Tune that does us proud
Alex Marshall picks 10 national anthems that do their countries proud, and our Saiyaun thunga phulka hami... bagged the ninth position on his list.
My plan was to listen to all the anthems (all 205 of them) — the instrumental versions that you hear at the Olympics — with a music journalist’s ear, and rank them.
Little did I know that it would take a month to track down four hours, 26 minutes and 25 seconds of music, or that most of those tunes would be so tedious I would have to limit myself to five a day to stop them putting me off brass for life.
And what did I learn from all this? That there are only a dozen anthems that are musically worth listening to — and that most of the countries these belong to do not have a hope of winning a gold in Beijing.
Anthems go back as far as the 1560s, when William of Orange’s family decided he needed a song, Het Wilhelmus (‘The William’), to accompany his exploits fighting for Dutch independence against the Spanish. It is a peaceful song with a winding melody. In short, it is everything an anthem shouldn’t be, which is perhaps why no other country developed an anthem for a good two centuries. God Save the Queen was not performed until 1745, La Marseillaise until 1792, and what is now Germany’s — music written by Haydn — until 1797.
With colonialism, anthems spread worldwide, although most were not made official until the 1920s and 1930s. The first time they were used at the Olympics was 1924. But colonialism did not lead to every country adopting the hymns and military marches that pass for anthems in Europe. Three other types developed — folk anthems based on traditional melodies; ‘the Arab fanfare’, common in Middle Eastern countries and consisting of little more than a trumpet flourish; and the Latin American ‘epic anthems’.
From listening to 205 of them I have realised there are actually just two types of anthem — the perfunctory, lifeless ones, and those that make the effort to be different.
Shame that 190 fall into the first group.
The other big disappointment with the majority of anthems is that no matter which country they come from, they sound like they were written by a band leader from the Royal Navy.
“There are historical reasons for this,” says Derek Scott, professor of critical musicology at Leeds University. “The UK’s was the first real national anthem in 1745. And it was adopted by dozens of other countries: Sweden, Germany, even Russia at one point. The idea developed that it was only the words that were important in expressing national character. The tune to God Save the Queen was seen as meaning ‘national anthem’ and the words were what made it appropriate to each country.”
In spite of this, there are a handful of anthems that do stand out — either because they use non-western instruments, scales and tunes, or because they take a western anthem and then toy with it, making it solemn or funny, and entirely their own.
Most of the ‘Stans’ of central Asia have anthems that sound like they could not have come from anywhere apart from former Soviet states. They trudge along in minor keys, filled with
imposing strings and booming drums, as if written to accompany armies clambering into battle.
Then there are Nepal’s, Senegal’s and Nigeria’s, all of which make use of local instruments. Senegal’s is even called Strum your koras, strike your balafons after the instruments that play
it. Guinea’s, a military march, inexplicably has a 10-second ‘polka break’ halfway through. Burundi’s does a similar trick, turning into the soundtrack from a Bruce Lee film for 10 seconds before realising that perhaps it wasn’t the best idea after all.
When you hear tunes like these, which are genuinely different and exciting — world music fans would be lapping them up if they didn’t know they were anthems — it makes you wonder why others do not follow their example.