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 world’s most terrifying national anthem is under threat!

“Be a helper for Godddddd…” Darth sings Mauritania’s national anthem

This is Mauritania’s national anthem. Yes, it makes Mauritania sound terrifying – the sort of country that if you ever visited, you wouldn’t escape. It’s more suitable for the Death Star than an African country.

Which is why it’s fantastic and why it’s worrying to hear it might be changed.

The country’s president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, is in the middle of altering Mauritania’s constitution, I assume so he can rule FOREVER. As part of this, he also wants to change Mauritania’s national symbols, primarily adding two red stripes to its green flag for some reason (maybe he likes colour contrasts).

But according to this piece (in French), he also wants to overhaul its anthem. The article doesn’t explain how he’ll do that and no one seems to know. Today, I called Mauritanian’s embassy here in the UK and the ambassador said it was, “Only talking now. No ideas!”

So there we go: Mauritania could soon go from having one of the world’s best national anthems, to one of the worst. It could go from having an anthem that calls on all Mauritanians to “walk the path of God and die on it” to one that simply praises their president. Or, er, it could stay as it is. I hope it’s the final option. I may set up a petition!

“…says Marshall, who is not Jewish.”

Jewish immigrants to Israel after World War Two singing Hatikvah as their boat pulls in

The Jewish Chronicle – Britain’s leading Jewish newspaper – just interviewed me about Israel’s anthem Hatikvah, the song of hope that built a nation.

You can read the piece here. It’s actually a great read, and we talk about everything from the alcoholic poet behind the song, to how it was sung during the Holocaust; the rapper Tupac to what it says about Israel’s future.

The interview was done to promote a talk of mine at Milim, Leeds’ Jewish literary festival. It went great so if any other Jewish organisation or festival fancies having me along to redo it, get in touch!

Colin Kaepernick’s standing for his anthem again :(

This is Colin Kaepernick after being tackled, but it sums up how I’m feeling about his decision! Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

American footballer Colin Kaepernick has announced he will stand for the US national anthem next season, ending his months-long protest against the treatment of minorities in the country.

I know it’s because he needs a job – the San Francisco 49ers have decided not to keep him on – but it’s a shame. You could easily argue things have got worse in the US since his protest started and it’s needed more than ever.

Expect fewer protests all round soon: the US soccer association has announced a new policy saying all players have to “stand respectfully” for anthems at international matches. Last year, Megan Rapinoe kneeled for the Star-Spangled Banner before two games – aping Kaepernick. Guess she won’t any more.

The Republic of California? The nation of Pacifica? Whatever comes, get Katy Perry to write the anthem

You've got to admit, the proposed flag's really cool! Stolen from Yes, California's Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/YesCalifornia/

You’ve got to admit the proposed flag’s really cool. Stolen from the Yes, California campaign

Since Trump’s election, there’s been a lot of talk of the US splitting up: liberals creating their own countries; the Red States left behind.

California could join with its neighbouring states to form Pacifica. Or go it alone – an independence referendum might insanely happen in 2019, although the fact it’s been pushing by a man who lives in Russia seems to be confusing a lot of people.

There are other independence movements too, everywhere from Hawaii to Texas, even New Hampshire (only 1,691 Facebook likes for that one, so I’m assuming it’s a minor interest). But what all these campaigns seem to be lacking is one thing: a decent anthem to get behind.

Take California’s official state song, I Love You California, which was written by a clothes repairer in 1913:

I love you, California, you’re the greatest state of all
I love you in the winter, summer, spring and in the fall
I love your fertile valleys; your dear mountains I adore
I love your grand old ocean and I love her rugged shore

I know California is a home of positive thinking, but even a spiritual guru would find it hard to be positive about such sweetness.

So what are the options for the coming Californian republic? I imagine some would want California Dreamin’ – “I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A” – but you can’t have an anthem written from the perspective of a depressed exile in New York.

Hotel California would be a front-runner too, until people realised it could be misinterpreted as a call for mass immigration (“Plenty of room at the Hotel California…”).

So my vote goes for the a-maz-ing Katy Perry’s a-maz-ing California Gurls.

Ok, not the chorus when she says those girls will “melt your Popsicle”. And not Snoop Dogg’s bit. But it does have a verse that’s got a message any Californian would be proud of:

You could travel the world
But nothing comes close
To the golden coast
Once you party with us
You’ll be falling in love
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh

I especially like the last line.

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.