The world’s smallest music scene

Penguins! In Antarctica! This is copyright me, so please ask permission if you're going to steal it

Penguins! In Antarctica! © Me!

Antarctica doesn’t have a national anthem. For somewhat obvious reasons; no one owns the place.

But it is – and always has been – filled with music. Scott took two gramophones there. Shackleton made sure the one thing he saved when his ship was crushed by the ice was a banjo.

While I was there earlier this year, I decided to ask all the scientists I met if they ever played their anthems or any music. The Argentines told me they sung theirs drunk at the top of a mountain. The Ukrainians said they sung theirs whenever someone arrived at the base, and they did so with passion because of all the political troubles in their country. The Americans told me they, er, couldn’t remember having ever sung it. “We have streaming internet, so we just bang on Pandora”

Those, slightly weird, chats did lead me to learn several scientists’ fascinating life stories: from the American whale biologist who spends his days blasting opera out over the oceans, to the Ukrainian who makes instruments in his ice cold lab.

I’ve just turned those tales into a piece for the BBCRead it here.

The reason I went wasn’t actually for music: it was to interview a penguin counter called Ron Naveen for British Airways’ High Life magazine. You can read the feature about him here or download the full issue via the App Store. I’m worryingly pleased with it, which probably means it’s awful (there’s an old journalists’ saying: “Kill your darlings”), but I hope you enjoy it regardless.

If Daft Punk had written la Marseillaise

Sort of.

France’s Ministry of Defence is – right now! – running a contest getting people to reinterpret the country’s national anthem. It’s had, at time of writing, an abysmal 46 entries, most of them by people who seem to need clinical help.

But the Daft Punk one above is pretty good. No, I have no idea why the person’s chosen to illustrate it with a Danish flag.

I also like this one where someone just got Google Translate to read out the lyrics, but that probably suggests I need clinical help too.

If you feel you can do a better job, you can enter here. You can win a camera, which seems a bit of a rubbish prize for the Ministry of Defence. How about a tank?

Meet Lačni Franz, the only rock band to give a country its national anthem

The lead singer of Lačni Franz at a concert in Yugoslavia in 1981. Check out those haircuts!

Lačni Franz’ lead singer at a concert in Yugoslavia in 1981. Look at those perms. LOOK AT THOSE PERMS!

There are dozens of famous rock covers of anthems: think of Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner or Gainsbourg’s Aux Armes et caetera.

But there’s only one rock act who’s given a country its anthem: a Slovenian band called Lačni Franz – a bizarre fact I learned this week while reading an incredibly academic book called Identity and Nationalism in the Balkans.

Before picking that up, I already knew Slovenia’s anthem had an insane story. Its original author was France Prešeren, a 19th century alcoholic who spent most of his life infatuated with a woman who didn’t love him back no matter how many poems he dedicated to her.

In 1844, he wrote one of those, a drinking song called A Toast (Zdravljica). There’s no doubt it was meant for getting drunk to. Prešeren wrote the verses so they looked like a wine glass, while its very first lines are, “Friends! Again the vines bore well / Let sweet wine liven our veins.”

But mixed in among the calls to drink were bouts of national sentiment like this: “God, let your Slovene girls bloom…There are no maidens more comely than ours.” Ok, bad example, but you get what I mean.

Were those lines enough to make it the natural choice to become Slovenia’s anthem following the Soviet Union’s demise? Apparently not. Instead, the reason A Toast became the anthem is apparently entirely down to Lačni Franz.

In 1987, the band recorded a parody of the song that repopularised the poem across the country and practically forced its adoption as the anthem two years later. God knows if that’s true, but this clip certainly shows people loving it. Dance Slovenes, dance!

Slovenia’s politicians disappointingly ignored all the drinking verses when they made it the anthem and went for this one instead:

Long live all folk everywhere
Who long to see the day
When wherever sun may roam
Strife holds none under its sway
Then all people, everywhere
Will be free
Not enemies, but dear neighbours

Yes, it’s an odd choice given it makes no reference to Slovenia, to that country’s landscape or its people. There’s nothing nationalist about it at all really. It’s like a country decided to take Michael Jackson’s Heal the World for its anthem.

Personally, I think it’s great for that, but if you want to read the political reasons behind that move, pick up ‘Identity and Nationalism in the Balkans’ (or order it at your local university library). The reasoning is just as bizarre as anything above.

Anyway, I should shut up – this post is already far too long! Here’s some more Lačni Franz for you.

Don’t panic, Czechs! You don’t need to change your tune

Yes, it really is hard to illustrate a blog about a country changing it's name

Yes, it is really hard to illustrate a blog about a country being renamed

This week, the Czech Republic’s government announced it wants to rename the country Czechia, apparently because it “rolls off the tongue more easily” and will look better on football shirts.

Yes, those are the first and second worst reasons ever come up with for renaming a country.

“But,” I hear every Czech fail to cry, “what is the answer to the most important question of them all: what would the change mean for our national anthem?”

Well, don’t panic. I’m pretty sure it’ll mean absolutely nothing.

The Czech anthem – Kde domov můj / Where is my home? – only mentions the word Czech twice (when it answers its title with the words “The Czech land, my home”). Since it doesn’t mention the word republic at all, that should mean it can continue.

But – and it’s a big BUT – why would any Czech want to keep using it? It’s a boring piece of 19th century incidental music. Literally; it was written for a short song in a long forgotten play. Its title is also the sort of thing drunk stag parties shout at 3am in Prague.

Czechs, do yourself a favour. Use the name change to change this too.

Rap’s bizarre obssession with the Israeli national anthem

Israel’s Hatikvah is one of the world’s most beautiful national anthems, one of the few in a minor key – a song that yearns for the creation of a “land of zion”.

Which suggests it isn’t the most sensible sample for a rap record, but why should that stop a producer, eh?

2Pac, Troublesome ’96

Hatikvah was written by Naphtali Imber, a Ukrainian poet living in one of the first Jewish settlements in Palestine. What’s lesser known is he was actually a gangsta who wanted to rap “these scams are plotted over grams and rocks, outlaw motherfuckers die by random shots” over the same tune. Thank the Lord, then, that 2Pac came along 100-odd years later and did just that.

Anderson .Paak, Come Down

If you don’t know who Anderson .Paak is, he’s a rapper/singer with an incredibly poor knowledge of how full stops work. He was also all over Dr Dre’s Compton last year.

Come Down starts with a sample of Hatikvah that’s oddly not in Hebrew. I once tried to ask Mr .Paak why he did that but he didn’t fancy a chat – something that tells you EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HIM, doesn’t it conspiracy theorists?

[“Er, no” – conspiracy theorists everywhere]

Remedy, Never Again

Who knew the Wu-Tang Clan had a line in anti-holocaust songs? Who knew the Wu-Tang Clan had a white, Jewish, associate member? Probably not even Remedy himself. But here’s something that proves all exist. It’s quite serious. I probably shouldn’t be flippant about it. Hatikvah comes in during the chorus. Enjoy!

Update: I forgot Louchie Lou and Michie One’s Rich Girl! How could I? HOW. COULD. I? I’m off to give myself a thorough telling off.

If that makes you want to head off to listen to the Gwen Stefani version. Don’t. Go and listen to Hollaback Girl instead. That sh*t’s bananas. B. A. N. A. N. A. S. (Yes, that is a lyric quote!)

Update 2 (March 2017): If you run a Jewish book festival and fancy a talk on Hatikvah – its history and what it says about Israel’s past and future, get in touch. I did one this month for Milim, Leeds’ Jewish Book Festival, and it went really well, so I’d happily do it again.

World premiere: Benjamin Britten’s Malaysian national anthem!

Britten, smoldering!

Most blogs premiere tracks by second-rate indie bands no one’s heard of. And I would be more than happy to do that if any second-rate indie bands are reading!

But today it’s my pleasure to instead premiere a national anthem – and one written by one of the most famous composers of the 20th century at that: Benjamin Britten.

Yes, the man smoldering in the photo above and the man who wrote the opera Peter Grimes and the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra also once wrote a national anthem for Malaysia, a country he only ever spent a day in and couldn’t have been further from his Aldeburgh home. Listen below or here.

Yes, it’s a minor work. And, yes, it is too pensive for a national anthem. But it’s got something and it’s BENJAMIN BRITTEN, so stop complaining!

It was written in the 1950s, never adopted and hasn’t been heard since. Malaysia instead plumped for this song, Negaraku.

I just wrote a piece about the bizarre story around this for the BBC so head there now. I barely touch on it in my book on the world’s anthems (largely as it’s a travelogue at heart and I went to Egypt to explore issues around anthems and fame), so imagine what amazing things I write about instead! Go and buy it now!

The above video was made for me by the great young composer Josephine Stephenson, whose music you should check out immediately, and her brother, Robin, whose playing you should also delve into now. Huge thanks to them both.

Finally, for any Malaysians reading, please do not call up your radio stations and talk about this. Apparently by law it’s illegal to discuss the national anthem in your country, or anything else going by the photo below!

Malaysian press rules

Malaysian press rules, as stolen from Nazeem Hussain’s twitter account @nazeem_hussain