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.

RIP Amber Gurung, composer of the world’s strangest national anthem

Amber Gurung's body before being taken for cremation. By the end of the day, it was so drenched in garlands you could barely see him. Credit: RSS

Amber Gurung’s body before being taken for cremation. By the end of the day, it was so drenched in garlands you could barely see him. Credit: RSS

The composer of the world’s strangest – most joyful – national anthem, Nepal’s, has just died.

Amber Gurung was 78, and had long been in and out of hospital due to complications around diabetes and Parkinson’s, but it’s still taken me as a bit of a shock.

His anthem was a big motivation for me writing my book on these songs. When I first heard it, written on a Casio keyboard, sounding more like the music you’d hear blasting out of a taxi than a stadium, I instantly wanted to know more and travelled to meet him.

Gurung wasn’t just an anthem composer, though. He was the father of Nepali music despite growing up across the border in Darjeeling.

Here’s his first hit – Nau Lakh Tara Udaye (Nine hundred thousand stars have arisen) – about the problems of the Nepali diaspora in India.

It was written in 1961 and deemed so subversive that India instantly banned it from the radio. Nepalis spread it by playing it on hand-wound gramophones and blasting it out over village PA systems.

Another of my favourites is this, since adopted, oddly, as the anthem of the Nepalese army. You can find dozens of rock and dance covers of it online showing how much it’s loved in the country.

When I met him in 2012, he couldn’t have been more welcoming or honest, happily speaking with me about his life, Nepal’s history and the Maoist revolution that led to him being asked to write the anthem, how difficult he found writing that melody (“It’s very easy to make difficult songs, y’know. It’s very difficult to make easy ones”), even how he didn’t really like it.

“This is not great music,” he said. “Anyone could have done it, and any government could have chosen it. But it is a lucky tune. Time has made this song the anthem, not me.”

Amber was cremated at Pashupatinath Temple, the holiest site in Nepal, with full honours – a military salute, a brass flourish or two, hundreds of people looking on.

In many ways, that makes him the most celebrated anthem composer ever. Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, the composer of la Marseillaise, was buried in front of just a handful of friends in a suburb of France, for instance.

Amber’s anthem may sound simple, child-like even, but it’s proof that anthems can impact whole countries – millions of people – in ways other music just can’t.

Rest in peace.

Update: I received a message from one of his sons today. “We are still carrying the death ritual, it will be over in thirteen days. He is observing both the Hindu and Buddhist rituals, this is not our usual practice. He received a state funeral. The prime minister, army and police chiefs, minsters and general public all paid homage to him. Different party leaders from Maoist faction, UML, Nepali Congress, writers, poets, musicians all came to see him in the hospital. He seems like a unifying personality.”

The worst video of Nepal’s national anthem you’ll ever see!

I recorded this back in 2012, while doing some research in Pokhara, Nepal’s second city.

From the ‘camera work’, I appear to either be drunk or so nervous I can’t stop my hands from shaking. I’m not sure what the problem actually was, but if the clip doesn’t make you sick, I hope you’ll at least enjoy the music!

Nepal’s anthem (called Made of Hundreds of Flowers) is one of the world’s weirdest, but I love it as it couldn’t sound more like the country – it doesn’t try to sound like God Save the Queen or la Marsellaise as so many other countries’ anthems do.

It was composed by an old Nepali musician, Amber Gurung, and the words are by the poet Byakul Maila. I’m pretty sure both survived the recent earthquakes unscathed, but obviously the country didn’t. Donate if you can.

More evidence Nepalis are the best people

Amber Gurung ill

Earlier this week, I learned the sad news that a musician called Amber Gurung was in hospital having suffered a fall (that’s him in the photo).

Amber’s the composer of Nepal’s national anthem – perhaps the world’s strangest, sounding more like the music you’d hear in a takeaway than a sports stadium.

If he were instead the composer of another country’s anthem, he’d right now be ignored and left quietly to die. But as he’s Nepal’s he’s not. Instead the government there have announced they’ll pay all his medical bills in the hope he can get back to health.

The government also recently announced they would give the poet behind their anthem, a man called Byakul Maila, an annual salary so he didn’t have to live in poverty anymore. Two bits of amazing news. Clearly Nepalis think a lot of their anthem!

Amber and Byakul’s stories will appear in my book once it’s eventually out. They involve some Maoists and a King and are far more interesting than this blog post makes them sound!

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.

Maoists and monarchies

I’m back from researching Nepal’s beautiful anthem. Although it turns out I may have to return there soon. Two things make me think the anthem may not last:

Baburam Bhattarai, the country’s Prime Minister, said this to me: “If we had had our own way, we would have created a better anthem… Everything is temporary in the world, nothing is absolute.”

(Dr Bhattarai, a Maoist, is currently trying to negotiate a new constitution for the country. It’s six years overdue. He’s also perhaps the only prime minister globally who puts his CV online. It has a “countries travelled” section)

I met a lot of people who want a return to monarchy and the old, royalist anthem. Gyanendra Shah, the former king, may have been thrown out by a popular uprising, but “at least he wasn’t corrupt.”

Saying that, the real story of the anthem is to be found in this packet of biscuits:

The explanation for that will have to wait.

Mao’s revenge

Video

The world’s strangest anthem, by a long stretch, is Nepal’s. Sayaun Thunga Phool Ka (Made of Hundreds of Flowers) sounds like it was recorded on a cheap keyboard in a kid’s bedroom. There are no trumpets, no military drums, and not even much in the way of grandeur. Which is why I’m about to get on a plane to Kathmandu to find out more about it.

I already know it’s a story that takes in Bollywood, a Maoist revolution and a one-time king who now sells turpentine for a living. But I have a feeling there will be a lot more besides.

I’ll post an update in a fortnight.