Denmark Has a National Songbook. Should It Mention Ramadan?

COPENHAGEN — Because of the summer vacation, the crowd that gathered early Wednesday morning in the lobby of Copenhagen’s central library was smaller than usual. But what it lacked in numbers, it made up for in gusto.

Accompanied by piano, and holding well-worn blue songbooks, 90 or so people, ranging in age from 11 to well over 70, belted out four songs selected for the day. And then, in roughly the same time it took customers in the coffee shop next door to finish their lattes, it was over, and Christina Walldeskog, 31, was back on her way to work.

“Morgensang always puts me in a much better mood,” she said. “Who doesn’t get happy from singing songs together?”

Maybe not everyone. In Denmark, morgensang — communal morning singing — is a cherished cultural tradition, a form of bonding that many children acquire at school, but that is also happily practiced at universities, in large corporations, even at political party conferences. Yet recently, controversy over which songs should be sung has threatened to undermine the bonhomie.

The latest flap, which began at the end of July, centers on the planned selections for the 2020 edition of “The High School Songbook,” the country’s most beloved morgensang anthology. Among the hundreds of melodies being considered is an invited submission by a rapper called Isam B. titled “Ramadan in Copenhagen. Some critics say a song about the Muslim holiday has no place in such a quintessential symbol of Danishness.

“The High School Songbook” was used from the 19th century in Denmark’s folk high schools, popular residential institutions offering courses for people over 18. They made morgensang a cultural staple, and the book itself a potent symbol of national identity. It is widely used in other institutions and, with 450,000 copies sold since 2006, is the country’s best-selling book.

“You could say it’s become part of the backbone of Danish democracy,” said Kristine Ringsager, an assistant professor of music anthropology at Arhus University. “The songs in it are seen as a very special treasury of what it means to be Danish.”

That definition isn’t entirely static, however. Immigration is a divisive issue here, and anxiety about it has strengthened far-right groups like the Danish People’s Party and prompted everything from a burqa ban to tortured debate over whether school cafeterias should serve pork meatballs. Yet underneath those conflicts in this once homogeneous but now ethnically diverse country is a more fundamental struggle over what it means to be Danish — and that includes what Danes sing.

There have been 18 editions of “The High School Songbook” so far, the latest published in 2006. Each edition has retained a core of classics, many of them paeans to Denmark’s landscape and seasons, but outdated songs are retired and new ones introduced. The process always generates conflict, particularly among citizens upset to see a favorite excluded. But the 19th edition, currently being selected, has produced a whole different level of controversy.

As part of the selection process, a six-person selection committee led by a retired senior academic, Jorgen Carlsen, invited songwriters from underrepresented groups to participate in a workshop designed to produce new songs for consideration.

“Four to five percent of the Danish population has a Muslim background,” Mr. Carlsen said in an interview. “We thought it would be nice if the Danish High School Songbook contained a song about them that reflected their reality.”

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CreditNikolaj Osorio

The task fell to Isam B. In 2007, the singer, whose full name is Isam Bachiri, released a hit interpretation of “In Denmark I Was Born,” one of the songbook’s classics, with words by Hans Christian Andersen. It is so well known it is sometimes referred to as Denmark’s unofficial national anthem.

“If I’m going to be the first brown Muslim man contributing to this book, I’m going to tell you a story of how my Denmark is looking,” Mr. Bachiri said. Because the workshop fell during Ramadan, the experience of fasting in the city presented itself as a natural subject, and while there, he collaborated with three other composers and musicians to write “Ramadan in Copenhagen.”

Although Mr. Bachiri presented the song at a library morgensang in April, his contribution recently become a nationwide flash point after news of it appeared in a local newspaper, and conservative politicians denounced its inclusion.

“No, no, no! A Ramadan song doesn’t belong in the Danish High School Songbook,” tweeted the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party. In an interview with the newspaper Berlingske, the Liberal Alliance’s Henrik Dahl accused the committee of “ideological signaling of multicultural views.”

Mr. Bachiri said he saw this kind of criticism as an unwillingness to acknowledge reality. “They want to keep Denmark white,” he said of the song’s opponents. “But Denmark is not just white anymore. And if a song can threaten your whole national identity, I’d say you’ve got an identity crisis.”

It’s not even the first time in the past year that morgensang has turned into a political hot potato. Late in 2018, a professor at Copenhagen Business School, Mads Mordhorst, apologized after a teacher with an immigrant background objected that another classic, “The Danish Song Is a Young Blond Girl,” made her feel excluded when sung at a school assembly.

After Professor Mordhorst announced that the song would no longer be included in any of the school’s ceremonies, a number of politicians objected, including the prime minister at the time, Lars Lokke Rasmussen; some joined together to sing the song from inside the Parliament.

Alex Ahrendtsen, the Danish People’s Party’s spokesman on culture and schools, said in an interview that it was neither the content of Mr. Bachiri’s song nor the author that grated, but rather the selection process. “Until 2006, every time the songbook changed, the new songs were already being sung,” he said. “They were already popular. Here, they reversed the process; now, the committee is the one deciding for the people. It’s elitist.”

The songbook, Mr. Ahrendtsen said, “represents our tradition, our culture and history, the taste of the people.”

“Mr. Carlsen, an old hippie, is trying to politicize something that is not political,” he added.

But that can be a hard argument to sustain about a songbook that in the past included Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and currently contains lyrics about the fall of the Berlin Wall. “It’s got ‘The Internationale’ in it,” said Henrik Kober, a volunteer morgensang leader at the library. “I don’t know what’s political if not that.”

The public will not learn for sure whether “Ramadan in Copenhagen” will make the final cut until the 19th edition comes out in November 2020. But Isam B., whose new single, “Lost for Words,” dropped on Friday, loves the idea of Danes across the country singing his lyrics. “That would be legendary,” he said.

On Wednesday, Taus Christiansen, 28, cautiously agreed. A morgensang regular, Mr. Christiansen dropped by the library at 8:30 a.m. before rushing off to another morgensang being held as part of the Copenhagen Opera Festival.

“Denmark has changed, and I think a song about Ramadan suits perfectly with what Danish identity is today,” he said. “But the melody is very complex, and the lyrics are very personal. So for me, the question is whether it’s suitable for singing together.”

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