The Ship Sounded its Horn (Babour Zammar)

from by Reem Kelani

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Also known as ‘The Migration Anthem’, this song was written in the 1970s as a tribute to the student revolution in France, and it returned to the Tunisian people’s consciousness when their own revolution erupted in December 2010. This was not just because the song speaks of the horrors that many North African migrants endure in order to find work overseas, but also because its composer and original performer, El–Hédi Guella, was a political activist in his own right. Guella lived to witness the revolution for which he had long strived, and he died fifteen months later.

The allegorical lyrics were written by El–Mouldi Zleilah, a self–taught poet, artist and champion of colloquial poetry, who also had a day job as a sweeper at the Tunisian Rail Company.


The ship sounded its horn
Sailing out to sea
Turning its back on home, the best place of all…

The ship sounded its horn
Ferrying men to their drowning
On their way to far–off lands
Where the pain of exile burns like unquenched thirst...
Turning its back on friends
And companions…
Families’ faces pale and yellow
In sorrow and grief…

The ship sounded its horn so loud
Sailing back home
Carrying men beloved of their people
Their hands trembling…
Their loved ones’ tears
Sting and burn their faces
Their eyelids smarting with pain…

The ship sounded its horn
Heading out to sea
Sailing off to foreign lands
Turning its back on bright skies
Uprooting young men from fertile lands
To a life so harsh
Just as the rain–soaked valley
Fills up with tree trunks and branches…

The ship sounded its horn
Driven away from home
With a bow so sharp
Slicing through the foaming waves
Like a knife through cheese
Spouting coffins into the blue sea
Making ships quake in fear
As the sea surges backwards and forwards…

The ship sailed into the mist
Shrouded in fog
Packed to the gunnels with the best of men
Offered up to foreign lands
Without respite, like mules
The only difference between them and the cattle on board
Is the passport... the passport... the passport…


from Reem Kelani: Live at the Tabernacle, released March 11, 2016
Lyrics: El–Mouldi Zleilah (1917–2009)
Music: El–Hédi Guella (1951–2012)
Arranged by: Reem Kelani (MCPS)

Reem Kelani - vocals
Bruno Heinen - piano
Tamer Abu Ghazaleh - 'oud
Ryan Trebilcock - double bass
Antonio Fusco - cajon



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Reem Kelani London, UK

Reem Kelani is a Palestinian musician born in Britain & brought up in Kuwait. Her debut album “Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora” was released in 2006 to critical acclaim. Her next album "Reem Kelani: Live at the Tabernacle" will be released in March 2016. Reem wrote & presented “Songs for Tahrir” for BBC Radio 4 on the music of the Egyptian Revolution. ... more

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