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.

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.

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 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?

Turning Japanese

Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms!

There’s been lots of national anthem news I should have posted about lately. Crimea lost an anthemgained one for a few days, then replaced it with Russia’s; Bangladesh broke the world record for anthem singing, so joining a bizarre anthem war that’s been raging in South Asia for a few years…

But instead of doing that, I’ve been stuffing myself with facts about Japan.

I’m off there in five hours – eek! – to learn about Kimigayo, probably the world’s most controversial anthem, which teachers have been refusing to sing for almost 70 years.

I’m sure the traditionally shy and retiring Japanese will be happy to talk to me about it!

I’ll write something when I’m back, but in the meantime enjoy the cherry blossoms. They’ll apparently be peaking when I hit Osaka. Come on!

Ukraine’s not dead yet

A protestor above Maidan Square, copyright

A protestor above Maidan Square, copyright

God knows what’s happening in Kiev right now.

There’s rubber bullets and tear gas, flaming buses, several deaths, rumours of the government hiring thugs to discredit the protests, even bizarre text messages (everyone near the protests has been getting ones saying, “You are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance”)!

It seems like chaos, and a long way from November when people started gathering in Maidan Square to try and force the government to sign a trade deal with the EU.

The only thing I can say for certain is the odd fact that Ukraine’s national anthem has been at the centre of the protests ever since they began.

The tune, called Shche ne vmerla Ukraina – Ukraine’s not died yet, has reportedly been sung on the hour, every hour, in Maidan since November.

On New Year’s Eve, the protesters even tried to break the world record for most people singing an anthem at once (sadly they didn’t beat the current 121,653 achieved by an Indian conglomerate).

Why’s the anthem so popular? There’s the obvious reasons: that singing it makes the protestors seem the true patriots, and that the words are perfect for a revolution. “We’ll lay down our souls and bodies, all for our freedom,” goes one line.

But I like to think the real reason is it’s got a amazingly good chorus – the song speeding up, and each word gaining about 14 syllables so they can run up and down the tune.

It’s perfect for a mass singalong, especially before lobbing some rocks at police!

The version above was recorded in the square last month. The singer’s Ruslana, a former MP and Eurovision winner (!) who just happens to be Ukraine’s most popular musician.

‘What country are we in again?’ and other anthemic tales from Wikileaks

Julian Assange singing

This weekend, I spent a couple of hours trawling through the US diplomatic cables Wikileaks released a few years ago, looking for mentions of national anthems. It’s the sort of thing that seems a good idea when writing a book!

I was hoping to find some nuggets of information revealing the importance of these songs – ambassadors panicking because they were being sung at protests, that kind of thing.

I did find a lot of that: several hundred cables featuring ambassadors panicking everywhere from Burma to Iraq. I even learned about conflicts I’d never heard of before, like one involving the Bakassi,  a rebel group hoping to split from Cameroon. According to one cable, a US official met the group’s leader who told him his men would “rather die like dogs on the side of the road” than live under Cameroonian rule. He then promised his men were ready to have their own country. “We’ve already picked an anthem!” he said, as if that were enough.

But some of what I found was more unexpected. One cable with the title, ‘What country are we in again?’, is all about how a leading Ukrainian politician has the Soviet Union’s anthem for his ringtone.

Then there’s one from Saudi Arabia about the country’s former king, Fahd. It said he must be on his last legs because he could no longer stand for his anthem (a brass flourish that lasts a whopping 33 seconds). The cable was sent in 1996; Fahd lived for another nine years.

There’s also one from Turkey relaying complaints about treatment of a detainee at Guantanamo Bay. Oddly the Turks seemed more annoyed that this man was having the Star-Spangled Banner blasted at him repeatedly than they were about him being stripped naked and made to bark like a dog.

I could go on (there’s a cable from an official in Kyrgyzstan talking about women “lustily” singing their anthem at him), but it’s probably best to just let you search the cables for yourselves.

Just pick a word – any word – to look for. Ok, not swear words. I mean these are diplomatic cables we’re talking about. They have standards. Hang on: 4 f***s and 81 s**ts! Tut tut!