The World Enters Our Playroom: Music and Family in the Time of COVID

Blog by Astrid de Oliveira (née Treffry-Goatley)

The world enters our playroom Music and family in the time of COVID

The outside world enters our playroom, the room with the best light and internet connection in the house. The children’s bookshelf becomes the backdrop to countless television interviews, zoom calls and meetings with world leaders. In hard lockdown, which started on 27 March 2020, we suddenly morph into a ‘model pandemic family.’ My husband Tulio, who works on the frontlines of the South African COVID response sequencing thousands of viral genomes, is now famous and in demand, while I stay home with three young children in a parallel world of Lego, housework, and home schooling. As we grapple with this new reality, South Africa watches us carefully. We try not to make mistakes. We wear our masks strictly, we keep to ourselves, we celebrate birthdays quietly.

Before COVID happened, I ran a participatory project that mapped student journeys to medical care in South Africa, identifying gaps for intervention. But now Tulio’s scientific work takes priority, and the workshops I planned to run with students seem an impossible pursuit. In the months that follow, my project falters and then stops. The playroom, a sunny, spacious garage conversion, was originally my home office. During lockdown, the children fill the empty corners with toys and hushed puzzle-making. I move to the small pine desk in the spare room. A small sacrifice for their happiness.

As in most parts of the world, South Africa closes schools as well as restaurants and takeaways. But our lockdown feels harsher than others. Only essential workers can leave their homes. The rest live under house arrest. Social visits become illegal, as well other “innocent” activities. No dog walking or jogging in public spaces.

Into our world come only two visitors. My mother calls on us once a week, masked and alone. The police never stop her, though they could for failing to uphold the rules. She—and a weekly delivery of fresh vegetables from a friend (telling us which day is Thursday)—ease our loneliness and become the highlight of our week. My friend’s kind eyes shine over his mask as he unpacks our box from his van. His construction work stopped overnight. This job supports his family.

In these uncharted weeks and months of hard lockdown, time slows, and space opens up for self-reflection. Who am I? What is my role in this time of crisis? These thoughts tighten around me as I go through the motions of life. The children follow me around the house, wanting television, wanting my phone, feeling bored in this never-ending holiday at home. I only want to make things easier, lighter, happier.

Looking back, it’s hard to remember exactly how folk artist Jeremy Loops came into our lives, but we have him to thank for our change in mood. The children use my phone to create playlists of their favourite songs. Kiara, our nine-year old, labels each list with a comical photo of herself and her brothers, Raffi and Tiago. I remember Kiara adding some of Loops’ tracks to a list, hearing about him through friends. I encourage this musical connection. We download his songs and wait eagerly for new releases and stories shared by other fans on social media.

Mortal Man, released in May 2020, carries us through these lonely days. We live within the safe contours of this song. Count on me when you’re falling down. We repeat the song like a hymn. Hold my hand. We breathe it in. I hear you calling. We play it into our pain as loved ones are taken from us without closure or farewell. Don’t give up on what we got now.

After many months that feel like years, the strict Covid regulations fall away. Yet Tulio and I still seem to occupy different worlds. He labors at science and I at domestic duties. We go for days without a proper conversation. I often fall asleep at storytime. Our weekly date-nights stop and on our walks around the garden we mostly talk about COVID, about the times we live in. And it’s not just me that feels the empty space. The children long for the Dad who didn’t belong to the world, for when we didn’t share him.

As he discovers new variants, gifts arrive on our doorstep, but so do threatening messages and hateful calls related to the re-invigoration of Covid restrictions. Although anxiety lives among us and daily life challenges our togetherness, the children and I jive around the playroom to Loops’ new maskanda-style track, This Town. We sing along to the isiZulu chorus, high on our love affair with this hopeful, South African music.

Then, in the tumult of crisis, tension, and disruption, as Covid still ravages lives, we relocate. Stellenbosch is a small university town in the Western Cape. It sits in the heart of the winelands. A place that Tulio has always loved. I grasp the opportunity of change and of joining a music research group in the area. Perhaps Stellenbosch also feels safer, quieter, slower, though the house we had lived in was in my family for generations. With mixed emotions, we uproot ourselves.

Days before we leave, in late November 2021, I pause amidst the chaos, sit down at my desk and think of a way to cheer us all up, to reconnect with people. Loops of course! I purchase tickets for his show near Cape Town. As we drive across the country over two days, and the landscapes change from the green hills of Kwazulu-Natal to the arid veld of the Karoo and finally to the vineyards and mountains of our new home, Loops is our constant companion. He sings, and we sing along. Together, we repeat the chorus of This Town, Impilo yami, umculo wami (My life, my song). And as we settle into our new lives, we wait anxiously for 19 December, the day of his show. I anticipate the worst – another lockdown and cancellation. But on the morning of the big day, we prepare to hear Loops perform, and I insist on getting there early.

We arrive to join a long queue of masked people meandering down the shady drive. The sun scorches, but we wait for almost five hours in the shade of trees planted around the perimeter of the big stage, drinking wine and water and listening to support acts. There are so many people. More than we have seen in years. And there is a birthday party! South African children have gone without celebrations for more than a year. Children and parents decorate themselves with paint and glitter to pass the time.

We move out of the shadows to join this glittered crowd, claiming a bit of space in the front. Loops jumps onto the stage, jiving out a tune on his harmonica. The crowd refuses the sit-down protocol. We rise and we dance. We all sing the songs learnt over the long, lonely months of music streaming in silos. I catch the eye of my daughter Kiara as she sways. She’s grown into a young adolescent. The music moves through us, and the trauma of the past two years slowly surrenders its hold, making space for joy once again.

 

Dr. Astrid Jane de Oliveira (née Treffry-Goatley) is a senior researcher based at the Africa Open Institute for Music Research and Innovation (AOI) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

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