Live in Leeds? Come hear me talk!

Israel’s Hatikvah is one of the world’s most beautiful national anthems, a song filled with sadness and longing.

It’s also one of the most fascinating, with a history that involves everything from the Holocaust to some of the Middle East’s gravest crises.

And, slightly strangely, rappers love it too!

All of which should tell you it’s a brilliant subject for a talk, which is why I’m giving one on it at Milim – Leeds’ Jewish literary festival on 12 March, at 7:30pm. If you live in or near Leeds, come along and hear me. You can get tickets here.

You don’t have to be Jewish, by the way – I’m not – just interested in music and the world and tolerant of my occasional jokes. Milim’s a great festival. Last year, it was headlined by Howard Jacobson, so make sure you keep an eye out for their other events too. I’m really looking forward to it.

How long until the world’s first AI anthem?

If ever a post needed some bad clip art, it was this!

If ever a post needed some bad clip art, it was this!

I just wrote a piece for the New York Times on A.I. music: the companies making it and its potential implications. You can read it here.

It’s a strange area to look into as, every moment, you’re stuck between thinking, ‘It’s so cool people are working on this’, and, ‘What on earth happens if they succeed?’ The questions it raises for music’s future are almost overwhelming.

The dilemma was summed up by these quotes that originally ended the piece (they had to be cut due to space):

“I think people will accept [A.I. music],” said Margaret Schedel, co-director of computer music at Stony Brook University, who has been observing the field for over twenty years. I mean that in all contexts – on the radio, in shops, everything. There’ll be some initial resistance, then it’ll become ubiquitous.”

“The reason I like computer music is hopefully it can go beyond what we as humans can,” she added. “That’s the exciting thing. The sad thing is the potential automation and putting musicians out of work.

“But don’t put that in your article as then the A.I. people will come and get me.”

There is one style of music, though, that I think is ripe for A.I.: national anthems.

Given there are only a couple of hundred of them, and that most share similar a similar musical style and lyrics, surely someone at Google Brain’s Magenta project or DeepMind could quickly knock out a programme to learn from that source material and write one? It might be an improvement.

If you’re a new country looking to get some cheap publicity, it may be worth you contacting some of the companies mentioned in the article!

Why Gambia’s president should listen to his anthem

Jammeh inspecting his police

Gambia’s in crisis, if you’ve missed the news, with its president, Yahya Jammeh, refusing to end his 22-year rule despite having lost an election and even admitted doing so. He’s got the army’s backing. Things don’t look like they’re going to end prettily.

But on the plus side, this does give me a chance to look at the country’s national anthem!

The bad point? It’s awful! It was written by the country’s former British administrator, Sir Jeremy Howe, with lyrics by his wife. Which is why it doesn’t sound very Gambian. In fact, it sounds more suited to the Yorkshire Dales than tropical Africa.

But there is one good point in light of the current crisis: the lyrics.

For the Gambia, our homeland
We strive and work and pray
That all may live in unity
Freedom and peace each day
Let justice guide our action
Towards the common good
And join our diverse peoples
To prove man’s brotherhood
We pledge our firm allegiance
Our promise we renew
Keep us, great God of nations
To The Gambia ever true

Jammeh seems to be ignoring every word of that. Here’s hoping he listens soon.

Dear Cyprus, please unite around a different anthem

Part of the border wall separating Greek from Turkish Cyprus. The graffiti sums up what a lot of people think

Part of the border wall separating Greek from Turkish Cyprus. The graffiti sums up what a lot of people think

This week, the leaders of Greek and Turkish Cyprus began talks to unite the country, which has been divided by a wall – literally – since 1974. That’s part of it above.

Will they succeed? Er… fingers crossed! But if they do, can the United Nations please not pick the country’s new national anthem (the Greek part currently uses Greece’s anthem; the Turkish side, Turkey’s)?

In the early 2000s, Kofi Annan put forward this awful tune to be the country’s anthem as part of a unification plan:

It was rejected by voters, along with the rest of the peace deal, presumably for musical as much as political reasons.

The proposed anthem was wordless, something the UN seems to feel is essential if anthems are to help heal decades of trauma. The logic seems to be that uniting a country is hard enough; forcing words upon people – potentially in a language they don’t understand, and filled with symbolism they disagree with – is going too far. Hopefully the music will be inspiring by itself.

The problem is that wordless anthems don’t help. They just leave a vacuum, which people can sing their old divisions over. Bosnia’s anthem? Wordless. Kosovo’s? Wordless. Spain’s? Wordless. You would hardly call those countries good examples of how to avoid ethnic divisions.

For more on wordless anthems, see my book. It has a whole chapter on them.

A warning to anyone visiting India: stand for their anthem!

People standing for the anthem in a New Delhi cinema. This photo's stolen from Chandan Khanna of Agence France-Presse. Sorry, Chandan!

People standing for the anthem in a New Delhi cinema. This photo’s stolen from Chandan Khanna of Agence France-Presse. Sorry, Chandan!

What the hell’s going on in India? A quick timeline of recent events:

  • 2002: Shyam Narayan Chouksey, a retired engineer, goes to his local cinema in Bhopal to watch some Bollywood. During the film, India’s national anthem is played during a scene at a school fete so Shyam stands up to respect it. No one else does – most shout at Shyam to sit down as he’s obscuring their view – so Shyam stages a protest, then starts filing court orders to try and get people to respect the anthem. Everyone assumes Shyam will soon be forgotten by history (Shyam’s full story is here)
  • 30 November 2016: India’s Supreme Court – responding to one of Shyam’s many complaints – rules that all cinemas must play the anthem before screenings and keep doors shut so no one can interrupt it. Everyone inside must stand
  • 10 December 2016: India’s Supreme Court realises it’s gone slightly too far and allows disabled people to remain seated during the anthem. It also clarifies that it didn’t mean for cinemas to lock people inside during the anthem. That is a fire risk, after all
  • 13 December 2016: Indian police arrest 12 people for not standing for the anthem!!! Most of the arrests are at a film festival and the attendees stayed sitting so as not to lose their seats, although others were actually people protesting the new law

India, if I can address you for a moment:

This

Is

Insane!

You don’t force people to be patriotic. Your country should be inspiring enough that people want to stand for your anthem without needing a law to tell them to. How many other countries have such laws? None! Well, maybe North Korea, but you get my point; this isn’t a sensible thing to have done.

Have some self-confidence, and get this ruling overturned. And when Shyam files his next petition, try to ignore it!

What the Marseillaise means a year after the Paris attacks

  
I’ve just written this article for The New York Times on France’s national anthem: what it means to people a year after the attacks, and what those views reveal about life in France.

I’m biased, but it’s genuinely interesting, including comment from some amazing people: from Bataclan survivors to some of France’s biggest musicians (here’s one of Akhenaton’s hits with his group Iam; and here’s one of Zebda’s fun tunes).

The article could easily have been three times as long.

Deep inside, it mentions the Defense Ministry’s Marseillaise contest. Last time I wrote about that on here, I largely highlighted the joke entries it was getting like one that got Google Translate to read out the lyrics. But the winner turns out to great so click that link now.

Being a beauty queen’s more dangerous than you thought

Screen-Shot-2015-02-25-at-1.15.28-PM.png

Back in 2014,  Merve Buyuksarac, Ms Turkey 2006, posted a satirical rewording of her country’s national anthem to her Instagram account. She changed a handful of its words to reference a corruption scandal involving the country’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan.

I am like a wild flood, I smash over the law and beyond
I follow state bids, take my bribe and live.

Almost immediately afterwards she was arrested.

This May – two years later! – she was found guilty of insulting the president and sentenced to 14 months in prison. The sentence was only suspended on the condition that she doesn’t insult Erdoğan again in the next five years.

Yes, I should have written about this back in May when it happened, but I somehow only learned about it yesterday while reading about Erdoğan’s crackdown on journalists in his country. He’s jailed 120 so far.

I’ve never heard of someone being sentenced to prison for satirising an anthem before, which isn’t a surprise as if it was a common occurence they’d be literally hundreds of offenders in jail. Imagine how many people have rewritten the words to God Save the Queen and the Star-Spangled Banner.

Turkey’s anthem, the Independence March, turns up surprisingly regular in the country’s political life. People used it frequently earlier this year during the coup that was trying to remove Erdoğan, seeing it as a way to motivate people to get onto the streets, while it also played a major part in the country’s last presidential election.

But this? This is just a disgrace.

For details of more controversial anthems, see my book.