Across West Africa, over 50 million people speak various pidgin dialects. Aiming to democratize the opera experience, Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor (also known by her performance name The Venus Bushfires) recently debuted Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera, the world’s first pidgin opera, in London in July 2015. A true Renaissance woman, Helen is a multi-faceted artist who has written, sung, composed, and performed for a wide range of audiences from Christian Dior to Disney to Oxfam. An afrofuturist take on the legends of mermaids and sirens, Song Queen incorporates a wide range of unique instruments including the rare hang drum, Helen’s specialty. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Helen about her creative collective, her ethereal sound, and the story behind Song Queen.
You are a self-described singer-songwriter, composer, writer, and performance artist. Which of these artistic mediums was your first love?
I probably sang first. When I was three, writing songs probably just meant copying the words, but I think I started writing my own songs when I was about seven.
You were born in Nigeria, right?
Yes, I born in Ibadan, but I moved to Benin City where I lived until I moved to London at the age of seven. I just moved back to Nigeria a year and a half ago. I go back and forth between Lagos and London as I work on the opera and run my charitable organization, Just A Day. We work with performers, writers… people who tend to travel and might be interested in voluntourism. When these people travel for conferences, speaking engagements, etc., I ask them to tag on another day to their itinerary to donate to various organizations and groups here. Rather than give money, we try to get people to share their skills.
I’m interested in this shuttling back in forth between Lagos and London throughout your life. How have these places shaped your artistry?
Growing up in Nigeria, I listened to hymns because I was brought up as a Catholic and my mum loves gospel songs. But I also listened to Gloria Gaynor, Gloria Estefan, a couple of other Glorias… and, of course, Michael Jackson! Then we went to London where 80s synth pop was exploding. Things that I was listening to in Nigeria, like Gloria Gaynor, that I thought were really cool… if you admitted I listened to those things in school in London, it would have been social suicide. But the things I loved back then are now back in fashion: I loved quirky 80s bands and things like that. The 80s was a moment of creativity and cultural change and pushing boundaries, so I wanted to create music that was fun.
For a time, I was a rapper…
Can you give us one of your rhymes?
It was awful. I used to do it with an American accent. I think for a week in college I decided I was going to be called Femme Fatale. I have really forced myself to forget this moment in my life. I realized very quickly that it wasn’t going to work out because everyone told me it was very bad. I always sang, but I think rap drew me in because I’d always connected with people like MC Hammer, NWA, Ice Cube, and other gangsta rappers.
Being Nigerian, as I got older, I also began listening to people like Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, and other artists my parents would play growing up. I had listened to them as a child, but I was merely passively participating in the experience. As I grew older, though, I grew more intrigued. My dad was conservative but he loved Fela Kuti and Jimi Hendrix as well as these psychedelic, genre-challenging artists, so he really encouraged me to listen to that more. That changed the kind of music I was interested in doing. I was retrospective and producing music that was conducive to meditating, so I was always looking for interesting instruments that would help me meditate. Initially I used singing bowls or lots of percussion, but when I was in holiday in Ibiza in 2007, I came across the hang drum, which is the main instrument I use today.
They’re incredibly rare. How did you get your hands on one?
Yes, I think I have the only one in Africa at the moment. They stopped making them, actually.
Are they difficult to make? Why don’t people make them anymore?
The couple who makes them is pretty cool. They live in a secluded environment in Bern, Switzerland. They are really artistic and experimental and are moving on to their next invention, which is the only reason they stopped making hang drums. They only made a handful of hang drums to begin with, but the work was all-consuming and they became these kind of demigods. Everyone wanted to get their hands on the instrument and I think it became overwhelming, which is likely the reason they stopped. When I first got my hang drum, I couldn’t even make a sound, which now seems strange because I play it for hours daily.
How did you come up the name The Venus Bushfires?
I’ve always been interested in nature and intrigued by astronomy. I love the idea that you are one of a trillion organisms that have been and are and will be. So I took the idea of the goddess Venus, who I love for the positivity, the femininity, the balance of the sacred and profane, and the bushfire. Whenever there is a bushfire, it gives the land a chance to grow afresh and it’s always more fertile. Through death, there’s life.
What all that boils down to, what I’m trying to explore and share through my creative output, is the birth of ideas. I am trying to create a space where ideas can flourish and we can share openly regardless of cultures and origins. This is why I am very drawn to the meditation aspect where people can communicate openly.
What is the central story behind the Song Queen?
Song Queen tells the story of the ethereal Menemeh tribe, who maintain peace on Earth through their enchanting songs. As the envious world of the stars tempt the Menemeh, Earth’s peace lies in the balance. Kenate the warrior songstress journeys to The Venus Bushfires to earn the sacred Peace Song and restore peace on Earth.
How does Song Queen fit into the work that you’ve previously done? How did you come up with it?
A friend of mine took me to the Royal Opera House in London and I was wearing my African attire. I was by far the youngest person there and everyone said things like, “oh that’s a wonderful outfit you have on! It’s great to see you here!” It wasn’t even about me being black or African, but that I just wasn’t conservatively dressed. It made me think that the people watching this opera might not see people like me or people dressed like me that often. Then I thought, “why don’t we pidgin this up?” I thought about the tuk tuks and the danfos and the people who use them. I imagined that audience in front of the opera I had just seen, Parsifal by Richard Wagner, and I remember thinking “this would sound amazing in pidgin!” I don’t compose classical music, but I am a composer, so I went home and started composing that very same day.
Was it difficult to compose an opera in pidgin?
Absolutely, but some people have commented that the music is still in line with the usual opera sound. I kept the strings section, but for some of the strings like the harp, I’ve chosen to use African instruments like the kora. For traditional percussion sections, I’ve chosen to use talking drums and djembes. I also used a Welsh flute. I brought in different instruments but also different people from the regions where these instruments originate because they bring a different perspective.
Opera was originally supposed to unite people but over hundreds of years, it has been co-opted so the average person can’t access it. I suppose it’s because a lot of opera is not in English as well, so people just assume they can’t access it. I wanted to merge what a lot of people assume is high class with speech that people often label as “low class” to show that there really isn’t much of a difference. You can sit there and understand it and enjoy it in the same way that you might enjoy a hip-hop concert or Wagner. My dream is for people to enter and leave realizing, “wow, we’re really not that different.”
What was your composition process like?
For the research, I went to many operas in London—including street operas. I also went online as well and watched classic operas like Madame Butterfly, etc. I researched the big composers like Wagner. There’s an Aryan air that people always label him with, but I couldn’t imagine that someone who could compose such beautiful music could have such dark views. I wanted to take what he had done with lyrics, composition, and libretto. When I was researching various composers, I realized not many were young or female, let alone black or African, so I wanted to change the image of what people think a composer is. For someone to Google “composers” and see a face that looks like mine is important, so that people living in Lagos and studying music can realize that they don’t have to sing or wait for people to give them a job. With the opera, I want to make the screenplay available so people can actually re-create it and make it accessible.
The Arts Council England and emc3 funded the opera and gave me a lot of advice. I also plugged into an opera festival called Tête-à-tête, the world’s largest opera festival for new opera. I didn’t even need to pitch it to them—as soon as I started speaking, they were intrigued. They were really interested in being involved with the world’s first pidgin opera. They helped me manage the venue and the front of the office. All I really needed to do was write the music, the screenplay, find the musicians and artists, and a curator.
When I think about it, I really composed the opera in two weeks because I had been thinking about it for two years, but I couldn’t move forward until I got the funding from the Arts Council, which was two weeks before the performance. I wrote a lot of the songs within those two weeks.
The version of Song Queen we premiered in London was one hour long, but we are developing it into a larger feature opera that will be around one hour and a half to two hours long, which will give me a chance to explore other languages and share more aspects of African culture and other narratives of the world.
We are now working on putting it on in Lagos because the dream is to allow the average Nigerian, the average African, the average man to see it and take in African culture. I don’t want the opera to be just Nigerian pidgin. Of course, that’s where we started because that was my easiest access point, but I want it to include pidgin dialects from across Africa. Through this project, I’ve learned that so many other cultures and languages have their own “broken” languages. There’s even broken Chinese or broken Portuguese. The pidgin opera may have started off as a Nigerian pidgin opera, but it will be a global pidgin opera. We think we don’t understand each other but through these dialects that we often degrade in our own cultures and say are for the less educated – this is how the world will speak to each other. The dream is that with people from different cultures seated next to each other, even though everyone may not understand word-for-word, they will understand what’s going on and realize they aren’t that different.