Insult Russia’s anthem, get a year in jail! Or perhaps not

Putin sings!

“You’re the one that I want. You are the one, one…”

This week, Russia’s Supreme Court gave the go ahead for a bizarre law that would make “distorting” the country’s anthem a criminal offence – punishable by up to a year’s prison.

The law’s the idea of two politicians who were shocked by an incident in Russian-held Crimea last month when the anthem was sung at the opening of that region’s congress.

The anthem’s lyrics were beamed up onto a screen at the event, but the computer technician “accidentally” used the words from a parody so everyone got to sing about Russia being “crazy” and “insane” rather than “sacred” and “mighty”.

If this all seems a bit familiar, it’s because it is. A few years ago, in neighbouring Kazakhstan, someone accidentally played Ricky Martin’s Livin’ la Vida Loca instead of their anthem. The result? A law making insulting the Kazakh anthem a criminal offence, punishable by a year in jail!

Is the Russian law going to pass? Of course it’s bloody not!

Putin’s not that nuts. It’d technically mean you’d have to arrest every bad singer in Russia. And it’d also stop Russians doing amazing things like playing the anthem backwards while drinking orange juice on a plane (see below; watch to the end). And who on earth would want to stop that?

If Daft Punk had written la Marseillaise

Sort of.

France’s Ministry of Defence is – right now! – running a contest getting people to reinterpret the country’s national anthem. It’s had, at time of writing, an abysmal 46 entries, most of them by people who seem to need clinical help.

But the Daft Punk one above is pretty good. No, I have no idea why the person’s chosen to illustrate it with a Danish flag.

I also like this one where someone just got Google Translate to read out the lyrics, but that probably suggests I need clinical help too.

If you feel you can do a better job, you can enter here. You can win a camera, which seems a bit of a rubbish prize for the Ministry of Defence. How about a tank?

When Eurovision was – literally – a matter of life and death

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Fazla, looking like they’ve stepped out of Miami Vice

In 1993, Bosnia was in the middle of a civil war and its capital, Sarajevo, under siege. No, not ‘under siege’ in the Steven Seagal sense; ‘under siege’ in the ‘no food, no water, being bombed daily’, sense.

In the middle of it all, a musician called Dino Merlin somehow wrote both the country’s national anthem and its first-ever Eurovision entry. I tell his insane story in my book.

But this week, with Eurovision approaching, I suddenly remembered Dino didn’t actually perform his song at Eurovision. It was a band called Fazla. So I called their lead singer to learn his story, and it turned out to be just as fascinating, bizarre and uplifting as Dino’s. Head over to the BBC to read it.

Here are Fazla at that year’s Eurovision:

Douze points!

And here’s this year’s Bosnian entry, which seems to be performed by a man with a plastic face.

Null points!

Update: As you’ll clearly know, Ukraine won this year’s Eurovision with the below slice of brilliant Russia-baiting. What was the first thing singer Jamala did when she got back home? She sung Ukraine’s national anthem, Ukraine’s not Dead Yet, of course! Read this great NY Times article on the political fall-out of her victory.

My paperback’s outtttt – win a copy

Republic or Death paperback

My paperback’s out!

It’s basically the same as the hardback except it’s had the mistakes removed (especially the bit where I said someone was dead when they actually were very much alive – whoops!). The French chapter’s also changed a lot to reflect everyone in Paris singing la Marseillaise following the terror attacks in Paris. Never write a book about a moving subject.

Basically, it’s better all round, although I admit it is less good for hitting people with or for killing spiders.

You can buy it here, but if you’d prefer getting it for free, my publisher’s giving away 20 copies over at Goodreads (COMPETITION CLOSED SORRY) where you can also marvel at its 4.21/5 rating and such reviews as “Who knew national anthems could be so fascinating?” and “I enjoyed this book a lot more than I imagined I would from the title.” Good luck!

Meet Lačni Franz, the only rock band to give a country its national anthem

The lead singer of Lačni Franz at a concert in Yugoslavia in 1981. Check out those haircuts!

Lačni Franz’ lead singer at a concert in Yugoslavia in 1981. Look at those perms. LOOK AT THOSE PERMS!

There are dozens of famous rock covers of anthems: think of Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner or Gainsbourg’s Aux Armes et caetera.

But there’s only one rock act who’s given a country its anthem: a Slovenian band called Lačni Franz – a bizarre fact I learned this week while reading an incredibly academic book called Identity and Nationalism in the Balkans.

Before picking that up, I already knew Slovenia’s anthem had an insane story. Its original author was France Prešeren, a 19th century alcoholic who spent most of his life infatuated with a woman who didn’t love him back no matter how many poems he dedicated to her.

In 1844, he wrote one of those, a drinking song called A Toast (Zdravljica). There’s no doubt it was meant for getting drunk to. Prešeren wrote the verses so they looked like a wine glass, while its very first lines are, “Friends! Again the vines bore well / Let sweet wine liven our veins.”

But mixed in among the calls to drink were bouts of national sentiment like this: “God, let your Slovene girls bloom…There are no maidens more comely than ours.” Ok, bad example, but you get what I mean.

Were those lines enough to make it the natural choice to become Slovenia’s anthem following the Soviet Union’s demise? Apparently not. Instead, the reason A Toast became the anthem is apparently entirely down to Lačni Franz.

In 1987, the band recorded a parody of the song that repopularised the poem across the country and practically forced its adoption as the anthem two years later. God knows if that’s true, but this clip certainly shows people loving it. Dance Slovenes, dance!

Slovenia’s politicians disappointingly ignored all the drinking verses when they made it the anthem and went for this one instead:

Long live all folk everywhere
Who long to see the day
When wherever sun may roam
Strife holds none under its sway
Then all people, everywhere
Will be free
Not enemies, but dear neighbours

Yes, it’s an odd choice given it makes no reference to Slovenia, to that country’s landscape or its people. There’s nothing nationalist about it at all really. It’s like a country decided to take Michael Jackson’s Heal the World for its anthem.

Personally, I think it’s great for that, but if you want to read the political reasons behind that move, pick up ‘Identity and Nationalism in the Balkans’ (or order it at your local university library). The reasoning is just as bizarre as anything above.

Anyway, I should shut up – this post is already far too long! Here’s some more Lačni Franz for you.

Dope sounds

Just in case you think I only write about national anthems, below are a few things I’ve done recently that couldn’t be more different.

Here’s a piece on my trip to the world’s first government-owned cannabis farm in Uruguay done for the BBC’s amazing From Our Own Correspondent programme:

And here for The Guardian is an interview with the man growing that dope, the CEO of the brilliantly-named Internal Cannabis Corp. It’s a more fun read than it sounds.

“How about some music?” I don’t hear you ask. Well here for the New York Times is a piece on the British musicians who’re remaking the world’s oldest instruments. It contains some amazing sound clips of a 30,000-year-old vulture bone flute and a carnyx, and I highly recommend you click through.

And here, again for The Guardian, is a somewhat odd piece on Radiohead’s business empire, for which the band wouldn’t comment. Which says it all, doesn’t it kids? [“No, it doesn’t. Stop insinuating things about my favourite bands tax affairs”].

There will be some other pieces appearing soon, including one I did on my trip to Antarctica for British Airways’ High Life magazine (how appropriate a name given the cannabis pieces). I’ll try to remember to post those when they appear.

Don’t panic, Czechs! You don’t need to change your tune

Yes, it really is hard to illustrate a blog about a country changing it's name

Yes, it is really hard to illustrate a blog about a country being renamed

This week, the Czech Republic’s government announced it wants to rename the country Czechia, apparently because it “rolls off the tongue more easily” and will look better on football shirts.

Yes, those are the first and second worst reasons ever come up with for renaming a country.

“But,” I hear every Czech fail to cry, “what is the answer to the most important question of them all: what would the change mean for our national anthem?”

Well, don’t panic. I’m pretty sure it’ll mean absolutely nothing.

The Czech anthem – Kde domov můj / Where is my home? – only mentions the word Czech twice (when it answers its title with the words “The Czech land, my home”). Since it doesn’t mention the word republic at all, that should mean it can continue.

But – and it’s a big BUT – why would any Czech want to keep using it? It’s a boring piece of 19th century incidental music. Literally; it was written for a short song in a long forgotten play. Its title is also the sort of thing drunk stag parties shout at 3am in Prague.

Czechs, do yourself a favour. Use the name change to change this too.