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!

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.

How to heal Colombia’s wounds: rewrite its anthem?

Colombians calling for peace at a rally. I hope the ink isn't permanent

Colombians calling for peace at a rally. I hope the ink isn’t permanent

In June, Colombia’s government and Farc guerillas signed a deal that may – may! – end the country’s 50-year conflict, which has seen 250,000 people killed and a good six million displaced. “What’s that got to do with national anthems?” I hear you ask. “Isn’t that the point of this blog?”

Well, last week, a “group of young people excited for peace” launched a campaign for a new verse to be added to Colombia’s that speaks of the country’s hopeful future, rather than its horiffic past.

It’d be verse 12, so no one would actually sing it. It’d be a purely symbolic gesture. But if you want an insight into just how desperate Colombians are for peace, you only have to look at some of the entries so far. Although they’re all so filled with frank descriptions of past violence, it makes you wonder if the country will ever heal.

Here’s a typical example:

Kidnappings and massacres lead only to destruction
Let us say no to the guns and violence that covered us
The blood of our race is the purest, a blessing
Fight together, fight united, like the children that God created

And here’s another:

The people dressed in white, the land mourns the past
But the colours of this country have been able to resurface
Gore still lives in memory
Peace and joy today must govern

Surprisingly, the idea hasn’t gone down well with some. It turns out the “young people” all work for two advertising agencies, J Walter Thompson and Sistole, who regularly win government contracts. This apparently means the initiative must be corrupt.

How on earth that’s the case, I’ve yet to work out, but it shows you just how far Colombians have to go before they can trust each other again.

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!

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!)

The most beautiful piano playing about the world’s most violent country

A tribute to a dead protester in Caracas, Venezuela. Copyright is Reuters

A tribute to a dead protester in Caracas, Venezuela. Copyright is Reuters

There were 24,000 murders in Venezuela last year. That’s 65 a day – an almost cartoonish level of violence.

It says something’s seriously wrong there, regardless of what benefits you think Hugo Chavez brought to the country’s poor before he died, or whether you support his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

The violence partly explains the ongoing demonstrations in Caracas, in which three students died earlier this month.

It also partly explains why the pianist Gabriela Montero spends a lot of her time recording protest versions of the country’s national anthem.

Gloria al Bravo Pueblo – Glory to the Brave People – is normally described as a Latin American version of the Marseillaise, a proud military march that spirals to a cymbal crashing ending.

But what Gabriela turns it into is something far more powerful and worth your time. Here’s just three of her takes on it.

In the first two, she makes the anthem sound like the song of a heart-broken lover, one who can barely hold their emotions together long enough to get to the end.

But in the third, she turns it into something altogether different: a fiery tango and a theme song for cacerolazos – those protests where everyone bangs pots and pans to wake up corrupt politicians. It is 100% fantastic.

[For anyone reading on a mobile, you can find the videos here, here and here]

Gabriela’s playing concerts in Germany, Italy, the UK, Serbia, Canada and the US in the next few weeks. Go along. Her full schedule’s here.

Should Cataluña become independent? Let its anthem decide!

Cataluña – the nice part of Spain that includes Barcelona – is once again making a fuss about becoming independent, partly because of Spain’s economic crisis.

It actually can’t; Spain’s constitution doesn’t allow regions to split off.

But ignoring that little stumbling block, should it be allowed to? Let’s decide by having a look at the most important of issues: its proposed national anthem, Els Segadors!

The music: If Cataluña were a place where the sun only shone once a year, and where there was little hope of even weeds growing – Siberia, perhaps – Els Segadors (The Reapers) would be perfect.

My God it’s depressing, full of minor chords tumbling downwards as if the orchestra’s been made to play while trudging through mud.

It was written in the 1640s when Cataluña began fighting an uprising against the rest of Spain. Most of the Catalans involved were actually peasants armed with little more than the sickles they used to cut fields. Perhaps the person who wrote it realised there was little chance of them winning, so wrote an anthem to soundtrack their doom.

The lyrics: You only need the briefest scan of Els Segadors’ lyrics to see why Catalans love it. It basically gives the rest of Spain, and especially the Castilians of Madrid, a mighty kicking.

“Drive away these people who are so conceited and so contemptful,” it says. “Strike with your sickle!”

It certainly beats Spain’s anthem, la Marcha Real. Although as that doesn’t have any words, it’s at a bit of a disadvantage.

Is the song good enough to allow Catalonia independence? Clearly no! A new country needs optimism and hope in an anthem, not a song that makes you want to lock yourself indoors with a bottle of pills and several bottles of gin. Someone tell Artur Mas – Cataluña’s president – to commission something new!