By PRISCA SAM-DURU
The Venus Bushfires with real name Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor was born in Ibadan and grew up in Benin City. At 7, her father, a senior medical consultant and mother, a storybook author, moved to London where she spent much of her childhood, adolescent and adult years.
With a degree in Communications and Media Studies from the Brunel University in the UK, Helen began a musical career that has taken her around the world. In this interview, the elegant and gifted artiste shares so much about herself, career and African Music. Excerpts:
I have performed with Sir Paul McCartney, Miley Cyrus and have composed music for some of the world’s biggest brands such as Sony, Christian Dior, Disney, BBC to name a few. I have also created music for the World Health Organisation’s international anti ebola-campaign, HRH Prince of Wales as well as films and television programmes.
I have written and composed the first ever pidgin opera called ‘Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera’ which will debut in London this summer and will be performed in Lagos this December. I’m so happy and excited that the wonderful people of Lagos will get to enjoy this opera. It’s ground breaking and celebrates all that is good about this great nation.
How did you become a musician?
I had a lot of encouragement from my parents. As a child, they always bought me books and cassettes or CDs simultaneously and when they could see I had a real gift and talent, they were full of joy and encouraged me to share it with the world. My mum used to come with me to all my shows in Europe during the beginning of my career and my dad would be buying drinks for my fans too. Growing up in Benin City, we listened to lots of King Sunny Ade, Fela, Sir Victor Uwaifo, Sade, Jimmy Hendrix, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.
My siblings and I would always have dancing and singing competitions and that’s when I started really getting inspired to become a performer. We’re all quite musically gifted and my sister Martina Isibor has starred in The Lion King which is one of the longest running and most successful theatrical productions.
When did you begin music professionally?
I began music professionally when I was 11 years old. That was my first paid performance and it was at my mother’s friend’s wedding. Since then everyday has been an opportunity to learn more about my craft and to develop interesting ways of presenting it to audiences.
I’ve just got engaged to my fiancé and manager Baba Epega. He set up his events company EMC3 here is Ikoyi a year ago. God has used music to bless my life in so many ways. We met at my concert at Fulham Palace and have travelled the world together from Brazil to Benin City with my music and his events.
Your kind of music seems unique, what inspired this music genre?
I wrote my current self titled album ‘The Venus Bushfires’ while traveling and performing in 3 different continents – Africa, Europe and the USA. My music genre which I call Afro Folklore is a reflection of me and my experiences. I consider my taste in music, fashion and art to be dynamic so the music I create and how I dress reflect this.
My music has been inspired by musicians such as Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simine, Kate Bush, Jimmy Hendrix and many others. These artistes were not afraid to be different and they were all pioneering in their own way. This really inspires me to be more fearless in my approach to writing songs and performing them.
For instance, In song 1 ‘Hassina’s Ghost’ it’s about overcoming past fears and turning setbacks into successes. In song 2 ‘Last Winter’s Sparrow’, I’m singing about a sparrow that wished it was an eagle. It’s about seizing every opportunity in life, having faith and confidence in ourselves and realising that it’s never too late to make a positive change…In song 6 ‘Carry The Tribe’ I’m celebrating the collective, the tribe and saying that everyone plays an integral part in each tribe’s survival and ability to flourish.
And the hang? that’s strange, how did you come about it?
I play a number of percussive instruments and the ‘hang’ is probably the most unusual. It’s made in Bern, Switzerland by a couple called Felix and Sebine. No doubt the instrument was inspired by African drums and notably, the Trinidadian steel pan. I play the only hang in Africa. It’s been very exciting to introduce my brand of meditative and melodic Afro Folk sound.
The hang is a percussive instrument but it sounds more like a harp. It is made predominantly of steel and looks a little like an unidentified flying saucer. When I first heard it I thought it was the sound of a hundred angels speaking in unison. My favourite thing about performing is seeing the joy and amazement of the faces of the audience. It really warms my heart and gives me inspiration and encouragement.
So how did you get it?
The hang was invented by a Swiss-German couple and was inspired by African, Caribbean and Asian instruments too. I heard it while I was on holiday in Spain. The person I heard playing it was very secretive about the instrument so I started doing research into it as soon as I got home. I learnt that it was a very rare instrument and that very few people owned one.
I sent countless faxes one after the other to the inventors and after a few days they wrote back and asked me to come to their home and workshop in Bern, Switzerland. I had an office job and I asked my boss for a few days off so that I could make the journey to acquire the instrument. My boss said no. It was at that moment that I had to take a leap of faith for my dream to become a full time musician. I decided to quit my job so that I could go and get the instrument. It was a tough but bold decision to make.
I don’t believe that God would put this instrument in front of my eyes without giving me a way to obtain it. Lo and behold, soon after I got my very own hang the inventors decided to stop making the instrument and there was a waiting list of 50,000 people. That’s how I know that God wanted me to create music with this instrument. In fact, when I was given the instrument the inventors told me that they were so excited that the hang would be played in Africa.
Is it really necessary for your kind of music?
Yes! When I create music with the hang my voice and the instrument are the most important thing and every other element fits around them.
For a young lady one expects you to be a hip pop or R & B artiste, why did you choose this music genre?
I think there is space for all sorts of different artists. I enjoy being original and knowing that there is no one doing music quite like how I’m doing it in the world. It gives me an opportunity to show another side of our culture so I relish that.
What does music mean to you?
Music is everything to me. I am a musician when I perform, I am a musician when I eat and I am a musician when I sleep so I don’t see a separation between myself and my music. I understand music is the vessel for which God has given me to share his message. Sometimes I am inspired to write a song, I don’t know where the words or melody is coming from. I just feel that it is coming from God and my job is to document it and share it.
I have an initiative called Just A Day where I use music through expressive arts workshops I design to educate and train company executives, individuals and children in schools. Through these creative workshops I am able to engage people and help then learn in a way that is exciting, relaxing and enjoyable. I use music to teach about good citizenship, develop communication skills and emotional intelligence, team building and leadership skills. I have designed and facilitated workshops for HRH The Prince of Wales and the workshops I have designed have been used in Nigeria, the UK, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
What’s your take on African music?
African music is so vast and varied. Many things make me excited at the moment. I love how fashion and art are playing a stronger role. I have a fashion line called The Venus Bushfires that is also available from my website. I’m known almost as well for my fashion as my music. I am more interested in listening to live music than synthesised instruments.