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!) 

Did the President of Kazakhstan steal my luggage?

Here’s a picture of Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, gently brushing past some flowers in a metro station:


And here’s one of him on an apartment block:


And here he is in a bookshop, looking somewhat surprised to be on the bestseller list:


And this is a picture of a baggage carousel without my luggage on it :(


I’ve now been back from Kazakhstan for five days. My luggage hasn’t!

I probably should blame my airline for this, but can I rule out Nazarbayev? I have, after all, just spent two weeks in his country asking people questions about him and how he came to write the country’s national anthem (he’s the only world leader to have written one), and most people I met found my questions extremely annoying.

Surely one of them told him about me and asked for revenge? He’s a man with almost unlimited power; pinching my bag wouldn’t pose a problem.

Why were people so uneasy talking about him? It could have something to do with Borat – Kazakhs being fed-up of Westerners who don’t understand their culture asking questions. But part of it is because you just don’t talk politics in Kazakhstan. It’s best not to. It’s actually illegal to criticise Nazarbayev, his family or his business interests. And given that, anyone would find it hard answering questions about him.

Fortunately, you don’t need to talk to many people to work out what they think of either the song or the man. Just go to Bayterek, a golden tower in the capital city, Astana, and watch people queue to put their hand in a cast of Nazarbayev’s palm print, and then watch their faces when the national anthem starts playing…!

A big thank you to everyone I did meet over there and who gave me their time. Kazakhstan turns out to be filled with amazingly kind people who’ll go out of their way to help you, and will ply you with as much food and drink on you as they can (horse sausage!). They’ll also answer any (non-political) questions you have and because of them I’m really looking forward to writing about the place for my book.

First, though, I should probably go and buy some pants!

Update: my bag arrived! Sorry, Mr President!

Kazakhstan – home of the world’s most musical president?


There’s going to be an awful lot of national anthem news in the next week. This Sunday, it’s the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner, with a massive party planned in Baltimore. 

Then on the 18th, Scotland might become independent, a move that would see it get its own anthem at long last (The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles, obviously).

So where am I - the world’s only anthem journalist - going to be when these momentous events take place? In Baltimore? In Edinburgh? Er, no. In Kazakhstan. In its capital, Astana. Looking at the world’s biggest tent (it’s the thing in the picture). Yes, my timing’s impeccable!

The reason I’m going is to research the country’s anthem, co-written by its President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. It’s the only anthem in the world written by a ruling head of state.

Nazarbayev is a bit of a musician. He posts songs on his website, has written tunes for Kazakh boy bands and has even been known to use his dombra – the Kazakh guitar – as a diplomatic tool. Given that, maybe his authorship shouldn’t be a complete surprise, but I’ll be spending the next couple of weeks praying his minders allow me to ask him about it. Anyone know his mobile number?

I’ll post something about my travels when I’m back!

The Star-Spangled Banner: a “nasty piece of work” or the greatest song America has?


You decide! Or, er, read this article I wrote for The Guardian about the song’s 200th anniversary, then make your mind up.

The article features comments from a descendant of the anthem’s author; a pop star who was banned from US radio for messing with it; and many other fascinating people. Yes, I did try calling Bruce Springsteen. No, he wasn’t available!

It also mentions Marvin Gaye’s bizarrely sexy version of the anthem, which is fortunate as it means I have an excuse to use the above portrait of Gaye to illustrate this post.

The portrait’s stolen from this article about Gaye’s anthem, which appeared in Grantland last year. It’s a great read and well worth your time… after my Guardian article, of course!

How Turkey’s anthem decided its election


Things not to do in an election campaign:

1) Visit the grave of the composer of your country’s national anthem, a song displayed in every classroom

2) Announce to dozens of cameramen that your father and him were best mates

3) Wistfully read aloud the words to that anthem

4) Get its name wrong

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a 70-year-old politician running in Turkey’s presidential election, somehow managed to do exactly that last week mistaking a poem called Martyrs of Galipoli for the country’s anthem, the Independence March (that’s him getting ready to make the gaffe in the photo).

He admittedly only had a slim chance of beating Tayyip Erdogan in the 10 August vote before making the mistake. But now… Yes, he’s screwed, isn’t he?

It’s a big shame, as the election’s important, especially if you’re a fan of women laughing in public. Ihsanoglu was Erdogan’s only serious opposition. But, if you can’t recognise the words to your country’s anthem, should you be allowed to be in charge of it? (“Yes!” I hear you shout, but that’s not what a 50-year-old builder in Istanbul’s going to think, is it?)

Ihsanoglu’s been trying to defend himself ever since, saying things like, “I learnt the anthem while sucking my mother’s milk.” It hasn’t helped; no one needs that image stuck in their heads!

The BBC’s got a great primer on the election here. Go and have a read  and see an awful photo of Erdogan shamelessly clambering for votes by playing football.

Hate Ukraine? Then write Donetsk’s national anthem!


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 on ”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?