The Silver Mountain Music Festival began on Strawberry Hill Farm and this year the festival is in a unique virtual format. We spoke to Aileen Anderson about how it all started and some of the "behind the scenes" stories.
WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND SILVER MOUNTAIN MUSIC AND THE CONNECTION TO STRAWBERRY HILL FARM?
The whole concept of Silver Mountain Music Festival began at Strawberry Hill Farm. Our farm is owned by the Anderson family (connected to the long-standing Moodie family in the valley). Richard Cock has been a friend of our family for as long as I can remember. He suggested to my father that we should try to start a music festival on our farm. I thought that it was a promising idea but felt a bit overwhelmed by it all. I knew that if Richard were involved, the music would be exceptional but how would I match that with all the logistics: Stages; Toilets; Tickets; Marketing? And all of this on a remote farm in the mountains. For the first year, although we deliberately started small, it was still overwhelming, and I was a bit terrified. Yet, somehow, we pulled it off and people bought tickets and loved it!
What do you think were some of the reasons for the success?
I think it all comes down to the team and the fact that we are doing this for the love of music, nature, and the area. I remember Richard calling in the first year (when he could sense that I was a bit overwhelmed and trying not to show it) and said that he had this person called “Jo” who helps him with events. He said that “nothing phases her, and she’d help with all the arrangements.” My response was: “Challenge accepted, and I’ll definitely phase her.” I was convinced that no one would be able to handle the madness of mud, music and all that goes with living in this remote valley. But Jo (from Jam Events) arrived, and Richard was correct. Nothing phased her. I later learned that she had worked in a trauma hospital on her journey to this career. It showed. There is no way that we would have pulled off that first festival without her. Jo has worked with a vast range of superstars from around the world, in some seriously impressive events, but she graciously worked with my inexperienced staff. We soon learnt that Jo knew a lot about this stuff and we asked her a lot of questions: “How do we best arrange the seats? Where should the stage go? How do we build the stage? Where should the toilets go? How many toilets do we need? How much wine do we need? How do we control ticket entry?” She worked with all of us without making us feel stupid as the rain poured down and the ticket numbers were not overly impressive, and I wondered why we had even bothered with all this work.
In addition to Jo, each member of the local team is exceptional: Ricardo, Andre, Danie, Twakkie, Linda, Edna, Rachel and Tienie. Then there are also all the amazing venues with their own teams with whom we work each year. My family gets involved too – with my mom and sister feeding all the musicians – which is a monumental task. We now also have an amazing wine sponsor, Sijnn, represented by the lovely Charla Bosman. We all work incredibly hard to prepare for this festival and somehow, we get it done. It is remarkable what a small, inexperienced group of people can pull off when they genuinely care for each other and the community around them.
In third year of the festival, Jo said that the other half of Jam Events was coming. Someone called, “Sam.” Jo would arrive a few days late because she needed to collect Sam from the airport. My team was a bit annoyed because now we would have less of Jo’s wisdom for all those tough questions. We sent a message saying that we really hope that Sam is worth a day less of Jo! And, she was… and more! Together, they make a truly remarkable team. They are quite different people, but they are amazing to work with – hard-working, professional and just incredible humans that never forget that (while this is a job) its way more than that. It is about bringing people together and celebrating what makes us human and what makes being South African special. We love the Jam Events team and how much they have given back to this valley.
Obviously, none of this festival would work without Richard Cock and his incredible talent and ability to bring together concerts that truly touch people’s heart. He really is an amazing person to work with. I have to admit, that over a few drinks at the end of the first festival, I chatted to some orchestra members about whether there was anyone else who comes close to Richard. It was unequivocal. Every musician to whom I spoke, said that he is unique, not just in his musical talent but in his ability to engage with an audience. Over the years, I have had the privilege of witnessing this respect that Richard has earned. He has an incredible knowledge of music and how to play it, coordinate it and bring people together around it. There were years when we thought that a concert would be a complete disaster, but he was able to turn it around to a success – a rare and special talent. Thank you, Richard, for giving so generously of yourself and your unique talent.
What is the most enjoyable thing about the festival?
I have been privileged to meet some remarkable South Africans who are taking the world by storm with their talent. I have little influence over the music programme as I trust the experts, but I do always ask two simple questions: “Are they lovely humans and can they handle mud?” To date, I do not think those two criteria have ever been overlooked. I have been immensely privileged to host an amazing array of super humans that are, not only exceptionally talented, but also embrace mud and a touch of madness. They have reduced their fees, hosted youth workshops and trudged marimbas through cow dung just to be part of the fun of this festival. I have loved working with all of them and thank them for their support. We also have a growing support base of people who return to the festival each year and it’s so lovely to see the same faces back each year - people who truly understand what this festival is all about.
What is the least enjoyable thing about the festival?
Well, it really is a HUGE amount of work. We are a small team and I do most of the coordinating on the ground, with limited budget. Its pretty exhausting. It is not just the music, but we do a whole host of talks and walks at different venues and there are so many tiny details that go into it. I remember talking to someone else who organises a festival with way fewer activities than we pull together and she said that her event is basically a full-time job. I almost choked on my wine! We organise this all on top of a few other full-time jobs. With a small team, it is a massive undertaking, but we all love the outcome and maybe one day it will cover its costs.
How did the virtual festival come about?
I guess it was another one of my crazy ideas that usually hits me on a run in the mountains or a swim in my dam. At the start of lockdown, I had been reflecting on how many people have been impacted by Covid-19. I thought of all the artists, photographers, and associated support crew that had no work. I also thought of how historic all of this was and how we need to try capture the experience and the emotion of it all. I was going through a tough time, personally, and perhaps the distraction of a project like this helped a bit. I had been working with Jacques Marais on a few other projects and the idea sort of clicked with him too. As a farm boy from the Eastern Cape with a remarkable photographic talent, I knew he would be the best conduit for the story. During lockdown 5, Jacques and I spent a lot of time discussing via email, WhatsApp and bad telephone connections, how to capture this story. There were times when I almost abandoned the project but I am glad that I did not. We somehow needed to tell the story of rural areas and that through the deep pain, sadness and fear, there was also resilience.
The idea of telling the covid-19 story in our valley then sort of morphed into trying to capture a bit of silver mountain music in a virtual festival. We had lots of amazing musicians who were only too happy to share some of their experiences in our valley and its been amazing to hear their memories. I hope this virtual festival captures a bit of that story and that next year everyone will be back (in the flesh!) to celebrate year six of the Silver Mountain Music Festival.
Life in a forest in the mountains