Writing about the Star Wars universe is a dicey proposition. Pull at a single string and you’ll find that it seems to extend forever. Thousands upon thousands of pages have been written on the subject, both fiction and non-fiction. Even the most minor of characters have detailed backstories.
Such is the case for Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes, better known to most as the Cantina Band. The group made their first appearance in 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope, but have since had appearances ranging from the ill-fated Star Wars Holiday Special to books like Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina and Tales from Jabba’s Palace.
The group is best known for the infectious ditty “Mad About Mad About Me,” better known as “the Cantina Song,” a jaunty little earworm that has been making toes tap across the universe since it was first played in the most wretched hive of scum and villainy you’ll ever find.
Of course, there’s a real-world history to the music as well. But before exploring that, let’s take a look at the fictional backstory behind the piece.
Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes
Hailing from the planet of Clak’dor VII, the group was fronted by the ill-tempered and perfectionistic Figrin D’an. During the Clone Wars, they performed as part of Jasod Revoc’s Galactic Revue, before entering into an exclusive contract with Jabba Desilijic Tiure (known to most as Jabba the Hutt) to perform at his palace and in the Mos Eisley Cantina on the planet of Tatooine.
Without further ado, let’s meet the boys in the band and the respective instruments each plays.
- Doikk Na’ts — Dorenian Beshniquel
- Figrin D’an — kloo horn, gasan string drum
- Ickabel G’ont — Double Jocimer
- Lirin Car’n — second kloo horn
- Nalan Cheel — bandfil
- Sun’il Ei’de — drums
- Tech Mo’r — Ommni Box
- Tedn Dahai — fanfar
In terms of musical style, the group was known for playing both jizz and jatz music, the former of which has numerous sub-genres such as jizz-wail, aubade, and glitz. Alas, what separates each style from the other is an arcane knowledge that your humble author does not possess.
Over time, the group began to fear for their safety in regard to Jabba the Hutt. Despite this, the group took the opportunity (and 3000 credits) offered to perform at the wedding of Lady Valarian, Jabba’s chief rival. When he learned of this betrayal, he sent bounty hunters after the group. However, they managed to escape during the confusion as a group of Imperial Stormtroopers happened to raid the event at the same time. But the group didn’t travel far, taking a job at the Wookie Chalmun’s Spaceport Cantina, otherwise known as the Mos Eisley Cantina.
It is reported that in later years they performed in venues like Shanko’s Hive and the floating casinos on Dac, eventually wending their way to the SkyCenter Galleria at Cloud City.
Follow all of that? I’m going to assume you’re nodding your head yes and move on to the slightly less fictional history behind the music. Still a bit confused? Not to worry. Just pick up a copy of Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina and read the short story, “We Don’t Do Weddings: The Band’s Tale” by Kathy Tyers.
Attempting to sum up a career as prolific as that of John Williams is no easy task. As his own webpage notes, “In a career that spans five decades, John Williams has become one of America’s most accomplished and successful composers for film and for the concert stage. He has served as music director and laureate conductor of one of the country’s treasured musical institutions, the Boston Pops Orchestra, and he maintains thriving artistic relationships with many of the world’s great orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Mr. Williams has received a variety of prestigious awards, including the National Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honor, the Olympic Order, and numerous Academy Awards, Grammy Awards, Emmy Awards, and Golden Globe Awards,” and has, “composed the music and served as music director for more than one hundred films.”
His music has become a cultural touchstone for many, whether it be in films like Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and the Indiana Jones series, or dramatic classics such as Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, and Empire of the Sun.
Born in 1932, Williams grew up in New York before relocating to Los Angeles 16 years later. While there, he studied composition under Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco before entering service in the Air Force. He then attended Julliard and began working as a jazz pianist in nightclubs before returning to California to write music for television.
Williams eventually worked with director Steven Spielberg on his groundbreaking thriller Jaws, creating a score that would become one of the most iconic in cinema history. Which is why Spielberg readily recommended him to George Lucas when he needed someone to score his film Star Wars. An article by Udiscovermusic relates, “he handed…the film over to Williams – who won the job thanks to the recommendation of Steven Spielberg after Williams delivered the most iconic horror score since Psycho for his fish movie Jaws – and said: “That. But better.”
When it came time to compose the music for the Mos Eisley Cantina scene, Lucas had very specific direction for Williams. He asked him to, “imagine several creatures in a future century finding some 1930s Benny Goodman swing band music in a time capsule or under a rock someplace — and how they might attempt to interpret it…”
Williams assembled a nine-piece jazz band to perform the piece, featuring the trumpet, saxophones, clarinet, piano, steel drum, a synthesizer, and an assortment of percussion instruments. According to an article by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, “To give it that alien quality, the bottom end of the sound was minimized, with added reverb working to thin the instruments out even more.”
The piece became wildly popular and even attained massive success outside of the cinema. The instrumental disco album Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk was released in 1977 by Millennium Records. It featured the single “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” which rose to Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for two weeks. The album and single would both be certified platinum a year later.
A brief historical note on AllMusic states, “John Williams supposedly did not know anything about disco when he returned from London. When he was asked to listen to Meco’s version of his now-famous recording, Williams was apprehensive. But, in the end, he credited Meco with helping bring symphonic music further into the mainstream.”
Today, fans of the catchy little ditty can hear it inside Oga’s Cantina at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. It’s been a wild ride for the swinging tune that began a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.