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Change the world

01/07/2024

One of the country’s first university choirs to blend western classics and traditional African melodies, the Nelson Mandela University Choir this month celebrates its 30th anniversary.

The Nelson Mandela University Choir perform at the Boardwalk in Gqeberha in June 2024.

Born in 1994 as the University of Port Elizabeth Choir under founder conductor Junita van Dijk, it is now eyeing the future under the baton of choir director Robert Gillmer.

A former member himself, Gillmer knows he has taken over a choir with a rich and diverse heritage. But there is much more than music in the air, he says, as relationships have been forged, death has been grieved, romance has blossomed.

“There is something that happens when people sing together,” says Gillmer, who has a performance master’s degree in voice from Nelson Mandela University. “All of a sudden, you don’t see differences, or languages, there is just one unit, voicing together.

“It’s a unified organism. There is a trust between us.

“When the conductor lifts their hands, we breathe together, we move together, we see together. There's something special that happens, and it's life changing.”

Over the choir’s first 25 years, founder conductor Junita van Dijk built it into a world-renowned ensemble.

“The choir laid the foundation for what we are striving to have today in this country, it was a microcosm of society,” says Van Dijk as she looks back today. “It was ground-breaking and such a learning curve for all of us: we introduced the world to African music.”

Over the years, the choir played at numerous high-profile events and choir festivals internationally.

“We had fantastic opportunities, I can’t tell you how many invitations, and my students were so privileged that they paid the minimum to travel and meet other cultures,” says Van Dijk. “For many of them, the flight to Johannesburg was the first time they had been on a plane.”

They jetted off to Spain, Austria, Argentina, Italy, China, the United States and the United Kingdom. Closer to home, in South Africa, the choir sang for legendary names such as Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth and Desmond Tutu.

Earlier this year, the Nelson Mandela University Choir shared its stage in Gqeberha with singers from South Korea. The Korean Cultural Centre in Africa said the concert was a remarkable opportunity, “showcasing the beauty of harmony and friendship through music”.

Nelson Mandela University Choir shares the stage with Korean opera singers in an international collaboration earlier in 2024; Choir director Robert Gillmer in action

Gillmer is the third choir director, having taken over from Dr Ulagh Williams who stepped in when Van Dijk retired in 2019.

“After Junita’s legacy, Ulagh added a jazz influence,” says Gillmer, noting how each conductor leaves their own imprint. Williams took over just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“Because of COVID it was a very different choir that I needed to run, and most of the members were new so I had to build something from scratch,” Williams remembers. “It was very difficult, and there were a lot of challenges but we just had to come up with new ways of making it work.”

The Choir played a major role in the University’s communication strategy over the pandemic, releasing inspirational songs to unite and uplift. Performing fully online in 2020 was a growth curve at the time, she says, “and I'm proud to have been part of taking the choir into a digital space”.

“The most amazing thing for me was seeing how resilient the students were, and how willing they were to learn,” says Williams.

Taking part in the University’s flagship Isisusa Jazz Festival in 2022 was another highlight. Until then, the choir had mostly performed a cappella. “That was the first time the choir performed with a live band and soloists from outside, bringing jazz, choral and popular South African music together on one stage,” says Williams.

Robert Gillmer conducts the Nelson Mandela University Choir at The Herald Citizen of the Year Awards in 2023

A former SA Idols competitor, and music teacher, Gillmer took over early in 2023 and brings his own strengths in  contemporary and pop music. He acknowledges the rich legacy that has gone before him.

“I take my hat off to Junita, the position of conductor is very underrated in the sense that is it is not just standing in front of 63 people,” he says.

Gillmer has found that many members are fresh out of school, and still finding their way. “For a lot of them, it's the first time that they actually are performing in front of audiences.”

Sometimes, he has found, it is as much about nurturing and mentoring as conducting. Although the full choir numbers 63, it near impossible to gather everyone together for each performance.

In addition, every year student members graduate and leave and that, he says, is a ”huge challenge”. He therefore is hoping to sign up more alumni to provide continuity in the body of the choir.

“The choir is not just about singing, it is a whole lot more, including communication and networking. It truly brings people together.”

While the Nelson Mandela University Choir looks back on 30 years of democracy and song, it is also looking ahead to the future. As the song in its repertoire, Yiza Ngomso, puts it: “Come tomorrow, we are ready!”

Contact information
Ms Elma de Koker
Internal Communication Practitioner
Tel: 041-504 2160
elma.dekoker@mandela.ac.za