Last year, Kristina M. Jacobsen, associate professor of Ethnomusicology and Anthropology (Ethnology) at The University of New Mexico, traveled to Italy on a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnomusicology. The grant would allow her to live in Sardinia for a year as a visiting researcher and to do ethnographic fieldwork for her next book project.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended her life and studies, as it has for so many others. She left Italy where the virus is at dangerous levels to quarantine in the United Arab Emirates.
“I am healthy and well. The U.S. State Department recommended we leave, and we've also been asked to no longer do fieldwork or face-to-face research in any form, so it made sense for me to leave my field site and go to a place that is a bit safer, right now, and wait this out. I am in quarantine in Abu Dhabi with loved ones and hoping to return to Sardinia in May to record an album, finish my fieldwork, and run a week-long songwriting and cultural immersion workshop in the village of Santu Lussurgiu, where I've been living for the year,” Jacobsen said.
"Each of us is reaching out across the ether, from the solitude of our home to someone else in the solitude of their own home.” - Kristina M. Jacobsen, associate professor
“I’ve been living in Italy in a huge house in a rural village in the hills and, when in the city of Cagliari, in a small underground studio apartment on the steps of Via Santa Teresa in a room that looks like it used to be a cantina. After the shelter in place took effect, I could no longer cross province lines in my car and couldn't return to the village to shelter in place there.”
She said in non-COVID times, the village is “vibrant, super social, alive, lots of social norms to respect, an incredible and sometimes overwhelming culture of hospitality, and an incredible appreciation, and desire to discuss, live music of all kinds, and particularly singing, something for which the island is known.”
That atmosphere of socializing has been stopped in its tracks by the virus ravaging the country.
“There is very much a moral valence to staying home, revealed in lots of hashtags, social media posts, and in peer pressure between friends to stay home for your parents, your grandparents, and for the health of the nation. There is, understandably, also a lot of fear, and anyone moving around the country, or even walking on the street, is regarded with suspicion. So this place where people are incredibly verbal and want to engage and debate and exchange, people are not even greeting each other when they pass one another on the street. This is striking to me,” she observed.
As so many musicians all over the world have, Jacobsen and her fellow performers reacted to the pandemic situation with music. They are even taking it to the streets, following safe social distancing guidelines.
She related her recent experience with the pandemic in a snapshot essay for Sapiens: Anthropology/Everything Human, a digital magazine with “a mission to bring anthropology—the study of being human—to the public, to make a difference in how people see themselves and the people around them.”
“I’ve been struck by the silence,” Jacobsen observed in the essay. Bars, restaurants, cafés, and other nonessential businesses were closed. The smell of bleach and sanitizer is everywhere, replacing the ubiquitous aroma of espresso. Public spaces are hosed down regularly.
“But into this void of daily scents and sounds, a multitude of melodies has been born: balcony concerts, recordings, and in-home videos under the hashtags #flashmobsonoro, #iorestoacasa (I’m staying home), #lamusicanonsiferma (the music doesn’t stop), and #tuttoandràbene (everything will be OK),” Jacobsen wrote. “These performances—original songs, covers, spontaneous performances, and humorous commentaries—are a sonic response to this government-imposed silence. Each of us is reaching out across the ether, from the solitude of our home to someone else in the solitude of their own home.”
She went on to describe how Sardinian musician Antonio Pani contributes a video of a song he plays on an Irish bazouki in a Sardinian style, wearing an Oregon sweatshirt, and singing a Spanish-influenced tune that reminded her of the corrido ballads she heard in New Mexico.
“It spoke eloquently of the connectedness of cultures,” she observed.
“In the song, called ‘Su Baballoti,’ or ‘The Cockroach,’ Pani uses the metaphor of a cockroach to convey how the novel coronavirus (sa corona) has crawled into every nook and cranny of everyday life… Then he stares straight at the camera and earnestly sings: ‘Baballoti, get away from here. You will not win.’”
On March 13, Jacobsen took part in a #flashmobsonoro, with each participant playing and singing songs from their homes for 15 minutes, and then post the video to Facebook.
“I live in an underground apartment with no windows, so I performed from my doorway, with my dog at my feet. I played four original songs, three country songs in a mix of Sardinian and English, and one folk song in Norwegian,” she explained. The chorus translates to “We all have our stories / Leave your troubles at the door / Because tonight nothing else matters / Long as my hand is in yours.”
Jacobsen said that afterwards, “I looked up at a group of people who gathered to listen, the lit sign of the closed shop behind them glowing above their heads like a halo. ‘Grazie,’ I heard someone say. I couldn’t see who was speaking, so looked up to a fourth floor balcony. A man in his early 20s waved at me. ‘Grazie,’ he said again. We made eye contact. ‘De nudda,’ I responded in Sardinian. You’re welcome.”
Jacobsen remains in Abu Dhabi until the COVID-19 situation is resolved. On the morning of April 10, Jacobsen did a live concert on Facebook. The show was dedicated to the manager of a venue in northern Italy where she was scheduled to make a solo performance. He recently passed away from the virus. The concert was a fund-raiser for a small hospital in the mountains of Sardinia to help access much-needed supplies.
In addition, she will begin recording an album of songs she wrote over the past year remotely from Abu Dhabi; these songs will then accompany her forthcoming book, Sing Me Back Home: Songwriting, Language Reclamation and Italian Colonialism in Sardinia.
Jacobsen reflected on her own situation amidst the ongoing upheaval caused by the pandemic.
“I am on a sabbatical year, have grants that support me, and had the privilege to be able to leave and go somewhere a bit safer, albeit in quarantine, when things became very difficult. It's difficult and sad and strange to now be following it all from afar.”