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A New Kind of Opera Connects Audiences to Africa

Pidgin wasn't Purcell’s intention, but it works in this new opera.

by Catherine Chapman
03 September 2015, 3:20pm

Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor sings in Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera. Photo Credit: Claire Shovelton

"Dey" and "dem" are examples of words unlikely to be found in renditions of Verdi’s La traviata or Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, but these expressive and fragmented sounds have now been scored in the world’s first pidgin opera.

Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera is the latest project by Nigerian-born singer songwriter Helen Parker-Jayne Isisbor, an artist known for her spiritual tones, talking drums, and creative collective, The Venus Bushfires. Having first debuted the opera at London’s Tête à Tête festival in July 2015, the hour-long performance mixes classical singing—tenor, mezzo and soprano—with African percussion and contemporary dance. Most importantly, the 13-song score is written and composed in a language spoken by around 50 million people in Nigeria—pidgin.

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A contemporary dancer takes the stage in Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera. Photo Credit: Claire Shovelton

“People that create opera, or those that frequent the opera, don’t want to celebrate pidgin,” Isisbor tells The Creators Project. “And people that speak pidgin don’t tend to go to the opera. It’s a connection that’s never been made.”

While not recognised as an official language, pidgin combines linguistic characteristics of other languages to allow for two or more groups to communicate. Unlike creole, a first-language to many, pidgin is a simplified dialect that’s usually derived from dominant languages such as English or Arabic.

With over 500 languages spoken throughout Nigeria, an English form of pidgin can connect those living in Africa’s most populous country, and even people located in other parts of West Africa. Isisbor used this strand of pidgin, one that can also link various social backgrounds, to write and compose Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera.

“It’s really challenging,” says Isisbor. “You use lots of air and energy.”  

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The orchestra in Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera. Photo Credit: Claire Shovelton

The appearance of pidgin in song tends to occur in genres like rap and R&B, where Nigerian artists utilise the connectivity of pidgin English alongside an indigenous language, be it English or Yoruba. Since pidgin can be understood by great numbers, artists like Afrobeat singer Fela Kuti have made it a norm on the mainstream music scene.

But opera, favorable to romantic languages, is an art form more often associated with a high culture, less available to the masses than pidgin is. “It’s not about teaching people the pidgin language,” says Isisbor. “It’s about using language that has never been shown in this form of high art.”

Isisbor decided to do just that after attending a 2013 production of Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ at the Royal Opera House in London. Dressed in traditional Nigerian clothing, she noticed how much she stuck out among the majority of black tie audience attendees. “I thought that was interesting,” explains Isisbor. “And then I thought how the next time I was there I wanted to be performing in pidgin.”

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African drumming in ‘Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera’. Photo Credit: Claire Shovelton

Originally a one-woman show, funding from various sponsors, including Arts Council England and EMC3.eu, expanded the production to a 14-person ensemble. The story itself is based on Mami Wata of West African folklore—a mermaid songstress who lures travelers to death but is countlessly worshipped.  

“Wherever you go in the world they have a version of that story,” says Isisbor. “I started with that as something that we actually share.” Isisbor explains that she wants to challenge classes of art and “start a dialogue where people talk about Africa.”

Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera will return to London in November 2015. A month later, it will be performed in Lagos for the first time. Visit Helen Parker-Jayne Isisbor’s website for full updates and listen to an excerpt of the opera here.

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