Listen to the 1966 Sergio Mendes hit “Mas Que Nada” once and chances are you’ll want to play it again. It’s an up-tempo, bottom-heavy samba track that’s both infectious and mystifying. Its lyrics are part gibberish (“Obá Obá Obá”) and part throwaway – its title alone translates literally to “But it’s nothing,” and more colloquially to “whatever” or “yeah, right.”
(“Mas” in Portuguese means “but,” while in Spanish it means “more.” American prints of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, the album on which it appeared, titled the song as “Mais que nada,” Portuguese for “more than nothing.” One can only presume that some A&M Records executive outsmarted himself, believing “More Than Nothing” sounded more like the title of a song. The tune was also parenthetically subtitled “Ma-sh kay nada” in case gringos needed help with pronunciation.)
With American singer Lani Hall on lead vocals, “Mas Que Nada” was a modest hit in the U.S., and looking back it seems to have fit the pop cultural landscape of 1966 seamlessly. Just as the Jimi Hendrix version of “All Along The Watchtower” has been soundtrack to umpteen Vietnam retrospectives, the Mendes version of “Mas Que Nada” could play on an endless loop of swinging ’60s clips featuring go-go boots, miniskirts, the bright neon signs of L.A. nightclubs, and hip Playboy Mansion parties. It seems to illustrate musically a fun time – real or imagined – that existed briefly before things got bad in a hurry.
Of course the song is about Brazilian, not American culture, and its lyrics simply deal with somebody waving us aside and trying to get by so she can dance samba, damn it. The music she is excited about is samba blended with maracatu, an African-Brazilian genre from the northeast. É samba de preto velho, in other words, it’s an old black man’s music.
Here’s a “live” performance by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 on a TV special hosted by Eartha Kitt. It’s obviously the studio version (were audiences ever fooled when a live song faded out?) but I figured I’d pick a clip showing the band in action. Pay special attention to percussionist José Soares as he alternates between the tambourine and shaker – he really gets into it. Meanwhile vocalists Hall and Bibi Vogel seem a little restrained in their dancing. Maybe Standards & Practices didn’t think America was ready for the full samba effect.
Although Mendes’ version is the most popular, the song was written and originally performed in 1963 by fellow Brazilian Jorge Ben. Handling the vocals himself, Ben croons in a softer and more haunting style than Hall, and he gives the opening chant a priceless Tarzan-style yodel.
There’s an echoed, raw sound to Ben’s version, a style of the time that could be then heard on anything from Caribbean to folk to skiffle. The Tamba Trio covered the song the same year in a similar vein.
Since Mendes’ version was released, it’s been covered by numerous artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Al Jarreau, though the less said about the Black Eyed Peas’ version, the better. Nevertheless it remains one of Brazil’s signature songs, with Mendes’ version finding crossover appeal and staying power in the U.S. and elsewhere.