Egypt: anthems and fame

What Cairo looks like in a dust storm (a bit more representative than the picture of the pyramids I was tempted to use!)

What Cairo looks like in a dust storm (a bit more representative of the country than the picture of pyramids at the top!)

Hi. If you’re coming here from the BBC article about Benjamin Britten’s Malaysian anthem, I should point out this is my book’s audio guide so it might not make much sense at first. But if you buy my “enthralling…very funny” book and read the great chapter on Egypt, it’ll all be perfectly clear! Without further ado then…

Everyone thinks Egypt’s first anthem was written by Verdi, the great opera composer (p224-225). Although perhaps only people who haven’t heard it.

That above is three versions of that anthem stitched together, starting with a beautiful version played on a music box. It was actually written by an Egyptian musician called Mohammed Bayoumi Effendi, but he’s been forgotten to history like most Egyptians.

Verdi did actually come close to writing the anthem. Apparently Khedive Isma’il Pasha, Egypt’s ruler in the late 1800s, wanted this march from Aida to be his anthem.

So, why’s this chapter about anthems and fame if Verdi didn’t have anything to do with the country’s anthems? Because of who came next. She was the voice of Egypt. The diva of Arabic Music. The star of the East. She was Umm Kulthum (page 229-234).

Umm Kulthum shows off her political credentials, and trademarks shades, in a photo featuring both Presidents Nasser (to her right) and Sadat (to her left). Badly taken in her museum in Cairo, which is thoroughly worth a visit

Umm Kulthum showing off her political credentials, and trademarks shades, alongside President Nasser (the white hair) and future president Sadat (the one over her shoulder). This was artily – i.e. badly – taken in her museum in Cairo

If you want to realise how loved Umm’s music was and still is in the Middle East, get in a cab in Cairo. Chances are her music will soon come on, bashing up against the electro chaabi and pop. I heard the brilliant Enta Omri in a taxi on my first day in the city and was so enjoying it I considered asking the driver to keep driving until it stopped.

At the height of her fame, Umm Kulthum recorded this song in response to the Suez Crisis with the brilliant title of Oh My Weapon, It’s been a Long Time. It soon became Egypt’s second anthem:

Yes, it is basically about killing Israelis, Brits and French soldiers! There are some very funny stories relating to it in my book. I know that seems hard to imagine, but there genuinely are.

Umm Kulthum wasn’t the only famous Egyptian musician to branch into anthems. The composer Mohammad Abdel-Wahab, her male equivalent, wrote anthems for Libya, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, although they’re all so similar and dull, you have to assume he only did them for the money.

Outside Egypt, several other well-known musicians have written anthems or at least had a go at them. There’s Haydn who wrote what’s now Germany’s, obviously (this is a link to my favourite version of it). But lesser known is perhaps that Benjamin Britten once had a go at writing an anthem for Malaysia (p229). It wasn’t accepted. And if you give it a listen, you’ll quickly realise why!

If you’d like to read the full story of classical musicians and anthems (including the likes of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Sibelius), I suggest you look at this article I wrote for BBC Music Magazine.

But my favourite ‘celebrity’ to have written an anthem doesn’t have anything to do with the classical music world. Instead, he’s a songwriter called Irving Burgie. He wrote Barbados’, and you might not know his name, but you will know his music. Here he is singing his most famous song for me at his home in Queens, New York.

Umm Kulthum’s song isn’t the end of Egypt’s anthem story. That occurs in 1979 when Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president, made a song called Bilady, Bilady (My Country, My Country) the country’s third anthem (p236). The story behind that is fascinating, as is the life story of its composer, Sayed Darwish. If you buy my book for any reason, I’d suggest it’s to read about it, a tale that somehow stretches from Egypt’s 1919 revolution right to the Arab Spring.

Sayed Darwish, 'the father of Egyptian music' and composer of its anthem, staring out from a poster in Alexandria, the city of his birth

Sayed Darwish. He’s the one in the poster. This was taken in Alexandria

Below is Bilady, Bilady. Yes, it is surprisingly simple for a song that is involved in so much history.

In the chapter, I speak to several musicians about Sayed Darwish, who’re all trying to revive his music for today. Here’s his grandson, Iman el-Bahr Darwish, with a disco version of one his relative’s classics:

And in complete contrast, here’s the British-Palestinian singer Reem Kelani singing Darwish’s Preachers’ Anthem (she gets going 45 seconds in):

Reem will be releasing a CD of Darwish’ music soon (hopefully; check her Twitter). Until it emerges, I recommend her BBC documentary on Darwish and the Arab Spring.

Finally, there’s one band I didn’t get to interview while in Cairo but really wanted to talk to about Bilady, Bilady. They’re called Sadat & Alaa Fifty Cent and they’re an electro chaabi act, making the boisterous music popular with working class kids in Egypt’s cities. The reason I wanted to talk to them is a great tune of theirs called The People Want Five Pounds Phone Credit which starts with a sample of Bilady, Bilady until the sound of a window being smashed stops it in its tracks.

I called them when I arrived, only to learn that one of their best friends had been shot by the police at the reopening of Egypt’s football season.

It wasn’t a time to talk politics, I was told.

It wasn’t even a time to dance.

Go to chapter 10

2 thoughts on “Egypt: anthems and fame

  1. Hi, I will certainly buy this book. What are your thoughts on Karlheinz Stockhausen who apparently wrote a two-hour collage/montage called “Hymnen” using dozens of national anthems? Do you think this is of interest ?

    • Hi Jonathan – thanks for reading and saying you’ll get the book. I really hope you enjoy it! As to Stockhausen, it’s clearly of interest to me, but I never really liked it, if I’m being honest! I’ve never been sure if he used anthems because he liked them, because it’d make his music more acceptable to musicians or for political reasons, but I think the best parts of the piece are those when the anthems actually come through giving it some melodic drive. (that’s the second part)

      In terms of bizarre anthem covers, I prefer those of the band Laibach – funnier, more to-the-point and just as ambiguous. Stockhausen’s effort is better than Verdi’s montage, though!
      The fact he uses anthems also shows, I think, the importance of these songs, which is a big part of what my book’s trying to do – show they’ve been at the centre of some of history’s and music’s most important events.
      I don’t know if that’s the answer you’re after… If you’ve heard it all too, let me know what you think!


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