Beloved songs of struggle and hope: An anthemic history (Book Review)

Title: Republic or Death; Author: Alex Marshall; Publisher: Penguin Random House; Pages: 368; Price: Rs.899

Apart from a flag and the homeland, the most tangible symbols of and for any nation and its patriotic consciousness are musical compositions evoking and lauding its history, traditions and struggles and sung by everyone from earnest schoolchildren to delirious sports fans. But what makes an anthem, how old is the tradition and do they hold the same meaning for new generations or immigrants?

It is these questions, and more, that drew British journalist Alex Marshall on a multi-year, multi-continent odyssey to bring out the nature and history of the songs “which inspire the fiercest of feelings” but despite forming a fundamental part of “national consciousness”, have had the “fascinating stories” of their creation, adoption, and the usually unlucky or forgotten creator “rarely, if ever, been told”.

Take an example closer to home. All Indians know their anthem and its creator and most know that he also wrote the anthem used by Bangladesh, but do we know that of neighbouring Nepal – which also might be the “only national anthem written on a Casio keyboard?”

Marshall’s quest came of mild annoyance while interviewing “rap’s next best thing” for a newspaper. Put off by the singer’s repeated insistence his latest single was “important”, he wondered “how a song about smoking dope was as life-changing” as against “..songs people had fought over and protested against; songs that made people wake up and decide to build barricades”.

Though his debut book focuses on anthems of 10 countries, new and old, and one special case – the Islamic State, a ‘country’ that many others seek to prevent from a formal existence – Marshall, in the course of his witty and hilarious but insightful account , focuses on others too. India too figures, but for a wrong reason!

It is a wide expanse he covers – spanning three democracies born out of revolution (France, the US and Nepal), the sprawling former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan as well as tiny Liechtenstein, traditional Japan, nations where divisions persist (South Africa, Bosnia and Herzegovina), singular Egypt and Paraguay, and then the IS – for which he luckily didn’t have to travel to Syria or Iraq.

These anthems get extensive – and unforgettable – treatment to understand their origins and contemporary relevance, which becomes an absorbing history lesson too. It also entails a brave but foolhardy attempt to retrace, on cycle, the route taken by a band of supporters from Marseille to Paris during the French Revolution, entering a competition for the best singer of the US’ anthem, and touching a giant cast of the hand of Kazakh President Narsultan Nazarbayev, who also revised the words to his country’s anthem, and desperately trying to find anyone even remotely critical of him.

There is also his attempts to meet Nepal’s deposed king, Gyanendra, for his views on his country’s new anthem, find why Bosnia and Herzegovina’s anthem has no words, trace the birthplace of Sayed Darwish, the father of modern Egyptian Arab music, in a Cairo slum, try to master the intricacies of Xhosa and Afrikaans pronunciation, meet a enthusiastic, bemedalled naval officer in landlocked Paraguay (whose anthem has furnished the book’s title) and finally and hopefully enter a competition to pen a new anthem for Switzerland. There are many more idiosyncratic encounters and situations.

Apart from learning how anthems broadly comprise four main types – church hymns, like Britain’s, military marches, especially Russia’s, short fanfares, mostly in Middle East, and epic, “mini-opera-like” anthems of South America – but there are those who buck the trend, we also come to know South Africans’ view of their five-language anthem, why jihadists need one and what Ayatollah Khomeini thought of Western music, why Japanese teachers are anti-conformists, and which anthem ensued out of lust.

Finally, there are surprising findings on anthems’ relevance, which will inspire some deep thought over the meaning, construction and symbols of patriotism and national identity.

Those who liked this need not worry. Marshall is busy with more books “aiming to bring other unusual, enlightening tales to people’s attention”, taking “fascinating human stories… to reveal country-sized ones”.

(18.01.2015 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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