The Venus Bushfires: Afro-folk inspired by the goddess of the sea

Nigerian-born singer-songwriter Helen Isibor-Epega, who performs under the name The Venus Bushfires, wrote the world's first ever Pidgin English opera.

Part of the event

Helen Isibor-Epega is a Nigerian-born, London-raised singer-songwriter and performance-artist who goes under the stage name The Venus Bushfires. Last year she wrote and performed in the world's first ever Pidgin English Opera. This year she'll be performing in Cape Town at the Design Indaba Festival 2016.

Her vernacular opera sucessfully democratised what is traditionally seen as an elitist form of art, bringing it to the ears of a radically different audience. We had a chance to chat to the ethereal songstress, who describes her eclectic sound as Cinematic Afro-Folk.

When did you start singing? 

My mother says I spoke in extended melodic rhythms. She always told me I sang before I spoke. However, my earliest memory is singing happy birthday solo for my eldest sister when I was three.

Why the name The Venus Bushfires?

The Venus Bushfires means the birth of an idea and harmonious balance. I visualise the concept as a bushfire clearing the way for more fertile growth, a rebirth, a new possibility... on Venus. It's not a person – rather, an idea. 

Do you have a stylist for when you perform? You look amazing on stage! That hair…

Thank you! I don't have a stylist. I create the hairstyle as well as design the costumes I wear. Those are other parts of the transformation and creative process I really enjoy immersing myself in. 

Why sing in the vernacular language? What appeals to you about it?

There is a rhythm in vernacular language, it sets the tone for colourful and dynamic rhetoric, which I enjoy exploring. I was excited to have brought pidgin and opera together like this for the first time because it literally brings two worlds, two audiences together that don’t usually come together in this way.

What do you write and sing about?

Most of my music is spiritual or social/political commentary. I like to construct them as love songs and then take them on this other journey.

Are there characters from myth or legend or culture that you reference in your songs? Is Venus one of them?

I reference the Mami Wata a lot in my songs. She is the goddess of the sea. Almost every culture shares a version of this beautiful mythical creature. From the Celtic regions, throughout Africa and the Caribbean and pretty much around the world. She's also known as a mermaid, or siren. She is powerful, beautiful, knowledgable, feminine and magical. Exciting! 

Are you a feminist?

I believe in gender equality. I'm an advocate and activist for equality across the board.

What inspires you?

I'm inspired (really inspired) by everyday acts of kindness. Also, people that live their lives following their hearts or passions not just what is the least frightening. 

What moves you?

I'm moved by challenges. Strangely, if I have an idea that seems easy to achieve it usually doesn't move me to action. However, if I have an idea that seems certain for failure, that's the one that makes my heart beat faster and that's the one I roll with. If people say "that's never going to work" - yep, that's the one I know is right for me.

What can the Design Indaba Festival audience expect from you in February 2016?

The Design Indaba audience can expect to be inspired, challenged, entertained and transported.

Watch the Talk with Helen Isibor-Epega