Pidgin perfect: Slang spreads message for Nigeria's 'opera queen'

LAGOS (Reuters) – Dressed in a bright red and blue robe and backed by a local band with an eclectic range of instruments, Helen Epega beats a steel drum as she declaims dramatically to an unseen audience.

FILE PHOTO: Nigerian-born opera singer Helen Epega performs on stage at the MUSON center in Lagos, Nigeria November 8, 2019. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

The opera she composed and is performing in a Lagos theatre is an unusual, trance-like mix of classical and indigenous music – but what makes it unique is that she is singing in pidgin.

By writing it in West Africa’s lingua franca – a blend of English and indigenous languages – she hopes to spread its message as widely as possible.

“I just wasn’t able to communicate with people the way I wanted to, and being in Lagos you hear so many different languages and so many different tribes,” Epega told Reuters TV.

“But the one we all speak is pidgin…. I think more people will be able to understand the opera and feel less intimidated …because I think opera is for everyone.”

Nigerian-born Epega, 38, spent most of her formative years in Britain before returning home in 2008.

Her ‘Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera’ – for which she cites Fela Kuti and Katie Bush as musical influences – debuted in London’s Royal Opera House in 2015, where she added elements of Cockney slang to the libretto.

It transferred to Cape Town the following year and now she is performing it for the first time in her home country.

It tells of a family of ethereal singers who try to maintain peace and balance in the world’s realms through their songs.

“I want to create an identity through art that inspires pride…,” she said. “I really do believe that music can end all wars.”

Writing by John Stonestreet; reporting and editing by Nneka Chile

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