A warning to anyone visiting India: stand for their anthem!

People standing for the anthem in a New Delhi cinema. This photo's stolen from Chandan Khanna of Agence France-Presse. Sorry, Chandan!

People standing for the anthem in a New Delhi cinema. This photo’s stolen from Chandan Khanna of Agence France-Presse. Sorry, Chandan!

What the hell’s going on in India? A quick timeline of recent events:

  • 2002: Shyam Narayan Chouksey, a retired engineer, goes to his local cinema in Bhopal to watch some Bollywood. During the film, India’s national anthem is played during a scene at a school fete so Shyam stands up to respect it. No one else does – most shout at Shyam to sit down as he’s obscuring their view – so Shyam stages a protest, then starts filing court orders to try and get people to respect the anthem. Everyone assumes Shyam will soon be forgotten by history (Shyam’s full story is here)
  • 30 November 2016: India’s Supreme Court – responding to one of Shyam’s many complaints – rules that all cinemas must play the anthem before screenings and keep doors shut so no one can interrupt it. Everyone inside must stand
  • 10 December 2016: India’s Supreme Court realises it’s gone slightly too far and allows disabled people to remain seated during the anthem. It also clarifies that it didn’t mean for cinemas to lock people inside during the anthem. That is a fire risk, after all
  • 13 December 2016: Indian police arrest 12 people for not standing for the anthem!!! Most of the arrests are at a film festival and the attendees stayed sitting so as not to lose their seats, although others were actually people protesting the new law

India, if I can address you for a moment:

This

Is

Insane!

You don’t force people to be patriotic. Your country should be inspiring enough that people want to stand for your anthem without needing a law to tell them to. How many other countries have such laws? None! Well, maybe North Korea, but you get my point; this isn’t a sensible thing to have done.

Have some self-confidence, and get this ruling overturned. And when Shyam files his next petition, try to ignore it!

What the Marseillaise means a year after the Paris attacks

  
I’ve just written this article for The New York Times on France’s national anthem: what it means to people a year after the attacks, and what those views reveal about life in France.

I’m biased, but it’s genuinely interesting, including comment from some amazing people: from Bataclan survivors to some of France’s biggest musicians (here’s one of Akhenaton’s hits with his group Iam; and here’s one of Zebda’s fun tunes).

The article could easily have been three times as long.

Deep inside, it mentions the Defense Ministry’s Marseillaise contest. Last time I wrote about that on here, I largely highlighted the joke entries it was getting like one that got Google Translate to read out the lyrics. But the winner turns out to great so click that link now.

Being a beauty queen’s more dangerous than you thought

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Back in 2014,  Merve Buyuksarac, Ms Turkey 2006, posted a satirical rewording of her country’s national anthem to her Instagram account. She changed a handful of its words to reference a corruption scandal involving the country’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan.

I am like a wild flood, I smash over the law and beyond
I follow state bids, take my bribe and live.

Almost immediately afterwards she was arrested.

This May – two years later! – she was found guilty of insulting the president and sentenced to 14 months in prison. The sentence was only suspended on the condition that she doesn’t insult Erdoğan again in the next five years.

Yes, I should have written about this back in May when it happened, but I somehow only learned about it yesterday while reading about Erdoğan’s crackdown on journalists in his country. He’s jailed 120 so far.

I’ve never heard of someone being sentenced to prison for satirising an anthem before, which isn’t a surprise as if it was a common occurence they’d be literally hundreds of offenders in jail. Imagine how many people have rewritten the words to God Save the Queen and the Star-Spangled Banner.

Turkey’s anthem, the Independence March, turns up surprisingly regular in the country’s political life. People used it frequently earlier this year during the coup that was trying to remove Erdoğan, seeing it as a way to motivate people to get onto the streets, while it also played a major part in the country’s last presidential election.

But this? This is just a disgrace.

For details of more controversial anthems, see my book.

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.

Nothing.

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.

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.

What should London’s anthem be?

If it goes independent, obviously. And who knows post-Brexit?!?

London Calling?

West End Girls?

Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up, Look Sharp?

“Er… What?” I hear you say. Yes, Dizzee would be a strange choice. But he’s mine, and for a good reason, which you can learn by listening to Adrian Lacey’s great London Podcast at his site, via iTunes or here if you’re using Android.

I’ve never been asked the question before, which is surprising given so many cities, at least in the US, have anthems.

Adrian gave me one of the best podcast experiences I’ve had, taking me back to my childhood school in the London suburbs to stand in pouring rain (that wasn’t his fault) and explain where my love of music came from, doing a full, fascinating interview about the book, and even getting me to do a reading.

In the episode, he also goes out on London’s streets to ask people what their anthem would be. And he tells a brilliant story about his (white, lower-middle class, British) parents trying to write Nigeria’s anthem when it became independent.

It’s a real fun and interesting listen. And few podcast presenters go to such efforts, so, seriously, head here to hear it.

Adrian’s done some amazing other podcasts on everything from the Fire of London to Bob Marley’s London home, so check out other episodes if you can. Huge thanks to him if he’s reading.

Front page of the New York Times!

Sorry if this comes across as boasting, but I don’t care! A recent story of mine made it onto the front page of the New York Times (international edition). Yasssss!

New York Times front page

It’s not about national anthems; it’s about forensic musicologists – the people who help decide if one musician has copied another in copyright cases. You can read it here and you should given how regularly pop stars get sued!