Turning Japanese

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 - bloody hell! - 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!

The most beautiful piano playing about the world’s most violent country

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There were 24,000 murders in Venezuela last year. That’s 65 a day - an almost cartoonish level of violence.

It says something’s seriously wrong there, regardless of what benefits you think Hugo Chavez brought to the country’s poor before he died, or whether you support his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

The violence partly explains the ongoing demonstrations in Caracas, in which three students died this month.

It also partly explains why the pianist Gabriela Montero spends a lot of her time recording protest versions of the country’s national anthem.

Gloria al Bravo Pueblo – Glory to the Brave People – is normally described as a Latin American Marseillaise, a proud military march that spirals to a cymbal-crashing ending.

But what Gabriela turns it into is something far more powerful and worth your time. Here’s just three of her takes on it.

In the first two, she makes the anthem sound like the song of a heart-broken lover, one who can barely hold their emotions together long enough to get to the end.

But in the third, she turns it into something altogether different: a fiery tango and a theme song for cacerolazos – those protests where everyone bangs pots and pans to wake up corrupt politicians. It is 100% fantastic.

[For anyone reading on a mobile, you can find the videos here,  here and here]

Gabriela’s playing concerts in Germany, Italy, the UK, Serbia, Canada and the US in the next few weeks. Go along! Her full schedule’s here.

(The photo at the top is copyright Reuters and shows a tribute to one of the students who died this month)

What better way to celebrate the Sochi Olympics than singing Russia’s national anthem with thousands of gay rights-supporting Swedes?

They’ve turned one of the world’s more terrifying anthems into something joyful. And it’s brilliant [video link for anyone on a mobile]. A shame no one from Russia’s government was there to join in!

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has made potentially the world’s worst song

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the great Swedish footballer, has never hidden the fact he hates his country’s national anthem, ‘Du gamla, Du fria’ (Thou ancient, thou free). “It’s long and boring,” he’s repeatedly said, explaining why he doesn’t sing it before matches.

So it’s somewhat odd he’s just decided to make the anthem even worse by recording a spoken word version that sounds like Evanescence.

Yes, Evanescence, the Christian metal act no one’s wanted to hear since 2003.

And yes, spoken word, the style of music no one’wanted to hear since… Actually, has anyone ever wanted to hear a spoken word record???

Bizarrely, he made it with the help of Max Martin, the super producer behind most of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Britney’s biggest hits. No, I’m not quite sure what went wrong either.

There’s also a video in which Zlatan jumps naked into a freezing lake and tries to shoot a stag.

This has all been paid for by Volvo. DEAR GOD VOLVO, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?

Ukraine’s protests are not dead yet!

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God knows what’s happening in Kiev right now.

There’s rubber bullets and tear gas, several casualties, flaming buses, 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, 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 bloody good chorus - the song speeding up as it begins, 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.

Never mind the bollocks, here’s the Maltese Sex Pistol!

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He’s 54, looks like an accountant and normally writes songs about reading his horoscope over breakfast, but Vince Fabri (pictured) could just be the most punk musician in Europe.

A few days ago, Vince loaded a parody of Malta’s national anthem onto his Facebook page, apparently annoying half of the Mediterranean island in the process.

“O Lord,” he wrote, taking the anthem’s opening words, “do not look upon this whore of a land, this mother who now sells herself. Let us make some money.”

Within five minutes people were leaving messages calling him a traitor, demanding a public apology and, oddly, saying he couldn’t have committed a bigger crime if he’d tried.

Why’d he do it? Disappointingly it wasn’t a tribute to the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen. Instead, Vince is angry with the Maltese government’s latest moneymaking plan: to sell passports to anyone who wants one.

All someone will soon have to do is pay the government €1.15 million, promise they haven’t committed any war crimes and that they don’t have any infectious diseases, and then a golden passport is theirs. (No, I’m not sure why having AIDS is as equal a barrier to citizenship as committing ethnic cleansing, but those are the rules!)

The government’s hoping to raise at least €900m from the scheme, which suggests there’s 783 people out there who desperately want to become Maltese.

Vince is a councillor for the country’s main opposition party, so his parody’s largely been dismissed as a cynical political move. But full marks for effort, and for showing that toying with an anthem can still anger a lot of people.

As a bonus, here is a brilliant pop opera version of the anthem by Maltese celebrity Enzo Gusman. I don’t speak Maltese, but I’m pretty sure there are no whores mentioned! 

Hell will freeze over before I stop reporting on the Swiss national anthem contest

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I know I’ve banged on about Switzerland’s search for a new anthem for what seems like eternity, but what’s one more story between friends?

Here’s a piece I just recorded for the BBC’s amazing From Our Own Correspondent programme.

If you don’t want to click that link for my dulcet tones alone, there’s also a brilliant piece in that episode by the BBC’s North American correspondent Rajini Vaidyanathan about her visit to the hamlet of Hell, Michigan. Yes, Hell has literally frozen over!