The mystery behind Kenya’s national anthem


Kenya has that rarest of anthems: one that actually sounds like the country it comes from! It’s a tune you could imagine gazelles running to or Maasai singing in villages.

Yes, it’s a bit “cliched” Africa – how many Maasai aren’t using cell phones and listening to rap these days? – but it’s better than most of Africa’s anthems, which sound like they were written by an vicar after a walk through the English countryside.

If you go online – Wikipedia, for instance – it tells you that music was written by a committee headed by an English musicologist, Graham Hyslop.

But this week, Kenyan media was dominated by reports of the death of the actual composer, a 96-year-old, Mzee Galana Meza (pictured below). He died in poverty without any recognition from the government. It’s an outrage, the newspapers screamed.

Mzee Galana Meza

There is one problem; it’s hard to work out if Meza did compose it. As he told the story, in 1963, Hyslop visited his village and asked for folk tunes. Meza sang him seven and only discovered one was chosen to be the anthem when he heard someone singing it after independence.

So did Meza write it? I haven’t the faintest idea. For all I know, it was a melody that’d been sung for 100s of years. But even if he didn’t, surely he deserves a mention in the song’s history? Someone update Wikipedia now!

La Marseillaise: has France’s controversial anthem finally hit the right note?

This week’s poignant renditions may finally allow the martial song to shed its troubled past and become a rallying cry for solidarity and hope

[The below piece originally appeared in an abridged form in The Guardian]

Flag Wembley

The Marseillaise has always been one of the world’s most contested songs. Within weeks of it being written in 1792, its composer, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, was thrown in prison suspected of being a royalist, a move that almost took the anthem down with him (he only escaped the guillotine by writing another song about Louis XVI having his head chopped off).

It was written as a call to arms to inspire people against an Austrian invasion – hence the chorus: “To arms, citizens … Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” But the interpretation of the lyrics quickly changed, and it would latterly be seen as dangerously anti-establishment and, paradoxically, a tool of the elite.

A few years after that, Napoleon disowned it completely, both because he had seen its power and did not want it inspiring a revolution against him, and, slightly more prosaically, because he hated its composer who had probably had an affair with his wife.

It had a brief recovery in 1830 after the then king, Charles X, was overthrown in the ‘Three Glorious Days’ uprising, but soon it sunk back into disrepute – a song you would only sing if you were old-fashioned and did not realise musical times had changed.

It did not really regain its initial meaning of defiance and unity – of a nation confronting “tyranny’s bloody banner”, to quote the first verse – until the First World War when it became a rallying cry once more. Back then, Rouget de Lisle’s remains were even paraded through the streets of Paris in an effort to inspire, ironically ending up in Invalides, the home of the French military, just yards from Napoleon’s tomb.

The Marseillaise meant everything to the French again during the Second World War (it was sung by the resistance having obviously been banned by the Vichy government). Afterwards it somehow kept that vitality, becoming a rallying cry to rebuild the devastated country, its chorus’s cry of “To arms, citizens” turning out to be just as useful in motivating bricklayers as it had been soldiers.

But since then, there is no denying that it has just become awkward, especially because of how often it was sung during France’s occupation of Algeria and its brutal, eight-year-long war of independence. The Beatles’s use of it in All You Need is Love and Serge Gainsbourg’s brilliant reggae cover – the hilarious Aux Armes et cetera – gave it a brief respite from that image, even for a few years making the anthem cool, but the fact French nationalists tried to beat up Gainsbourg for his cheek tells you more the real direction where things were heading.

If you want to understand the full extent of how controversial it became, you only have to look to football. In 2001, French-Algerians booed it in the first-ever match between the two countries. In 2002, Corsicans booed it at a cup final so loudly that the then president Jacques Chirac stormed out and the match was only allowed to restart after he calmed down. The booing has not really stopped since.

A couple of years ago, I spent a fortnight in France researching the anthem for a book I was writing about the history of these songs. I asked dozens of people what they thought of the Marseillaise, and that controversy – that uncomfortableness – was surprisingly what came through most. Everyone said they liked the music, of course – who couldn’t fall for a melody as stirring as that, one which has grabbed everyone from Tchaikovsky to Debussy? – but the words? That was a different matter. Everyone from teenagers to old women would bring up the chorus and its climax: “Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” They all knew when it’d been originally written, but they also knew it had been hijacked by both its colonial legacy and by the far-right – Le Pen’s National Front – people who seemed to hear the words “sang impur” – “impure blood” – and take it as referring to the country’s immigrants.

I got the strongest reactions from the French-Algerians and French-Tunisians I met. Most could only bring themselves to give the most dismissive answers when I asked them what they thought of the song. “It’s the national anthem,” they would say with a curt laugh, and that was it, no matter how many follow up questions I tried. “Why would you even ask me about that?”

I would point out all anthems are deep down like this, songs written at times of war with their meanings changing over time – Algeria’s at one point says, “Oh France, the day of reckoning is at hand” – but it did not change their views.

You could see that awkwardness even after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. In January, the Marseillaise was sung by France’s politicians just like it was this week, but when they got to the chorus, they seemed to look at each other as if to say, “Are you sure we should be singing this?”

But today, now, something has changed. This moment somehow seems different. As the anthem has been sung around the world, played so much it is almost inescapable, it is as if all those past associations have disappeared, as if the song is being reinvented and reclaimed before is. It is like everyone, in France as much as outside it, is once again seeing it for how it was originally written.

You only have to look at the French parliament’s rendition of the anthem this time to see that. The volume never dropped; the words were never anything but punched out. Tonight at Wembley everyone will sing too, with joy and fun as much as respect and solidarity (you can’t not have fun while singing the Marseillaise). And it’s because of that this moment marks a genuine chance to take the song back from the far-right and make it a symbol of France today, united and defiant, combating tyranny both within its own borders and without.

The Marseillaise could one again become an example to all countries of the importance anthems can have, of being able to inspire people to act in extraordinary ways, something remarkably few anthems achieve (could you imagine people turning to God Save the Queen in a similar moment here?).

But I admit this feeling could only be fleeting. How the Marseillaise will be viewed in a month, six month’s, a year’s time will be entirely dependent on whether French politicians see this as a moment to unite or whether they clampdown on the country’s Muslim population in a way that will only be further divisive. If they do the latter, the Marseillaise will revert to being a contested symbol, one for the far-right only and no one else. You could soon find the Marseillaise being booed again, its current status as an icon of global unity gone in an instant, and everyone who sings it tonight wondering what on earth went wrong. That may fit the song’s history, but it shouldn’t – mustn’t – happen.

[Apologies for that being quite heavy reading. I did a far more to-the-point and celebratory piece for the BBC here. I suggest you read that too even if I clearly wrote it too quickly as there’s far too many ‘but’s!]

Longread: how South Africa got its five-language national anthem

Penguin have put up an extract from my book on their blog! It’s about South Africa’s anthem and is a long read, but what else is the weekend for? Enjoy!

(I have no idea why they use the below picture to illustrate it!)

Source: Longread: how South Africa got its five-language national anthem

Five ways Jeremy Corbyn could ‘sing’ God Save the Queen this weekend and still wreck his career

Corbyn not singing the national anthem

AKA let’s go Buzzfeed!

1 Miming

Corbyn’s press team have repeatedly said he’ll “take full part” in God Save the Queen on Remembrance Sunday ensuring there’ll be no repeat of the furore caused by his silence at September’s Battle of Britain memorial.

The problem is “take full part” is such a vague wording you have to assume he’s considering miming his way through it.

Don’t, Jeremy! Even Beyonce gets caught when she mimes anthems. And you’re not Beyonce. You’re not even Milli Vanilli!

2 Trying interpretative dance

If miming’s a risk…

3 Singing the second verse

Despite countless anthems being bloodthirsty and anachronistic, a lot of people still take issue with the violence underlying God Save the Queen’s second verse. “O Lord our God arise, scatter her enemies and make them fall,” it goes. “Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks, on thee our hopes we fix, God save us all.”

It was so controversial in Victorian times people held competitions to replace it. Today the royal family pretends it doesn’t exist when handing out lyric sheets.

Jeremy, though, might decide to make a point by singing it; to show everyone just what a horrific anthem Britain has and how outdated the monarchy is too. Don’t, Jezza. No one else will join in. You’d look like an old man haranguing children at a bus stop.

4 Singing the anti-Scots verse

Yes, Jeremy, everyone knows someone once wrote a verse about crushing “rebellious Scots”. But as much as you must hate the SNP right now, don’t sing it!

5 Singing it as it was originally intended

God Save the Queen was written in the 1600s as a galliard, a style of music that requires people to do a little jump in the air once a phrase. People also originally sung it with more trills than Mariah Carey in her prime.

Jeremy, you are not Mariah Carey. And God knows how bad things would get for you if you started doing little jumps into the air. Just do what everyone else does when they have to sing it: have a few drinks, then grin and bear it. It only lasts a minute, after all!

(For more on God Save the Queen’s story without any rubbish Corbyn jokes, read my book!)

Things you shouldn’t do while giving a talk on BBC radio

  1. Start by basically saying, “Hello ladeez!”
  2. Make a joke about the IRA
  3. Sing
  4. Simplify the Ukraine-Russia conflict to such a point it makes it seem like you’re taking Russia’s side
  5. Sing some more
  6. Offend everyone in Cornwall
  7. Announce you have a pasty chest

With all that in mind, here’s a talk I did about nationalism that’s just been broadcast as part of Radio 4’s excellent Four Thought programme.

It’s a bit different from my usual book chat, but if you’d like some of that instead I was also on Monocle magazine’s Weekly show this week and you can listen here.

It features lots of really great questions about foreign policy, which is nice and they also say some lovely things about my book, which is even nicer!

I’m on from 13 minutes and straight afterwards is an amazing interview with the founder of Mubi, and there’s also a brilliant one about hip-hop and fashion to round things off. Basically, listen to it all, and then subscribe as, like Four Thought, it’s always an amazing listen.

Finally, yesterday, I did my first ever book talk! A proper one. Like for an hour and everything. It was a lot of fun, even the bits when I seemed to end up DJing national anthems, and seemed to go down really well so drop me a line if you’d like me to do one for you too. Call the Newham Bookshop (who booked it) or the Wanstead Tap (who hosted it) if you want an objective review!

I’m next at Birmingham Waterstones on 26 November, 7pm, in case any of you are nearby. Come! Singing not obligatory!

A Yemeni composer’s house has just been blow up – and the country with it

A Yemeni fighter stolen stands before his flag from Reuters' Angus McDowall. Sorry, Angus!

A Yemeni fighter stands before his flag. Photo stolen from Reuters’ Angus McDowall

Yemen’s a mess, and a forgotten one at that given what’s happening in Syria.

On one side you’ve got the Houthis, Shias from the north, who now occupy the capital. On the other you’ve got forces loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who the Houthis forced out. They are – surprise, surprise – largely Sunni and largely from the south.

And then you’ve got al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacking both sides, and the Islamic State attacking even them. And the Saudis getting in with air strikes and… Yes, it’s a mess.

It has seemed, though, that all sides wanted to keep Yemen as a whole. Until, perhaps, now.

Last week, the Houthis shelled the home of 73-year-old Ayoob Tarish, the oud-playing nattily-moustached composer of Yemen’s national anthem. He luckily wasn’t in.

It’s a symbolic act if ever there was one – blowing up the home of the man who Yemenis think of when singing, “My heartbeat shall remain Yemenite, no foreigner shall ever rule over Yemen.” Here’s his anthem:

Tarish’s music is loved by people on both sides, according to Al Arabiya, which also claims Tarish has tried to stay neutral in the conflict. The Houthis were singing his anthem at rallies after taking the capital in February and some of their leaders have since tried to co-opt him for photo ops.

Maybe his music is just too associated with the old regime that they felt it needed to be silenced – him with it.

Or perhaps this marks the point the Houthis stop focusing on the country as a whole and just decide to take part of it; the moment we go back to there being a North and South Yemen as there was until the early ’90s.

Yet more countries, yet more songs, yet, probably, more strife.

Controversy in Liechtenstein!

Alex Marshall, author of Republic of Death!, in the Vaterland newspaper

Mein Gott, today I’m in Liechtenstein’s biggest newspaper, Vaterland, talking about my book and looking sweaty while sitting with Baron Eduard von Falz-Fein, a 103-year-old multi-millionaire.

You can read a bit of the interview here and you can read the Baron’s story – involving everything from Tsars to bobsleighing, and an awful lot of women – in my book. I really would like to write his biography; he’s lived enough for a hundred people.

Liechtensteiners – danke für besuch! Kaufen mein Buch an Es tut mir leid es ist in Englisch! Auch, es gibt einige große versionen der Hymne in diesem Audio-Guide!

Liechtenstein gets a chapter in the book principally because it’s the only country outside the UK’s influence that still has God Save the Queen for its anthem and I wanted to know why on earth they hadn’t changed it. Going there also allowed me to tell God Save the Queen’s story without having to boringly focus on England’s far-right (the British way: avoid one controversy, go abroad and create another!).

But another reason it gets a chapter is more simple: it’s a fantastic place. I highly recommend it to you all. Just don’t go there and tell everyone you hate their anthem!