About Alex Marshall

Hi, I'm a freelance journalist who's just written Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems - the world's first book on these songs and their meaning today. It's "part travelogue, part social history" as the BBC have aptly described it. It's also officially "entertaining", after it got reviewed in the Times, but I'll leave you to make up your own mind! Feel free to contact me at asmarshall at gmail dot com or, if you're a journalist, you can contact Jess Gulliver instead (jgulliver at penguinrandomhouse.co.uk). Thanks for visiting! Alex

Is Spain’s anthem going to finally get words? Don’t be silly!

Last Sunday, Spanish pop star Marta Sanchez caused a sensation in her country by doing something simple: singing her national anthem.

Why was it so special? Because Spain’s anthem doesn’t actually have any words so singing it is a bit hard. Marta added some she’d written herself while homesick in the US.

The performance, above, is powerful stuff, as are her lyrics. “I come home to my beloved homeland, where my heart was born,” she starts. “Today I sing to tell you all the pride I have. My love grows every time I leave.

“Red and yellow, are the colours that shine in my heart,” she went on, referring to Spain’s flag. “God I thank you for being born here… And if someday I can’t come back, save me a place to rest.”

Blimey.

The positive reaction wasn’t just seen in the concert hall. Millions watched clips of her singing it, while politicians also jumped in on the act. Here’s a tweet from the leader of Spain’s main opposition party:

So is her effort going to be adopted? Er, no. Spain’s anthem, adopted in 1770, only ever had lyrics once – under Franco’s dictatorship – and few want to be reminded of those days. The country’s also too divided – see Catalunya’s recent independence referendum – for any to be agreed (are Basques going to be happy singing a song in Castilian?).

A petition to get the anthem lyrics, for instance, has only collected a paltry 12,000 signatures since it was launched in 2015.

How are Europe’s other wordless anthems getting on? Well, San Marino’s is ticking along; Kosovo’s still doesn’t have words – the strangely titled Europe – even as the country celebrates its 10th birthday; and neither does Bosnia’s.

Some Bosnian politicians did begin an initiative this month to give their anthem words, but that looks destined to fail. It’s election year in the country, and no ethnic-Serb politician is going to endorse such a move, since many of their voters actually want their own country or to become part of Serbia.

The website Balkan Insight actually got one Serb politician to basically say just that this month:

“This initiative is nothing more than a circus,” she said. “We have already tried to reach a text for the anthem, and everything has turned into a farce. This time it will be the same.”

If you want to read more about the bizarre stories of Bosnia’s and Kosovo’s anthems, the people behind them, and their significance, then buy my book!

The women who fought for 40 years to change one word

Former Canadian Senators Nancy Ruth and Vivienne Poy – instrumental in making O Canada gender neutral. Credit: Neville Poy

This week, Canada changed the English version of its national anthem to include women as well as men.

“About bloody time!” is the correct response – people have been calling for this since 1980.

To get the full story of the women (and one man) who campaigned for the change for so long, head over to the BBC where I’ve written a *longggg* feature on it.

I’m especially pleased to have had a chance to write about Nancy Ruth (pictured above), a former senator who probably put more energy, money and effort into the campaign than anyone else.

Once on holiday I  met one of Nancy Ruth’s Conservative Party colleagues and mentioned her campaign. His reply? “She’s a lesbian, not a Conservative, and we’re never changing the anthem.”

I’ve never forgotten that, obviously, and it’s a shame I couldn’t put it in the piece (no recording) as it says everything about why it took so long.

Super articles by me you should read now!

As many of you know, I don’t just write about national anthems. Thank God, otherwise I’d be broke. So here’s a few recent articles I hope you’ll find as interesting to read as I did researching them:

  1. For The New York Times, a piece on a night I spent in one of the world’s first mental health helplines for musicians, and the music industry’s poor response to its mental health crisis.
  2. Also for The New York Times, a piece on the scientists searching for the universal characteristics of music and the controversy it’s causing. Also contains A QUIZ! Yes, A QUIZ!
  3. And for the BBC an article on the world of A.I. music and why the humans might be winning after all.

Hope you enjoy them, and if any editors stumble across this page, I am available for commissions!

NATO’s anthem: would not scare a mouse

…or me, and I’m terrified of mice!

At the start of the month, NATO – for some unstated reason – adopted an anthem. It’s wordless, dull and about as far away from the music you’d expect of a military alliance as is possible:

It was originally written in 1989 by the then conductor of Luxembourg’s military band to celebrate NATO’s 40th anniversary. Why it’s survived so long is anyone’s guess.

But give it a listen above, as it does at least add to the list of very bad songs adopted as anthems by international bodies, see the UN’s for an even worse example.

Don’t know your anthem? Then you best not be an asylum seeker

Mohammed Al-Mustafa – refused asylum in the UK partly for not knowing his country’s anthem. Copyright: Martin Godwin/The Guardian. Sorry for stealing photos… again

The Guardian’s long followed the case of Mohammed Al-Mustafa, a 36-year-old Palestinian who’s lived in the UK for eight years.

He’s stuck in legal limbo. He applied for asylum, but the government said he was Palestinian so could go home. He tried to – twice – but there’s a problem: he can’t actually leave as he has no Palestinian papers (he left that country age 5, and both his parents died ages ago).

He’s since applied to be declared “stateless”, which would allow him to stay in the UK permanently. But to get that designation, he has to prove he’s Palestinian and apparently the government’s Home Office doesn’t believe him!

For what reasons? Bizarrely, one is the fact he couldn’t sing Palestine’s national anthem when asked. “I know the name of the anthem is al Fida’i, but I didn’t memorise the words and I told them, it’s not about words. We can’t get the country back because of the words,” Al-Mohammed told The Guardian.

What’s going to happen to Mohammed now? God knows.

But a quick note for any Home Office staff reading: although Fida’i is Palestine’s official anthem, many Palestinians consider it a political tune chosen by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. For them, the anthem would actually be this song, Mawtini:

Oh, and to whoever made the decision: what proportion of Brits actually know all the words to God Save the Queen?

Well, that lasted long… India reverses ridiculous anthem law

These speech bubbles may not represent the views of the people saying them!

Back in November 2016, India’s Supreme Court ruled that everyone had to stand for the country’s national anthem before cinema screenings. The cinema should keep doors shut so no one could interrupt, it added.

The ruling quickly led to fights and surly kids being arrested. It also quickly led to a flurry of other rulings to try and make the law less silly. Courts issued exemptions for disabled people – at least one wheelchair-bound man was beaten up for not standing – and a clarification pointing out that cinemas shouldn’t actually lock people inside during the anthem as that would be a fire risk.

Well, now, 14 months later, the Supreme Court’s reversed the decision entirely. Phew, you may think. Well, not quite. The court made the u-turn in response to a government request, which suggests politics is behind the move.

India’s Hindu nationalist government also knows the ruling’s achieved everything it could in terms of stirring patriotism and quashing dissent. Schools and cities have been blasting the anthem out more than ever since the initial ruling and they’re not going to stop. The government doesn’t need the law anymore.

Any reader of this blog will know I’m against mandated anthem singing – patriotism shouldn’t be forced. In India, it basically still is.

Meet the world’s newest national anthem aka ‘What the hell’s Mauritania just done?!?’

If you’d asked me yesterday, what the world’s scariest national anthem was, I’d have shot back in a second: Mauritania’s.

It sounds like the Death Star’s just landed and earth’s about to be destroyed:

Why did I write “If you’d asked me yesterday….”? Because this morning, thanks to nationalanthems.info, I learnt they’ve changed it. And worse, they’ve changed it to this:

Yes, it’s an ok anthem – functional – but where’s the threat gone? Where’s the distinctiveness disappeared to? Mauritania’s the world’s last country where slavery effectively exists – surely you want terrifying music to represent a country that does that?

The anthem was written by an Egyptian, Rajih Sami Daoud – a music professor in Cairo who, according to this story, has a degree in “super arts”, whatever that is.

Rajih Sami Daoud, composer of Mauritania’s new anthem

Egyptians have composed many other countries’ anthems, from the UAE’s to Tunisia’s – read my book to learn all about why! – but the choice has gone down very badly in Mauritania, with the country’s most famous blogger calling it “a scandal”. Nice to see nationalism’s growing everywhere.

Mohamed Lemine Ould Cheikh, the country’s minister for culture and handicrafts (they must be a huge part of the local economy), has displayed a surprisingly good knowledge of anthem history to dismiss the complaints: “Musical composition is a technical issue,” he said.

“Most of the national anthems of Arab countries were written by foreigners. Even the American anthem was composed by an Englishman.”

All true, Minister Cheikh, but the real question you should be answering is why you’ve dumped one of the world’s best anthems for this monstrosity!

The words were always meant to be changed, but why they did the music to is beyond me.

😦