If you’re lucky enough to have heard OCE resident Helena van der Merwe sing, you will know the power, passion and determination she possesses.
She is an award-winning opera and gospel singer, trained under world-renowned tutors in South Africa, and has released five CDs during her illustrious career. Since arriving at OCE in 2020, she has revived our village choir which now has 30 members, and she’s currently planning an inaugural regional choir festival for retirement villages across the Bay of Plenty.
It’s a world away from the prison choirs she used to lead in South Africa, but she has always thrown herself head-first into whatever singing opportunity is presented to her.
“I did many years of singing studies and eventually got involved in radio and television producing where I recorded many choirs,” she explains. “My heart in choir singing was captured when I produced a radio documentary on prisoners on death row. One of them was pardoned and he did a Christmas carol show inside Central Prison in Pretoria and they asked me to come and sing for them. It was so emotional for me.
“Then General Van Zyl (the first woman general in South Africa), asked me to start a choir with the prisoners. Because I’m a passionate person, I immediately said ‘yes’ without knowing what I was embarking on… It took three years before they trusted me. I never asked what they did wrong, I just simply invested in them.”
Helena faced many obstacles, including getting permission as a white woman to even enter a prison full of black men. Then when Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994, he granted amnesty to many political prisoners and Helena ended up losing half her choir who were released from prison.
“I then asked to work with maximum security prisoners instead which was a tall order, but they were beautiful people. We formed the Leeuwkop Prison Choir and performed for Mandela himself at parliament in Cape Town… It was a hugely successful venture. We also recorded and released a CD.”
The choir became part of the prisoners’ wider rehabilitation programme and an integral part of their lives.
“Singing is definitely healing. It helps people to make peace with their situation. In South Africa, black people are born singing and harmonising. They sing when they’re hurt, they sing when they’re joyful – it’s how they express themselves. So it was easy to use a choir as a vehicle for other things. It gave people a feeling of self-worth. They became somebody again. I never treated them like prisoners. For me, they were choir members. It made them whole again.”
Three decades later, Helena is now sharing that same healing power with choir members here at OCE.
“It’s given people a real mental boost and helped some people come out of their shells. The choir means so much to people and it helps them to settle into our community.”
Helena say choir singing is good for your health because it helps improve posture and breathing. “As we age, our breathing becomes shallower. So deep breathing helps people feel brighter and is mentally stimulating,” she says.
“We try to sing popular songs like The Rose, Born Free, Sound of Silence and Down by the Riverside – happy songs that people can relate to. We doll them up with solos and other stuff. I’m teaching them an Afrikaans song at the moment to stretch them a little bit. We work really hard for an hour a week and in that hour, they have no time to think of anything else other than the music.”
Fellow OCE resident Alison Tyson is a gifted pianist and accompanies the choir during their rehearsals and performances. The choir has performed several Christmas carol events, at our winter concert in August 2022, and at former Western Bay of Plenty Mayor Garry Webber’s farewell last October. Now they are preparing to perform at a new regional choir festival that Helena is setting up specifically for retirement village choirs in the Bay of Plenty.
“Our aim is to get more people involved and make a difference in our community. We will hold two concerts as part of the festival in August and the money raised will be donated to Waipuna Hospice and Star Jam.”
Helena says when she first contacted other villages to discuss the idea, they were all incredibly supportive. “Some are starting up a choir as a result, others are enlarging their group and some will still be small groups but I know they’re inspired by us to give it a go. We hope to have at least 10 or 12 retirement village groups performing.”
The Bay of Plenty Villagers Music Festival will be held at Bayswater Retirement Village in Mount Maunganui on Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th August (both afternoon shows). Tickets will be $10 each and available from OCE’s reception so come and support our wonderful choir as they take to the stage to entertain us all!