A few days ago I was scouring through YouTube in search of Senegalese gospel songs. While at it, I came by a choir that sang the Senegal national anthem and it then struck me that even though I’ve heard the anthem so many times, I had no idea what the now all-too familiar Pincez tous vos koras, frappez les balafon, words meant.
My curiosity was piqued and I decided to google the English version to learn the meaning of the words. First I was intrigued to learn that the lyrics were written by Leopold Sedar Senghor, first president of Senegal and the song was composed by Herbert Pepper, a French man who also composed the anthem of the Central African Republic. I was struck by the lyrics of the anthem and felt that they resonate more with the spirit and culture of the Senegalese people. I could feel the spirit of empowerment, pride and nationalism the words evoke. I felt it was much more than a prayer, but also a statement.
I could not help but realise that our all-too beautiful 60 words national anthem is nothing more than a prayer that denotes a state of hopelessness and a call to God for all to live in freedom, peace and unity. It feels mundane, bland and banal, and does not in any way connote the Gambian spirit, traditions and culture. It does not exude power nor does it inspire hope. For a national anthem written by Virginia Julia Howe and composed by Jeremy F Howe a British couple, one could understand why.
I decided to make further research on national anthems, especially African, and what I’ve learned is quite interesting.
History of national anthems
If defined as consisting of both a melody and lyrics, then the national anthem of the Netherlands which dates back as far as at least 1572, is today the oldest national anthem in use. Written during the Dutch Revolt (1566–1648) the popular organist hymn only became officially recognized as the Dutch national anthem in 1932. Great Britain’s “God Save the Queen,” was described as a national anthem in 1825, although it had been popular as a patriotic song and used on occasions of royal ceremonies since the mid-18th century.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most European countries followed Britain’s example, some national anthems being written especially for the purpose, others being adapted from existing tunes. The sentiments of national anthems vary, from prayers for the monarch to allusions to nationally important battles or uprisings. National anthems often reflect a reflection of the past and a look into the future. Themes of anthems often include calls to awake, arise or work for the future progress of a nation and praise for the already established beloved land, its peculiarities, traditions and culture.
Cusack notes that as products of the colonial period, and early days of independence, the main themes in African anthems demonstrate strong links to anthems of former colonial powers. In a blog Simon Riker wrote in 2013, he inferred that for one who does not know much about Africa, an imagination of African anthems would “probably involved some combination of the marimba, xylophone, drums, shakers, bells, woodblocks, maybe a flute, or some singing or chanting”.
It is thought-provoking to realise that despite its rich musical tradition, African anthems are more of the violins, snare drums, trumpets, or trombones. These anthems might seem royal, impressive, majestic, stately, et cetera, but they are distinctly Western in style, and the fact that they function as celebrations of African pride makes the entire situation very baffling.
Title of Anthem: God Bless our Homeland Ghana
Year Adopted: 1957
Lyrics by: Emmanuel Pappoe-Thompson (original lyrics)
Composed by: Philip Gbeho
The words to the original lyrics were revised by a literary committee in the office of the then head of state, Kwame Nkrumah. Michael Kwame Gbordzoe has made claims to the current lyrics being used saying that it was written by him after the overthrow of President Nkrumah. A competition was held and Kwame Gbordzoe, who was then a student at Bishop Herman College, presented the current lyrics which was chosen to replace “Lift High The Flag Of Ghana” which had been officially adopted after independence and used as Ghana’s National Anthem during Nkrumah’s regime.
Title of Anthem: Arise, O Compatriots (2nd anthem)
Year Adopted: 1978
Lyrics by: John A. Ilechukwu, Eme Etim Akpan, BA Ogunnaike, Sota Omoigui and PO Aderibigbe,
Composed by: Benedict E Odiase with Nigeria Police Band
The first anthem was “Nigeria, We Hail Thee” and was used since independence in 1960 until when it was changed in 1978. The lyrics were written by Lillian Jean Williams (British), and the music was arranged by Frances Berda. This anthem was changed following criticisms and campaigns against the anthem. The lyrics to the new one are a combination of words and phrases taken from five of the best entries in a national contest.
Excerpts from Igor Cusack’s Journal
While many anthems emerged in the early 1960s, reflecting the concerns of the time there have been occasional changes and updating. For example, Cape Verde has recently abandoned an anthem shared with Guinea-Bissau since independence in 1975 and now uses a new anthem. Swaziland also has a new and simplified version of the previous anthem and Mozambique has a new anthem entitled, ‘Beloved Land’. In November 2019, President Mahamadou Issoufou called for a change of the national anthem. The decision followed criticism that some of the lyrics appeared to express gratitude to the former coloniser France, with Nigeriens on social media challenging lines three and four.
Several anthems were written by the leaders of the new post-colonial states and Senghor’s Senegalese anthem is an example of this. Thomas Sankara seized power in 1983 in Upper Volta and in August 1984 he changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso and wrote a new national anthem for the occasion. Sankara’s long anthem is a fierce attack on imperialism and neo-colonialism and praise for the ‘popular revolution’.
Amılcar Cabral wrote the words of the Cape Verdean and Guinea-Bissau anthem at independence. Until he was assassinated by the Portuguese in 1973, he was the leader of the rebellion in Guinea-Bissau. Cabral’s anthem ‘Sun, sweat, verdure and sea . . .’ (Sol, suor e o verde e mar . . .), was written and composed in 1963 and adopted upon independence in 1974. This same anthem was used in Cape Verde until 1996 when it was replaced with “Cântico da Liberdade” (“Chant of Liberty”).
Cabral was also an accomplished poet and this set a pattern of contributions from poets and writers in Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) Africa which accounts for a set of far more interesting anthems than the many banal anthems of former British colonies. All the five Lusophone African countries have anthems that were written by nationally-known writers, poets or musicians.
Manuel Rui, the writer of the Angolan anthem, is a well-known novelist with his work now translated into many languages. He was also an active participant in Angolan politics and was Minister of Information in the provisional MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertac¸a˜o de Angola) government that followed independence in 1975 (Peres 1997: 88). The Angolan anthem is a coherent revolutionary march with the people fighting alongside the ‘progressive forces of the world’. The national anthem of Sao Tome and Prıncipe was written by Alde Espırito Santo another famous native poet. She is the only woman to have written an African national anthem.
A study of the main themes of anthems reveals a colonial influence. In some instances, choosing the main theme is somewhat subjective as anthems often are composed by committees and tend to reflect a mixture of ideas that anthems are supposed to include an example is Zambia and Nigeria. Nevertheless, in most African cases anthems have either a single dominant theme or two themes of about equal emphasis. Sometimes there is a dominant theme and another theme of slightly less importance.
There are three most common themes or groups of themes: a call to the people to awake, arise or stand up; recognition of God’s blessing or a call to God to bless the nation and finally, various variants of a hymn to the ‘beloved land’.
How do we make sense of the fact that anthems, through which nations chose to assert their freedom and strength, are set in forms of language and music that are of the very people who had systematically conquered the continent and exploited it for centuries?
How relevant is The Gambia national anthem to our independence and our identity as a people?
I have sung and recited the words … “For the Gambia our homeland, we strive and work and pray” a thousand times. I did so as a student, a teacher, a police officer and as an ordinary Gambian. I have, however, never quite reflected on how the words impact me but I do know for certain it does not quite resonate with my inner sense of Gambianness. Come to think of it, does the sound or words of the anthem jolt your senses in the same way bukarrabu does for a Jola, or sewruba for the Mandinka, does it hit the Wolof the same way the tama does or the nyajegi to the Fula?
At independence, new leaders of Africa inherited nations of multiethnic peoples from the colonial powers and set about to build them. They used whatever material was at hand to construct a national identity. What was this national identity for The Gambia?
Given that the anthem was chosen from a selection of several entries, I am curious as to why it was particularly chosen for it does not reflect nor represent anything Gambian. Admittedly, there are a few lines that serve well the purpose of an anthem but I strongly think a lot of the content needs revising. The fact that it was written and composed by the very people from whom we were claiming independence, is in itself self-defeating. Could it be one explanation why there is not much sense of nationalism amongst us?
The anthem enjoins us to “strive and work and pray that all may live in unity freedom and peace each day”, and prayer has become all we do thinking manna will drop from the heavens and develop our country. Visit government workplaces and you will be appalled at our work ethics. It is quite telling that after 56 years of independence, we are still not yet food self-sufficient (though we keep saying agriculture is the backbone of The Gambia). How much of a united people are we when we see and do things through the lens of tribe, religion and other affiliations?
“And join our diverse peoples to prove man’s brotherhood”, we are indeed diverse but what is our commonality or identity as Gambians. Our pre-colonial history is different and that is why in our social studies we are taught the history and origins of the different tribes in The Gambia. How much does this content in our curriculum carve in us a sense of Gambianness? The use of the gendered word brotherhood, questions the place of women in our society.
The lines “we pledge our firm allegiance, our promise we renew”, who are we pledging allegiance to, and what is this promise we are renewing? I am at a loss as to the meaning of these words.
“Let justice guide our actions towards the common good”, What is this common good Gambia and how much of has been achieved? Well if it has anything to do with our motto of Peace, Progress and Prosperity then tell me how much progress and prosperity we have made since 1965. The Gambia like many other former British colonies like Nigeria got their independence without much struggle but did our new leaders have a vision for a country that Berkeley Rice in 1967 described as an improbable nation?
I have often wondered why Senegal which (apart from colonial history) shares the same peoples, same culture, languages, traditions and religions are so different in political outlooks. Why do I feel that Gambians identify themselves more with their tribe, religions and regions than as the nationals of The Gambia?
In conclusion, I am compelled to ask, apart from the definition offered in the constitution, what in your heart makes you a Gambian? Does the national anthem resonate with this person?