Is Spain’s anthem going to finally get words? Don’t be silly!

Last Sunday, Spanish pop star Marta Sanchez caused a sensation in her country by doing something simple: singing her national anthem.

Why was it so special? Because Spain’s anthem doesn’t actually have any words so singing it is a bit hard. Marta added some she’d written herself while homesick in the US.

The performance, above, is powerful stuff, as are her lyrics. “I come home to my beloved homeland, where my heart was born,” she starts. “Today I sing to tell you all the pride I have. My love grows every time I leave.

“Red and yellow, are the colours that shine in my heart,” she went on, referring to Spain’s flag. “God I thank you for being born here… And if someday I can’t come back, save me a place to rest.”

Blimey.

The positive reaction wasn’t just seen in the concert hall. Millions watched clips of her singing it, while politicians also jumped in on the act. Here’s a tweet from the leader of Spain’s main opposition party:

So is her effort going to be adopted? Er, no. Spain’s anthem, adopted in 1770, only ever had lyrics once – under Franco’s dictatorship – and few want to be reminded of those days. The country’s also too divided – see Catalunya’s recent independence referendum – for any to be agreed (are Basques going to be happy singing a song in Castilian?).

A petition to get the anthem lyrics, for instance, has only collected a paltry 12,000 signatures since it was launched in 2015.

How are Europe’s other wordless anthems getting on? Well, San Marino’s is ticking along; Kosovo’s still doesn’t have words – the strangely titled Europe – even as the country celebrates its 10th birthday; and neither does Bosnia’s.

Some Bosnian politicians did begin an initiative this month to give their anthem words, but that looks destined to fail. It’s election year in the country, and no ethnic-Serb politician is going to endorse such a move, since many of their voters actually want their own country or to become part of Serbia.

The website Balkan Insight actually got one Serb politician to basically say just that this month:

“This initiative is nothing more than a circus,” she said. “We have already tried to reach a text for the anthem, and everything has turned into a farce. This time it will be the same.”

If you want to read more about the bizarre stories of Bosnia’s and Kosovo’s anthems, the people behind them, and their significance, then buy my book!

When Eurovision was – literally – a matter of life and death

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Fazla, looking like they’ve stepped out of Miami Vice

In 1993, Bosnia was in the middle of a civil war and its capital, Sarajevo, under siege. No, not ‘under siege’ in the Steven Seagal sense; ‘under siege’ in the ‘no food, no water, being bombed daily’, sense.

In the middle of it all, a musician called Dino Merlin somehow wrote both the country’s national anthem and its first-ever Eurovision entry. I tell his insane story in my book.

But this week, with Eurovision approaching, I suddenly remembered Dino didn’t actually perform his song at Eurovision. It was a band called Fazla. So I called their lead singer to learn his story, and it turned out to be just as fascinating, bizarre and uplifting as Dino’s. Head over to the BBC to read it.

Here are Fazla at that year’s Eurovision:

Douze points!

And here’s this year’s Bosnian entry, which seems to be performed by a man with a plastic face.

Null points!

Update: As you’ll clearly know, Ukraine won this year’s Eurovision with the below slice of brilliant Russia-baiting. What was the first thing singer Jamala did when she got back home? She sung Ukraine’s national anthem, Ukraine’s not Dead Yet, of course! Read this great NY Times article on the political fall-out of her victory.

National plagiarism

If you’re visiting here due to today’s BBC piece on plagiarised anthems, then first, buy my book! But with that out of the way, here is the music you’ve come for.

This is Bosnia’s anthem followed by the music from Animal House:

Yes, they do sound remarkably similar.

Is it coincidence? I clearly think so and not just for the reason of wanting to avoid a lawsuit. But could someone have heard that in a film and remembered it 20 years on? Here’s Animal House’s opening scene where the ‘anthem’ is prominent, although so is another melody someone could equally have taken for an anthem. I’ll leave you to decide what actually happened here.

As the BBC piece makes clear, lots of anthems have similar problems. This is Uruguay’s followed by Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia.

Uruguay’s is also similar to one of Beethoven’s sonatas, and the other day I heard a similarity in one of Mozart’s piano concertos, so make of that what you will.

For all the other comparisons, please trawl through my book’s audio guide although I’ll happily put more up here if there’s a clamour. Yes, some anthems I did leave out (hello everyone in South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe!), but I had to save something for people to discover in the book.

Anyway, to finish, this is South Korea’s anthem played in the style of Auld Lang Syne just because it’s fun.

Update: The Daily Telegraph has also published a fun piece of mine today on the world’s strangest anthems. It features Nepal’s and Kazakhstan’s, which have chapters in the book. The stories surrounding those songs – one’s linked to a Maoist revolution, the other exemplifies the madness of a dictatorship – should really be more widely known. Enjoy!

And the winner of the anthem World Cup is…

I really wanted to pick an underdog – someone who is going to get knocked out next week with just a point to their name (Hello, Iran!).

Failing that, I wanted to pick Bosnia, this being the first time the country’s anthem has been heard at a World Cup – a landmark moment and one the team’s coach, Safet Sušić, found so emotional, he was still crying five minutes into the Argentina game.

But instead I’ve got to go with Brazilllllllllllllll! Yes, the favourites. Yes, the hosts.

I know it’s a cop out. But anyone who has seen the anthem being sung at Brazil’s games will agree. When the crowd carry on singing after the music’s stopped, finishing off the song’s first verse, it’s literally amazing.

It doesn’t matter that they’re singing some of the most appalling love poetry you’ve ever come across – “You are beautiful, strong, an intrepid colossus” – it’s enough to make you want to be Brazilian. The two times I’ve heard it now, I’ve had to stop myself from grabbing a Molotov cocktail and going out to protest about bus prices.

It’s even made me warm to David Luiz. That’s it’s power!

Here, have an MP3 of it ripped off a dodgy Korean TV station. Yes, it is worth downloading.

Here’s hoping it starts a trend. Except here in England. No one needs two verses of God Save the Queen.

Dodging snipers for Eurovision

Tonight is Eurovision! Sweden should win, right?

Or failing him, France?

Great, glad we agree!

In tribute to the world’s greatest song contest, I thought I’d put up a few quotes from an interview I did once with Dino Merlin, Bosnia’s answer to Paul McCartney and a man who’s been to Eurovision three times.

Dino stayed in Bosnia’s capital of Sarajevo during the war of the 90s, when the city was under siege.

He had little electricity or water, Serb mortars were dropping on the streets, but he still got the energy to write both Bosnia’s first national anthem, Jedna si Jedina, and its first Eurovision entry. The Eurovision song was called Sva bol Svijet, All the Pain in the World, which is understandable if somewhat inappropriate for a competition that relies on glitter canons and showgirls.

While chatting to Dino, I asked if he ever managed to escape the siege and he said this: “The first time I went to Eurovision, I had to run across the airport. Have you heard anything about the airport during the war? There were UN soldiers patrolling the runway and if they caught you, they’d dump you back in the city. And from the other side, from the mountain, you had snipers – Serb snipers – shooting anything they saw move.

“So I got there and saw everyone was running one way round. But something told me not to follow them, so I ran straight across. Terrified. Scared. Everything like that. But somehow I did it. I got to Ireland!”

“How was Eurovision?” I asked.

“We came sixteenth,” he replied deadpan, then burst into laughter.

After the contest, Dino immediately returned to Sarajevo – running back across the airport – which either says he was insane at the time or really loved his country.

I don’t think any of this year’s Eurovision entrants will have gone through anything like that, but feel free to make up a hideous backstory about Sweden’s Robin Stjernberg if it’ll help you vote for him!

Please rise for our polyglot anthem

International Herald Tribune op-ed pages

[I originally wrote this for the International Herald Tribune/NY Times, as the picture sort of shows. Feel free to read it on their website too]

Iraq’s politicians are set to reach agreement soon on an issue they have been arguing about for almost a decade: a new national anthem.

It may sound trivial, but Iraq has been searching for one ever since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003. The U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, selected the current song, “Mawtini” (My Homeland), after hearing it at a concert in 2004. But it was always meant to be a stopgap.

The reason it has taken so long is ethnicity. Any suggestions put forward over the years have soon collapsed over arguments about whether the author was Sunni, Shiite or Kurd, and what part he played in Saddam’s regime.

The proposed solution to these rows is a novel one. The main verse will be a poem by Iraq’s most famous writer, Muhammad al-Jawahiri — a choice no one can argue with. But the final words, “Long live Iraq,” will be sung in Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen and even Assyrian.

In effect, politicians have have decided to create a multinational anthem, hoping it will make everyone finally feel they belong to the “new Iraq.”

It might have the desired effect. I’ve spoken to several Kurds about it, from footballers to civil servants, and they all felt it was a positive move — a sign that they are being accepted (Kurds make up 15-20 percent of Iraq’s population).

What’s surprising to learn, though, is that South Africa may be the only other country that has a multilingual anthem. Its anthem features five languages and has been widely celebrated as helping bring the country together after apartheid.

Perhaps it’s time we had more anthems like this.

At first glance, this may appear to be a silly suggestion. In the United States, for example, more than 12 percent of the population speaks Spanish at home, but just try to add a few words of it to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The same goes for France, where no one would contemplate adding words in Arabic to the “Marseillaise,” despite the large North African populations.

But elsewhere the idea may not be so easily dismissed. Kosovo’s anthem has no words due to the sharp divide between Albanian and Serbian speakers. Having an anthem with both languages could be a way to foster a sense of national belonging.

A similar argument could be made in Belgium, where there are increasing calls for the Flemish-speaking region of Flanders and French-speaking region of Wallonia to part. The country’s anthem, the “Brabançonne,” can be sung in French, Flemish or German. Why not a new song featuring all three languages?

Changes like these are not necessary in countries where different ethnic groups speak the same or similar languages. Still, their anthems could also be rewritten to be more inclusive. Take Rwanda’s, “Beautiful Rwanda.” It talks about the “single language” joining the two main ethnic groups, the Hutu and Tutsi, who fought a vicious civil war in the 1990s. But it does not mention either by name. Would it not be better to spell out who people are, so everyone can identify themselves in the song, than hide the past?

A similar case could be made in Bosnia, where Croats, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims are at loggerheads over words for a new anthem. Maybe an anthem change could even help improve Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of Spain. The Spanish anthem, the “Marcha Real,” currently does not have any words, so at least they have a simple starting point.

Yes, there are practical issues with doing any of this. It would be difficult for many people to learn anthems in multiple languages, and it would be difficult to fit them all into a one-minute song, let alone a good one-minute song.

But if in five or 10 years’ time a new national identity is flourishing in Iraq and helping get a grip on its many problems, I wouldn’t be surprised if other countries start looking at the idea as one worth following.

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.