Little Donkey - Nina and Frederik
Every Christmas, when I was a child in Bahrain, my father and I would drive the five miles or so across the desert to the refinery where he worked,. It being Friday, the Arab weekend, no-one would be around and we'd duck under a fence or two to where some thin wispy trees grew. These had leaves that were a little like desert fir fronds. Dad would would quickly saw down a few of them, and we'd hastily carry them back to the car, as though in danger of being caught. Maybe we were, or maybe it was just Dad's way of having fun, but I remember the satisfied thrill of having completed something illicit as we grove back home. Everyone else would have a fake tree, sent from America, be we always had a genuine tree, with genuine green leaves, if a little strange, and we would spend hours decorating it.
One year, in a desperate attempt to meet my father at a musical half way point, I brought him the album "A Season's Greeting from Nina and Frederik" as his Christmas present. This wasn't a totally left field choice - he'd recently said that he liked their version of Harry Belefonte's hit when we heard it on the radio. However, when he took the wrapping off, I could tell he was disappointed. He played the record a couple of times and feigned enthusiasm for their sedate, too careful harmonies, but I could see he didn't like it. The only track he seemed to like was "Little Donkey".
A little fairy tale: once upon a time there was a Danish Countess who fell in love with the Dutch Ambassador to Denmark. They had a beautiful baby son who they named Frederik, meaning "peaceful leader". When he was four years old, he met Nina, the daughter of a Danish millionaire, and, encouraged by their parents, they would frequently sing together. Their fond parents were in raptures. They said they sounded like a pair of angels, or even love birds. Frederik was heart broken when his father obtained a new posting and became ambassador to Trinidad. The years went by on the tropical island, but Frederik and Nina wrote to each other regularly. When Frederik finally returned to Denmark, at the age of twenty three, he visited Nina's family, and after dinner took out his guitar and began to sing a West Indian folk song. To his surprise Nina joined in, blending perfectly with his gentle cadences. Soon everyone wanted to hear them, and they began to fill even the biggest halls in Denmark with enthusiastic fans. They married three years later and soon had their own Saturday night BBC television show.
Each December, my rugby club used to put on an annual Christmas party for the local kids, and I would dress up in my donkey costume (as made by my mother - see previous posts) and hand out the presents to the kids like an equine Santa. I appeared from the nearby woods and slowly lollop around the clubhouse carrying my sack, while the children looked on, amazed. I had a badge pinned to my chest that proclaimed me "Uncle Donkey", and never spoke, or made any noise, only gesturing and miming responses to questions and encouragements. At the end of the party, all presents given out, the children would sing "Little Donkey" to me and I would slowly dance, nodding my donkey head in tune to them. Catching the odd glimpse of myself in a clubhouse mirror, I thought I looked pretty sinister, but when they sang to me, so earnestly and seemingly convinced that I was THE donkey that had carried Mary to Bethlehem, my cynicism would melt, and I had to breathe deeply to halt the snuffle that would rise within me. Then I would lope off into the woods once more, with them all crying "Bye bye Uncle Donkey" as I disappeared into the trees.
"Little Donkey" was Nina and Frederik's biggest hit, reaching number 3 in the UK charts in December 1960. They had three children, and divorced in 1976. Frederik was keen on sailing and later settled in the Philippines, using his private yacht to smuggle cannabis across the Pacific for an Australian cartel. In 1994, he and his current girlfriend were found both shot dead allegedly by another member of the drug cartel.
This should be a happy song, but it has a deep sadness about it, redolent of the common tragedies of the human condition: the tough life of the beast of burden, the little baby that must grow up and face the world, the slow calypso-style xylophone echoing the steel band notes of West Indian slave descendants, the haunting trumpet of the downtrodden Mexican peasant, a fairy tale that will end in violent death, a fairy tale gone wrong.