Great Britain

Don't take music for granted – what I learnt from the Spanish singer Leiva

Leiva, 2018.

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Wikicommons/ Carols Delgado. Some rights reserved.

A recent study by the UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS) compared all deaths in Europe from week ending 3 January to week ending 12 June 2020. It found out that among all big cities, Madrid registered “the highest peek excess mortality” at 432.7%. The week ending 27 March was especially bad with the death rate four times higher than normal.

Such overwhelming figures, like those of war casualties, can be difficult to fully grasp. Covid-19 has wrecked jobs and families in unforeseen numbers. Most of us know that. But many others don't seem particularly fazed. Big rallies by people in denial, dismissing coronavirus as “a false alarm” as in Berlin last Saturday, are democratically legitimate yet worrying, if anything because they tend to turn violent (45 policemen were injured in the demonstration).

While statistics mean something to many, millions among us are still happy-go-lucky. Charts about the worst-hit cities like the ONS' may help crystalise in our minds how careful we all need to be; they make abstract numbers easier to sink in by turning these into something graphic and tangible. But statisticians' creativity – welcome as it obviously is – isn't enough in raising awareness.

The use of surgical masks is still very patchy, and with libertarian leaders such as Matteo Salvini saying we don't need to wear them any more it can only get worse (apparently Salvini has just made a U-turn today on wearing masks indoors as I write). And so Sars-CoV-2 happily travels at speed again, using our legs. And it's not just a matter of where we stand or put our feet: handwashing isn't probably that great either, let's be honest.

Music power

I'll admit it, I've struggled with charts too. Personally, more than any official reports and relating punditry, music has helped me to understand the magnitude of what has occurred in Spain, a country I feel especially connected to. Words by Leiva in particular worked their magic, a singer-songwriter I only found out about during the spring lockdown in Italy, from where I'm writing.

This Madridian has become one of my favourite musicians. I even translated one of his songs – Terriblemente cruel – into Italian and sang it to my friends to celebrate the end of our lockdown. None of them can play the guitar properly, but one accompanied me with the violin. It was much-needed fun.

More importantly, Leiva helped me pass the time in a period of relative anxiety. I heard all his songs and listened to or read interviews with Spanish and Argentinian media while confined at home. I dreamed about going to one of his future gigs and jotted down a few questions to put to him for a media outlet I have in mind – an interview that might never happen, sure, but an engaging journalistic exercise nonetheless.

And while he was also locked up in Alameda de Osuna – a Madridian neighbourhood famous for its many rock bands – having had to cancel his 2020 concerts in Mexico, Argentina and Spain (they'll resume in April 2021 at the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, if everything goes well, which is a big if), Leiva still came up with a new song, La estación eterna (The eternal season). Entirely home-made, video clip and all, it starts like this:

“I've been up for hours with the blue of the sirens / humming a shitty song,”

and then:

“What a strange birthday, forty in quarantine.”

Putting on freeze

Leiva turned forty during Madrid's worst moment. Ambulances kept him awake all night. It was back in April. The capital's huge winter sports arena – the renowned Palacio de hielo – was turned into a gigantic funeral parlour at the time, Europe's largest. It made headlines everywhere. I remember Italian TV journalists translating its name wrongly, too literally, calling it palazzo del gelo (frost arena) instead of palazzo del ghiaccio (ice arena). But gelo also means “chill”, eerily recalling the chill of death. Incorrect, yes, and yet more appropriate. Perhaps those hacks never knew they only got the name right by getting it wrong in the first place.

Days later, the footballer-turned-musician, interviewed by El País, Spain's biggest newspaper, claimed that he felt “really anxious about his crew” – without them Leiva wouldn't be where he is, with many of his songs ratcheting up millions of views on YouTube – and concerned about all the lesser-known singers who've been out of work for months due to the pandemic. Both their income and the turnover of small-to-medium halls and clubs heavily depend on weekend performances. “Over thirty families heavily depend on the success of my shows,” he said. “As soon as my shows stop, their only source of income dries up.” No live gigs, no bread on the table – utterly ruinous. “We'll be the last ones to restart,” was Leiva's last remark. This was three months ago and nothing's changed.

Zucchero, an Italian singer-songwriter who's sold over 60 million records across Europe and the Americas, has lately made similar remarks: “I hope to do live shows, not for me but for the team behind me, their families and fans.”

Today, the pandemic is making a quick comeback. Daily Sars-CoV-2 deaths are on the rise in Spain and elsewhere in Europe as I write.

Of all the extra funds that governments are going to make available, some must go to musicians and the teams behind them; for our sake too. Pop, rock, grime, whatever they play shouldn't make any difference. Due to the unprecedented coronavirus crisis, many are at risk of facing bankruptcy or ending their careers – without them, the world would be a darker place.

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