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Camille Gervasi’s lullaby to her soon-to-be-born son, Lucas, includes a potent line: “It’s okay to be afraid.”
Gervasi co-wrote the song when she was pretty scared herself. Homeless and pregnant, she had just lost her father to brain cancer.
“I was in flux,” she said. “I was struggling with losing my dad, and I had no stable place to live. I just really felt lost.”
Her song, titled “Lucas My Light,” is one of nearly two dozen created as part of the San Francisco-based Noe Music Lullaby Project. The program connects pregnant, homeless, and at-risk parents with professional musicians to compose and record lullabies for their babies.
According to Noe Music’s Meena Bhasin, the program goes a long way toward empowering new parents, ensuring maternal health, forging parent-child bonds and encouraging musical literacy.
“It’s been remarkable,” said Bhasin, who co-directs Noe Music with her husband, Owen Dalby. “Music is such a vehicle for emotion. It really opens up channels. These parents may be going through problems in their pregnancies, problems in relationships, all sorts of things. But here, it’s really about the music and understanding what the hopes and dreams are for the parents and their child.”
Bhasin, a concert violist, and Dalby, a violinist in the Bay Area-based St. Lawrence String Quartet, came to the West Coast from New York, where they were active in the chamber music scene at Carnegie Hall. That’s where they got acquainted with the inaugural Lullaby Project developed in New York by the Weill Music Institute, and witnessed its successes with at-risk parents.
When she and Dalby assumed leadership at Noe Music, Bhasin said that one of her first missions was to launch an affiliate program here. Partnering with San Francisco’s 30-year-old Homeless Prenatal Program, the Lullaby Project launched in January; it’s now completed 17 songs in two cycles.
Each cycle pairs pregnant participants with professional musicians for three one-on-one sessions — one for brainstorming ideas about themes, lyrics and melodies, the second for shaping those ideas into a song. The pros take varying degrees of responsibility for accompanying and recording the song. With the addition of photos and video, the third session unveils the finished work.
“It’s a big reveal moment,” said Bhasin. “We all get to watch and cheer each other on.”
Lullabies have always been with us, from Brahms’ famous “Wiegenlied” to pop songs, spirituals to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” They soothe and create an atmosphere of safety, especially in troubled times.
The Lullaby Project has yielded new songs reflecting a range of cultures, languages and musical styles, from folk to rhythm and blues, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Hispanic backgrounds.
“Lullabies are this primal basic tradition that every culture has,” Bhasin said, “and those traditions do live on. It feels like a primal thing, like it’s the most instinctual way that we interact: How do you get a baby to sleep? It’s the human voice — the fact that babies have been hearing that voice since they were in the womb.
“The mothers we’ve worked with have sometimes been afraid to sing, like ‘I don’t know how.’ Even just opening that up is amazing.”
Gervasi, who has been a child care worker and was her father’s caregiver throughout his illness, allows that she felt overmatched by the assignment at first.
“I’m not a musician or an artist, by any means,” she said. Due to COVID restrictions, all of the work was done via Zoom, and she found that difficult, too.
But she was paired with Sarah Elizabeth Charles, an accomplished musician and songwriter, and said that she felt supported by her from their first meeting.
“I was so lucky to get paired with her,” said Gervasi. “At our first meeting, I’d lost my dad just two weeks before that. I explained my situation and felt like Sarah really understood.”
“Lucas My Light,” with a lovely piano accompaniment, says everything Gervasi wanted it to say. Today, she said the song reminds her of John Lennon’s “Imagine” — “just a quiet, healing song.”
Since the song was born, Gervasi’s situation has changed. She and her partner found housing in Berkeley, and she’s due to give birth to Lucas at the end of April.
She said she’s still often afraid, and that’s partly what her song is about.
“It was very important to put that in there,” she said. “I’ve been told a lot you need to be a certain way. What I needed to hear was that it’s okay. My dad would say, ‘I’m not afraid.’ He was, but for him it wasn’t an obstacle.
“For me, the project was incredibly positive. It was healing. It helped me step into my pregnancy and not get caught up in the loss. It showed me that I could have both at the same time and still be okay.”