foschi: (CD "Pier Foschi", Sounday Music)
- The Fray (CD "The Green Album"), Walt Disney Records 458292
- Mahna Mahna & the Two Snowths (CD The Muppets OST), Walt Disney Records D000650992
- L.A.H. (CD "Love and Hates") White Lily Records DQC817
- Cee Lo Green (Cd "Magic Moment", track "All You Need is Love"), Warner/Elektra 075678762833
''Space Ghost'' (1997)
PS…HOW DO YOU SPELL THAT?
The reader who has reached this point certainly knows by now that the title of the tune is “Mah-Nà Mah-Nà”. This is not as obvious as it seems, since the title is definitely not easy to spell. At first the title was spelled in the USA with the hyphen and the accent over the letter “a”, but later both the hyphen and the accent were omitted in the English version.
Today, googling the title, besides Mah-Nà Mah-Nà” and “Mah Na Mah Na” (both considered official spellings), the title of the tune can also be found spelled in at least a dozen different ways: Mana Mana, Mahna Mahna, Manamana, Manah Manah, Manha Manha, Mah-Na Mah-Na, Manna Manna, Mnah Mnah, Ma Nah Ma Nah, Mahnamahna, Ma Na Ma Na, Mna Mna, Mannamanna…. and also Munnah Munnah.
It is strange how even today the spelling of the title of one of the most popular tunes is a real mystery. But maybe, after all, this mystery has also contributed in making this tune a legend.