True soul music

Soul Music

The BBC’s brilliant Soul Music programme recently profiled Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika – the great anti-apartheid hymn that’s now part of South Africa’s national anthem; undeniably one of the most important songs ever written.

I, er, very stupidly managed to talk myself out of being part of the programme when they were researching it this summer, so it’s nice to hear they still made a fantastic programme without me – although I do disagree with the view that Enoch Sontonga stole the tune from a Welsh hymn!

I really recommend you head here now to listen, then pick up my book to learn even more about it, especially its somewhat contentious meaning today.

Longread: how South Africa got its five-language national anthem

Penguin have put up an extract from my book on their blog! It’s about South Africa’s anthem and is a long read, but what else is the weekend for? Enjoy!

(I have no idea why they use the below picture to illustrate it!)

Source: Longread: how South Africa got its five-language national anthem

The Rugby World Cup’s anthems: from porn to tragedy, and everything in between!

Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni and Matias Aguero screaming Italy's national anthem before the playing Wales (stolen from Stu Forster/Getty Images!)

Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni and Matias Aguero screaming Italy’s national anthem before playing Wales (stolen from Stu Forster/Getty Images!)

The Rugby World Cup’s been introducing people to some fantastic national anthems. Not least my favourite, Uruguay’s. Wait until the end of this clip to see a huge, 6-foot, 20-odd stone man being brought to tears by singing it.

Or go here to see a man from Fiji showing equal emotion.

The fascinating, politically significant and often hilarious stories behind many of the anthems are all in my book, Republic or Death!, which features chapters on South Africa’s five-language anthem, Japan’s haunting Kimigayo, France’s rousing Marseillaise, Uruguay’s rambunctious anthem, the US’s Star-Spangled Banner and even my very own God Save the Queen.

But for those who’re yet to pick up a copy and just want a quick guide to interesting things they can say in the pub while watching matches, here are some fact’s for you:

Uruguay’s: the man behind this genuinely great song is more famous in his home country for writing a poem called Apology for the Penis that tries to prove the male appendage is better than its female equivalent. As his biographer told me, “His life is a bad example for schoolchildren, but respectability is not a requirement for literary appreciation!” He also used to black-up so he could write “in the jargon of slaves”. Hmm.

France’s: to keep with the smut theme, the author of la Marseillaise found his life so upended after writing that song that he had to write pornographic ditties to make a living. One’s about a couple having sex in a stream. Unsurprisingly, it’s not as widely known today as his anthem!

Japan’s: the country’s anthem was first written by a British soldier, but he got the music so wrong – it went up when a Japanese singer would naturally go down, and vice versa – the Japanese had to overhaul it. The song, Kimigayo, is also easily the most controversial anthem of all time – the chapter about it in my book is filled with so much tragedy and sadness, it’s a real turning point – which explains why the Japanese team have been ignoring it and singing a rap called Japanese Warrior instead!

South Africa’s: Immediately after apartheid South Africa played three songs one after the other as its anthem. It took Nelson Mandela a year to realise he’d made a huge mistake by requiring that – even he was bored by having to stand there for 6 minutes to listen to it all – and order a change. Today’s five-language anthem is the beautiful result.

Wales: We wouldn’t sing national anthems before sports event it wasn’t for the Welsh. In 1905, their rugby team sang Land of My Fathers (Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau) in response to a visiting New Zealand team’s haka and soon the world was copying their example. So the next time you find yourself having to bellow one, blame Wales!

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.