The Nation’s Mornings

In the sound texture of Jordanian morning radio shows, human voices tend to take center stage. Mostly it’s the hosts, ranting on current affairs, or reading out news, or greeting listeners; or guest voices, studio guests or callers, speaking about their problems or topics the broadcasters have put up for discussion. Accompanying all this talk, though, there’s a constant undercurrent of music.

For Arabic-language stations, the songs played are (pretty much exclusively) Arab in origin: Egyptian and Lebanese pop, for the most part, with some Jordanian domestic production, and the occasional classic by Fayrouz or one of the great Egyptian singers thrown in. After a while, it all starts to sound the same – though this is less due to clichés of Arabic pop (though these certainly exist!) than the simple fact that the actual repertoire of songs being played is quite limited.

Much airtime is taken up by what could be called “patriotic” or “nationalist” songs: a playlist of approximately two dozen tracks, sung by Jordanian artists in Jordanian colloquial Arabic, all of which in some way praise either Jordan as a country or its institutions. These tend to be repeated over and over, to the extent that you could hear a single song being played several times in a single day. (This is especially likely with a station such as Nashama FM, which tries to make playing “Jordanian” music a central part of its image; but it’s true of others too.) I’ll be looking at some of these songs below, and try to explain why it’s so imperative for morning shows to play them – over and over again, every single day. Listeners’ tastes might play a part here; though what I think is more relevant is the role such songs play in putting the Jordanian nation into being.

Army and King

Some tracks make no secret as to their allegiances. Consider the following tune performed by Omar al-Abdallat – with the title جيش أبو حسين، “Abu Hussein’s Army”:

From the bagpipe-laden intro onwards, it’s clear this is an army song. Abu Hussein is, of course, King Abdullah II – father of the (since 2005) heir apparent, Prince Hussein – seen also in the photo in the YouTube video embracing al-Abdallat. The bagpipes and heavy drum rhythm are complemented by the lyrics, with ample references to marching columns, and gunpowder, and waving flags, and the valiant “guards of our borders.”

This song extols the Jordanian army in general terms; others are more specific, dedicated to particular divisions (or indeed other branches of the state apparatus such as the police). This track, also by Abdallat, praises Jordan’s air force – literally, نسور سلاح الجو، the “Eagles of the Air Force” – and has received quite some air time in recent weeks in light of the media obsession with Muath al-Kasasbeh (and Jordan’s subsequent airstrikes on ISIS territory):

“Where they fly, over the desert / Above the clouds, over the seas.” “Defending the skies of the kingdom, supporting the ground forces.” Morning shows feature such songs every day – even on stations which aren’t explicitly linked to Jordan’s army apparatus (such as Radio Hala). Music clearly meant for people proud of their nation, and all those who serve to protect it.

The Sweetest Country

Marches and martial tunes may not be to everyone’s taste. But there are other songs, equally patriotic, that can do the trick. Many of these seem to be songs composed and recorded for Jordan’s yearly Independence Day celebrations that have gradually built up into a ‘validated’ repertoire from which morning show producers are now able to make their picks. One popular track is راسك بالعالي “Your Head Held High,” sung by Diana Karazon:

Still, a hard-hitting rhythm; but there are no explicit military references here. The lyrics are more neutrally ‘patriotic,’ praising Jordan as a country, honoring the beauty of its physical features – and especially its people, whom the refrain addresses directly:

راسك بالعالي مرفوع الهامة

انت أردني أهل الكرامة

Your head up high, your head raised up

You’re a Jordanian, of the noble people

The obligatory YouTube slideshow also includes the usual suspects: shots of the Jordanian flag, Amman’s landmarks, Petra, and Karazon herself wrapped in a red shmagh.

Yousef Arafat’s احلى بلد “The Most Beautiful Country” falls into much the same category. Here the melody is softer, drifting more into conventional pop, and includes a chorus of childlike voices singing janna, 7anna – “paradise,” “longing” – only confirming about the land Arafat is gushing over (“sweet Jordan, to her we sing our praises”; “this country is the most beautiful, the dearest…”):

These songs’ lyrics refer mainly to place: Jordan as a land, with borders and defined territories, a North and a South, and so on. There are others, though, that add the dimension of time. Not history – that would perhaps be too contentious – but time in its ordinary, ‘regularized’ form, as experienced by Jordan’s citizens. Saad Abu Tayyeh’s يسعد صباح بلادي “Happy Morning to My Country” fits so well into the morning show lineup it could easily have been written specifically to ‘wake up the nation’ by being played on the radio:

“A happy morning to my country / People of the mountains and the valleys / City-dwellers and Bedouins / All who live in our homeland.” Abu Tayyeh goes on to mention coffee, and canaries, and našaama “on their horses,” all beautiful visions of a land readying itself for a new day. Any land, in theory, but the particular assembly of imagery (the ‘joining together’ of urbanites and nomads, and not to mention the word našaama) that it’s Jordan we’re talking about.

Making Jordanian Audiences

Marketers might argue this is all a matter of taste. Jordanians like Jordanian music, after all, and all the radio station is doing is catering to listeners who like to be told how great and glorious “their” country is.

But radio audiences are never simply discovered. Globs of radio consumers don’t just exist naturally before coagulating around programmes or playlists; they are made, brought into being through the very act of listening to the same things together at the same time. And since these songs are addressed to ‘Jordanians’ – patriotic Jordanians, at that; those who truly care for their army, their King, or at least their country – playing them is an attempt to bring together precisely the kind of audience that can fit into this category. This is, then, what the classic-format morning shows strive towards: a listenership familiar with, and appreciative of, music that praises the homeland. Those who refuse to do so can just tune out.

Danny Kaplan has written on how commercial radio stations in Israel use music in order to mark out times of “national emergency,” or other nationally significant periods of time such as memorial days. The music plays during these times forms a closed, and distinctive, repertoire: the songs are in Hebrew, praise the homeland, and contrast markedly with the usual offerings of foreign pop. On Jordan’s stations, though, something comparable is being played every morning – not just in moments of national crisis. With a pinch of cynicism, we could say that Jordanian national identity is so artificial, so precarious, that radio needs to affirm and promote its presence every morning, over and over again, in order to keep the fiction going.

This also fits with official state anxieties about Jordan lacking a unified national identity. Though I’m not sure whether Jordanians themselves feel as much of a lack of belonging as is sometimes claimed, the issue has certainly been high on the official powers’ agenda – including identity-focused campaigns such as “Jordan First” and “We Are All Jordan” (the motivations for which have been described in some detail by Curtis Ryan here).

Maybe the constant morning repetition of the same patriotic songs is less an official conspiracy than a way to present one’s national loyalty, in what is for most radio stations their most ‘visible’ timeslot. Kaplan’s Israeli example makes for an interesting comparison, but the parallels only go so far; especially since, unlike in Israel, Jordanian ‘nationalist’ songs don’t contrast that much with the standard music background of Arabic-language stations. Perhaps it’s just another marker of a media field that, despite its apparent format diversity, tends to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jordan’s political leadership.

Whatever the reason, today you can hardly listen to a morning show without hearing at least a few of the songs mentioned above. At such times, the hosts’ practice of constantly babbling over their chosen music background feels almost a blessing.

The Nation’s Mornings