Robert Wyatt – Lullaby for Hamza

How the story of a baby born under the bombs inspired one of music's most eloquent prayers for peace

According to Shakespeare’s King Lear, “when we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools”. After coming into this world on the 17th of January 1991, amidst the start of the bombardment of Iraq during the Gulf war, Hamza al-Ghanem cried relentlessly for his first three days.

A 2003 article by The Guardian journalist Suzanne Goldenberg recounted that the moment US bombs were dropped on Baghdad in 1991, Ms al-Ghanem was left lying in a maternity hospital with no electricity, no heating, shattered windows, and a naked, weeping new-born baby whose umbilical cord was still attached to her placenta. The medical staff had run off to a shelter, and she and her baby had been suddenly left alone.

Somehow, Ms al-Ghanem managed to reach an underground shelter with Hamza, where they spent the following 40 days in the company of about another 300 people.

Owing to the fact that Baghdad’s power stations were among the military targets US bombers had set their heart on, the fate of other babies those days, especially those born prematurely, and who therefore relied on incubators and oxygen supply, was not one of survival. It would seem that the same world who had deemed that they were welcome into had also deemed they were not as welcome as a war.

 In March 2003, among the people closely following the harrowing build-up to the following war of a US-led coalition against Iraq, were the jazz rock artist Robert Wyatt and his wife and collaborator, the visual artist and songwriter Alfreda Benge. The latter read Hamza’s story on The Guardian, and was deeply touched by it, so much so that it inspired her to write the lyrics for Wyatt’s “Lullaby for Hamza”.

At the time the song was released with the album “Cuckooland”(2003), Hamza was 12 years old, and, after being born amidst one devastating war, was now facing the prospect of growing up in another devastating one, whose consequences, albeit its formal end in 2011, keep reverberating in the present.

The Gulf war ensued after Iraq’s invasion and annexation of the state of Kuwait, which began on the 2nd of August 1990. The aggression sparked the formation of the largest military coalition since World War II, consisting of 34 countries contributing either with military forces or by financial means. The coalition, led by the US, was ultimately victorious 6 months later, claiming 300 of its forces’ lives, and 20.000 to 35.000 Iraqi lives. Many of which, of course, were civilians.

At the time of the Gulf war, the major threat the ground coalition forces perceived was Iraq’s potential deployment of chemical weapons, with which the Iraqi military, two years earlier, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, had conducted a genocide in in the city of Halabja, Southern Kurdistan.

Though during the Gulf war no such use of chemical weapons was made against coalition forces, the fear of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction notoriously became, along with the fight against terrorism, the alleged reason for the subsequent 2003 war.

When bombers bomb again,

I need your lullaby.

Fires are burning,

The nightmare’s begun.

The world is dark again,

I need your lullaby.

Sleep has gone.

Night is long again.

Sing me your song.

Let me sleep.

Bring me peace.

Since Wyatt’s friend and collaborator Brian Eno has aptly described Wyatt’s unique voice as that of an “innocent cast into a complicated world”, it is challenging to envision anyone more adequate than him to sing of and to an innocent cast into a complicated world, who of that world can innately perceive but one thing: the difference between what is peace, and what is not.

After having been among the founders and members of legendary UK bands Soft Machine and Matching Mole, and after an accident in 1973, which paralysed him from the waist down, Wyatt pursued what would turn out to be his much acclaimed solo career.

When bombers bomb again,

we’ll need your lullaby.

Children cry.

Houses burn again.

Once more.

Sing songs to soothe them,

to dry their tears,

to drown the screams of war.

Aside from his notable artistic versatility and talent, the social and ideological heedfulness Wyatt conveys in “Lullaby for Hamza” was all but an isolated episode in his music. In 1982, for instance, he recorded “Shipbuilding” – whose lyrics were written by singer-songwriter Elvis Costello – a song about the then current war between England and Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

During his musical career, Wyatt also recorded his own rendition of several paradigmatic protest songs, such as Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit”, and Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”.

“Cuckooland”, Wyatt’s eighth studio album, opens with the words: “Faith may not be such a bad thing / Hope may still feel pretty good”. Whatever hope is, it does feel pretty good. Here’s to hoping it won’t ever stop singing to us.

 

 

When bombers bomb again,

I need your lullaby.

Fires are burning,

The nightmare’s begun.

The world is dark again,

I need your lullaby.

Sleep has gone.

Night is long again.

Sing me your song.

Let me sleep.

Bring me peace.

When bombers bomb again,

we’ll need your lullaby.

Children cry.

Houses burn again.

Once more.

Sing songs to soothe them,

to dry their tears,

to drown the screams of war.

The world’s gone wrong again,

I need your lullaby.

Night is long.

and sleep’s just a dream.

Sing your song.

Stay close to me.

Sing to me.

Hushabye.

The world is dark again,

I need your lullaby.

Sleep has gone.

night is much too long again.

Sing me your song.

Let me sleep.

Bring me peace.

Robert Wyatt – Lullaby for Hamza
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Sounds from the Bucket
Isaac K. Wilde

Isaac is an Italian soon-to-be social work student, with a targetless passion for whatever strives to bring meaning in his life and in the life of others. His previous academic studies have involved cognitive psychology and modern literature. He is currently teaching English, writing short stories, and being publicly dispossessed of his true name by an on-going feud with shyness, hence his writing on WIB with an otherwise unnecessary pseudonym such as Isaac K. Wilde.
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