Producing a story about songs and singing - The Stellenbosch University Choir


Producing a story about songs and singing - The Stellenbosch University Choir

I heard about the University of Stellenbosch choir on my first date with a man who would eventually become my husband. He had sung bass in the choir as a student, and remained passionate about the experience, not only the music, but also the impact it had on his personal development.  I grew up in the choir, he would say. At the time, I was impressed but perhaps a little sceptical too. Later we both went to a lunch-hour concert at the Endlersaal at the Conserve in Stellenbosch and I was awed and to an extent shaken by the beauty of the singing. I never forgot it.

So years later when I had an opportunity to produce an insert on the choir for CNN, I leapt at the chance. Through a five day shoot that seemed to stretch over ten days, I had a view of the elements of the experience that my date had been trying to explain to me all those years before. I interviewed the inspirational musical director, Andre van der Merwe, the choir’s extraordinarily capable manager Ulrike Vorndran and four of the 112  choir members. I heard from them what it was like to grow up in the choir, and how it had changed their lives.

 A university choir is in a state of constant renewal, as some students graduate and first-years sign up.  About five hundred students audition in the October of a year and in the first term of the following year, the selected group of about 120 start practicing in earnest together, twice a week.  Once the music is mastered there are concerts and competitions and sometimes overseas tours. The competitions have yielded extraordinary results for them. As of August 2018, the University of Stellenbosch Choir is  positioned number one in the Interkultur World Rankings. They have tables of trophies and cups from previous years competitions. This year, they won all their categories at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod in Wales. At the World Choir Games in Riga, they won the highest score ever to be awarded to a choir.

 Andre has many theories as to why the choir has such success. He believes that the cultural diversity of the choir, with the range of musical backgrounds represented in the 112 voices, helps to create a unique and compelling sound. He is also a perfectionist. We watched him in action at a rehearsal. He does not indulge sloppy singing or lapses of concentration.  He insists that his choir be fully present, and is endlessly peppering them with a rollicking commentary of motivational thoughts and responses. He coaxes and nudges and scolds and laments on stage, forcing them to focus and respond until he gets the sound and execution he wants.

 Andre also  manages to develop a relationship with each member of the choir. He has to know the sound of their voice and their name, and the rest follows from there. Having experienced disappointment as young man himself, he has a special feeling for people their age. Andre was a gifted concert pianist with a scholarship to study in the United States of America. But he tragically fell from a stage and broke his thumb; his dream was shattered but he had to pick himself up and define himself in new careers.

 So between the music instruction and the logistics of concerts and rehearsals, Andre doles out a great deal of home-spun wisdom to the young people who gather at his feet  to rehearse.  One his life’s lessons is for them simply to be themselves.

 “Be respectful, but be yourself. Drop the mask. Connect with your soul. Be who you really are,” he says.  “I don't think one can underestimate the role of an activity where people are allowed to live out their creativity, to express themselves, to learn about true discipline. In my country especially it’s amazing to work with people from other cultures and to realize that I'm not losing myself when I do that. I'm becoming stronger because I learn so much. I learn about humanity.”

 It has resonance. The four young people I interviewed for CNN’s Inside Africa insert all viewed him as a mentor and an educator. Next years’ choir chairman, Alex Menu, is a bass. Orphaned as a teenager, he had to fight very hard to get to university where he is a fourth year medical student. He says that he has learnt to express himself through the choir, as well as to listen.

 “A lot of times people think that choir is just singing, but most of the time choir is about listening. You really have to tune with other people, listen to the people next to you, listen to the choir as a whole, and also in between the lines when you’re silent, just really listen to what’s happening around you,” he said.

  1.  University campus in South Africa is not an easy place. Students battle with financial burdens, racial tension, politics, socializing and creating their own lifestyle. There is also the intensity of an academic degree and the pressure to pass in an environment where there is the freedom to fail. The choir members I spoke to placed value on the relationships that they developed within the choir, as uniquely supportive and sharing. For them, the choir is a safe space to find the freedom to express themselves. And somehow they communicate that vulnerability and certainty all at once in the most beautiful music on stage. A standing ovation is inevitable.

These are the updated links to the CNN Inside Africa piece on the Stellenbosch University Choir:

Apologies for the break in linkage earlier - it ought to be fixed by now. Should the links not work please contact me on


Meeting the inimitable Trevor Stuurman


Meeting the inimitable Trevor Stuurman

Meeting the inimitable Trevor Stuurman


For all the great noise generated about South Africa’s stratospherically successful street fashion photographer, Trevor Stuurman is remarkably quiet and reserved. On first meeting, he hardly said a word. It may have well been because we turned the camera on him almost from the moment we met him, as he walked out of the airport and into my car. So perhaps he felt nervous to greet me, let alone make small talk. On the road from the airport, he opened his laptop and worked on his photographs, cross-referencing on a cellphone with a shattered screen. By the time we got to our destination, we had barely made eye contact.


I am used to working with extroverts – young and older creatives who are defining their destiny by expressing themselves as post-millenial Africans – proud, assertive and unique.  Trevor was different to many of those, hardly smiling and keeping his thoughts and motives contained behind a serious face animated only by appealing eyes. But every now and again he would break into a wonderful smile.


While we did the interview, I realised that I would have to adapt my style of questioning to complement his manner of answering. He has a habit of pausing in the middle of a sentence to think – which compels the interviewer to hang on, as if to a branch, in anticipation of a conclusion. His thoughts are profound, so require careful attention. He does not rev his fame and success into a roar of triumph. He insists by inference that the person he is meeting looks for it.

So how well has he done? His climb to international recognition has been steep. He let drop lightly in the interview that he had just come back from Nigeria, there at the invitation of veteran supermodel Naomi Campbell to photograph The Look at the Fashion Arise Festival in Lagos. He seemed incredulous that she had started following him on instagram. He has this year become a contributor to British Vogue, a dream come true. Next week he addresses a conference at Oxford University to speak on changing the African Narrative, for the second year in a row.


But somehow the fame does not cause spontaneous exultation. He talks about it with a sense of wariness and is constantly referencing the importance of remaining grounded, in a place which he identifies as home, as much a construct of his emotional identity as a physical place.


Trevor grew up in the half-forgotten, half-remembered old mining town of Kimberley, located in the Northern Cape, a faded city in the centre of South Africa. He lost his father while a teenager. Although he doesn’t complain about having grown up poor, it’s clear that his parents had to work hard to get him to a good school and make provision for an education beyond that. He can not paint a picture with words of home, but his being vibrates with the mood and emotion of it. While scrolling through archive footage he gave me, I saw that his first photographic exhibition was entitled “Home”, although the subjects were Himba people from Namibia, not folk from Kimberly. He talks particularly about how careful and deliberate his mother and grandmother are in curating their lives. Even the way his grandmother would stack pillows on her bed was an act of creativity, done with a sense of aesthetic, he told me.


But now he is away from there, and flying high in international fashion circles, travelling to high-paced cities, working with the sophisticated elite. But in conversation, he circles back to his past formative experiences. He asked that we could film a meeting with one his lecturers from college. No matter, that Michael Ivy had moved to another city – he flew back at his own expense to Cape Town to meet us to support Trevor.  And then while doing a short interview with us, he wept about Trevor Stuurman, the quietest prodigy possibly that he has ever met.


Michael recalled how he had loaded his students with an impossibly large project – to document an index of a 100 years of identity in fashion photographs. He said Trevor had arrived late and exhausted to hand over the project, and dissolved into tears. He admitted it had been really tough to complete. Without resources he had had to travel to his various shoot locations on foot in the wet and windy Cape winter. Michael recalled counselling and comforting him as lecturers do. Once he had gone, Michael opened the project.  Trevor  had dedicated the project to the women in his life and the role they play in Africa. Michael was overwhelmed himself by its beauty and impact of the images.  It was his time for tears. And all this came rushing back in a short interview at the AFDA Film School campus, in Observatory, Cape Town.  


Michael has kept the project and still shows it to students to inspire them.


One of the reasons why Trevor so much wanted to include Michael and his alma mater in the AV shoot was because he felt that his education has been glossed over in the many short bios placed of him on the net. People refer to me as a small town boy who has done good, but I also did a lot of work to get to where I am, he explained to me.


And Michael agrees. He argues that while the media tend to sensationalise Trevor’s success, he has seen steady and consistent evolution, over the last years. It has been paced and purposeful. He was able to explain that Trevor’s ability to project African identity through photographs was one of his unique qualities. He talks to a world hungry for African creativity, curated by Africans. It’s probably entirely consistent with his approach that Trevor often styles himself for portraits. He is as easy and remarkable in front of the camera as behind it.


At twenty-five, Trevor Stuurman, appears to stand on the brink of great things as a street photographer who has been embraced by high fashion in a fiercely competitive digital world. Here’s to hoping that his sense of home, and personal identity will keep his feet reassuringly grounded in African soil while he points his lens to the stars.


May 2018

By Marion Edmunds


Old vines make fine wines


Old vines make fine wines

Recently a special tasting of Old Vine wines was held in Stellenbosch. It was an event I did not want to miss – I had filmed an insert for CNN’s Inside Africa on the Old Vine project, walked through vines at sunrise, tasted cold grapes at harvest, lingered in cellars and conducted interviews with passionate wine-makers – without drinking a drop of the wine old vines produce. We had too much filming to accomplish to sit back with a glass in hand.  Now that production was over, it was time to sample just a few extraordinary wines made from grapes from veteran vines.

Until fairly recently, in South Africa, the lifespan of a vine was considered to be not much beyond 30 years. It is at this point that the vineyard’s yield drops, and they become less commercially viable. Or so it was thought.

Fifteen years ago, self-taught viticulturist, Rosa Kruger, started to explore the power and the glory of old vineyards, after many trips to wine-making regions in Europe. She became a champion of their cause, traversing the countryside in the Western Cape to find old neglected vineyards that might be rehabilitated to make beautiful wines. These wines are more expensive, making the old vines once again desirable.  (Rosa is now a sought-after consultant, advising on harvests, and consulting in the vineyards, both young and old.)

Rosa’s conviction in the old, often abandoned vineyards, slowly turned sentiment around, partly due to her relationships with unique wine-makers and land-owners. Her special friendship with Eben Sadie, wine-maker extraordinaire of the Swartland, led to old vines playing an important role in the success of his wines. He has a well-deserved international reputation for fine wine; his wines sell out within a week of release.  

Rosa also worked for Antonij Rupert Wines, where his brother, Johann’s interest in her project funded important data collection for what was to become the Old Vineyard Project. L’Ormarins has an old Vine wine range made from parcels of vines around the Western Cape, including the West Coast. Their locations, owners and ages are listed on the tasting room wall of that extraordinary farm. Johann Rupert is the founder funder of the Old Vine Project, although Rosa has moved on to private practice so to speak.

But she left behind her a young success story, a viticulturist who is walking in her footsteps. Deborah Isaacs interest in terroir started as a girl. Her father taught her and her siblings to farm as children to keep themselves out of mischief, and she spent many hours of playtime cultivating her small allotment on the family plot. So when she grew up she knew she wanted to work outside, with dirt under fingernails and soil beneath her feet. But it was only when she met Rosa, with her passion for old vines, that she decided that viticulture was to be her specialty. She now manages all the vineyards for Antonij Rupert Wines, a significant post for a young woman.

Deborah was our guide on the famed Rupert farm, L’Ormarins, a sophisticated wine-making space in the region of Groot Drakenstein, near Franschoek. It was founded originally by a French Huguenot, Jean Roi. He was one of a group of French Protestants who fled to the Cape to escape religious prosecution in the end of the 17th century.  They founded the small town of Franschhoek (French Corner) and the story goes that they brought the culture of wine-making with them from Europe.    

Deborah mentioned that there were barrels bearing the original Huguenot names and standards in a Cape Dutch styled building nearby, surrounded by lush garden and lawns.  Inside was shadowy and cool, but one next to each other sat oak barrels each bearing the standard of a different Huguenot family. I stood and gazed at the names and the carved wooden heraldry, echoes of echoes of time past, a story told through wood and vine and wines that have been drunk through centuries, surnames like Roux, Jourdan, Mouton and Du-Pre, which are still carried in varying forms by South Africans today.

Deborah also took us to aa 54-year-old Chenin Blanc vineyard, up against the mountain side. It was special because it was entirely transplanted from the Swartland by Rosa, because Mr Rupert wanted an old vineyard on his farm. The block produces a white wine called Ou Bosstok which is not commercially available. It is effectively Mr Rupert’s house-wine.

So, when I spied Ou Bosstok at the wine tasting, I made sure to try some. It was the one I remember with the most clarity – light, sparkling, steady, superb.  But it was only one of many delicious wines I sampled. I don’t have a particularly educated palate. Nonetheless tasting the wines at this event seemed a just reward for the hours of work in creating the feature on the vines they came from.

The manager of the Stellenbosch-based Old Vine Project, Andre Morgenthal, is changing the way viticulturists and wine-makers think. He’s volunteered to use his extensive knowledge of the wine industry to preserve the heritage of the older vineyards, and with that their stories, the last link back to the people who made wine here in South Africa generations and even centuries ago.

Vines are a static subject in many ways, they stand still and endure, seasons, sunlight, droughts and floods. So the feature I produced for CNN’s Inside Africa had to be carried by people, specifically story-tellers. One of the joys of creating this insert was the wonderful people we met on our way. The links are below. Enjoy the journey.

Part OnePart Two & Part Three


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Allister Sparks - a veteran to remember

Inspired by Allister Sparks

Veteran journalist Allister Sparks passed away last night, September the 19th, 2016.  He was in his 80’s but his death still came as a shock, partly because he had remained engaged as a professional until the end. As his publisher commented, he had given the appearance that he would keep on going for ever.

There are precious few journalists who have been able to sustain their career like he did, driven in part by his deep and passionate interest in the compelling South African story. He never gave up on it. I am grateful that he kept on as he did. For years after he ought arguably to have retired, I was able to open up a newspaper to find a well-constructed, pithy opinion piece by him, critiquing the state of the nation, often with a few well-aimed swipes at the emperor who wears no clothes. Because of his decades of history as a reporter  - sixty-six years -  he had a wealth of references to balance his understanding of current events.  So many local South African journalists, myself included, have fallen out with their newsrooms for a range of reasons, not least being distracted by better working conditions.  So many international news outfits relaxed their gaze on South Africa once apartheid was over. Not Sparks.

One of Spark’s mantras was to get journalists off the phone, of their office chairs and into the field. He used to speak, by way of an example - in a somewhat self-congratulatory tone - of how after he lost his job as an editor to become a correspondent once more, he had taken himself off to London and Lusaka to meet the exiled leaders of the ANC. There he started writing the story of the end of apartheid, which culminated in South Africa’s extraordinary 1994 transition to democracy. Other editors and reporters followed, but Sparks was telling the interesting part of the story with authority first.  

My first meeting with Sparks was not the best. I was at Duke University on a mid-career mini-sabbatical of six weeks and he was attached to the university, researching and writing his books. The other foreign journalists on the programme were in awe of his mighty profile and sought an interview with the editor of the defunct Rand Daily Mail, the pioneering liberal newspaper he had moulded in his earlier career. I found myself sitting in his office on an uncomfortable chair, as he rather pompously detailed South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy through an hour and a half, to a captive audience. For me who knew the basics of the story, it was tedious. But later, he invited me to his home for dinner, and it was there I started to get to know the Allister Sparks I now want to remember, an editor, with opinions and great range, who was interested in hearing the perspectives of somebody as young and inexperienced as myself.

Somehow that connection never died, and he always welcomed me warmly when he saw me, as I imagine he did many journalists from around the world who were part of his dense web of contacts and colleagues, spun over decades and through generations of men and women reporting on political turmoil in Africa and overseas. Despite his extraordinary fame and standing, he was always available for the journalistic project, willing for example to do an in-depth interview for my documentaries, knowing that it would garner him only greater unpopularity with the ruling party. He did not shy away from the hard reality of his opinions or try to soften them with political correctness. Two years ago, when I was battling to find people to talk on camera about Jacob Zuma, he was willing to do an interview, and made this statement on the President as he entered his second term.

“He has never struck me as having great leadership qualities. I have always admired the fact that he was a peasant’s son who rose from nothing to heights in his own country and to the extent that he had any education, it was self-education, and I do think that was a remarkable achievement. But I have never seen him as being a competent leader. I don’t think he is a strategist. I think he is a crafty manipulator in politics, very cunning and quite ruthless, but I don’t believe he is a man of vision. Mandela certainly had a vision, Thabo Mbeki certainly had a vision. Mandela’s was to build the new non-racial society. Mbeki was to build a new Black middle class and to bring about economic integration as well as political integration. He articulated those very clearly, I have never heard Jacob Zuma articulate a vision of where he wants to take South Africa. I don’t believe he has such a vision.”

Sparks had a way of creating understanding of fairly complex situations in words most people can understand. The simplicity and direct purpose of his language was part of his great skill. I have his books.  They will always be treasured in my small library of political literature for the wisdom inside them, the story they tell, and the fact that they invoke the memory of the author, a journalist who inspired me.

Marion Edmunds 

September 20, 2016 - Cape Town

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The First Post

This is my first post. Hello everybody.

I hope to write my thoughts and news in the weeks to come. Enjoy the website and the wonderful photos of Yasser Booley, mostly taken on our trip to the UK and Europe to film aspects of Troopship Tragedy, a documentary about the sinking of the SS Mendi.