Guitar Tales: Nigeria’s Helen Ibe is winning the hearts of her guitar community

In the latest instalment of his column meeting some of the most exciting new faces in African guitar, Deo Salvator talks to Lagos-born Helen Ibe.

Helen Ibe

Helen Ibe. Image: Press

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From content creation to outsmarting social media algorithms, it’s quite a headache to keep sane while balancing such a duality of being a YouTuber and a guitar player today. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, guitarist and YouTuber Helen Ibe is doing just that.

As a guitarist, I understand the inarticulable feelings behind such a process of combining both. But again, I believe the love the guitar community has been showing her confirms that it’s not just dealing with binaries but also through being the amazing guitar player that she is.

Living her whole life in Nigeria, it was church that made Helen start playing her Les Paul at just 16 years-of-age. “I was just packing through a music shop one day and my eye was caught because of its bossed colour. Luckily, it was very cheap but not really an actual Les Paul. It was like a Chinese knock-off, but it is my best guitar and I have quite a number of different memories attached to it. It is my first guitar, I don’t want to let it go. It’s just like a reminder of where I started from.

“You know how church musicians are,” Ibe explains. “They always believe when it is the next big thing. My pastor was like ‘Every church member has to know how to play an instrument.’ When I saw a guitar, its shape, the way it blew, I knew that it was what I wanted to play. The church brought in people to teach us for three months, and the rest I learned by myself through YouTube, reading and from others. So that’s how I started.”

Gear & career

“Apart from church music, I started listening and exploring other kinds of music like jazz and blues. I remember listening to blues, and it was different from what I was used to,” Ibe admits. “It was exciting and then I started getting into smooth jazz, listening to players like Norman Brown and George Benson etc. It really opened my mind to how I could create my own style.

“A lot of people don’t know that I was actually an acoustic player before going electric. I used acoustic guitar at the start, because it was the cheapest for me to begin with. But now, I can’t even count how many guitars I have! Maybe 12 if I recall? My favourite one [of the acoustics] is my Alvarez Yairi, with its clean and precise tone. There’s this chime about it that I like.”

Ibe has also noted that the music industry can be challenging due to it being a male dominated industry. “The fact of being a woman you may face discrimination, or think that you are not good enough, and wonder if you should really be doing that. But as the world is changing, no matter your gender, we can all be equal.

“Women can bring something on the table as well as men, but it requires a lot of courage. When your fans actually enjoy what you are doing, it keeps you going and that’s really what drives me.”

Helen Ibe
Helen Ibe. Image: Dara

Balancing duality

Helen’s goal is simply to make good music. Something that anybody can relate to and enjoy. She believes that music is a universal language, something that all of us, the world over, can connect with.

It didn’t take her long to blow up on YouTube. She started in 2019 and by January of 2020 many of her videos had already gone viral. “I think that if you’re producing good content, and trying not to be like anybody else, people will find you and know they can resonate with your music. It makes me happy, and it makes me fight for my freedom” she says.

“Social media is a great way to get your music out, especially to us musicians. Anybody in the world can collaborate with you, contact you and know what you are up to! Because of creating YouTube content, I have been able to reach out to people that I didn’t even think I’d be able to collaborate with. And of course, making money from AdSense, which I would have not done on my own.

“If Covid taught us something, it taught us how to share or boost our work,” Ibe says. “When it started, the whole music industry was cut off, especially live music. So how were musicians making money? Some were creating and doing online content, from brand collaboration and sponsored videos and just people reaching out to you to record their songs. And all of that just forms your brand.

“When I play, someone somewhere is happy and smiling because of me. And when I read comments, it makes me feel good and fulfilled. This is actually what I am supposed to do,” she enthuses.

Helen has an upcoming extended player for just acoustic guitar and a full-length album of electric guitar work that she’s releasing soon, but in the meantime keep abreast of her recent EP Clear Skies (Love Covers) and the soundscapes she’s painting over her youtube channel.

Clear Skies (Love Covers) by Helen Ibe is out now. Follow her on Instagram at @helen_ibe

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