How to write a national anthem: Sounds like team spirit
National anthems and Olympic glory go hand in hand, but what's it like to write one?
Tuesday 31 July 2012
One sound is going to dominate this year's Olympics: national anthems, those minute-long songs that can make grown men cry. And for a handful of people, it means millions will finally hear their music.
At this summer's Olympics, several men are going to play a small, but significant part, unknown to even friends and colleagues. They are not athletes, or coaches. They are not even freeloading sponsors.
In fact, they're an ageing calypso singer; a recent graduate currently fixing up a house; a chemical engineer; and one of the world's leading anaesthesiologists. All of them just happen to have written one of the 216 national anthems that will be played at this year's Games.
One wrote Barbados's, another the anthem of St Kitts & Nevis, and two helped write the lyrics for Nigeria's.
All their anthems will be played at least once at the Games, when the athletes from those countries arrive. Anthem composers are the dirty secret of the music world, despite their songs being sung by millions everyday. Most people assume the composers died hundreds of years ago. The Star-Spangled Banner was written in 1814; God Save the Queen even earlier. But a handful are alive, and the stories of how they came to write the anthems, and how it shaped their lives since, are filled with politics, unpaid debts and even some romance.
"How'd my life change after I wrote the anthem? Not one bit," laughs Sota Omoigui, the 52-year-old director of the Los Angeles Pain Clinic.
"I was meant to get a prize of some books, but they didn't turn up. I don't care about that really, but some acknowledgement would have been nice. "
Omoigui was just 16, an aspiring medical student in Lagos, when he entered the competition for a new Nigerian anthem in 1977. The country was coming out of years of civil war, and its leaders hoped a new song would bind Nigeria's many ethnicities together.
Just under 1,500 people entered, but Omoigui's poem – with calls for peace and unity – stood out, and was selected along with four others to make up the final tune, Arise, O Compatriots.
Unfortunately, Omoigui says, Nigeria has never lived up to his words. "When I wrote it, it was my dream for the country to move forward and take its place among the great nations of the world... But all that potential has been hijacked by bad leadership. Sometimes I wonder if we were ready for in dependence."
Omoigui left Nigeria only a few years after writing the anthem, believing it was the only way to build a career.
His experiences are almost mirrored to the letter by those of Babatunde Ogunnaike, currently dean of engineering at the University of Delaware.
Ogunnaike was a 21-year-old student when the anthem competition was announced. He had no intention of entering, but a newspaper printed some of the first entries, and they were so bad, he felt he had to.
Just weeks after submitting his poem he left Nigeria to study in the US. There, in 1978, he received a telegram from his father saying some of his words had been chosen and he should expect a 50-naira prize (31 cents). "That was a reasonable amount of money at the time, but I don't think I ever got it," he laughs.
Ogunnaike returned to Nigeria in the Eighties, but came back to the US after just a few years. "It was in part because I had a child, but quite frankly I was becoming a desperately poor man. "
Despite all their disappointment in Nigeria, both still feel proud to have written the song and it appears prominently on their résumés.
"I couldn't have written a calypso for the anthem," says Irving Burgie, the composer of Barbados's, shocked at the suggestion. "My mother thought calypso was a bawdy kind of thing."
There is a good reason to be talking calypso with Irving Burgie, now in his late eighties and living in New York. He's the godfather of it.
In the 1950s, he was Harry Belafonte's main songwriter, and he penned hits like "Day-O", "Island in the Sun" and "Jamaica Farewell". He wrote most of the songs on Belafonte's Calypso album, the first record to sell a million copies.
He came to write Barbados's anthem in 1966 by accident. His mother was Barbadian, but Burgie was brought up in Brooklyn. He never visited the country until he was in his thirties and flush with success.
He saw his anthem as a contribution to the global civil-rights movement, as much as anything. He claims the lyrics he submitted were "quite strong " in their anti-colonial sentiment, but the Barbadian government toned them down to avoid offending England.
Kenrick Georges should probably hate O Land of Beauty, the anthem he composed for the Caribbean islands of St Kitts & Nevis. He was just 28 when he wrote it in 1983, a patriotic construction worker and aspiring musician. But just after he heard he had won, he got offered a job in Europe writing music for television programme. He had a choice between staying to see his country's independence or fulfilling a life's ambition.
"I had absolutely no interest in staying around," he says. "But my mother said to me, 'Kenrick, you're the first one in this family to have achieved something. I want to see you collect your award.' And so I had to stay – had to – and I lost the contract."
He ended up enjoying the night but afterwards, he found himself stuck on the island with little opportunity, continually frustrated by its politics.
Just three years later, he left for New York to work in construction. "I was in the Bronx and it was difficult to hold a steady job because I was not a citizen." When friends heard he had composed an anthem, they could not understand why he was not living the high life.
Georges' story does have a happy ending. Seven years ago, an amateur journalist got in touch saying she was from St Kitts, had been researching the anthem, and was surprised to learn he was alive. She asked to meet. "I am honestly very proud of the anthem," he says. "It's my contribution to my country. And it has not gone for naught because the woman I'm married to, she searched me out because of it, and she has turned out to be the best part of my life. "
Arise, O Compatriots
Arise, O compatriots
Nigeria's call obey
To serve our Fatherland
With love and strength and faith
The labour of our heroes past
Shall never be in vain
To serve with heart and might
One nation bound in freedom, peace and unity
In plenty and in time of need
When this fair land was young
Our brave forefathers sowed the seed
From which our pride was sprung
A pride that makes no wanton boast
Of what it has withstood
That binds our hearts from coast to coast
The pride of nationhood
St Kitts & Nevis
O Land of beauty!
O Land of Beauty!
Our country where peace abounds
Thy children stand free
On the strength of will and love
With God in all our struggles
Saint Kitts and Nevis be
A nation bound together
With a common destiny
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