Groundbreaking Pidgin opera mixes music for cultural harmony - GulfToday

Groundbreaking Pidgin opera mixes music for cultural harmony

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Nigerian opera singer and performance artist Helen Epega performs.

The cheering crowd in southwestern Nigeria is thousands strong but when the performer on stage in a yellow catsuit and glittering cape beats out eerie rhythms on a steel drum, they hush.

Then as Helen Epega begins to sing, her powerful voice filling the air at the outdoor auditorium, the crowd roars.

The musical genre may be unusual in this part of the world but people understand it -- Epega is singing what she and organisers of the festival in which she is participating say is the world's first opera in Pidgin.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation, with many ethnic groups and hundreds of languages.
But Nigerian Pidgin -- a lingua franca sometimes referred to as "Broken English" -- is understood by almost all.

"The reaction has been overwhelming.

 "People are really excited about it," she told AFP. "Perhaps it is because they feel they haven't had a voice, or had a chance to express themselves in this way."

Bridging cultures
The use of Pidgin, which is understood across Nigeria, provides unaccustomed access to opera.
"It is not the music I think of when you talk of African drumming," said student David Ikeolu at the festival.

"But she is singing our language, and that is special to hear," he added.
More than just serving as a lingua franca, Pidgin can also help to bring people together, Epega said.

"It shows that it is not only OK to break barriers -- in fact, we must," said the singer, who has also lived in Britain.

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Epega beats out rhythms on a "Hang", a Swiss-made percussion instrument.

Pidgin power
Pidgin, which is endlessly changing, was once scorned by some as a language of the street.

But it has a powerful and growing cultural influence across all classes.

The BBC has started a Pidgin radio and news website, stand-up comedians are entertaining packed audiences and novels are being written in the language, noted Nigerian author Richard Ali.

He said he had recently helped translate an 11th-century Arabic story of Al-Hariri of Basra into Pidgin.
"Adaptable, jazz-like and subversive," the writer said of Pidgin in a recent article.

Ali also praised Pidgin as a bridge-building tongue that enables even rival groups who cannot understand each other to speak to one another and laugh, turning "competitors into comrades".

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Nigerian opera singer Helen Epega and her husband and manager Baba Jallah Epega arrive to perform.

'Afro-futuristic'

With her hair in long tresses dramatically looped up in curls around a horizontal baton, Epega beats out rhythms on a "Hang", a Swiss-made percussion instrument.

Two steel shells, one upon the other, resonate when she taps the Hang with her palms, creating a ghostly sound like that produced by Caribbean steel pan drums.

It is a mix of old and new, bringing together "a blend of the rich African tradition of storytelling, using Nigerian Pidgin English, with Western classical opera," she said.

Unity in diversity

Celebrating the strength of unity in diversity was another key theme of the festival.

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Epega calls her music "Afro-futuristic." It is a mix of old and new.

Wole Soyinka, the 1986 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who comes from Abeokuta, acted as an advisor to its organisers.

For Epega, mixing the beat of traditional drums with the sounds and rhythms of modern instruments conveys a powerful message about inclusion.

"I'm saying that no matter where you're coming from, and where you are on the musical, cultural and social spectrum, I believe we all meet when we speak the same language," she said: "music".

Agence France-Presse