Chair’s note: Simply reading the text of this Chair’s Report will take just a few minutes, but it is a multi-media report. Getting the entire reading and viewing and listening experience will take about 30 minutes – but I promise you, if you need something to cheer you up, the time you spend will be well worthwhile.

A few weeks ago, I was looking on YouTube for performances by Welsh choirs, to share with a retired colleague of mine who is Welsh. Like me, he lives alone and is sheltering in place during these months of the pandemic. I thought hearing some wonderful choirs singing in Welsh would cheer him up a bit, so I went onto YouTube and found links to three great performances. 

As is so often the case, when we do a kindness for someone else – even a small kindness like the one I describe above – a blessing comes back to us.

While I was searching for Welsh choirs, I came across a recording of a South African choir performing in a competition that was hosted in Wales. I knew nothing about this group or what they would sing. At first, I didn’t even know they were from South Africa or that it was a competition. The YouTube notation simply said, “Baba Yetu – Stellenbosch University Choir.” I had no idea what “Baba Yetu” meant, what language it represented, or where Stellenbosch University is located. (And please note, I am not associated with that university in any way and I know nothing about its policies, its curricula, or its mission.)

Stellenbosch University Choir

I urge you to listen at least to the first link below. If you don’t want to do so, you can skip to the end of this Chair’s Report (“The Curtain Call”), where – as usual – I will ask you to support TIRF. Now let us begin this three-act, multi-media play.

Act 1: The first act of this little drama started as I stumbled onto this song, digitally speaking. If you would like to hear just the song itself and see the choir perform, use this link. But I want to make the point that after just ten seconds, I was captivated.

If you do choose to listen, consider the next few minutes as a research experience. (Think of yourself as an ethnographer in a new culture.) Please be aware of the following observable behaviors that accompany the music. (Think of yourself as a classroom researcher, watching language learners during a lesson.)

  1. Watch the singers’ nonverbal cues – in particular, their eyebrows, the wrinkles in their foreheads, the forward orientation of their shoulders.
  2. As the song progresses, notice the way they smile, even as they are singing the lyrics.
  3. There comes a point where you’ll see them throw their heads back and shout.
  4. After that, just watch and listen.

The performance runs three minutes and 42 seconds. Please watch it to the end. Here are a few points that struck me as important.

At 21 seconds into the performance, the conductor looks to his left, where the drummer is seated, and the drummer grins. We briefly see the conductor’s profile.  I thought to myself, “He loves what he’s doing!”

At one minute and two seconds, we see a front view of the conductor. His name is André van der Merwe. He is the embodiment of choral exuberance. I must admit – I have fallen in love, musically speaking.

At two minutes into the song, two young men step out of the choir and stand facing the audience, parallel with the conductor. They begin to speak – well, no, actually, they begin to shout.  Not with anger — with exuberance, with conviction, and with passion!

It is not until the end of the two men’s recitation, at three minutes into the performance, when the speakers utter a line in English, that I finally understand what they are singing.

Ah! Listening to and watching this performance has now become a cross-cultural experience for me. I know this text (the lyrics). I have heard it sung, and have even sung it myself, but in English, with a different melody and tempo, and in a very different tradition of choral performance.

Please understand: I am not pushing a religious persuasion of any kind. Instead, I am thinking about leadership. This topic has been on my mind a great deal lately, because I am teaching a graduate seminar on leadership in language education, and because I am always concerned about my role in TIRF: Am I making good decisions? Am I motivating the team? How can we get more funding? Are we moving too fast? Are we moving too slow?

Intermission: My over-riding thought as I watched and listened to the Stellenbosch University Choir performance for the first time was, “I would love to sing for this man!” (I don’t mean sing for him to listen – I mean to sing under his direction, his leadership.) As a result of these reflections, I asked my seminar students to address the following question:

Choose a person you think of as a leader you’d want to work with. It can be a real person or a fictional person (e.g., from film or literature). It doesn’t have to be someone in our field. It can be a teacher, but it could also be a coach, a politician, a director, a military leader, a hero of some kind, etc. It can be a character from the literature or mythology of any culture you know about.

Tell the group a bit about this person and then tell us why you’d want to work with him/her. Think of yourself in the capacity of a “follower” with this person in the role of your leader.

My students’ responses to this prompt were illuminating – even extraordinary. They wrote about Brené Brown, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, Dr. Suzanne Rivera, Leslie Knope (from the TV show Parks and Recreation), Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore (the headmaster in the Harry Potter stories), and the character Jon Snow from the Game of Thrones. One student wrote about how she is inspired by her father. I will definitely use this task when I teach this course again.

Back to the choir performance. The reasons I would love to follow this conductor are these:

  1. He is technically perfect. He really knows his craft. (Watch his face and his body language. You can even see it in his posture when we view him from behind as the camera focuses on the choir.)
  2. He loves what he does. (Look at his face!)
  3. He inspires his performers. (Look at their faces!)
  4. He brings out the best in these young singers. In fact, if you ever need to explain the expression, “Singing their hearts out,” you could use this video.

If you are the sort of person who reads the first two chapters of a mystery and then skips to the end to find out “who dunnit” and to check on the clues the author provides, this would be a good time to read the punchline, where I ask you to support TIRF. But I urge you to stay with me and enjoy Act 2.

Act 2: If you would like to hear the song performed again but first want to learn about the context of this performance from current and former members of the Stellenbosch University Choir, I will provide you with a link. However, I would first like to preview what will happen in Act 2.

If you are the sort of theater-goer who prefers not to read the program notes, please click here and jump right in. Because these are YouTube videos, the recordings of the choir are preceded by ads, which you can skip. At the beginning of this link, I urge you to move the progress bar all the way to the left when you skip the ad, so that you can hear the very beginning of the first speaker’s thoughts. 

This video provides a great deal of the context and the history of this particular performance in Wales. The video runs 17 minutes. There is a break for an advertisement (which you can skip) and the story continues.

The story is told in three languages: Swahili, Afrikaans, and English. I think there is a bit of Welsh toward the end as well. (If you are a speaker of these languages and I am in error, please forgive me and tell me.) What I love about this longer clip is that we get to hear the conductor talk – to us about music but more importantly we see how he talks to and with his singers.  We also hear the moving story of one of the performers – almost as a mini-case study, to use the research methodology jargon of our culture.

The story is first narrated by Luthando Suthiya, a fourth-year medical student at Stellenbosch University and a member of the choir. You will recognize him from Act 1, even though in this scene he is wearing medical scrubs and a stethoscope. At 50 seconds into the video, we hear Luthando describing his feelings as he and the other singers ride a bus through the beautiful Welsh countryside on their way to the competition venue.

At one minute and 20 seconds, we hear the André’s voice for the first time. He tells us about what they have been doing in Wales and what will happen that evening.

At one minute and 40 seconds, the scene shifts to André warming up the choir. Watch how he teaches the singers – how he breathes, how he moves, how he models the things he wants them to do.

At one minute and 50 seconds, Luthando speaks again. He narrates the experience of the warm-up and talks about his hopes for the evening’s competition.

At two minutes and 50 seconds into the story, we see an aerial view of Stellenbosch and hear the voice of the second narrator, Heleen Meyer. She is the granddaughter of the first conductor of the Stellenbosch University Choir and was a former performer in the choir herself. She tells a bit of the choir’s history, including her remembrances of her own conductor (who also seems to have been a great leader).

At four minutes 16 seconds into this video, we see an aerial view of Llangollen, Wales, where the choir competition is being held. At four minutes and 20 seconds, the camera cuts to the choir finishing a song. Then we hear André talking about the day’s performances before we see a few moments of the group’s last rehearsal. Watch how he teaches them, how he critiques them, how he calms them, and how he leads them. He asks the group, “What does the first note do?” There is a pause (the singers recognize this as a rhetorical question) and he says, “It shatters oblivion!” He continues, “It creates light. And doesn’t this world need it?” We then see some of the choir members walking to the concert hall.

At five minutes and 43 seconds, the video shows an aerial view of Stellenbosch University, focusing on The Tygerberg Medical School. In a moment, we see the back view of two young men walking down a long hallway. One of them says, “This feels like Grey’s Anatomy.” (For those of you not familiar with daytime television in the US, Grey’s Anatomy is a TV drama that takes place in a large urban hospital, where the characters often talk as they walk through the halls.)

When we see their faces, we recognize these men as the two singers who stepped forward in the performance of “Baba Yetu” you heard in Act 1. They are wearing hospital garb, with stethoscopes slung casually around their necks. Then Luthando briefly tells us about his relationship with his friend, Alex, as they work with microscopes. The scene shifts back to the hallway again, but now Alex and Luthando have shed their shirts (but kept their stethoscopes) and are wearing boots and construction helmets (“hard hats”). They do what I might call a slap-and-clap dance, since I am unfamiliar with the genre. I wonder if it is a dance done by miners or construction workers. This number shows the men’s enthusiasm, their teamwork, and their sense of fun.

At six minutes and 15 seconds into the video, the scene shifts again. Now we see an aerial view of Capetown. Luthando shares with us his early childhood remembrances of the townships of Langa and Mitchell’s Plain, where he grew up. He tells us about the dramatic contrasts between his neighborhood and his school.

At seven minutes and 30 seconds, the case shifts aback to the voice of Heleen Meyer, who describes her experience as a novice in the choir, singing under the direction of Acáma Fick, the first woman conductor of the Stellenbosch University Choir.

At eight minutes and 13 seconds into the recording, we come back to Luthando, who talks about his audition for the choir. He tells us he was very nervous but that after the first line he sang, André smiled. To begin with, Luthando didn’t know if it was a good smile or if André was laughing at him, but then Luthando realized, “He liked my voice.”

Immediately, at eight minutes and 30 seconds into the video, we are transported back to Wales, where the performers are entering the competition venue. Luthando tells us, “At the moment, we are entering the pinnacle, which is called ‘Choir of the Word.’”

This first segment ends as the choir is on stage for their final performance in the competition. André is introduced, he walks onto the stage, and he smiles. He really smiles.

Act 3: You may encounter a break for a YouTube ad at this point, but at nine minutes and 31 seconds, we hear the choir begin to sing “Baba Yetu” – the same recording you heard in Act 1 of this report.

At twelve minutes and 55 seconds, the song ends and we get some of the young singers’ reactions to their performance as they leave the stage. We also hear a beautiful Tweet from Christopher Tin, the composer of “Baba Yetu,” as well as a closing comment from André.

There follows a brief excerpt from each of the performances of the other three finalist choirs. At the end of this segment, at fourteen minutes and 55 seconds, the winners of the competition are announced.

André van der Merwe, Conductor of the Stellenbosch University Choir, and His Students

At the end of the 17-minute video, André makes the following comment: “If we speak one another’s languages, whether it be through singing or the actual language, we come closer, we understand, and hopefully that will build humanity.” If you have read these notes before listening to the story, here is the link to the video again.

I urge you to watch this video to the very end to learn the outcome, but also to be uplifted – not because of the religious nature of the lyrics (“Baba Yetu” is the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili), but because of the joyful music and the triumph of impeccable teamwork and inspiring leadership.

How the song “Baba Yetu” came to be is also a fascinating story. You can read about it by clicking here.

Critics’ Reviews: At this point, it seems the story is over, but I would say that the value of an artistic performance is only partly about our initial understanding and enjoyment. A greater value is what we take away, how we reflect upon what we have seen and heard, and what we have learned from the experience. For me, this performance has been musically perfect and the leadership role the conductor employs is a model to be emulated.

I found two short interviews with André van der Merwe. In the first interview (three minutes and 30 seconds), he is asked about his leadership style. As he talks and jokes, he refers to his team learning and to himself learning along with them. You can find the interview and then two more songs by clicking here.

In the second interview (five minutes and 30 seconds), André says that when you sing to a group of people and share your voice, “What comes back to you is harmony – on all the physical and metaphorical levels.” The interviewer asks him about how much work is involved to create such a successful choir. He says, “More than just working hard, it’s how you work. How you work with a team of leaders to inspire them to give their best.”

The Curtain Call: How does any of this Chair’s Report relate to TIRF? Well, first of all, I feel inspired. I want to be the kind of leader whose work and whose passion we encounter in these videos. Whatever team I am working with, I want to motivate them to give their best.

Second, there is a strong undercurrent here of enthusiasm, of pride, of energy, of communication, of having international aspirations. Words that arise frequently when we hear the conductor talk are teamwork, harmony, diversity, energy, and magic. These are all concepts I associate with TIRF.

We also see the effect of the teamwork on the members of the choir – largely through Luthando’s story, but also through the body language of the other singers and the retrospections of Heleen Meyer. Surely, as teachers of whatever subjects we teach, we want to be remembered by our own students in these positive ways.

As I finish this Chair’s Report, the performance of the song itself (Act 1 above) has had 4,192,745 views. The longer video (Acts 1 and 2 above) has had 219,122 views. (I think I may be personally responsible for 122 of those views.) I would love to discover someday that TIRF was so well known and so appreciated that over four million people had visited our website.

So, yes, of course I want you to support TIRF. You know we need and value your financial contributions, but we also hope you will tell people about the Foundation – what TIRF is and what it does. And if you know people who love choral music, please share these links with them. And if – after all I’ve written here – you still haven’t listened to the song, please click here. I dare you to listen and to try to sit still.

Best wishes,