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

The musician trying to rip France apart

This is a picture of Fabien Clain when he was a child in northern France:

Fabian schoolIt’s taken from his Copains d’avant page – France’s Friends Reunited.

Back then, Fabien was into rap and basketball, and was a real fan of Jesus (he used to write Catholic raps).

Here’s another picture of him, this time in the ’90s, foot up on a chair like any other moody teen:

Fabian teen

I’d like to post a picture of him today, age 40. I know he’s huge – prone to putting his arm around people’s shoulders and dragging them in when he talks. And I also know he’s got a beard. But I can’t say anything else. Because Fabien Clain is in Syria.

And he’s a member of ISIS.

Fabien Clain is apparently high up in the terrorist group – last week, the French press revealed he’s behind a plot to use child suicide bombers in Europe – but what’s less known about him is he’s also the group’s leading songwriter, a man whose tunes have reached into the heart of France and Belgium.

I’ve made a podcast about him – and the music of jihad, more generally – that’s just come out as part of the amazing music series, Pitch.

It’s on Audible, which means you need to be a member of it or take a free trial, but please do listen by heading here now (Amazon Prime members also get free access).

I came across Clain’s story initially while researching ISIS’ music for my book, hence posting it here, but this clearly takes that story somewhere else.

If you want a reason to listen to something so dark, well, The Sunday Times has just called the episode “utterly riveting”, but I’d prefer you listen because jihadi songs are important. Why else has ISIS released four this year even though it’s on the ropes – shouldn’t it be putting all its resources into fighting?

Al-Qaida’s Indian arm has released 13 songs in the past two months.

If you like it, please check out other episodes in the series. The amazing Laura Snapes has one on the world’s first Cornish pop album and what it says about our sense of national identity; there’s another great episode on the man who makes music for cats; and there’s a fascinating one on a music teacher who turned around a school – and a district – only for his plan to backfire (that could easily be a New Yorker story).

Huge thanks to Whitney Jones and Alex Kapelman, the people behind Pitch, for commissioning me. It was an amazing experience. And also huge thanks to everyone who features and helped me make it.

If you do enjoy it, you should also listen to the New York Times’ Caliphate podcast. It’s 10 episodes long, includes interviews with a former ISIS members and those who have been terrorised by them, and it’s the best podcast series this year: shocking, moving and thought-provoking.

 

Some non-anthem news!

There’s been a lot of national anthem stories around lately – like the NFL announcing it’s going to fine teams if their players refuse to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner, or the “singing road” in the Netherlands that played the Friesland national anthem when you drove over it (and so annoyed locals, it had to be ripped up).

So why haven’t I written about any of it on here? As I’ve been a bit consumed with a job application. But the amazing news is I got the job. From next week, I’ll be a culture reporter at The New York Times, covering all of Europe – so anything from a crisis in Bulgaria’s theatres to, yes, a singing road in the Netherlands.

Do subscribe to the paper to read all my future stories and those of my amazing colleagues (or just keep an eye on here and read them for free)!

I’ll clearly try to get anthems in as much as possible, and if I do, I’ll post them here.

Until then, enjoy the anthem showcase that is the 2018 World Cup later this month. There will be some great lesser-heard anthems on display – the least heard of them being Panama’s, which opens with surprisingly appropriate lyrics for a football tournament: “We finally reach victory / In the happy field of union.”

If the world didn’t know the ‘black national anthem’, it does now

 

Beyonce, getting things done once again.

If you want to know how Lift Every Voice and Sing – a song originally written for schoolchildren – became the ‘black’ anthem, I wrote about it here years ago!

How do you sing a song that stirs up so much feeling?

The New York Times Magazine’s annual music issue contains a piece by rapper/singer Dessa – of Doomtree – on what it’s like singing The Star-Spangled Banner in these odd times. It’s really good.

“When you sing the line ‘rocket’s red glare,’ fireworks are going to go off. Then, when you get to ‘O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,’ an eagle named Challenger is going to take off and soar over the stadium.” Becky, my tour manager, was talking me through the mechanics of my gig on April 5. That day I am scheduled to sing the national anthem at the Minnesota Twins’ season opener in Minneapolis. “He’s a professional sports eagle,” Becky explained. “He has a website.”

Read the rest over at the Times.

The end of the Vaterland?

Over the past week, there’s been a surprising political furore in Germany about its national anthem.

A civil servant sent out her spring newsletter, which included a suggestion that the Deutschlandlied should be changed to include women as well as men. “No more Vaterland!” was the basic message. It wasn’t meant for a wide readership, but some for some reason, it caused a storm, with everyone from Angela Merkel to the far-right having their say.

You can read about it all in this piece I did for The New York Times.

That article also includes all the national anthem news that’s happened so far this year – everywhere from Spain to Bosnia – so give it a read!

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.