HE WAS FORCED FROM HIS HOME AT GUNPOINT AND SPENT 16 YEARS AS A REFUGEE UNABLE TO PLAY MUSIC, BUT HE COULDN’T BE HAPPIER NOW THAT HE’S COMPOSED THE WORLD’S NEWEST NATIONAL ANTHEM.
Mido Samuel is a 38-year-old musician from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and perhaps the most unassuming person you could get the chance to talk to. He apologises that it’s taken a month to do this interview (he hasn’t had any electricity to charge his mobile), he’s embarrassed by compliments, and he keeps naming other people I should be interviewing instead.
Mido should be the opposite — all ego and arrogance — because he’s written the most important song of the year, one that is probably being sung right now by 9 million people trying to build a country from scratch, and by thousands of others in places like Darfur and the Nuba Mountains who have a gun in their hand and want their own country, too.
Mido is the man behind ‘South Sudan Oyee!’, the world’s newest national anthem, which was unveiled when his country became independent on July 9.
It isn’t the best anthem, if we’re being honest. It’s hardly a ‘Marseillaise’. It’s not even a ‘God Save The Queen’. It’s bloodthirsty enough (“Let us stand… saluting martyrs whose blood cemented our national foundation”), but its melody changes frequently, making it hard to sing, and musically it doesn’t sound much like it’s come out of Africa.
The stories of most anthem composers’ lives are prosaic: they play piano as a child, study composition, then one day enter an anthem competition. Mido’s is in stark contrast. “Everyone has to use their talents, their gift, to help get independence,” he says. “Some people try with the gun, some people give money, but this is what I can do.”
He was born in the early-seventies just after the first major spell in Sudan’s civil war between the Muslim north and largely Christian south came to an end. The way he tells it, he had little choice but to become a musician. His family were musicians (“all of them — mother, father, brothers and sisters”). He learned guitar and drums, and sung at school — including the north Sudanese anthem (“Sometimes we sung it just to make noise; the meaning was not relevant”) — until he hit his teens and realised he wanted to perform.
By then, the civil war had restarted, so he wrote “trouble songs, revolutionary songs, to encourage people in the struggle”, mixing this up with the occasional ballad. “I felt there was a need to sing about love,” he adds. “There wasn’t enough around.”
Unfortunately, just as his career was getting going, he was forced to move north. “We didn’t even have a chance to go into the bush to escape,” he says of the time soldiers arrived at his home. “They didn’t allow you to. They just surrounded the village. So I had to go to Khartoum. I had no choice.”
He lived there for 16 years, unable to afford even the cheapest guitar, and only able to play music in church if the authorities didn’t shut the service down.
It wasn’t until the 2005 peace agreement that things changed. “When that happened, everyone felt like, ‘I can now achieve whatever I want,’” he says. “We decided to leave everything and start from nowhere back in Juba. But we were just so happy. It didn’t matter that we were sleeping under a tree, because we had that peace.”
He started playing music again, releasing four albums. Then last autumn the South Sudanese government asked him and 40 others to come together and write lyrics for a new anthem in preparation for independence. They didn’t get too far with the project until the commanders of the people’s liberation army arrived. “They started telling us about their struggles, the suffering, the long history of war, and people just started writing,” he says. “They took us to another level.”
The government then launched a competition for music, and it was here that Mido came into his own. He went to Juba University, one of the few places in the country with a piano and choir, and basically refused to leave until he’d got the tune right. Other teachers, students and musicians provided help.
His entry was one of dozens to go before judges in a televised competition. It won by a point. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he says, recalling the moment. “I was just shocked. Some of the students in the choir were totally overcome. I was crying, and I never cry. Even the [government] ministers: some were kneeling down, shouting, crying… I really felt like the country was finally ours.”
The government has changed the anthem dramatically since then, mainly to answer criticisms that it was both too long and historically inaccurate. An entire verse about South Sudan being like Eden has been dropped, as have all references to South Sudan being the Biblical land of Cush. The bloodlust’s been toned down, the melody tightened up.
Mido appears untroubled by this. “There’s been a lot of criticism,” he says. “But once we’ve put it on the radio for just one week, people will sing it. Because when they hear those words and look at the situation around them, they will find themselves. They’ll feel great.”
I ask him one final question: have you been paid for this? He laughs like he never considered the idea. “The truth is, when we were writing, it was not for the money: it was for the sake of the anthem itself. This is all I could offer my country. Other people have offered their lives, you know?”
‘South Sudan Oyee!’
We praise and glorify You
for Your grace on South Sudan,
Land of great abundance
uphold us united in peace and harmony.
we rise raising flag with the guiding star
and sing songs of freedom with joy,
for justice, liberty and prosperity
shall forever more reign.
Oh great patriots,
let us stand up in silence and respect,
saluting our martyrs whose blood
cemented our national foundation,
we vow to protect our Nation
Oh God, bless South Sudan.
The above story was initially published in The Stool Pigeon music newspaper in July 2011. The picture at the top is of South Sudan’s military band preparing to play the anthem for the first time.