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 legstutis@mail.ru 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?

Dumbwalking in Tokyo


Dumbwalking is what you do when you’re staring at a smartphone and end up falling over someone’s bag and knocking your teeth out. It’s also the number one threat to Japanese society as we know it!

Here’s a piece about it I recently recorded for the BBC’s excellent From Our Own Correspondent programme.

You can also read about it on the BBC’s website.

I basically spent a night trying to trip people up at the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. Yes, I’m surprised I got paid for it too.

Sorry this has got nothing to do with national anthems - the point of this blog - but I made this on a recent trip to Japan to research the country’s anthem so it’s, sort of, relevant!

One fact I forgot to mention in the piece is that Japanese newspapers publish “death by smartphone” statistics giving running counts of how many people have been run over while updating their Facebook status. Seriously. I’m sure newspapers in other countries will be doing the same soon.

The woman in the photo is NOT a dumbwalker, by the way. She’s just a very nice person I met at Shibuya and was happy to pretend to be one for me!

Bad ways to learn you need a haircut, part one

Watching yourself on the news! 

I was on the BBC’s World News Today programme yesterday talking about Switzerland’s ongoing national anthem contest, among other things (over 200 entries received, one oddly in Portuguese, winner to be announced next year).

You can watch it again here if the above photo isn’t enough for you.

Thanks to Philippa for the nice chat, although I wish the hair and make-up department had offered me a restyle as well as putting a lot of foundation on my face!