I’m going to tell you a story today that you think you know but you don’t. And because you think you know it, you’re going to have to resist the urge to let your mind race ahead and tell you that there’s nothing new here to think about.
In the year 2003, when all of us were a lot younger and in a time when I was making my first awkward steps towards learning the Romanian language, an obscure pop group from one of the poorest countries in Europe recorded a silly and mostly nonsensical song about a man making a telephone call to (presumably) a woman. The name of that band was O-Zone and the song was called Dragostea din tei.
At this point in time during the present day, everyone has heard this song. But back in 2003 it was something new. It was exciting and fresh and as hard as it is to believe now, back in those days in Romania you heard that song played at the clubs every single night. Romanians loved it because it was a catchy song with words in their own language. And there was a great hope that it would begin a wave of Romanian-language songs and music gaining appreciation by the wider world.
In less than a year the song reached number one on almost every pop chart in Europe. In America, a young man used his webcam to record himself dancing along with the song, pretending to sing the words. Since he didn’t speak Romanian, he called it the Numa Numa song. His mobile face and enthusiastic chair dancing spawned an entire meme and YouTube and other sites now have thousands of “Numa Numa” clips featuring people dancing along with and miming the words to Dragostea din tei and other songs. God knows if you’ve never seen the original Brolsma video, click here as it is still a joy to behold.
So far this is the story everyone knows – a silly pop song in Romanian got a lot of airplay in Europe (along with a couple of other versions, including one in English by O-Zone themselves) and a fat kid in America started a meme by dancing along to the song. Although there are popular Romanian singers today (Inna comes to mind), like most other European acts, they sing in English and there’s never really been a global follow-up to Dragostea din tei in the Romanian language. And that’s where it should’ve ended I think. Pop songs come and go and they all have their brief moment in the sun and then we’re all off and dancing to a new song.
But something about this song touched a lot of people’s hearts. And it wasn’t just a few people dancing at clubs in Europe but people all over the world, including places where nobody can even find the Republic of Moldova on a map or have the slightest idea what language the original song is in (or what the words mean). As odd as it is say this seriously, this silly little song has inspired a lot of people.
Some of them re-recorded the song or “covered” it. Some of them wrote down the lyrics phonetically and then did their sincere best to sing them correctly. Others used the same melody and hook (the maia-hi especially) but then wrote a completely new song in their own language. Some others got inspired by the words because they sound similar to something in their own langue and so wrote a song based on what they think the original was referencing. Some people re-recorded this song as a kind of anthem for children. Some people made this into a kind of love ballad. One person even made a version that’s all about running away from cockroaches. Still others turned it into a big orchestral pieces with a choir singing multi-part harmony.
And how many Romanians know this? Very few, I think. Nobody in this country really realizes just how much the world loves this song. Mind you, these are just a few examples of what I’m talking about:
Portuguese – Numa boa hei!
Afrikaans – Net die een vir my!
Finnish – Maija Hii!
German – Nur ma so!
Hungarian – Numera kiraly!
Korean – Nuna-ui!
Russian – Ya eyo hoi!
Czech – Rumba rej!
Dutch – Haaien hier, haaien daar!
Slovenian – Naga tu!
Thai – Oh jao nee!
French – Ma ce ki!
Khmer – My ya hey!
Polish – Zagadala zegarynke!
Vietnamese – Mai ya hi!
Estonian – Maia hi!
Hebrew – Numa yey!
Mandarin Chinese – Bu pa, bu pa!
Italian – Ma che amore sei!
Indonesian – Buka-Bukaan!
Norwegian – Drekka mer!
Japanese – Maia hi!
Spanish – No me llevaras!
Mexican Spanish – Un gran corrido!
DR Spanish – Bachata!
Are you starting to understand now? On every continent, in dozens of languages, in hundreds of versions, in pop, hard rock, ballads, comedic parodies, dance tunes and simplistic sing-a-longs for children, this song has inspired millions of people all over the planet. Some of the versions linked above are simple things while others (see the Korean version esp) are huge, expensive productions involving big time stars.
Who knows, perhaps you don’t think this is all that big of a deal. Maybe it doesn’t mean much to you that a little song in a language very few people speak has propagated across the globe and brought so many smiles to so many people. I think sometimes when we talk about good, and doing good, we think of big acts, of revolutions, of marching in the street or groundbreaking legislation. But sometimes a little thing, a little act of happiness, a little silly song that anyone can dance to does a lot of good out there in this messy world we live in.
I’ve saved the best for last of course. The singers below are from Lithuania although they’ve done their best to phonetically reproduce the original Romanian. I’ve watched this video approximately 50 times and never stop seeing new parts to it.
Its earnestness, its honesty, the effort that went into trying to choreograph the kids, the operatic way in which the woman sings, all of it is just fantastically touching and beautiful.
If there is ever a nuclear holocaust, if our so-called leaders finally succumb to their insane beliefs, if our time upon this planet as a species is coming to an end, if the struggles and sacrifices of a hundred generations of humanity ultimately amount to nothing, if the last public broadcasts are full of fear and awe, I will sit in my little apartment as the guided missiles make their final descent into the atmosphere, knowing that I have only minutes to live before a lake of fire obliterates every trace of my existence and this is the video I will be watching in those final moments.
But for now, we dance :)