Write an anthem, get a GIF!

This week, Ibrahim al-Khafaji, the poet behind Saudi Arabia’s national anthem, sadly passed away aged 90.

Most anthem poets’ deaths go unnoticed until about 30 years later when someone decides to name a road after them. But the Saudi authorities gave Ibrahim a properly modern tribute: by drawing a cartoon of him and turning it into a GIF!

It’s, er, very touching.

Ibrahim wrote numerous patriotic odes, but deserves special tribute for giving the country’s anthem words in 1984 since it’d been strictly instrumental beforehand. His lyrics are super religious. “Glorify, the creator of the heavens,” it goes at one point. “Repeat: Allahu Akbar.” But then, what’d you expect? It’s Saudi Arabia.

Shame the song’s not the best.

Rest in power, Ibrahim.

For Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson

One of the big dogs of nationalism – the academic who came up with the term ‘imagined communities’ – died this month.

You should read his most famous book, now over 30 years old. It’ll make you think differently about your country; every country in fact. Here’s its main segment on national anthems – oddly, one of the book’s few paragraphs that is undeniably positive:

In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism – poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts – show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles.

On the other hand, how truly rare it is to find analogous nationalist products expressing fear and loathing. Can the reader think immediately of even three Hymns of Hate [national anthems]?

Even in the case of colonised peoples, who have every reason to feel hatred for their imperialist rulers, it is astonishing how insignificant the element of hatred is in these expressions of national feeling.

Clearly he wasn’t as obsessed with anthems as I am. I can easily think of more than three hateful hymns. Take Algeria’s, which features lines like, “O France, your day of reckoning is at hand”, or read the final chapter of my book and learn about any of South America’s and just why they’ve stopped singing multiple verses.

But, yes, clearly if he had been as obsessed, he wouldn’t have written such a groundbreaking, thought-provoking work.

The mystery behind Kenya’s national anthem


Kenya has that rarest of anthems: one that actually sounds like the country it comes from! It’s a tune you could imagine gazelles running to or Maasai singing in villages.

Yes, it’s a bit “cliched” Africa – how many Maasai aren’t using cell phones and listening to rap these days? – but it’s better than most of Africa’s anthems, which sound like they were written by an vicar after a walk through the English countryside.

If you go online – Wikipedia, for instance – it tells you that music was written by a committee headed by an English musicologist, Graham Hyslop.

But this week, Kenyan media was dominated by reports of the death of the actual composer, a 96-year-old, Mzee Galana Meza (pictured below). He died in poverty without any recognition from the government. It’s an outrage, the newspapers screamed.

Mzee Galana Meza

There is one problem; it’s hard to work out if Meza did compose it. As he told the story, in 1963, Hyslop visited his village and asked for folk tunes. Meza sang him seven and only discovered one was chosen to be the anthem when he heard someone singing it after independence.

So did Meza write it? I haven’t the faintest idea. For all I know, it was a melody that’d been sung for 100s of years. But even if he didn’t, surely he deserves a mention in the song’s history? Someone update Wikipedia now!

Nigeria’s anthem composer dies

Pa Benedict Odiase, composer of Nigeria's national anthem

Most of Africa’s national anthems are awful. They sound like church hymns written by amateur musicians.

Nigeria’s Arise O Compatriots is one of the few exceptions, and the main reason for that is its composer, Benedict Odiase. He decided that if there was one thing a Nigerian anthem needed, it was some African percussion thundering along beneath it. And his tune sounds great for that, like a troop of drummers interrupting a brass band rehearsal.

Odiase died on Tuesday night, aged 79. Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan said, “In passing, Odiase bequeathed an indelible legacy to the nation which will continue to inspire present and future generations of Nigerians to greater heights of accomplishment.”

It’s a nice message; it’s just a shame many Nigerians would say Goodluck’s one of the people who needs inspiring right now.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Odiase once – about how he taught some of the country’s best musicians as well as writing the anthem. Annoyingly, he wouldn’t gossip about any of the musicians or politicians he dealt with over the years, but I had to admire him for not dropping to my level.

You can read a bit of that interview here. Otherwise, join Nigeria’s 160 million people and give his song a listen.

Farewell to Africa’s only cowboy

Abbe Marc Barengayabo, composer of Burundi's national anthem

Marc Barengayabo, the composer of Burundi’s national anthem (pictured), didn’t seem to realise he came from a landlocked country in the middle of Africa.

Just take a listen to his anthem. It’s the sort of tune someone could only write if they spent their days dreaming of cowboys and kung fu movies.

It starts off normally enough, a military march like many of the world’s anthems. But 18 seconds in, it suddenly turns into the soundtrack to a Bruce Lee film. Then the percussion starts clopping, and the strings start swaying, and it changes again, sounding like a cowboy lolloping into town on a worn-out horse.

I always wanted to ask Marc what on earth he was thinking about when he wrote it. Why he thought this tune would inspire the people of Burundi to build a new nation.

Unfortunately, I’ll never get the chance. He’s just died, aged 79.

If you want to read about him, there’s an obituary here. It doesn’t mention if he composed any other pieces, or if he was actually obsessed with films. But it does contain this amazing statement from his government: “The Government of Burundi implore the Almighty to grant [Marc] ample reward for loyal service to the Catholic Church and his country, and welcome him to his vast Paradise.”

Uganda’s anthem composer dies

His name was George Kakoma (pictured, sort of, with his wife), and he wrote this. A sad day, especially as most Ugandans will probably remember him more for the time he sued the government for £200,000 ($317,000) royalties.

The picture’s stolen from New Vision, Uganda’s leading daily paper.