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‘When I’m down, I play the chicken dance!’ – an interview with Philip de Villiers

Sydney-based musician Philip de Villiers is on a roll – performing in the Sydney Fringe, Melbourne Fringe and then heading off on a whistle-stop tour of retirement villages from Sydney to Cairns. His positivity is contagious.

You just finished performing your show Smile at the Sydney Fringe Cabaret Club – and I heard it was a great gig. How did it go from your perspective?
Everything came together just beautifully. I loved the camaraderie I shared on stage with three young orchestra-pit musicians. The material I selected was for an older audience, but they embraced it and put their own stamp on it. It’s impossible not to have fun with accordion, banjo, mandolin, piano and an upright bass.

Tell us briefly about your musical offering and performance style?
People enjoy the variety in my shows and its unpredictability. I love Rodgers & Hammerstein just as much as Slim Dusty, so I constantly travel between eras, styles and places.

Overnight during Sydney’s Covid-19 lockdown in 2021 you went from regularly performing in aged care facilities and at other venues to having no work at all. Happily, you managed to pivot to performing concerts online and through the Nextdoor app you greatly increased your audience. Can you tell us a little bit about this time?
I reached out to my neighbours and my friends all over the world to support a public Zoom concert where they could pay what they wanted. I earned ten times what I’d normally get paid for a concert! My immediate next-door neighbours supported my concert even though I wasn’t allowed to see them or interact with them physically. Now they follow my music career, whereas before we hardly spoke.

What was it like when you finally got back to performing in aged care? Had you missed the seniors and had they missed you?
I really missed connecting with real, breathing people in-the-flesh during the lockdown. When I returned, they were still seated 1.5 metres apart, with masks and told not to sing or dance.

I completely choked up when I sang “Sweet Caroline” – “hands, touching hands, touching you, touching me”.

How did you develop your affinity with older people? And what do you most like about performing for them?
I guess I’ve always been one of “them”. I spent all of my seaside holidays at my grandmother’s house, and on Sunday afternoons she would sit and page through her magazine while I played the organ. After each song she’d say, “mooi,” (“beautiful” in Afrikaans), no matter how badly I played. She’d invite her friends over, and they’d play bridge while I built Lego castles. I’d go with them to the movies and sit with them at church. By the age of five I thought I had retired! When Gran moved to an aged care home, I’d often go and perform there for free.

I love the frankness of old people. If they don’t like your show, they’re free to leave, so you better not waste their time.

What are your top three showstoppers or most requested tunes when you’re performing in aged care settings?
“Over the Rainbow”, “O Sole Mio”, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”.

You play piano and piano accordion. Apart from portability, what do you most enjoy about playing the accordion?
I love dancing with it! It instantly lifts my mood and relaxes me.

You get an inside view when you go in to perform in aged care homes settings, what is it you see? What could NSW be doing better in terms of aged care?
You definitely feel the strain when you go to the underfunded age care homes where staff have too many balls to catch. The fast turnover of staff during Covid hasn’t helped. NSW should provide more staff per resident. I notice how it benefits my audience when more staff interact with them while they’re being entertained. There’s nothing more beautiful to watch. Aged care workers also need to be trained how best to facilitate an entertainment session –where to participate and where not to. The mental health benefit of entertainment must be studied academically and that knowledge must be put into training modules. Aged care entertainment is a rejuvenation tool not only for the audience but also for the entertainer. Everyone walks away feeling younger.

What about individuals – is there anything younger people can do to help ensure older people lead happier lives as they age?
My advice: go visit an aged care home, you’ll leave feeling much younger. Visit your loved ones when they have entertainment and enjoy it with them.

Why is humour so important in your shows? How do you stay upbeat?
Laughter releases tension – not only for the residents but also the staff. When they laugh, it’s a sign that you’re connecting with them, that they “see” you and you see them. When I feel down, I play the chicken dance! Music is a great antidepressant.

You have lived in Sydney for seven years. What brought you to Sydney and what has encouraged you to stay?
My (now) ex-partner got a job-offer in Australia, so I followed him here with our three cats. They were so expensive to relocate; maybe that’s why I haven’t even thought of moving back to South Africa or any other country. But I enjoy the beauty of Sydney; it’s similar to Cape Town – just a bigger version. I love being surrounded by water, beauty and nature. I lived in the Ku-ring-gai area for three years and it was like living in the bush. If it wasn’t for its weather, I’d probably give Melbourne a try.

You are currently writing a comical memoir about your unconventional childhood in apartheid South Africa. What was “unconventional” about your childhood – and how has this influenced the person and performer you are today?
I had parents who refused to live in a comfort zone, which was partly to my benefit but it also wounded me. Instability is a good concoction for an artist, if you can live to tell the tale! I grew up in ’80s apartheid-South Africa, which was like one big comedy of errors.

You have an Honours Degree in Live Performance, have worked as a musical director in the theatre, and produced and arranged songs for the Hollywood blockbuster Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Martha and Mary starring Hilary Swank. What’s next?
I’ll be performing at the Melbourne Fringe gala opening concert on October 6, then I’m heading for the Brisbane Fringe on a 6,500-kilometre road trip performing at retirement villages en route, from Sydney all the way to Cairns.




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