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In Nigeria, pidgin opera is bridging cultures and breaking grounds

The musical genre may be unusual in this part of the world but people understand it

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In Nigeria, pidgin opera is bridging cultures and breaking grounds

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,” said 37-year old Epega, who performs under the stage name The Venus Bushfires and comes from the southern Nigerian city of Benin.

In Nigeria, pidgin opera is bridging cultures and breaking grounds
Nigerian opera singer and performance artist Helen Epega, performs during the world’s first opera in Pidgin, popularly called “broken English”, during the African Drum Festival in Abeokuta, Ogun State in southwestern Nigeria, on April 25, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

“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.”

Written by Epega herself, the opera has yet to be staged in its entirety but it will involve several singers and an orchestra. 

But she has performed long excerpts with various drums and guitar, in Europe, Cape Town and Lagos, among other places.

And as Epega performed at the recent African Drum Festival in the southwestern city of Abeokuta, the audience danced along, breaking with tradition for an opera.

Titled “Song Queen”, it is about a warrior queen and people who “sing a peaceful reality into the world” through music, she said.

The crowd loved it.

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.

“If we are going to have a dialogue about unity and peace and love, we must find ways to build bridges between ourselves.”

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.

In Nigeria, pidgin opera is bridging cultures and breaking grounds
Nigerian opera singer and performance artist Helen Epega (R), flanked by her husband and manager Baba Jallah Epega, arrives to perform during the world’s first opera in Pidgin, popularly called “broken English”, at the African Drum Festival in Abeokuta, Ogun State in southwestern Nigeria, on April 25, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

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”.

‘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.

Like Nigeria’s forever changing Afro-pop music, Epega’s sound fuses very different musical styles together for something she describes as “Afro-futuristic”. 

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.

In Nigeria, pidgin opera is bridging cultures and breaking grounds
Nigerian opera singer and performance artist Helen Epega, performs during the world’s first opera in Pidgin, popularly called “broken English”, during the African Drum Festival in Abeokuta, Ogun State in southwestern Nigeria, on April 25, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Epega’s inspirations — from Nigeria’s late Afro-beat icon Fela Kuti to British singer Kate Bush and Mozart — reflect her upbringing in both Nigeria and Britain.

“I think I’m finding a way to marry them all together,” she said, grinning.

Unity in diversity

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

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

“When you watch a performance of drumming, you are listening to poetry too,” Soyinka said, addressing the opening ceremony.

“If you listen to a recital, it is all about rhythm.”

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”.

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Culture & Tourism

Old Moroccan City of Fez, lures tourists from across the globe

The imperial city, Morocco’s “spiritual” capital has been overlooked by tourists in favour of Marrakesh.

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A view of the tannery in the 9th century walled Medina in the ancient Moroccan city of Fez

In recent times the imperial city of Fez has been overlooked by tourists in favour of  Marrakesh, but now Morocco’s “spiritual” capital is bustling with visitors due to major renovations and low-cost flights. “It is an open-air museum, with the largest pedestrian zone in the world and its 10,000 alleyways,” said Yassir Jawra, vice president of the Fez tourism commission.

Fez “is the spiritual capital of Morocco, famed for its culture and its (age-old) handicraft work,” he added. Since 2013, more than one billion dirhams (92 million euros, $103 million) of investment have been poured into the city of Fez to restore the 9th-century walled medina and develop tourism.

A Moroccan man walks in the tannery in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient city of Fez
A Moroccan man walks in the tannery in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient city of Fez on April 11, 2019. – In recent times the imperial city of Fez has been overlooked by tourists in favour of Marrakesh, but now Morocco’s ‘spiritual’ capital is bustling with visitors thanks to major renovations and low-cost flights. Since 2013, more than one billion dirhams (92 million euros) of investments have been poured into Fez to restore the 9th century walled medina and develop tourism. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

The medina, home to the world’s oldest working library, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 for its “outstanding universal value”. Guardian of priceless treatises in Islamic studies, astronomy and medicine, the library is nestled in the maze of narrow and dark alleyways which tourists and donkey-drawn carts can struggle to navigate.

Like many monuments it has been renovated after the authorities in the late 1980s sounded the alarm in a report saying that more than half of the buildings in the medina were crumbling and 10 percent were threatened with ruin following years of neglect and a lack of public funds.

Behind the high crenellated walls that surround the medina lie 9,000 historical houses, 11 madrassas, 83 mausoleums, 176 mosques and 1,200 handicraft workshops. Patrician palaces with their secret gardens and terraces, elegant fountains and ancient caravansary, or inns, are among the jewels lying there to be discovered.

Respect ‘authenticity’

According to Fouad Serrhini, head of the Agency of Development and Restoration tasked with rehabilitating the medina, “thousands” of buildings and monuments have been saved from ruin since 2013. “They were chosen according to their state of degradation and how urgently the work was needed,” he said.

In all, 4,000 buildings were saved between 2013 and 2018, while 27 monuments were restored. In mid-April, King Mohammed VI visited Fez to inaugurate some buildings that had been renovated and launch the second phase of the rehabilitation programme.

A woman stands in the balcony of a traditional building in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient Moroccan city of Fez
A woman stands in the balcony of a traditional building in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient Moroccan city of Fez on April 11, 2019. – In recent times the imperial city of Fez has been overlooked by tourists in favour of Marrakesh, but now Morocco’s ‘spiritual’ capital is bustling with visitors thanks to major renovations and low-cost flights. Since 2013, more than one billion dirhams (92 million euros) of investments have been poured into Fez to restore the 9th century walled medina and develop tourism. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

Following his visit, authorities issued a report insisting that the rehabilitation work respect the medina’s “authenticity” and “original architecture”.

“The ancient medina is a live treasure, hidden and secret, which cannot be taken lightly,” said Salim Belghazi, a 33-year-old who has transformed his 14th-century riad, or traditional family home, into a private museum. Belghazi, who hails from a wealthy background, said he hopes that despite the transformation, Fez will maintain its soul.

Ancient tanneries in Fez

Meanwhile, tourists are flocking to Fez, where the regional Fes-Saiss airport has undergone an expansion to accommodate the growing number of visitors and low-cost flights mainly from across Europe.

The number of passengers has jumped from 108,000 in 2004 to more than a million in 2018, according to official figures. But Marrakesh remains the country’s top tourist destination, with more than two million arrivals in 2017.

Tourism is a major source of revenue for Morocco, which received more than 12 million visitors in 2018, according to official figures. Abderahim Belkhayat, head of a regional body of artisans, said the influx of visitors to City of Fez “benefits” craftsmen, noting that three-quarters of the medina’s residents earn a living directly or indirectly from the sector.

Local authorities have mapped out a “vision” to revamp the sector by giving it a “new look” in order to produce “high quality” crafts, he said.

A 2005 official report indicated that in the long term, authorities hope to transform the medina into a “showcase” of handicrafts while the workshops themselves would be relocated outside the walls. So far, 6,000 potters and brass and copper workers have been moved into zones with modern infrastructure and tanners are expected to follow suit in a separate location.

The idea is to rid the medina of the cacophony of noise emanating from brassware and potter workshops as well as the pungent odours that rise from the ancient tanneries – the later a “must” stop on the tourist circuit.

Tourists, their noses covered with mint leaves to ward off the stench, congregate on terraces overlooking the tanneries to snap pictures of the men working below, using the same methods as their ancestors did.

The tanners stand almost knee-deep in large vats containing quicklime, cow urine, salt and water to clean the hides, which they will later soak in pigeon poop and water before the dying process can begin.

But the sight seems to delight the visitors and the end result, such as leather belts and bags sold in the boutiques, proves popular with buyers.

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Culture & Tourism

Nigerian musician, Alex Boyé drops two new singles

Alex Boye is fast becoming a popular figure for his uplifting and elevating musical sound

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Alex Boyé is a Nigerian musician who has been in the music industry for 25 years. He became popular for his uplifting and elevating musical sound. Since then, Boyé has gone on to become an important voice in the Nigerian music scene.

And now, his support for mental health campaigns -by adding his voice to suicide prevention efforts -has earned him due commendations and honour.

Alex Boyé appeared on one of America’s best-known talent shows, America’s Got Talent. With his signature white mark under his right eye, a boisterous spirit and great charisma, he took to the stage and impressed the judges with his energy and music.

In 2017, he was named the “2017 Rising Artist of the Year” in a contest sponsored by Pepsi and Hard Rock Cafe.

His rendition of the “Lord’s Prayer” in Kiswahili three years ago has over 11 million views on YouTube, while his Africanized cover version of “Let It Go” has more than 102 million views.

In all, Boyé, an independent artist, has 1 billion YouTube views.

Keeping to his promise, Boye released two songs, “Still Breathing” and “Bend, Not Break”.

In a press release, Boyé says, “‘Bend Not Break’ is a song that encourages people considering suicide to look beyond their current circumstances and make a different choice; to bend and not break, while “Still Breathing” shares the thoughts of someone who attempted suicide but survived.

After some time, they recognize the gift of life again and are grateful that they’re still breathing.”

Robert Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, requested permission to use Boyé’s song as their main theme song for Suicide Prevention Week and its message during Mental Health Awareness Month.

On 25th April 2019, Boyé will be honored with the 2019 Erase The Stigma Leadership Award presented by the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services Agency.

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Africa News & Updates

Equatorial Guinea struggles to diversify economy with tourism

For almost a decade, Sipopo has been the crown jewel in a strategy to lure high-end visitors to Equatorial Guinea

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equatorial guinea
A person sits on a chair on the artificial beach of the Sofitel Hotel, in Sipopo, nearly 16km from Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

Gleaming but eerily empty, the luxurious Sipopo resort with its five-star hotel and exclusive facilities rises from a tropical beach, symbolising the dilemma of Equatorial Guinea — a notoriously closed country that has turned to tourism to help fill its coffers.

The purpose-built town was carved out of an ancient forest in 2011 at a cost of 600 million euros, initially to host a week-long African Union summit and showcase the rise of the oil-rich state.

A 16-kilometre drive from Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo, the resort boasts a vast conference centre, the Sofitel Malabo Sipopo Le Golf hotel, as well as 52 luxury villas — one for every head of state to attend the summit — each with its own swimming pool.

There is also an 18-hole golf course, several restaurants and exclusive beaches guarded by police.

The swimming pool and the garden of the Sofitel Hotel in Sipopo, nearly 16km from Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. – In Sipopo, a seaside resort built, on the outskirts of Malabo, to host an African Union summit in 2011, there is an absolute calm. With few cars and even fewer pedestrians, the place struggles to attract businessmen and tourists. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

For almost a decade, Sipopo has been the crown jewel in a strategy to lure high-end visitors to Equatorial Guinea to diversify an economy badly hit by a slump in oil revenue.

But the town, seemed quite empty — an impression strengthened by conversations with people who live or who work there.

“It’s depressing, there’s no-one,” said a visiting Gabonese consultant.

A worker, who asked not to be named, said the complex was quiet year-round: “You can hear the sound of your own footsteps.”

The occasional visitors tend to be well connected, rich and in search of privacy, the sources said.

Many are guests of a government described by Human Rights Watch as corrupt and repressive.

One of the villas, according to the sources, was occupied by former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh after he fled his country in 2017.

Empty lobby

At Easter, the 200-room hotel’s guests included a Spanish couple on honeymoon, a few families and some businessmen, who were all foreigners.

In the echoing lobby, a huge black and white portrait of the country’s 76-year-old authoritarian president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema — Africa’s longest-serving ruler — hung on the wall, watching over the vacant reception area.

A 1.5-kilometre beach — an artificial shore secluded from curious eyes — was virtually deserted, in contrast to a public beach near the capital. The three-lane highway leading from Malabo to Sipopo was mostly empty of traffic.

The inside of the conference centre in Sipopo. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

A hospital was added after the villas were built, but is unused, the sources said.

In 2014, a mall was built at the resort to house 50 shops, a bowling alley, two cinemas and a children’s play area.

But a hotel receptionist said the complex was not open yet, adding: “If you want to buy a souvenir, you will have to go to Malabo.” At night-time, shiny limousines arrived at a luxury restaurant to drop off diners.

Tourism hopes

Located on the mid-Atlantic coast of central Africa, Equatorial Guinea has flooded social media with messages of its allure as a holiday destination.

Plans to build a new passenger terminal at the airport in Bata city have also just received a 120-million-euro injection from the Development Bank of Central African States.

Figures for visitors are unavailable, and the tourism ministry in Malabo did not respond to requests for information. In the latest global compilation of figures posted by the World Bank, the number of tourists for Equatorial Guinea has been left blank.

But much of the tourism in evidence are business people, such as oil company workers, relaxing for a few days, or attending energy or economic conferences.

A few travel firms offer trips tailor-made for both luxury and adventure, but they also allude to the difficulties, notably of being allowed to enter the country.

Two people walk on the green of the Sofitel Hotel to play golf, in Sipopo. (Photo by Camille MALPLAT / AFP)

“The country has been a mystery to outsiders, who were discouraged from entering by a difficult visa process and a lack of tourism infrastructure,” says the website of British tour operator Undiscovered Destinations.

The firm claimed, however, that “things are changing fast… with an excellent road network and numerous hotels springing up seemingly overnight.”

Few Equatoguineans have the chance of staying in such places. At Sipopo’s hotel, a basic room costs the equivalent of more than 200 euros ($224) a night, while exclusive accommodation tops 850 euros.

The discovery of vast oil reserves off the coast in the mid-1990s has boosted the country’s gross national income to a theoretical annual $19,500 per person per year, according to the UN Development Programme.

But that wealth benefits a small elite among the country’s 1.2 million inhabitants. More than two-thirds of Equatoguineans live below the poverty line, and 55 percent of the population aged over 15 are unemployed.

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