On Caribbean national anthems

Garry Steckles wonders why Caribbean national anthems don’t swing to an island beat

Illustration by Marlon Griffith

That sounds more like it…

National anthems aren’t the sort of music I usually pay much attention to. But I started thinking about them the other day — a mental process that was triggered, oddly enough, by watching some world-class athletics on television.

As it happened, I caught the finals of the men’s 100 metres at a big meeting in Berlin.

One of the contestants was a brilliant young sprinter from St Kitts, the island I’ve called home for almost a decade and of which I’m proud to be a citizen.

Kim Collins was a name I hadn’t even heard until the 2000 Sidney Olympics, when he came out of nowhere to reach the finals of both the 100 and the 200, triggering an outpouring of national pride that escalated recently when he won a Commonwealth Games gold medal. Collins finished third in the Berlin event, a couple of strides ahead of Olympic and world champion Maurice Greene, and it struck me, not for the first time, that there’s a distinct and growing possibility that our tiny island, with its population of less than 40,000, has produced a very serious contender for Olympic gold in the 2004 games in Athens.

This means not just that St Kitts could win its first Olympic gold medal, but that the national anthem of St Kitts and Nevis might be played while hundreds of millions of people around the world — many of whom won’t even have heard of these off-the-beaten-track sister islands in the eastern Caribbean — watch and listen on television.

The next thing that crossed my mind was that most national anthems — just about all the ones I’ve heard — tend to be symphonic compositions, sometimes stirring, but almost always distinctly on the heavy side. Now, I’ve got nothing whatsoever against heavy symphonic compositions, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking how many countries have anthems that don’t really reflect their people, their spirit or their culture.

At this stage, I started humming the melody line of a song that’s been hugely popular in St Kitts over the past few months. It’s called Borderline, it’s by a brilliant roots reggae singer-songwriter called Crucial Bankie — who was featured in this column a couple issues back — and for many people in St Kitts it’s become a de facto national anthem. Heck, a senior St Kitts cabinet minister, himself a music aficionado, made a reference to Borderline in this context at a recent public gathering.

Wouldn’t it be a refreshing change, I thought, to see Kim Collins mount the podium in Athens and to hear Borderline — a song that truly reflects the culture of St Kitts — played for all those hundreds of millions of people?

Or imagine if a Jamaican athlete happened to strike gold in Athens and they played Smile Jamaica, by a Jamaican musician almost every viewer and spectator, from China to Chile, would be familiar with. Fellow by the name of Robert Nesta Marley. What could better reflect the people and culture of Jamaica than reggae performed by a man many people regard as the most significant and influential musician the world has ever seen?

If a Barbadian athlete won gold, the song I’d love to hear is Beautiful Barbados by the Merrymen, the legendary folk-calypso group whose lead singer, Emile Straker, ranks in my book as one of the finest songwriters the Caribbean has produced.

The same logic — if, indeed, the word “logic” can be applied to this particular thought process — could be applied to Cuba, to Trinidad, to Puerto Rico … to virtually every Caribbean island, come to think of it.

Okay, I know I’m dreaming in Technicolor here, and many readers will think I’m proposing something akin to heresy when I suggest tampering with countries’ national anthems. No offence meant, I can assure you.

But times are changing, and while there are some things I prefer to leave untouched in this world — great architecture, rain forests, that sort of thing — I can’t think of any compelling reason that national anthems shouldn’t change too, once in a while.

 

And now for a spot of shameless self-promotion. A few months ago, I was asked if I’d like to host a music programme on a new radio station in St Kitts. I accepted, eagerly, and I’m delighted to report that the station, WINN-FM, has been a resounding success. My programme, Caribeat, airs on Wednesday evenings, around 9.30, and I try to bring listeners Caribbean music they mightn’t hear routinely on the airwaves — everything from early and rare Marley to dub poets to Japanese reggae to obscure 70s roots from the UK. If you happen to live in or near to St Kitts, or to be visiting our part of the world, do try tuning in to WINN — it’s 98.9 on your FM dial. And I don’t mean just on Wednesday evenings! The music’s terrific across the board, the talk shows are lively, entertaining and often controversial, and the morning show, hosted by the ebullient Tony Fredericks, has become a must-listen for thousands of Kittitians, myself included, after only a few months on the air.

And if you live outside our broadcast area, don’t despair — you’ll soon be able to catch WINN-FM on the station’s upcoming website. Watch this space for details.