Call for change in Peru raises questions over national anthems

National anthems tend to be relics of different times with different values. Is there a case for changing them regularly to keep up with the times?

A guard of honour salutes the Peruvian president Alan Garcia, left, and his visiting Chilean counterpart, Sebastian Pinera, as Peru’s national anthem is played during a state ceremony in Lima.
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National anthems are supposed to be triumphant declarations of a country's virtues, preferably set to a rousing piece of music. For example, the UAE's anthem, sung in schools every day, speaks of pride for the country, while Britain's God Save the Queen perfectly reflected the feelings of patriotism in the UK this weekend for the royal wedding.

So the news last week that there is a movement in Peru to change its national anthem is interesting. But, for those familiar with the 1821 ditty, it's not exactly a surprise. "For a long time, the oppressed Peruvian dragged the ominous chain," it begins. "Condemned to cruel servitude… he quietly whimpered." Not exactly a patriotic pick-me-up reflective of this go-ahead South American country, is it?

So a retired government auditor, Julio Cesar Rivera, is campaigning in Peru to replace the downbeat lyrics with three new verses. But why stop there? Why not replace the whole anthem with something more relevant to the sights and sounds of 21st-century Peru? Officials might like to ask the Peruvian rock star Pedro Suarez-Vertiz to have a go - after all, his last album Amazonas contained the international hit Cuando Piensas en Volver (When You Think of Returning), an anthem for expatriates who pine for their mother countries. Upbeat, melodic, and, most important of all, completely singalong, it's the perfect choice.

Of course, it won't happen, but there is a serious point to be made about our national anthems. Some are more than 150 years old. Most are completely irrelevant. Last year, for example, a Costa Rican woman failed in her attempt to convince the supreme court that the country's anthem was sexist. She had a point - the second verse goes: "In the tenacious battle of fruitful toil/ That brings a glow to men's faces/ Your sons, simple farm hands/ Gained eternal renown, esteem and honour." But it does go on to say "Hail, loving mother!" to a suitably ceremonial tune, so maybe the court also had a point.

Bizarrely, Costa Rica has a huge metal and hard rock scene, so the prospect of a Metallica-inspired national anthem probably didn't bear thinking about.

But just as men toiling in fields may not reflect the experience of modern Costa Ricans (their main industries being pharmaceuticals, financial outsourcing and software development), does the notion of a 200-year-old star-spangled banner really mean much to the citizens of the United States? They're more likely to rattle along freeways in their Dodge Chargers, punching the air to Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. Never mind that it's actually a protest song about the effects of the Vietnam War and a lament for the American working class: it touches something primal in the heart of every American when Springsteen roars the chorus.

And proud as France must be of its 18th-century revolutionaries, so memorably evoked in the Marseillaise, surely it's time the country moved on. Daft Punk's Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger (sampled by Kanye West to such memorable effect on Stronger) is clearly the definition of an ambitious, forward-thinking country and the French electronic duo are the prime movers in 21st-century pop.

And anyone who thinks all this is mere wishful thinking should heed the example of Nepal. In 2007, the House of Representatives grew so tired of their old, western-style anthem that they commissioned a new one. The folky ditty features local strings and hand drums, and is called Hundreds of Flowers. Probably best not to tell them it sounds like something created for a school assembly… although maybe that was the point.

Admittedly, it doesn't always go that well. After hearing a stirring rendition of the Liverpool Football Club anthem You'll Never Walk Alone at the club's Anfield stadium, the president of the Spanish Olympic Committee decided to commission lyrics for his country's wordless anthem La Marcha Real. There were 7,000 entries for this open competition, but the result of the X Factor-style search for an anthem were banal verses ("Let us all sing together with different voices and a single heart! Long live Spain! From the green valleys to the vast sea") and objections from Spain's autonomous regions. Five days after the winner had been announced, the idea was ditched.

Peru, you have been warned.

* Ben East