Interview by: Claire Landon
Originally from Mauritius, Denise Yacoob Greenan, 66, misses her verdant homeland but retains strong connections to it through Sega music and the explosion of tropical foliage in her garden.
“I feel most free sitting in the back garden among my palm trees. We had a lot of space in Mauritius, with children always playing and the birds singing – the birds still wake me up at my window at the same time each morning, but these days it’s the magpies,” she says.
Each late summer, however, Walthamstow’s famous flock of parakeets comes to dart about in the treetops, bringing with them exuberant squawks reminiscent of Denise’s native land.
“We had a wonderful life in Mauritius, but my father decided that we needed a change for a better life”. So the family of seven moved in with his sister in Chelsea.
Living at the epicentre of the Swinging Sixties suited the 15-year old just fine. Within years, she was working as a beauty therapist at Harrods, and in the evenings regularly found herself singing the blues at a club called Alphabet on Gerrard Street.
Even after her family moved to Tottenham, Denise, her sister and cousins spent weekends at Tiffany’s, a restaurant and nightclub on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Denise became a model, then a crystal consultant at Selfridges – later getting poached by Army & Navy, House of Fraser and Barkers of Kensington – before returning to Selfridges to work alongside couture milliner, Peter Shilling.
“Those were glamorous jobs! It was fantastic working in those places – we had gala nights attended by the biggest stars. Once, I sold Wedgewood to Lenny Henry and his wife.”
But a quieter life beckoned, as Denise and her new husband – who proposed on the first date – went to live near Romford, where they raised their son and welcomed five grandchildren.
Returning to northeast London, Denise now lives in Walthamstow with her two teenage grandsons, Joshua and Jamie, who attend local schools. With more time to herself, she is renewing her connections to both Mauritius and London through artistic pursuits.
Having always held a passion for Mauritian Sega music, once forbidden by her strict, French-speaking parents, Denise is now brushing up on her creole and writing her own songs in the genre.
The first track, recorded by her son at a local studio, quickly became a Youtube hit: a Christmas song called ‘Bonhomme Noel’.
Denise’s next goal is to perform both in Mauritius and at London’s Mauritian Open Air Festival, an annual event attracting 10,000 people. In the meantime, she is perfecting Sega dance moves and learning the ravanne: a large, goat skin-covered tambourine played to accompany the music.
Fluttering her green sparkly nails with enthusiasm, Denise proclaims: “The best part of my life is coming now, I am writing my own happy ending!”