Dope sounds

Just in case you think I only write about national anthems, below are a few things I’ve done recently that couldn’t be more different.

Here’s a piece on my trip to the world’s first government-owned cannabis farm in Uruguay done for the BBC’s amazing From Our Own Correspondent programme:

And here for The Guardian is an interview with the man growing that dope, the CEO of the brilliantly-named Internal Cannabis Corp. It’s a more fun read than it sounds.

“How about some music?” I don’t hear you ask. Well here for the New York Times is a piece on the British musicians who’re remaking the world’s oldest instruments. It contains some amazing sound clips of a 30,000-year-old vulture bone flute and a carnyx, and I highly recommend you click through.

And here, again for The Guardian, is a somewhat odd piece on Radiohead’s business empire, for which the band wouldn’t comment. Which says it all, doesn’t it kids? [“No, it doesn’t. Stop insinuating things about my favourite bands tax affairs”].

There will be some other pieces appearing soon, including one I did on my trip to Antarctica for British Airways’ High Life magazine (how appropriate a name given the cannabis pieces). I’ll try to remember to post those when they appear.

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”. Bloody hell!

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!

National plagiarism

If you’re visiting here due to today’s BBC piece on plagiarised anthems, then first, buy my book! But with that out of the way, here is the music you’ve come for.

This is Bosnia’s anthem followed by the music from Animal House:

Yes, they do sound remarkably similar.

Is it coincidence? I clearly think so and not just for the reason of wanting to avoid a lawsuit. But could someone have heard that in a film and remembered it 20 years on? Here’s Animal House’s opening scene where the ‘anthem’ is prominent, although so is another melody someone could equally have taken for an anthem. I’ll leave you to decide what actually happened here.

As the BBC piece makes clear, lots of anthems have similar problems. This is Uruguay’s followed by Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia.

Uruguay’s is also similar to one of Beethoven’s sonatas, and the other day I heard a similarity in one of Mozart’s piano concertos, so make of that what you will.

For all the other comparisons, please trawl through my book’s audio guide although I’ll happily put more up here if there’s a clamour. Yes, some anthems I did leave out (hello everyone in South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe!), but I had to save something for people to discover in the book.

Anyway, to finish, this is South Korea’s anthem played in the style of Auld Lang Syne just because it’s fun.

Update: The Daily Telegraph has also published a fun piece of mine today on the world’s strangest anthems. It features Nepal’s and Kazakhstan’s, which have chapters in the book. The stories surrounding those songs – one’s linked to a Maoist revolution, the other exemplifies the madness of a dictatorship – should really be more widely known. Enjoy!

The beautiful people of Montevideo beautifully sing their national anthem!

Uruguay’s anthem is probably my favourite – it’s got a tune as rambunctious as the Marseillaise, but with all the blood replaced by a joy for life. I think that’s why everyone in the clip below’s smiling. Although, yes, that might also be because my filming was so incompetent!

I made this recently while in Montevideo researching the lives of the men who wrote the anthem – one of whom also happened to write a poem called Apology for the Penis, which I thoroughly recommend you look up.

My book includes the full story of the anthem. It’s surprisingly tragic, apart from the Apology for the Penis bit, obviously. It’s out next month. Pre-order it now! Please. I need to eat!

República o Muerte se va a casa!

A few years ago, when I came up with the idea of writing a book about national anthems, the easiest part turned out to be choosing its name.

I scrolled down a list of the world’s anthems hoping to find something that could work as a book title. God Save the Queen? Nope! La Marseillaise? Next! Land der Berge, Land am Strome? Er…perhaps not.

But as soon as I hit Republic or Death – the name of Paraguay’s anthem – I knew I had a winner. It’s a phrase that sums up everything about anthems: how they can be gloriously over-the-top and passionate, but how many of them are responsible for inspiring some of the bloodiest moments in history.

Fortunately, the anthem sounds great – starting off with a rollicking 50-second intro, and then featuring so many time changes it’s near impossible to sing, more an opera than a song. Once I’d heard it, there was no going back.

This weekend I’m finally heading to Paraguay to research that song, its history and meaning today. Unsurprisingly, I’m a bit excited.

The composer behind República o Muerte also happened to write Uruguay’s amazing anthem – the less well named Himno Nacional (no, that wouldn’t work as a book title!) – so I’ll also be heading there.

If you’re in either country and fancy a cerverza or two, let me know, otherwise I’ll write something when I’m back. Abrazos!

(Apologies if the Spanish in this post makes no sense. I’ve only been learning the language for three weeks!)

Bring the noise! All the world’s national anthems played at once

If your neighbours deserve a rude awakening, or you live with your parents and just fancy annoying them, I highly recommend you play this at 2am tonight.

The website nationalanthems.me has for some reason created a track featuring almost all the world’s anthems played at once.

It starts with Uruguay’s, and you can definitely make out Algeria’s bloody Kassaman when its high-pitched trumpets come in at 28 seconds, but the rest’s just a mess, the sound of everyone’s anthems being obliterated by everyone else’s. It’s definitely one for anyone who hates nationalism.

Worryingly, I know a lot of bands who’d give their right arm to make something as noisy and obnoxious as this!

National anthems at the Olympics… in numbers!

  • 54: anthems played at the Games, one more than at Beijing
  • 46: number of times The Star-Spangled Banner was played, eight more than any other
  • 4: number of times it was played for Michael Phelps
  • 13: anthems played that weren’t at Beijing, including Algeria’s slightly unusual effort
  • 13: anthems lost since Beijing, including, sadly, Mongolia’s
  • 8/1: odds you could get on the wrong anthem being played at a medal ceremony
  • £0: money you’d have won on that bet
  • 1: anthem complaint
  • 210: seconds that the London Philharmonic Orchestra cut out of the world’s best anthem, Uruguay’s, to make sure it met Olympic rules on length
  • 210,000: number of newspaper articles published pointing out that Uruguay’s anthem had been cut
  • 0: number of times Uruguay’s anthem was actually played
  • 1: number of times IOC president Jacques Rogge shoehorned a reference to God Save the Queen into his closing speech (“These were happy and glorious games”)
  • 80,000: number of people in the Olympic stadium who didn’t get the reference
  • 1: Li-Cheng Tseng (pictured above), a Taiwanese Taekwondoist, who provided easily my favourite anthem moment of the Games.
    She was favourite to win her class, and ended up third behind Britain’s Jade Jones, but I’ve never seen someone so happy to be standing on a podium collecting a bronze. She stood and listened to God Save the Queen like it was her own. And she’s still smiling now!

If you can think of any others please let me know