When the notes rise, the beauty, the flair, the drama and most importantly, the sound moves us to a harmonious place. Though we are different, the sound of music makes us one.
Take away the studio and move to a football pitch; imagine yourself in the midst of thousands of football fans – or even just a few hundred – absorb the bright and cheerful colors around you, watch the other fans cheer and laugh, then notice the magic that happens when the music switches on.
It is absolutely impossible to think of a time when African football existed without music. It could be the anthem daring you to form an allegiance. Maybe it’s simply a song that tells of victory or shares the pain of loss. But, whatever the music is, or whatever the story, music lives in African football. From the blares of the vuvuzela to the melodious chants to shake an opponent or even the clap of hands and the dance that follows most African songs and the dance that accompanies it, in Africa football unites us. And music holds it all together.
With every tournament it’s the music that made the games more memorable. Many here remember D’banj performing at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, but the 2010 World Cup in South Africa is probably most known to those outside the continent. From K’naan’s Waving Flag getting us excited to Angélique Kidjo kicking off the festivities to Shakira’s Waka Waka that tested the flexibility of our bodies, it is easy to agree that while the goals and players gave us an unforgettable experience, the music helps us remember it all.
The traditional African game is nothing like what you find in European leagues; it does not have the fairytale or even the finesse that flows with every kick. It is more down-to-earth, like an interchange with Mother Nature. Just like our music, it tells about our traditions, our struggles and even the need to survive.
You could literally dance to every move, be enchanted by the beauty of the celebrations, and lifted up by the passion. Football needs to be seen to understand it, and felt to appreciate it. Pretty much like music.
George Weah, Jay-Jay Okocha, Hossam Hassan, Tony Yeboah, Kanu Nwankwo, Samuel Eto’o, Roger Milla – I could go on to call out every legend of African football, a lengthy, legendary and even a captivating list describing what they did with their feet and the joy they brought. But what also stands out is the songs they inspire. Think again of the beauty in K’naan’s “Waving Flag” or the vibe you get when Anastacia hits you with “Boom”! You’ll smile, maybe take a couple of free kicks in your head and proceed to scream “GOAL!” That’s what the music does.
Every Nigerian remembers the 1996 Olympics – not just because they took home the gold but because of the legendary music created from it. This decade in Nigerian football is known as the rosy 90s, but in the semifinal they faced an almighty Brazil with Bebeto, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and golden boy Ronaldo. Brazil were leading 3-1 when, in the 78th minute, a goal from Victor Ikpeba changed everything. Nwankwo Kanu equalized and then, in extra time, shot the golden goal to wrap up one of the greatest comebacks in football history. And at that moment, somewhere a fan was inspired: “When Nigeria beat Brazil, when Nigeria beat Brazil o! Bebeto start to cry… When Nigeria beat Brazil” (It is okay to dance while you sing!). 20 years later, the lyrics still inspire the Super Eagles to believe victory is absolutely possible, always. Slowly but surely, someday they will raise the World Cup but for now, just like the rest of the CAF nations, they find solace in their music.
It’s a powerful tool yet our music still remains largely unexplored. The African continent is not known for its appeal to the rest of the world; it does not set football trends or bring in the big names. Instead, we borrow experience and structure from European leagues, but somehow fail to apply it. The UEFA Champions League anthem cleverly mixed with elements of English, German and French, is a classic example of what good music can do for football.
The African continent has not explored this avenue. The CAF Champions League has no recognisable anthem and few clubs have their own song. The 2010 World Cup was an epic experience but it’s been the only tournament that gave our football and music a massive pitch. We failed to follow it up. While we have managed to inspire both fans and foes to the stands with the music and dance, the progression has been slow, maybe just too slow.
Nigeria, where I live and where I follow the trends, has a domestic league that saw its best days in the 1970s and 1980s – maybe a bit of the 1990s. While we are struggling to bring the professional league to a more admirable state, we are not doing much when it comes to the music around the game. 20 teams compete in the league and two – Enyimba FC and Kano Pillars – regularly appear in CAF championship tournaments. But aside from their chants – “Nzogbu, Nzogbu Enyimba enyi” and “UP PILLARS!” (UP FILLARS! as it would sound in a Hausa’s man accent)– no club anthem is known.
While African music certainly influences how the fans react to the football in front of them, it also affects the mood of the players. Music triggers strong emotions; when played at a particular speed or rhythm, it can significantly improve the performance of the whole team. It may even dictate the kind of football we see on the pitch. My friend Biola swears such songs exist, but she’s had three months to find them and she’s still looking.
African football’s governing bodies need to realise how music transcends the game and can be used as a tool to reach new fans. But if our football is to grow, we must start at the beginning, with investment. We need to improve the domestic leagues, which will better the image we send out to the rest of the world. From there we can sell our game using our music, adding our colour and individuality. Football should be fed with our music, fed well. Every club should have an anthem, and the biggest club championship on the continent needs a song that everybody identifies as its own. Our music can be refined without changing it, then marketed to not just the African fan but the football fan.
Football and music is at the heart of every passionate fan. Technology has helped refine the experience. There are so many ways to connect with the music that reminds you of the game you love. Maybe FIFA can even explore the possibility of putting little speakers on the pitch – it might be epic, or it might lead to hilarious consequences.
But there are so many ways to connect to the memories of the game we love, from simply turning a knob on the radio to watching the beautiful visuals on a television set. Or, for a more spiritual experience, putting on headphones, closing your eyes, and losing yourself in all of it, feeling the music and the freedom of dance.
For me, both African music and football are hugely inspiring, a part of who I am. I have felt the pain of defeat, crying a bucketful. I’ve felt the joy and jubilation of being surrounded by fans while hoisted on the shoulders of my brother. My journey is still growing, though – only when football and music both work and build on each other will my spiritual romance be complete.
Music is what makes African football. It is what provokes passion, both on and off the pitch. In the stadium, alongside a makeshift pitch, or even on the streets, with young children swinging and moving while fans stand to cheer, chant and dance, the music and football combine to make it feel like nothing else exists.