Helen Epega Talks … Song Queen A Pidgin Opera 

Helen Epega AKA The Venus Bushfires has given her groundbreaking opera a modern injection.

Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera is billed as the world’s first Pidgin English Opera! Pidgin English is the rich remix of the English language infused with the rhythm of West Africa, most notably used in Nigeria and Ghana amongst others. Since its conception in 2015 Song Queen has enjoyed a number of performances around the world, and recently returned to the UK for a performance at St John’s Hyde Park.

Epega spoke to us about the evolution of her debut show …

Please introduce yourself …

My name is Helen Epega, also known as The Venus Bushfires. I’m a composer, vocalist and visual artist. I live in London with my husband and 2 young daughters. I was born in Ibadan in Nigeria and grew up in Benin City. I moved to London with my family when I was 7 and spent some spiritually formative years in Ibiza. For the last 9 years I’ve lived between London and Lagos. Dancing between cultures has giving me the blessing to have realised from an early age that people have more in common than separates us from one another. This perspective influences all my creative endeavours and I create with a deep passion that celebrates African Heritage.

Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence …
Yes! I am ready!

Tell us about Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera

Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera is the world’s first Pidgin English opera. First performed in London in 2015 at the Tete a Tete Opera Festival. It was supported by Arts Council England. The show has since been performed in a number of cities around the world. The opera is about a tribe of ethereal singers the ‘Menemeh’, who maintain peace and balance in all the world’s realms by creating reality through the enchanting songs they sing. All is well, until the ‘Vrugos’, who live in the realm of the stars, become envious of the prosperity the Menemeh have created for the people on Earth. Through a series of temptations and deceptions, the Vrugos attempt to distract the Menemeh and disrupt Earth’s peaceful balance. As the Menemeh succumbs to temptation, one by one they lose their voices and their ability to sing and create a peaceful reality. ‘Kanate’ the rising Queen of the Menemeh travels on an epic journey to ‘The Venus Bushfires’ realm where she must battle the Vrugos and find the ‘Peace Song’, a song so powerful it can unite all the worlds and restore peace on earth.

Helen Epega: Photographer – Claire Shovelton

What’s your role in it?

I am the composer, Librettist and Lead Vocalist. I play the lead role Kenate, the Queen of the ethereal Menemeh Tribe.

How did Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera come about?

I saw Richard Wagner’s last opera, Parcifal, at the Royal Opera house in London in 2013 after I returned from a trip visiting family in Benin City (Nigeria). I wore my shiny gele head tie, which drew a lot of compliments. It dawned on me that perhaps my attire was a rarity at the Opera House. Immediately, the sociologist in me started making connections between the conversations I’d recently had in Nigeria and I wondered how I could bring seemingly disparate cultures together and create an enchanting and inclusive experience for audiences. My mother and grandmother shared many African folk stories just as mind-bending as any that I could imagine had been set to opera. It was time to Pidgin the whole situation up. In that moment, the idea for Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera was born. Debuting the opera at the Tete a Tete opera Festival in London. It has since been performed in Lagos, Cape Town, Turin and Bodrum. This year our groundbreaking show has been revamped and now features Patois, Creole, Cockney, Multicultural London Slang and Ebonics with Western Classical Music.

Can you speak to the process of blending these speaking styles with Western Classical music presented through an Afro-Futuristic lens …

The process of blending Nigerian Pidgin English, Patois, Creole, Cockney, Hip Hop Vernacular, and Multicultural London Slang with Western Classical music has been a fascinating and rewarding journey and one that will continue as Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera evolves. It has required a deep understanding and appreciation of both the musical traditions and the diverse cultural backgrounds of the dialects explored. To begin with, I had to carefully study and analyse the linguistic nuances of each of these dialects and identify their unique characteristics. This involved conducting extensive research over wine and jollof rice. I then worked to create a musical vocabulary that incorporated elements from each dialect while also remembering the Western Classical tradition and making the opera linguistically and musically accessible.

The use of an Afro-Futuristic lens further elevated the project by infusing elements of Afrocentricity and sci-fi fantasy into the narrative and visuals. It allowed us to explore themes of identity, community, and empowerment in a futuristic context, providing a platform for underrepresented voices to be heard and celebrated. Blending these diverse cultural and linguistic elements has required an open-minded approach, a willingness to experiment, and a deep respect for the traditions and communities we are exploring. The result is a truly unique and groundbreaking production that celebrates the beauty and complexity of multiculturalism and diversity.

Helen Epega: Photographer – Claire Shovelton

How has this production evolved since its first performance in 2015?

Since our first performance of the opera in 2015 I’ve developed the musical composition and libretto to include Patois, Creole, Cockney, Hip Hop Vernacular, and Multicultural London Slang featured in 5 new movements (musical pieces) and the show is now 90 mins in duration.

And can you speak to the performers involved, how you found them and what they bring to the production?

The production features a talented cast, including Richard Olatunde Baker (African percussion), Adam Coney (electric guitar), Francis Angol (movement artist), Abdul Williams (steelpans) and myself (performing vocals and handpan). They are part of my ensemble with The Venus Bushfires. Christopher Huntley is the pianist and Musical Director. Francis Angol is the choreographer and movement artist performing with Ezme Benjamin also a movement artist. Louisa Martin (mezzo), Clara Kanter (mezzo), Yvonne Davies (soprano), Damien Noyce (tenor), Yuki Okuyama (baritone) are the vocalists and Madeliene Dawson (1st violin), Thibaut Pesnel (2nd violin), Ruby Bowler (viola) and Gabriel Francis-Dehqani (cello) make up the string quartet.

Highs, lows, solutions?

The highs are that I’m a pioneer and a woman of African Heritage making a bold move in the Classical music world as well as the arts and culture landscape. The lows are directly linked to the highs. The “experience package” I live through comes with hidden obstacles, many I don’t even see unless they are obvious, but often, I feel them. If I spend too much time considering the challenges, I’ll miss many of the opportunities that are born from my mindset of “just watch me do it”. As with any obstacle I think it’s important to identify if it’s one you can run through, run over, run around or one you need help to overcome. It’s important to know ones strengths and weaknesses, when and how to ask for help. I just go for it most of the time and I reach out for help and advice – a lot.

At what point of your career does this version of Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera find you …?

This version of Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera finds me at a point in my career where I’m hungrier to share this creative body of work than I’ve ever been. Some of the hidden obstacles have shifted but they still exist. My little girls are a bit older so I’ve been able to focus more on my creative output. My husband Baba-Jallah Epega and I, are passionate about making positive contributions to the wider discourse on Africa and Afrocentric cultures. He is the show’s executive producer. It’s important for me to be credited for this groundbreaking work as its composer and librettist. Often people will refer to me as a vocalist rather than the creator of this body of work. I feel a sense of urgency in sharing this work. This is protest art. This is opera democratised and now is the time.

Helen Epega: Photographer Claire Shovelton

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

What’s your current plan B?

I don’t think it can go wrong because for me one layer of success is creating this body of work, the second is to perform it. The dream is for Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera to be as successful as The Lion King or Hamilton. There are many stages between where we are now and the dream. In all my creative endeavours I explore bringing diverse cultures together with the aim of celebrating each other wildly. I believe I will always be able to build or find these experiences through music, visual art or as a sociologist.

What’s made you Sad, Mad, Glad this week?

This week I’ve been Sad by the worsening conflict in Sudan. I’ve been Mad that we clapped for healthcare workers during the pandemic and now they as well as so many are struggling with the cost of living crisis and more will continue to suffer because of the ideological choices of those who hold the pursestrings. I was Glad this week not to have snoozed my alarm.

What are you watching right now?

I’m binging Carnival Row. It’s set in a mythical world but the themes are so relatable.

What are you reading right now?

I read Half of A Yellow Sun when it was initially released. Now I’m listening to the audio version. The character Ugwu’s voice and perspective throughout the book is so captivating and hilarious at times too.

What are you listening to right now?

I’m listening to Smiling Faces Sometimes by The Undisputed Truth. Sometimes you just need to hear that song.

The last thing you saw on stage?

& Juliet. It’s a fun show.

What’s on your bucket list?

I’d like to climb Kilimanjaro one day.

Celebrate someone else?

I’d like to celebrate poet and performer Zena Edwards. She is just brilliant.

Celebrate yourself …

I’m breaking down walls and barriers culturally, creating music and art innovatively, I’m contributing positively to the broader discourse on Afrocentrism and I’m changing the face of opera.

Whose footsteps are you following in?

Can I be funky and wear one shoe one the left and another on the right? The artistic conviction and skill of author Toni Morrison and the melodic skill of Lin Manuel Miranda.

What’s Next?

The next step would be to find a stage home for ‘Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera’ and to have a longer run of at least a month then touring the opera nationally and internationally.

Where can we find you?
www.thevenusbushfires.com. Instagram, Facebook and YouTube @thevenusbushfires. Twitter @venusbushfires

Where can we see Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera?

My latest work Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera performed Saturday 29th April 2023 at St John’s Hyde Park.



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