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.”


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!

Olympic anthem of the day #3: Kosovo!

This is what winning means

This is what winning means

Last night, Kosovo – at its first ever Olympics – won its first ever gold when the amazing judoaka, Majlinda Kelmendi, beat a young Italian, Odette Giuffrida, by a single point.

Majlinda’s victory also meant that, about ten minutes later, the world got to hear Kosovo’s national anthem for the first time: a soaring instrumental bizarrely called Europe, by the composer Mendi Mengjiqi.

My book about national anthems – buy it now! – starts with a prologue all about that song, in which I largely go drunk-driving around the beautiful Kosovan countryside with Mendi. At one point, a friend of his told me Mendi was “the most important man in Kosovo”, to which I drunkenly replied, “But no one likes his song.”

I was being honest. No one I had met, including Majlinda, did like it. They hated its name (“Our country’s Kosovo. Why’s our anthem called Europe?”). They hated the fact it had no words. They hated the fact it wasn’t Albania’s (most Kosovans are ethnically Albanian).

But Mendi’s friend was unfazed. “They will,” he said.

I hope Majlinda’s victory is the moment he’s proved right.

You can read my book’s opening on Kosovo here.

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.

Kosovo’s national anthem banned from the Olympics

If you were a new country in need of an anthem – one that would fill people’s hearts with pride as they fixed the millions of potholes in your roads – you could do worse than follow Kosovo’s example.

Mendi Menqjiqi’s ‘Hymn of Kosovo’ is beautiful, a tune that soars from its first note without a hint of the country’s war-filled past in it. There’s no sadness, no aggression.

Unfortunately, you won’t be hearing it anytime soon. The International Olympic Committee recently ruled that Kosovo’s best athlete, 21-year-old judoka Majlinda Kelmendi, cannot compete for Kosovo in the Olympics, or even as an independent. She’ll have to compete for Albania instead. She is likely to win gold in her weight class.

Kosovo is not recognized by the United Nations, despite having had its own borders, stamps and even beer for the last 10 years. The IOC will only let athletes compete for countries that are.

The situation’s ludicrous, but it’s unlikely to change. Serbia, which has claims on the country, is unlikely to ever recognise it. And nor will Pakistan, India, China or Russia, fearing it would set a precedent for minorities within their own borders.

I met Majlinda in her hometown of Peja a while ago, and she was desperate to compete for Kosovo, to give kids in the country hope and pride. She also wanted to do it for her coach, Driton Kuka, a man who fought – literally – for Kosovo’s independence during the 90s and then gave all his money to run her dōjō.

She said Kosovo’s anthem was too quiet, and that it desperately needed words, but she wanted to hear nothing else at the Games.

Thanks to the IOC, she’ll have to listen to Albania’s anthem instead. A sorry state of affairs all round.

(By the way,  the picture at the top of this post is stolen from this brilliant profile of Majlinda which recently appeared in the Financial Times. Have a read.)