Starting at midnight tonight it is South Africa’s turn to go into lockdown to try to slow down the transmission of the Covid-19 coronavirus disease so that our fragile health services might be less overwhelmed. Our government is acting decisively in the face of unimaginable challenges and we are all wondering how we will cope.
Even though feelings of fear and anxiety are inevitable, we have to try to maintain our footing, to be present and grounded so to be able to cope and take care of ourselves and others. Even if those others are physically remote, we need to be able to relate to them and stay in touch – especially family, friends and neighbours – online or by phone if we have the means to do this and of course we must never forget the kindness of strangers.
According to our lockdown regulations we have to stay at home – we will be allowed to go out only to buy essential food and other essential items, to collect social grants, or to get medicines or in certain instances when needing medical care. We will not be allowed out to go jogging or to take walks – not even to walk the dog.
My husband and I are the only two people in the house, with our two dogs and three cats. (We have already been socially isolating for two weeks from a friend who is living in our garden flat with her two cats.) We notice that when our anxiety levels start ratcheting up, the anxiety manifests too in our dogs and cats. We are learning to let the animals teach us how to tone down the anxiety and keep it in check. We are learning wisdom from animals. As we comfort them, so they comfort us.
Our cat Mingus – image scanned from a print taken in pre-digital days
I discovered by chance many years ago that one our cats, named Mingus, jumped on my lap and rubbed against me when I sang or rather hummed a song I was fond of at the time, the song being Randy Crawford’s ‘Almaz’. Mingus was a highly strung foundling, brought into our house as an emaciated kitten by one of our adult cats, named Mac. Mac mentored an adoring Mingus for exactly one month before he was killed in the street by a passing car. Despite this tragic loss of his mentor, Mingus survived his bad start in life, and in the ensuing years we learnt a lot from Mingus – and from Mac’s surviving sister Milly – about mutual calming and therapeutic caring, including the gentle use of song.
Foundling kitten Nougat a few days after his eyes had opened. Now eight years old he still has his beloved fluffy toys – a teddy and a dog
In more recent years, when another foundling kitten, whom we named Nougat, was in a state of anxiety I recalled Mingus’s favourite song ‘Almaz’, and started humming it softly. Nougat responded immediately by coming to me purring and gently head butting. There is something about that song that he, just like Mingus, finds very reassuring.
And so, in these anxious times I thought I would share with you three songs that Nougat responds to, as perhaps you too might find something in these melodies that strike a sympathetic chord and brings you a measure of comfort in these tough times.
Nougat all grownup
Almaz – Randy Crawford
The song, ‘Almaz’was written by the American singer Randy Crawford and it was released back in 1986. It was only when writing this post that I discovered the story behind the song.
Randy Crawford wrote the song after she met an Eritrean couple, political refugees, who had recently moved into her neighbourhood. Crawford was asked by the Eritrean man if she would write a song about his wife, Almaz (the name means diamond). Crawford did so, being very touched by the refugee couple’s deep enduring love – in the words of the song, Almaz was “born in a world where love survives”.
Once the song came out, Crawford learned that the couple had moved and she was unable to trace them. We can hope though that wherever they went, they did have the opportunity to hear this sweet song. I hope that its sweetness touches you too, as it evidently touched the feline hearts of both Mingus and Nougat.
Life on Mars – David Bowie
That the next song proved to be a big draw for Nougat I discovered by accident. Rather presciently as it turns out, during 2015 I started listening again avidly to songs by David Bowie. It was only a few months after I started reconnecting with Bowie’s music that I heard with shock that Bowie had died on 8 January 2016 (two days after his 69th birthday).
So anyway, one day during 2015 when Nougat was around three years old, I was idly singing – or humming – Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ – and Nougat came running in from another room, rather giddy at the song. It remained a favourite of his for several months – and I even learned the words, just for him.
The song has an interesting genesis. Before his breakthrough into fame and fortune, in the late 1960s Bowie, working as a lyricist, was given the opportunity to write English words to a 1967 French song ‘Comme d’habitude’, by Claude François and Jacques Revaux. It turned out that a version by Paul Anka was selected and it went on to become the huge Frank Sinatra hit ‘My Way’. Bowie reacted to the experience of unexpectedly hearing Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ set to the tune he had become familiar with, by using similar chord progressions to create the opening bars of ‘Life on Mars’. Pianist David Bennett compiled an entry on YouTube – “’Life on Mars?’ is revenge on Frank Sinatra” – which fills in some of the details and it includes extracts from two Bowie interviews – see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dd-b8GbOPKg
The song’s initial tone is somewhat melancholy – Nougat likes this part the best – yet it unfolds in a crescendo (hard to sing even to Nougat) that is beguiling even if one is not a cat. The lyrics of the song start with a story about a day in the life of ‘the girl with the mousy hair’ and then fragments into concepts and phrases that are often described as surreal, and I find them fascinating each time I listen to the song, although I doubt that Nougat cares in the slightest about the lyrics.
‘Life on Mars’ first appeared on Bowie’s second album Hunky Dory in 1971, and was released as a single in 1973. This link is to the original video featuring Bowie wearing turquoise eye shadow and a turquoise suit.
Obsessives like me may want to investigate all the Bowie versions of this song available out there on the Internet and then progress onto the many cover versions too. My favourite cover is the version by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. They preface the performance by saying “This is a song about plagiarism … it wasn’t our own idea”. Their version features interplay not only between ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘My Way’, but also ‘For Once in my Life’, ‘Born Free’ and (briefly) The Who’s ‘Substitute’.
The Girl from Ipanema – Frank Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim
Only a few weeks ago I came across a version of the famous bossa nova hit from the 1960s, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, performed by its composer Antônio Carlos Jobim on guitar and (coincidentally in view of his connection to ‘Life on Mars’) Frank Sinatra.
I was charmed by this version and not least by the artistically swirling smoke from Sinatra’s cigarette. Perhaps the best-known version of the song is the one featuring Stan Getz (saxophone) with Astrud Gilberto (vocals). I remember my dad had the famous Getz/Gilberto album, back in the day when my dad’s eclectic tastes had him listening to Brazilian bossa nova and American jazz in addition to Stravinsky (his favourite), Debussy, Saint-Saëns and Baroque music, most especially Bach, among many others. He did come to tolerate my early childhood liking for the Beatles but he never developed a tolerance for rock music.
After coming across the Jobim and Sinatra version of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ (Portuguese lyrics by Vinícius de Moraes and subsequent English lyrics by Norman Gimbel) the song became stuck in my brain – it is that sort of song. No wonder it has become the second most recorded song ever (after ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles). It turned out that Nougat liked the song too.
As we live in lockdown in these difficult and heart-breaking times, perhaps a song and even a samba-style dance around the living room might bring some comfort and even some joy.
And by the way, if you can’t remember the lyrics, singing Nougat, Nougat, noo-noo, noo Nougat works quite well!
Keep safe everyone.
MacAlpine, Fraser. [n.d.] 10 things you need to know about David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’. http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2016/01/10-things-you-need-to-know-about-david-bowies-life-on-mars; Randy Crawford: BBC interview (2011). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZcJgza0KZU; Wikipedia. 2019. Almaz (song). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almaz (song); Wikipedia. Life on Mars (song). 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_on_Mars_(song); Wikipedia. 2020. The Girl from Ipanema. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Girl_from_Ipanema
Posted by Carol