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.

Why every dance musician owes a debt to God Save the Queen

The console of Alan Turing's Mark II computer. God knows where the sound came out. Turing's the one standing. Copyright the University of Manchester School of Computer Science

The console of Alan Turing’s Mark II computer. God knows where the sound came out. Turing’s the one on the right. Copyright the University of Manchester School of Computer Science

If someone asked me to guess what the first piece of computer music sounded like, I’d probably go for a four-to-the-floor piece of pounding techno – more out of hope than expectation.

But it turns out it was, er, God Save the Queen.

In 1951, a British computer scientist played the British anthem on Alan Turing’s Mark II computer – one of the world’s first and the unwieldy thing in the picture at the top of this post.

The computer could make clicking sounds to show it had completed tasks and the scientist worked out that these could be turned into notes. Eat that Kraftwerk!

The recording’s just been restored, hence putting it up here. For the full story, go to the British Library’s Sound and Vision blog, because it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than I’ve made it sound!

Everything you should see at this weekend’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival

stokeylitfest

Most importantly, me! On Sunday at 2pm, I’ll be revealing everything you need to know about national anthems just in time for Euro 2016 and the Olympics. I’m even going to shoehorn in the EU referendum, which should please Boris Johnson. Or maybe not. Get tickets here.

But as I’m all about spreading the love, I also seriously recommend:

David Quantick, Saturday at 1pm, who is talking the art of swearing. TicketsIf you can’t get into that, at the same time Thurston Moore, once of Sonic Youth, is talking about free jazz. Afterwards, he will presumably dodge your questions about his ex-wife. Tickets for that are here.

Sarah Perry. She’s written a great sounding book about Essex, where I’m from. She is apparently one of 2016’s most exciting literary voices. That’s all you need to know really, isn’t it? She’s speaking Saturday at 4pm, and it’s free. Details are here.

Hadley Freeman, the hilarious journalist, is being hilarious about ’80s movies Sunday at 5pm. If you’d like to get a ticket, you know what to do.

And finally, at 6pm on Sunday, David Mitchell – DAVID MITCHELL! – is talking all his amazing books. I probably shouldn’t go as I’m a bit obsessed – if you and I were ever to go out, I’d give you a copy of his book Black Swan Green – but you should. Tickets are at that link!

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.

My paperback’s outtttt – win a copy

Republic or Death paperback

My paperback’s out!

It’s basically the same as the hardback except it’s had the mistakes removed (especially the bit where I said someone was dead when they actually were very much alive – whoops!). The French chapter’s also changed a lot to reflect everyone in Paris singing la Marseillaise following the terror attacks in Paris. Never write a book about a moving subject.

Basically, it’s better all round, although I admit it is less good for hitting people with or for killing spiders.

You can buy it here, but if you’d prefer getting it for free, my publisher’s giving away 20 copies over at Goodreads (COMPETITION CLOSED SORRY) where you can also marvel at its 4.21/5 rating and such reviews as “Who knew national anthems could be so fascinating?” and “I enjoyed this book a lot more than I imagined I would from the title.” Good luck!

Why the Greece-Macedonia naming row will never end

Macedonian women!

For the past 25 years, Greece has been trying to get Macedonia to change its name. It’s suggested everything from the Republic of Skopje to the Republic of Slavo-Albanian Macedonia. It’ll accept anything, basically, except Macedonia alone, since that happens to also be the name of a region of northern Greece, the birthplace of Alexander the Great.

It’s one of the strangest political disputes ever, but it’s been in the news a lot over the past week as both countries have said they want to finally come to a solution next year.

Will they manage it? I’d guess ‘no’ for the simple reason that the name is only the tip of the iceberg. If Macedonia does change it, surely Greece will start objecting to a lot of others things too, not least Macedonia’s national anthem?

Below is that song, Today, Over Macedonia.

And here’s some of its lyrics:

Today over Macedonia, is being born
The new sun of liberty
Macedonians are fighting
Fighting for their rights

Later, it starts banging on about “the forests of Macedonia singing new songs” and also oddly starts telling “dear Macedonian motherland” to stop crying. Basically, it mentions Macedonia a lot.

Does it work if you sing “Today over the Republic of Slavo-Albanian Macedonia” instead? Er, no. This row is going to go on and on and on…!

La Marseillaise: has France’s controversial anthem finally hit the right note?

This week’s poignant renditions may finally allow the martial song to shed its troubled past and become a rallying cry for solidarity and hope

[The below piece originally appeared in an abridged form in The Guardian]

Flag Wembley

The Marseillaise has always been one of the world’s most contested songs. Within weeks of it being written in 1792, its composer, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, was thrown in prison suspected of being a royalist, a move that almost took the anthem down with him (he only escaped the guillotine by writing another song about Louis XVI having his head chopped off).

It was written as a call to arms to inspire people against an Austrian invasion – hence the chorus: “To arms, citizens … Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” But the interpretation of the lyrics quickly changed, and it would latterly be seen as dangerously anti-establishment and, paradoxically, a tool of the elite.

A few years after that, Napoleon disowned it completely, both because he had seen its power and did not want it inspiring a revolution against him, and, slightly more prosaically, because he hated its composer who had probably had an affair with his wife.

It had a brief recovery in 1830 after the then king, Charles X, was overthrown in the ‘Three Glorious Days’ uprising, but soon it sunk back into disrepute – a song you would only sing if you were old-fashioned and did not realise musical times had changed.

It did not really regain its initial meaning of defiance and unity – of a nation confronting “tyranny’s bloody banner”, to quote the first verse – until the First World War when it became a rallying cry once more. Back then, Rouget de Lisle’s remains were even paraded through the streets of Paris in an effort to inspire, ironically ending up in Invalides, the home of the French military, just yards from Napoleon’s tomb.

The Marseillaise meant everything to the French again during the Second World War (it was sung by the resistance having obviously been banned by the Vichy government). Afterwards it somehow kept that vitality, becoming a rallying cry to rebuild the devastated country, its chorus’s cry of “To arms, citizens” turning out to be just as useful in motivating bricklayers as it had been soldiers.

But since then, there is no denying that it has just become awkward, especially because of how often it was sung during France’s occupation of Algeria and its brutal, eight-year-long war of independence. The Beatles’s use of it in All You Need is Love and Serge Gainsbourg’s brilliant reggae cover – the hilarious Aux Armes et cetera – gave it a brief respite from that image, even for a few years making the anthem cool, but the fact French nationalists tried to beat up Gainsbourg for his cheek tells you more the real direction where things were heading.

If you want to understand the full extent of how controversial it became, you only have to look to football. In 2001, French-Algerians booed it in the first-ever match between the two countries. In 2002, Corsicans booed it at a cup final so loudly that the then president Jacques Chirac stormed out and the match was only allowed to restart after he calmed down. The booing has not really stopped since.

A couple of years ago, I spent a fortnight in France researching the anthem for a book I was writing about the history of these songs. I asked dozens of people what they thought of the Marseillaise, and that controversy – that uncomfortableness – was surprisingly what came through most. Everyone said they liked the music, of course – who couldn’t fall for a melody as stirring as that, one which has grabbed everyone from Tchaikovsky to Debussy? – but the words? That was a different matter. Everyone from teenagers to old women would bring up the chorus and its climax: “Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” They all knew when it’d been originally written, but they also knew it had been hijacked by both its colonial legacy and by the far-right – Le Pen’s National Front – people who seemed to hear the words “sang impur” – “impure blood” – and take it as referring to the country’s immigrants.

I got the strongest reactions from the French-Algerians and French-Tunisians I met. Most could only bring themselves to give the most dismissive answers when I asked them what they thought of the song. “It’s the national anthem,” they would say with a curt laugh, and that was it, no matter how many follow up questions I tried. “Why would you even ask me about that?”

I would point out all anthems are deep down like this, songs written at times of war with their meanings changing over time – Algeria’s at one point says, “Oh France, the day of reckoning is at hand” – but it did not change their views.

You could see that awkwardness even after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. In January, the Marseillaise was sung by France’s politicians just like it was this week, but when they got to the chorus, they seemed to look at each other as if to say, “Are you sure we should be singing this?”

But today, now, something has changed. This moment somehow seems different. As the anthem has been sung around the world, played so much it is almost inescapable, it is as if all those past associations have disappeared, as if the song is being reinvented and reclaimed before is. It is like everyone, in France as much as outside it, is once again seeing it for how it was originally written.

You only have to look at the French parliament’s rendition of the anthem this time to see that. The volume never dropped; the words were never anything but punched out. Tonight at Wembley everyone will sing too, with joy and fun as much as respect and solidarity (you can’t not have fun while singing the Marseillaise). And it’s because of that this moment marks a genuine chance to take the song back from the far-right and make it a symbol of France today, united and defiant, combating tyranny both within its own borders and without.

The Marseillaise could one again become an example to all countries of the importance anthems can have, of being able to inspire people to act in extraordinary ways, something remarkably few anthems achieve (could you imagine people turning to God Save the Queen in a similar moment here?).

But I admit this feeling could only be fleeting. How the Marseillaise will be viewed in a month, six month’s, a year’s time will be entirely dependent on whether French politicians see this as a moment to unite or whether they clampdown on the country’s Muslim population in a way that will only be further divisive. If they do the latter, the Marseillaise will revert to being a contested symbol, one for the far-right only and no one else. You could soon find the Marseillaise being booed again, its current status as an icon of global unity gone in an instant, and everyone who sings it tonight wondering what on earth went wrong. That may fit the song’s history, but it shouldn’t – mustn’t – happen.

[Apologies for that being quite heavy reading. I did a far more to-the-point and celebratory piece for the BBC here. I suggest you read that too even if I clearly wrote it too quickly as there’s far too many ‘but’s!]