God save our ears!

At the end of August, you might have seen the below clip of a Libyan military band butchering God Save the Queen when playing it for British foreign secretary/buffoon Boris Johnson:

It is very funny.

But I did feel slightly sorry for the Libyans when that clip emerged as few people pointed out that they’re far from alone in butchering anthems, even in the Middle East. So, please, let me jog your memories of the wonders of the Egyptian military band – and especially the time they played Russia’s national anthem to Vladimir Putin:


Jehovah Witnesses – your last hope against nationalism?


Some Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses – as bad as ISIS! Photo stolen from James Hill of the New York Times

I was reading an article recently about Russia potentially limiting Jehovah’s Witness activities this week. Apparently being a member is equivalent to being a member of ISIS, unless I’ve got this wrong.

One of the apparent reasons they’re disliked is they’re pacifists. Another is they refuse to take part in patriotic festivals. But there’s something else many Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to do that isn’t mentioned in the piece: sing national anthems.

Everywhere from Tanzania to India, Jehovah’s Witnesses have had to go to court to defend their right not to sing anthems. They see singing as worshipping a country, when you’re only meant to worship God. In 1940s America, members were literally lynched, tarred and feathered, and thrown out of schools, for their opposition to the anthem, flag and pledge of allegiance.

But that opposition has achieved one surprising thing: the passing of laws protecting freedom of speech and thought worldwide.

At this time of growing nationalism, do we actually need Jehovah’s Witnesses more than ever to prevent any pernicious anthem laws being passed? If so, that’s a weird thing to say given that group’s own scandals, which suggest it’s not too keen about freedom of speech in its own organisation. Its lawsuits are also entirely self-interested. They don’t care about anyone else’s right to sing an anthem or not.

We really are in interesting times.

Insult Russia’s anthem, get a year in jail! Or perhaps not

Putin sings!

“You’re the one that I want. You are the one, one…”

This week, Russia’s Supreme Court gave the go ahead for a bizarre law that would make “distorting” the country’s anthem a criminal offence – punishable by up to a year’s prison.

The law’s the idea of two politicians who were shocked by an incident in Russian-held Crimea last month when the anthem was sung at the opening of that region’s congress.

The anthem’s lyrics were beamed up onto a screen at the event, but the computer technician “accidentally” used the words from a parody so everyone got to sing about Russia being “crazy” and “insane” rather than “sacred” and “mighty”.

If this all seems a bit familiar, it’s because it is. A few years ago, in neighbouring Kazakhstan, someone accidentally played Ricky Martin’s Livin’ la Vida Loca instead of their anthem. The result? A law making insulting the Kazakh anthem a criminal offence, punishable by a year in jail!

Is the Russian law going to pass? Of course not!

Putin’s not nuts. It’d technically mean you’d have to arrest every bad singer in Russia. And it’d also stop Russians doing amazing things like playing the anthem backwards while drinking orange juice on a plane (see below; watch to the end). And who on earth would want to stop that?

Vladimir Putin and the case of the disappearing Motherland

Stolen from Alexey Druzhinin of AFP. Sorry as always. Clearly not that sorry, but...!

“Hello, ladies!” Picture stolen from Alexey Druzhinin of AFP. Sorry, as always. Clearly I’m not that sorry, but…

First things first, I don’t work for an intelligence service looking to undermine Russia! I should probably say that given recent comments from the Kremlin.

Second things second, I’ve written a lot about Russia’s national anthem before – both on here and in my book – because its story is amazing, especially the fact that one of the first things Putin did when he came to power was change it back to the anthem Russia had used during the Soviet Union.

It was a shrewd move, symbolising to every Russian he was bringing back the glory days.

But what I haven’t mentioned before is that he also apparently changed the lyrics. This is the anthem’s Soviet chorus:

Sing to the Motherland, home of the free
Bulwark of peoples in brotherhood strong
O Party of Lenin, the strength of the people
To Communism’s triumph lead us on

Obviously the Lenin bit needed a makeover, and definitely that bit about Communism triumphing. I mean, you can’t have oligarchs running around with those lyrics in place.

But how about that first line; that Motherland? Seems perfect for Mother Russia, doesn’t it? Well, this is what the anthem says today:

Be glorious, our free Fatherland
Age-old union of fraternal peoples
Ancestor-given wisdom of the people
Be glorious, our country. We are proud of you

I’ll let you jump to your own conclusions about what that change means.

I only realised this had happened last weekend while listening to an interview with Bridget Kendall, the BBC’s retiring diplomatic correspondent (from 31 minutes in).

“When I first went to the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, I was a student…propaganda was in full swing and you heard the anthem all the time,” she says, before discussing how its use is one of the best ways to trace how the country’s changed.

She’s surprisingly even-handed during the interview and doesn’t remotely criticise Putin. “I’m a long-term optimist when it comes to Russia,” she says at one point. “They’re on a difficult political twist at the moment, but you think what they’ve been through over the past 30 years. Of course it’s going to take decades to sort it out.”

Update: I’ve been told this actually might just be Kendall’s mistake and there was no change at all. A sign of every people’s prejudices of Russia? That’s just as interesting a story.

Laibach and think of North Korea

Kim Jong-Un with a guitar!

Last week, the great, if slightly deranged, Slovenian band Laibach announced they would soon become the first Western group to play Pyongyang.

Yes, Pyongyang, North Korea.

Their press release talks a lot about building bridges and includes lots of slogans like, “We are millions and millions are one.” It sounds, in other words, very ‘on message’ for a band about to play a dictatorship.

But I’m pretty sure on 21 August, the day after their main show, you’ll wake up to headlines saying, “Rock band locked up in North Korea.” Why? Because Laibach have a habit of covering the national anthems of the countries they play in, subverting them, drawing out their ridiculousness, and I don’t think they’re going to be able to resist North Korea’s.

For a start, it’s suitably grandiose, but it’s also filled with lyrics like this: “So rich in silver and in gold you are…Korea shall ever thrive.” Quite easy to mock, I think you’ll agree.

(The Song of General Kim Il-Sung, the country’s “real” anthem is even worse in that respect).

The news does, though, provide me with a chance to post one of Laibach’s amazing anthem covers, all available on their album Volk. So, drum roll please… here’s Russia’s made weird as hell:

Yes, maybe an acquired taste. But look, here’s some North Korean accordionists playing A-Ha’s Take on Me, so stop complaining!

Update: They didn’t play the anthem, dammit! But here’s a very funny BBC video of North Koreans giving their reaction to the performance. I don’t think the band will be invited back.

Hate Ukraine? Then write Donetsk’s national anthem!

This is Sergei Grits/AP's photo of some masked activists in the Donetsk People's Republic. Apologies for stealing it, but it's really good and I'm not there to take my own!

This is Sergei Grits/AP’s photo of some masked activists in the Donetsk People’s Republic. Apologies for stealing it, but it’s really good and I’m not there to take my own!

What do you do if you’ve blown up a plane and need some good publicity? If you’re the Donetsk People’s Republic you, er, launch a contest for a national anthem.

God knows what the rebels hope getting an anthem will achieve, but the call’s serious: anyone who wants to submit words has until midnight Wednesday to do so. Just email legstutis@mail.ru with your entry.

Given the fighting’s intensifying around the city, I’m not sure the republic will last until Wednesday, but still, I imagine there’s a lot of Dutch people who will want to enter.

I have contacted the republic’s government to ask why they’re doing this, why they’ve only given a few days for entries, and why they’re not just using Russia’s anthem since they want to become part of that country, but they haven’t got back to me. I’ll update this if they ever do.

I did also try calling their “hotline for complaints about cases of armed looting and possible terrorist acts and provocations”, but no one picked up. Probably for the best!

As an aside, if you’re interested in a) what’s happening in Ukraine, and b) music, I thoroughly recommend this Foreign Policy piece from last month about ”the Ukraine crisis as told through rap videos”. Fascinating, disturbing and bizarre, in that order.

Update: The fighting’s got worse, and no anthem’s emerged. It’s not going to happen is it?