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.

The secrets behind national anthems in 1,000 words…

…and a poor joke about Coldplay.

A piece I’ve done for the BBC went online today (above’s a picture of it on the front page).

I’ve somehow crammed 18 countries into it. Although apologies to anyone from Oman or Zimbabwe, who I seem to insult!

If you know of any secrets it doesn’t mention, please let me know.