The mystery behind Kenya’s national anthem

Masai

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!

Meet the world’s newest national anthem – sort of!

Last weekend, I went to a folk music festival in the Swiss town of Aarau. In case you’re wondering, this is what a Swiss folk music festival sounds like:

Yes, that is an accordion cover of Take Me Home, Country Roads.

But amid the accordions, something else happened: the world’s newest national anthem was unveiled. Well, sort of.

For the past two years, Switzerland’s been seeking new words to its anthem, the Swiss Psalm, because the current ones sound too much like a Biblical weather forecast (“When the Alps grow bright with splendour, pray”, goes a typical line). At the folk festival, they announced the winner:

White cross on a red background
Our sign of the country
Freedom, independence, peace
Open to the world in which we live
We strive for justice
Free, those use their freedom
Strong, a country that protects its weakest
White cross on a red background
We sing together as one

I’ll let you decide if those words are an improvement, but here they are being sung for the first time on Swiss TV. I pop up at some point, worryingly!

A leading Swiss charity is now going to try and popularise the words to the point the government feels compelled to adopt them.

The lyrics were written by Werner Widmer, a 62-year-old director of a medical foundation. Here he is in front of a Swiss flag, holding my book!

Werner Widmer, new Swiss anthem contest winner

Werner seemed a really nice man. He entered the anthem contest simply because he wants to inspire people in his country to be better, he told me, before adding that he’d probably donate his 10,000 Swiss franc winnings to Syrian refugees. See, he’s really nice.

Meeting him made me really want to love his anthem, but I can’t deny that I’d have preferred it if the Swiss had gone for something more daring. The song that came third was exactly that. It was written by the people in the photo below, the most important being the woman in traditional dress: Kathrin Ammann Stäfa.

Swiss anthem contest runners up

She created a bizarre new tune that even goes into a minor chord at one point, but the more I hear it, the more I like it. Maybe next time, Switzerland!

If you want to read more of me prattling on about the Swiss contest, I suggest you head to the Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s leading papers, which quotes me a lot including calling for a drone strike to destroy all Swiss accordionists. Lesson learned: don’t send out sarcastic tweets in the middle of music festivals!