Sounds and Songs of the Pandemic: A Global Coronavirus Playlist

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by Kimi Eisele

What does a pandemic sound like? Like applause, like song, like handwashing, like mourning.

For ethnomusicologists, the sounds of coronavirus reveal a diverse display of culture, creativity, and care from around the world. That display is now available for listening via a 20-page (and growing) Google document called the Global Coronavirus Playlist.

At the beginning of March, Jane Sugarman, professor of music at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, followed an online link to a video of a Romani (gypsy) band from Serbia, playing a popular wedding tune but with the lyrics changed. Instead of a wedding dance they were doing the “coronavirus dance.” The video showed people in community, dancing around the band.

“It was the opposite of social distancing,” Sugarman said, but the song struck her for its sound and content. She sent it to her graduate students. “I thought I might cheer them up,” she said.

Her students, many of them international, responded quickly, sending links to other songs from around the world—Turkey, India, Mexico, Argentina, and Iran–translating and contextualizing them.

Among the songs, was a whole history of handwashing videos, including one from 2009 that began as a UNICEF campaign during the SARS outbreak, pop songs, dance videos, and tributes to health care workers.

Sugarman shared the list with her colleagues on the Society for Ethnomusicology listserv, and from there it continued to grow. “It was just a great opportunity to make class materials really topical, to get students talking, particularly here, where our students come from all over the world,” Sugarman said.

Mostly, she added, “People needed their spirits to be uplifted.”

Soon after, Jennie Gubner, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Arizona’s Fred Fox School of Music, started compiling the selections in a Google document, inviting others to contribute via Facebook and other listservs.

Part teaching resource, part cultural document, the “Global Coronavirus Playlist,” offers a snapshot of music and sound during the COVID-19 pandemic. While, every region has its own notes and rhythms, there is also a lot of overlap. Themes include education, humor, and solidarity.

The bulk of the songs illustrate the massive response from health care teams to educate the public with hand washing videos. “We’ve seen this before in ethnomusicology, in times of health crisis songs are one of best ways to get word out to kids and people all ages.”

For example, this dance coronavirus dance challenge from Vietnam, which incorporates a hand washing lesson:

The video has gone viral, inspiring adults and children across the country to create their own versions of the instructional dance.

Many songs and videos on the list are comedic, from Jimmy Fallon singing to his daughters at the bathroom sink, to Michael Bruening, a historian of medieval and early modern Europe, singing about moving his courses online.

“We see a desperate need for having a good laugh,” Gubner said.

There are videos by well-known artists offering humorous or educational songs, or sometimes both, as in the case of Gloria Gaynor singing her famous 1978 hit I Will Survive while washing her hands. (The chorus lasts 20 seconds, the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands.)

Many of the selections from the United States are remixes of famous pop songs rewritten with coronavirus-related lyrics. Chris Mann, for instance, offers remakes of Adele’s Hello, The Knack’s My Sharona, and Madonna’s Vogue, while Jen Sherrill, a music teacher, made a parody of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s Still D.R.E. called It’s the C.O.V., for a daily Facebook song challenge.

Other well-known artists from around the world–Jorge Drexler from Uruguay, and Bono from Ireland–have written original songs to offer encouragement, hope, and staying (home) power.

Other selections serve as tributes to those on the frontlines, like health care workers. In Spain, for instance, every night at 10 pm, people go to windows and balconies to offer applause for health care workers. Or tributes to whole towns, like this tear-jearking tribute to the city of Siena, “Viva la nostra Siena,” sung by people under quarantine from their balconies.

There are also plenty of examples of folk music from across the globe taking on coronavirus in their lyrics, said Sugarman, who studies music of the Balkans. “Albanians have never stopped making folk songs in their own style, and instead of stories about heroes of the past, they’re narrating stories of coronavirus.”

Folks styles from other regions include a Georgian folk song re-written by students in Italy under quarantine; a Romani or Gypsy Tallava song; plenty of coronavirus cumbias from Mexico, Ecuador, and Argentina; and Coronavirus pop songs from Nigeria to Senegal to Ghana. Los Tres Tristes Tigres, a Mexican musical comedic trio, even made a coronavirus corrido.

Gubner said songs and videos also reveal something about current culture in the world at this moment. “This is not just a traditional musical response. It’s a fascinating snapshot of what popular music is right now, from the most traditional hymns and song styles, to cumbia music being repurposed in this moment, to trap and rap.”

Some of the works might mean global exposure for lesser known artists. “If you write the coronavirus cumbia that goes viral all over Latin America, that could be a good thing,” she said.

Other songs offer critiques. “Music has always been a vehicle for communicating frustration, a way to critique government for not acting fast enough,” Gubner said.

The list also features soundscapes of the pandemic, from the sounds of singing or playing music from balconies, applause for health care workers, prison riots, monkeys fighting over food in a town square in Thailand, and a Mecca empty of worshipers in Saudi Arabia.

Together the works not only offer learning opportunities for students, say Gubner and Sugarman, but also tell a collective story about the moment we are living through. “These works become important archivally, one or five or ten years from now, because they illustrate musically these moments that we live in and how we commemorate them,” Gubner says.

Gubner says working on the list has helped her mood stay positive. “So many people are stuck in their homes, supposed to be working, but can’t get much done. It’s really nice to show people how much creativity is out there. Whether as a trained professional or total amateur, you can use creativity as a healthy outlet.”

Indeed, there are plenty of sounds aimed to uplift or bring healing. From flute playing and a meditation by Lizzo to a remote version of “Appalachian Spring” by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

In all of these ways, music helps people express solidarity and connection in a difficult time. For instance, when Italians began singing out their windows in apartment complex, they were borrowing a practice that started in Wuhan, Sugarman said.

“To see the Chinese citizens then singing Italian national anthem and Italians singing the Chinese national anthem—this really expresses that ‘We’re all in this together,’” she said. “And music is really making people aware of this.”

Here’s the Coronavirus Global Playlist. Treat it with care and enjoy.

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