By Charles Mgbolu
Re-invention is an act many African artists know all too well, as they have successfully tweaked the features of some music genres with western roots and made them truly African—pop, hip-hop, and rhythm and blues are very good examples.
Nigerian singer and song writer Helen Epega has been doing re-inventions of her own, but in a most unlikely musical genre... classical music.
Wearing long African braids and a billowing gown in checkered African print, she strikes high-register notes that rattle beautifully with the accompanying musical ensemble performing in sync behind her, basking her audience in an explosion of musical euphoria.
Since 2015, Helen has been writing and composing staged operas performed in Pidgin, a language spoken in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. It is a blend of English and local languages.
Her opera musical series is the world’s first Pidgin English opera performed with an ensemble of classical musicians.
For Helen, it is about intensifying the push and leverage currently enjoyed by music coming out of the African continent.
‘’It’s really important for me to have something that is coming from Africa from a place of surplus,’’ she tells TRT Afrika.
‘’It’s really wanting to celebrate African stories and our history, our very many languages, and our very diverse people, but to do it in a way that celebrates Africa, that uplifts Africa, and also brings the rest of the world together,’’ she adds.
Helen’s African coloration of western classical music comes at an interesting time for African artists, whose branding of Africa on global music stages is at its peak with sold-out venues and record downloads and streaming.
‘’This generation of African artists grows bolder, and it's really interesting to be a musician right now. There is this soft power and gaze on Africa. I think there's a really powerful force that we as artists need to make sure we hold on to.’’
Helen was born in Nigeria, but moved with her family to England when she was seven years old.
Helen wrote her first pidgin opera in 2015 and still remembers the struggle of trying to blend this style of music with the native words of pidgin.
‘’It's not easy, or at least it wasn’t when I first started,’’ she admits.
‘’But then I had to think of how people introduced other languages, including English, to early opera, which was sung in Italian. I simply had to think of how to do the tongue twisting because, for me, I really wanted to champion African culture.’’
Her resilience to push the African narrative into the classical spheres is impressive; beginning as a child, she self-taught herself to become a classical musician.
‘’My siblings and I would basically just hit things like pots and pans and drums and whatever to make sounds.’’
She continued: ‘’My parents wanted me to graduate from university first, and I had to train in communication and media studies before going fully and professionally into classical music.’’
Helen has toured the world with her pidgin opera after it debuted in 2015 at the opera festival in the UK, which is the largest festival of new operas.
On September 7, she would perform 'Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera Reimagined', at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival 2023 at The Cockpit Theatre in London.