Searching for the ghost of Argentina’s anthem composer

One of the many angels that haunt Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires

One of the many angels who haunt Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires

Argentines rightly love their national anthem – a barnstorming, rambunctious tune that forced every other South American country to copy it:

But it turns out they don’t love the man behind its lyrics so much: a lawyer called Vincente López y Planes.

In 1813, Vincente came up with the anthem’s words, making them as over-the-top and emotional as its music. His song does everything from call the country’s old Spanish rulers “wild animals…devouring everyone before them” to imagining the Incas rising from the dead to bring Argentina independence. They are words perhaps more suitable for a soap operas than an anthem, but they couldn’t be more fun.

How do I know Argentines don’t care for him? Because earlier this year, I had to pass through Buenos Aires on my way to Antarctica, and while in the city, thought I’d go and have a look for Vicente’s grave in the amazing Recoleta Cemetery.

It took me literally an hour to find him despite looking at a map several times and even having help from staff. There were crowds lining up outside Evita’s grave nearby, and people posing for photos alongside dozens of other stunning tombs all topped with haunting statues of angels. Flowers were respectfully resting against hundreds of graves all around the huge site. But Vincente’s tomb? It was just down a tiny alley, ignored by the thousands who visit the cemetery each day, glanced at at best.

No flowers.


Vicente's family tomb. Yes, it's an appalling shot. Blame the light!

Vicente’s family tomb. Yes, it’s an appalling shot. Blame the light!

It is covered in tributes, yes, but a tribute means nothing if no one looks at it.

But, in a way, it’s still a fitting resting place . If you read my book, you’ll realise that being ignored is the fate of pretty much every anthem composer and lyricist who’s ever lived. Vicente’s no different.

Off penguin counting

Penguin counting

Apologies if I don’t post for a while as I’m off to Antarctica. No, not for national anthems, but to, er, interview one of the world’s only professional penguin counters. No, I’m not quite sure how I winged the commission either!

I could, though, shoehorn anthems into the trip if I wanted to since they’re the one type of song that has been sung on the continent more than any other. They were sung by the explorers trying to claim it – by Scott, by Amundsen, by Shackleton – and now they’re sung by the scientists who represent countries there.

If I somehow manage to convince one of them to start blurting out theirs, I’ll put a video of it up here once I’m back.

Be good while I’m away!

How not to write a travel book

1) Don’t try and go to war zones!

If you didn’t know already, I’m writing a book about national anthems, which involves travelling to countries to learn their stories. When I first came up with this bizarre idea, I planned a chapter on Iraq because it was getting a multi-lingual anthem aimed at bringing the country together.

That was back in 2013 when the country was relatively peaceful. Yes, I perhaps should have seen what was coming. Iraq still hasn’t got the anthem.

2) Don’t swap a war zone for Iran!

After a chapter on Iraq was ruled out, I applied for an Iranian visa. I’m still waiting. Dear Iranian government, I promise I’m not a spy. Unless that’s what a spy would say in which case… I am one, right?

3) Er…

Actually there isn’t a three because I recently came up with a solution. This weekend, I’ll be heading to Egypt to research their anthems. I probably should have planned to go there all along because Egypt is the Middle East’s anthem factory – its musicians being responsible for the anthems of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia among others.

The stories behind Egypt’s own anthems are fascinating too. I can’t write them on this blog unfortunately, but here for your listening pleasure is the anthem the country adopted in the ’50s. It’s called “Oh my weapon, it’s been a long time” and is sung by Umm Kulthum, the great diva of Egyptian music (she doesn’t come in until 1:12).

If you don’t speak Arabic, it includes lines like this: “The people are mountains, seas, a volcano of anger ready to erupt, an earthquake that will cleanse the earth to make their enemies graves.” Yes, it was directed at Israel!

I’ll try to write something about my trip when I’m back but I may not have time. Here’s another tip for any aspiring travel writers: don’t leave things to the last minute!

Update: A few hours after posting this, I got a phone call from Iran saying I can have a visa, which is somewhat amazing given they’ve refused the BBC one for about six months. The magic of the Internet, perhaps. God knows what this means for the book!

República o Muerte se va a casa!

A few years ago, when I came up with the idea of writing a book about national anthems, the easiest part turned out to be choosing its name.

I scrolled down a list of the world’s anthems hoping to find something that could work as a book title. God Save the Queen? Nope! La Marseillaise? Next! Land der Berge, Land am Strome? Er…perhaps not.

But as soon as I hit Republic or Death – the name of Paraguay’s anthem – I knew I had a winner. It’s a phrase that sums up everything about anthems: how they can be gloriously over-the-top and passionate, but how many of them are responsible for inspiring some of the bloodiest moments in history.

Fortunately, the anthem sounds great – starting off with a rollicking 50-second intro, and then featuring so many time changes it’s near impossible to sing, more an opera than a song. Once I’d heard it, there was no going back.

This weekend I’m finally heading to Paraguay to research that song, its history and meaning today. Unsurprisingly, I’m a bit excited.

The composer behind República o Muerte also happened to write Uruguay’s amazing anthem – the less well named Himno Nacional (no, that wouldn’t work as a book title!) – so I’ll also be heading there.

If you’re in either country and fancy a cerverza or two, let me know, otherwise I’ll write something when I’m back. Abrazos!

(Apologies if the Spanish in this post makes no sense. I’ve only been learning the language for three weeks!)

Did the President of Kazakhstan steal my luggage?

Here’s a picture of Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, gently brushing past some flowers in a metro station:

Nazarbayev in the subwayAnd here’s one of him on an apartment block:

Poster of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's president, on an apartment block

And here he is in a bookshop, looking somewhat surprised to be on the bestseller list:

Nursultan Nazarbayev the bestseller!

And this is a picture of a baggage carousel without my luggage on it 😦

Empty baggage carousel

I’ve now been back from Kazakhstan for five days. My luggage hasn’t.

I probably should blame my airline for this, but can I rule out Nazarbayev? I have, after all, just spent two weeks in his country asking people questions about him and how he came to write the country’s national anthem (he’s the only world leader to have written one), and most people I met found my questions extremely annoying.

Surely one of them told him about me and asked for revenge? He’s a man with almost unlimited power; pinching my bag wouldn’t pose a problem!

Why were people so uneasy talking about him? It could have something to do with Borat – Kazakhs being fed-up of Westerners who don’t understand their culture asking questions. But part of it is because you just don’t talk politics in Kazakhstan. It’s best not to. It’s actually illegal to criticise Nazarbayev, his family or his business interests. And given that, anyone would find it hard answering questions about him.

Fortunately, you don’t need to talk to many people to work out what they think of either the song or the man. Just go to Bayterek, a golden tower in the capital city, Astana, and watch people queue to put their hand in a cast of Nazarbayev’s palm print, and then watch their faces when the national anthem starts playing…!

Anyway, a big thanks to everyone I did meet over there and who gave me their time. Kazakhstan turns out to be filled with amazingly kind people who’ll go out of their way to help you, and will ply you with as much food and drink on you as they can (horse sausage!). They’ll also answer any (non-political) questions you have and because of them I’m really looking forward to writing about the place for my book.

First, though, I should probably go and buy some pants!

Update: my bag arrived! Sorry, Mr President – all is forgiven!

Kazakhstan – home of the world’s most musical president

Khan Shatyr in Astana

There’s going to be an awful lot of national anthem news in the next week. On Sunday, it’s the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner, with a massive party planned in Baltimore.

And then on the 18th, Scotland might become independent, a move that would see it get its own anthem at long last (The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles, obviously).

So where am I, the world’s only anthem journalist, going to be when these momentous events take place? In Baltimore? In Edinburgh? Er, no. In Kazakhstan. In its capital, Astana. Looking at the world’s biggest tent (it’s the thing in the picture). Yes, my timing’s impeccable!

The reason I’m going is to research the country’s anthem – the only one in the world written (ok, co-written) by a ruling head of state.

The country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is a bit of a musician. He posts songs on his website, has written tunes for Kazakh boy bands and has even been known to use his dombra – the Kazakh guitar – as a diplomatic tool. Given that, maybe his authorship shouldn’t be a surprise, but I’ll be spending the next couple of weeks praying his minders allow me to ask him about it. Anyone know his mobile number?

I’ll post something about my travels when I’m back!