The making of an anthem: How the Special Olympics' official song was made, just in time

The official theme song of the Special Olympics may sound smooth and unhurried, but its creation is a thrilling globe-trotting tale

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 14 MARCH 2019. Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics at Zayed Sports City. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: None: National.
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Even if you're not following the Special Olympics World Games, you'll probably have the official song, Right Where I Am Supposed to Be ingrained in your mind by now.

After its debut performance as part of Thursday night's opening ceremony at Zayed Sports Stadium, performed by a killer musical cast including Canadian singer Avril Lavigne, Puerto Rican reggaeton star Luis Fonsi, Emirati pop king Hussain Al Jassmi, Egyptian crooner Tamer Hosny and Syrian songstress Assala Nasri, it's set to be played relentlessly across the country (and the world, hopefully) until the final day of the event on March 21. The powerful music video, which melds montages of Special Olympics athletes with singers in various locations, will also premiere as part of the closing ceremony.

A race against the clock 

But despite the satisfaction of a completed project, the smooth performance on stage and the assured hands behind the track, including Grammy Award-winners Quincy Jones and Greg Wells, what many don’t know is the frenetic race to get the song completed on time.

What began as an acoustic song demo in an intimate writing room in a Los Angeles studio was completed in a mere four weeks – last Wednesday, in fact, a day before the opening ceremony. This can only be seen as an astonishing effort.

The point man behind the project is Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi music director Taymoor Marmarchi. An experienced British-Iraqi industry operative and former head of leading Arab pop music label Platinum Records, he is used to juggling a lot of moving parts, but in his own words "every project can get a little crazy, but this is something else".

When I meet Marmarchi at an Abu Dhabi cafe, he's easily recognisable despite the tired eyes and slightly delirious smile – he's fresh from an epic 13-hour flight from Los Angeles"to get everything signed off by the artists' lawyers".

"I just got the mastered file sent to me now. It is done. I mean, literally, I just heard it for the first time now," he says. It means that by sheer coincidence, I am the second person to hear it in all its completed glory.

An Olympics theme song should 'make you want to throw a javelin and hug your colleague at the same time'

Olympics theme songs are a genre of their own and are judged accordingly. More than the sheer hooks of pop songs, an anthem's success depends on the feelings it evokes – mostly a dream-like miasma of victory, nostalgia and imagining yourself running in slow-motion. They should make you want to throw a javelin and hug your colleague at the same time.

Right Where I Am Supposed to Be succeeds in all of the above. Its blending of East and West is heard in the vocal performances, with Arabic and English intertwined throughout. As a matter of fact, it might be the first time many have heard Hussain Al Jassmi sing in English. "They did a fantastic job and really, I am just blown away and relieved," Marmarchi says.

"A lot of that comes from the fact that I have been hearing this song in different parts and not as a whole. So to see it come together like this and sound this great, I am really just blown away. Then again, I knew we were on our way once Quincy liked it."

This is not the first time Marmarchi has worked with Jones. In 2011, the duo teamed up to create the charity single, Bokra, produced alongside Emirati entrepreneur Badr Jafar. Marmarchi organised the logistics of getting a large list of Arab pop stars – from Emirati singer Fayez Al Saeed to Lebanon's Marwan Khoury – to not only record the track, but appear together in a large We are the World-type music video. It was that expertise and experience in handling major artists that landed Marmarchi the Special Olympics gig.

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By the time he got started in late February, he knew he was on the clock. Enamoured by the majestic nature of Wells's co-produced 2017 song, This Is Me, from The Greatest Showman soundtrack, Marmarchi sought him out.

It was Wells who recommended that Ryan Tedder (of OneRepublic fame), co-write the song with him and wife Nina Woodford (a Swedish-American songwriter behind hits for Leona Lewis, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and the Sugababes). Tedder is one of the pop world's most respected songwriters, having written tracks for a variety of stars including Beyonce (Halo), Adele (Rumour Has It) and Ellie Goulding (Burn).

Wells had one directive about the lyrics: that they inspire the masses. "Music is the best vehicle I ever found to empower and pull the best out of people, and that's what we tried to weave into the mosaic of this song," he says.

'I was surprised and shocked at the amount of people who said no ... I went through 45 different artists'

It may have been a mosaic to Wells, but for Marmarchi, it was more of a puzzle. With the song written in a week and approved by executive producer Jones two weeks ago, Marmarchi focused his attention on assembling an international cast of singers to complement the track's global message. While Arab stars were relatively straightforward to get due to his industry clout, Marmarchi spent most of his energy looking westwards.

With the track, in Special Olympics tradition, being solely a not-for-profit venture (production costs aside) and with the proceeds from sales going to charity, Marmarchi had to find artists who believed in the cause in order to secure their time and talent. "I was looking for a star to represent the Latin world and who better than the biggest star from the region, Luis Fonsi. He agreed straight away because he loved the Special Olympics and what it represents," he says.

"Same thing with Lavigne. She has a long association with the Special Olympics and donated a song for the last event in Los Angeles."

What was missing for Marmarchi was a western male singer. "I have to say, I was surprised and shocked at the amount of people who said no for various reasons," he says.

"When I was in the States, I went through 45 different artists – all the names you could imagine. Even stars who had relatives with disabilities. They all rejected us. I was shocked and saddened that they would say no to such an opportunity."

With time running out and a growing list of rejections, it was Tedder that stepped up to the vocal booth. It was the overall belief in the song that got him to lend his talents. Thus began nearly a dozen flights in 10 days, with Marmarchi crossing the globe in a manic race against time.

He oversaw Tedder's and Lavigne's vocal recordings and video shoots in Los Angeles, filmed by award winning director Diego Hurtado De Mendoza (Finally Found You by Enrique Iglesias and Eid Al Ashaq by Kadim Al Sahir). Next up was Miami for Fonsi's contributions, before he headed to London for Al Jassmi's vocal take, and then Cairo for Assala's and Hosni's recording sessions.

Taymoor Marmarchi with Luis Fonsi as he records his vocals for Right Where I Am Supposed to be Courtesy Taymoor Marmarchi
Taymoor Marmarchi with Luis Fonsi as he records his vocals for Right Where I Am Supposed to be Courtesy Taymoor Marmarchi

The song was completed just two days before the opening ceremony

With four days until the opening ceremony, simultaneous video shoots began in Cairo for Hosny and Assala's respective sections. It was on Tuesday, with two days to go, that the final piece of the project – Al Jassmi's video shoot – was completed.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 14 MARCH 2019. Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics at Zayed Sports City. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: None: National.
Hussain Al Jassmi, centre, Avril Lavigne, right, and Luis Fonsi, left, as they performed Special Olympics anthem Right Where I'm Supposed To Be at the World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 on Thursday night. Antonie Robertson / The National

During the Cairo and Dubai shoots, video images of each successful scene was sent to a team of Los Angeles editors who pieced the final product in real time and had it completed the following day.

When The National was exclusively invited to watch Al Jassmi's video shoot in a nondescript Dubai music recording studio in Barsha Heights, the set was understandably tense. Acclaimed Lebanese-American producer David Zennie, who was responsible for directing the Arabic portion of the video, demanded focus from his crew. Meanwhile, in the middle of the camera frame was Al Jassmi, sitting behind a microphone, his face bright under the blazing spotlights.

The video shoot, the singer explains to the crew, is a blessing in disguise. It allows him to practise and sing along to the words before the big performance on Thursday. With the session wrapped up in three hours, I manage to catch Al Jassmi on his way to the lift. He explains that he will head to Abu Dhabi shortly to finally meet Fonsi and Lavigne and his fellow Arab music peers for rehearsals for Thursday's show. "I feel proud to be doing this," he says. "Not just as an Emirati singer, but as a Khaleeji and an Arab. It is a privilege to show people our country and culture."

Meanwhile, waiting for the stars to arrive at the Sheikh Zayed Sports Stadium production office is Marmarchi. With the project nearing its end, he says it is already one of the biggest achievements of his professional career.

"I have been passionate about bringing the East and West together my whole career, and this experience to me is a collection of highlights," he says. "The cause of the Special Olympics for me is so important, and if I can help in any way of pushing that message of achieving over diversity, then it is all worth it."