Best, worst national anthems at 2017 Cup of Nations
- Algeria’s song is aggressive while Burkina Faso’s is written by revolutionary leader of the country and Zimbabwe’s is so plain, but all chime with pride, honour and hope
- National anthems are an absorbing stage setter for the main act.
- National anthems represent some of the best music ever composed in this world.
The second FASU (Federation of Africa University Sports) All Africa University Games held in Nairobi in 1978/79 taught me a lasting lesson: that big events, such as the Africa Cup of Nations, the Fifa World Cup and the Olympic Games, don’t just showcase a country’s finest athletes but its musicians as well.
As one national anthem after another was played during the opening ceremonies, I remarked to my senior colleague, Peter Kareithi: “Some of these anthems are really nice!”
He replied curtly: “The best national anthem is Kenya’s.”
Since 1978, there isn’t a tournament that I have covered or followed on television that I have not found myself deeply interested in the national anthems.
They are an absorbing stage setter for the main act. In fact, some are an act in themselves, especially when sang passionately by tens of thousands of people in unison. They move you; they draw tears from competitors and fans alike. And their import sinks deep in the psyche of the young sportsmen as in the case of the boxer who made a heart-rending lament of the poverty he was wallowing in and yet the Kenya national anthem had been played for him as if, he said, he were a head of state.
National anthems represent some of the best music ever composed in this world. Writing for The Guardian in the lead up to the Rio Olympics, Alex Marshall, author of “Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems” observed:
“National anthems, despite only being a minute long, have genuinely achieved more than any other type of music you can name. People have fought wars singing them, and chanted them at protests. They’ve helped heal countries following bitter struggles, like South Africa’s after apartheid, although they’ve also been used to stoke ethnic divides. Some have the most boring music imaginable, but others are like pop songs – unforgettable as soon as you’ve heard them. They have inspired everyone from sportspeople to schoolchildren, everywhere from Luanda to Liverpool.”
The second FASU All Africa University Games were held from 29 December, 1978 to 8 January 1979. In keeping with sports tradition, the teams marched behind their flag bearers who raised them high or waved them to the crowds.
Algeria’s president Houari Boumediene had died on December 27 after a long illness. The Algerian team had travelled to the Games during the official mourning period.
Four athletes carried their flag horizontally, holding it at each of its corners as pall bearers would carry a casket. They were appropriately somber-faced. As they went around the stadium, some people said to them: “Pole.” (Sorry).
But when their national anthem was played, I was startled. It was the most aggressive of any I had heard. It was like listening to an instrumental version of the Haka, the frightening traditional war cry performed by New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team. I made a mental note of that. In later years, after watching Algeria’s finest footballers, from Lakhdar Beloumi, Rabah Madger, Salah Assad to Yacine Brahimi, Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani, I sought the assistance of my friend Google to see if the lyrics were as menacing as the tone suggested.
They were even more forbidding: “We swear by the lightning that destroys/By the virtuous and fragrant blood/By the shining, fluttering banners/In the steep and majestic mountains/That we have risen to revolution in life or death and we have resolved that Algeria shall live/So bear witness, bear witness, bear witness!” The first stanza has lines that say “we have taken the drum of gunpowder as our rhythm/And the sound of machine guns as our melody.”
To the best of my knowledge it is the only national anthem that threatens its former colonial master by name and warns it of dire consequences if…
“O France, the time of reproach has passed/And we have closed like a book;
O France, the day of reckoning is at hand/So prepare to receive from us our answer!/In our revolution is the end of empty talk;/and we have resolved that Algeria shall live –/So bear witness, bear witness, bear witness!”
Obviously, these not people to be trifled with. The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations has given me another chance to indulge in the pleasurable pastime of listening to the national anthems of the participating nations – and finding about what it is that the players and their fans are singing with so much depth of feeling. There is a menu of 16 national anthems in Gabon before early flights are boarded.
Pick your favourites and I pick mine; on this one, the scores are even. But I can’t resist drawing your attention to some that I have really liked – and others that I haven’t.
I have only just discovered that Burkina Faso’s anthem was written by its assassinated revolutionary leader, Capt. Thomas Sankara. I know that Sankara used to surprise his compatriots by playing the guitar during their nightly version of KBC’s Late Date but I didn’t know that he was such a good song writer! This is the young paratrooper who changed Upper Volta’s name to Burkina Faso, which means the Land of Upright Men and as everybody who knew him said, he was every inch an upright man. He was incorruptible. Of the anthems in Gabon, I rank Burkina Faso’s as my number one.
It is followed very closely by one written by yet another assassinated leader, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau. Either I like the lyrics too much or I am already biased because since reading his book, “Return to the Source”, he has remained one of my heroes.
Like Sankara, I think his death was a huge loss to the African continent. To the anthems I like, add Egypt’s and Senegal’s. Egypt’s is an ode to the homeland, very beautiful, while it is not surprising that Senegal’s was written by its first president, Leopold Sedar Senghor. He was one of Africa’s finest poets. I like its melodious second part better, although it ends as soon as it starts.
So much for those. I have no idea why our good neighbours, the Cranes have for their country the world’s shortest national anthem. People who are the source of the world’s longest river have that little to say about themselves? Puzzling. Sometimes they sing that stanza twice just to lengthen it. At any rate, it just comes out bland.
Zimbabwe’s is a plain song that reminds you of sitting in a church during a funeral. They did away with God Bless Africa, widely adopted by Southern Africa’s countries and they are the poorer for it. I have noticed that a recurring theme in the anthems of Eastern and Southern African countries is prayers for prosperity for the people.
Kenya is a market leader on this one. There is no doubt that ours is a very touching prayer and floating on the wings of that Pokomo lullaby, it is both strong and sweet. But it has not taken us to the Africa Cup of Nations since 2004 and the outlook still looks gloomy even with this searing January heat with its cloudless skies.
The predominant theme in the anthems of North African countries is a fierce pride and loyalty to their countries, as in the robust case of Algeria while West African nations lead in remembering their ancestors. Cameroon’s anthem, for instance, is called O Cameroon, Cradle of our Forefathers while Togo’s is called Land of our Forefathers.
“Knowledge and truth our forefathers spread/Mighty the nations whom they led/Mighty they made thee, so too may we/Show forth the good that is ever in thee,” so goes a verse in Sierra Leone’s national anthem.
And this is the opening verse of Guinea Bissau’s: “Sun, sweat, verdure, and sea/Centuries of pain and hope/This is the land of our ancestors. /Fruit of our hands/Of the flower of our blood:/This is our beloved country.”
The only African national anthem that gives me an earworm, March Forward, Dear Mother Ethiopia, is not in Gabon. I don’t know what it does with my ecosystem but I can’t seem to have enough of it.
I play it over and over, each time promising myself that this is the last time. I have played it uncountable last times.
And it doesn’t matter whether it is the instrumental version or its any group of people singing it.
I alternate between the two. In the end I am left with a saturated head with a self-repeating tape recorder playing inside. In fact, after tapping the “send” button to dispatch this story to the Editor, I will unwind with it.
Does Peter Kareithi still think Kenya’s is the best national anthem? How come I am hearing a different sound in my head?