Nigeria's Calabar Festival: Peoples’ Carnival, National Heritage
In just a few short years, the Calabar Festival has become one of Nigeria's biggest tourist events, drawing performers from around the world. Nigeria-based journalist Emeka Umejei reports on this year's festival.
Lagos: “Calabar carnival is a great occasion and one-of-its-kind in Nigeria,” Nkechi Kalu, who sold fez caps, masks and other carnival memorabilia, told the Daily Independent.
Nkechi came all the way from Lagos state in southwest Nigeria to participate in the Calabar festival. The journey from Lagos to Calabar is about 10 hours by road and one hour by flight.
“We have been all attending carnivals in Nigeria but Calabar carnival is special. The turn out in terms of sales is very encouraging.”
Nkechi is not alone among the many Nigerians that have come to see the Calabar carnival as a must-attend annual event in December for both leisure and business.
“The Calabar carnival is very okay, if not people will not attend and sales are on the up-swing,” said Ignatius Ezeani, a trader who came from Alaba in Lagos state.
“This is my first time in Calabar,” said Adeola Omotola, another Nigerian trader, who came from Ibadan in Oyo state, south-west of Nigeria. “Money dey for Calabar (there is money in Calabar) and my goods are fast-selling out .”
The Calabar carnival has been described in various terms but one apt description is that it has evolved to become the peoples’ carnival. The people own it, they celebrate it and they are passionate about it.
“The carnival has become a way of life of the people of Cross River state and culture has become our soul,” Gabe Onah, Chairman of the Calabar carnival commission said at the kick-off of the carnival.
As of 10am on December 27, the Calabar Millennium park take-off point, in the metropolis had experienced heavy traffic. Beautifully attired colours swarmed the park and a sea of heads of people of all tribes and races trooped through the venue. They wore on their faces excitement, passion and commitment as they reveled in the spirit of the carnival.
The acting governor, Barrister Cobhams Asuquo, set the tone for the carnival when he declared: “My responsibility is a short one. I will do what I have to do. So, I say let the show begin.”
The 12km street party, described as Africa’s largest street party, commenced at noon. The 12km road show involves displays of colour, costumes, styles, music and dance among five competing bands: Bayside, Masta Blasta, Seagulls, Passion 4 and Freedom.
The first troupe to take the center stage was the sponsors’ band presented by the carnival commission to celebrate the sponsors of the Calabar carnival. The ladies, tall, elegant and beautiful best tell the story of Calabar hospitality and warmth.
They were followed by the Passion 4 band, which paraded a bevy of beautiful ladies.
Four beautiful ladies clad in skimpy attires heralded the group; they were followed by another set of gaily dressed beautiful ladies that looked youthful and exuded vigour. Passion 4 band comprised several troupes that were clad in beautiful attires and displayed seamless choreography.
The passion 4 band was followed by the Seagulls band which proved its grasp of dance and festivity. The band was heralded by a young man who as dressed in an all-white attire and was followed closely by colourfully attired young ladies. Their passion was palpable and their participation enticed the crowd which applauded them.
Then came the Masta Blasta band, a combination of dance, costume, colour and festivity was visible. Four elegant ladies clad in pink attires led the way for the Masta Blasta band. The ladies danced gracefully as they reveled in the carnival euphoria. The group also displayed various acrobatics, which complemented their colourfulness. The Bayside band also presented a colourful parade complemented with dance steps and acrobatics. If any of the groups were acrobatic, it was the Freedom band. Through a presentation of well-choreographed dance, acrobatics and passion, the freedom band redefined the contest.
However, the carnival reached a melting point on Edidem Usang Isam way, where people filled the entire stretch of the road and straddled it on both sides. If the Calabar carnival is the peoples’ the huge crowd on Usang Isam was a testament.
The carnival reached its peak when the Thombais Da Vai Vai Samba School (winners of Sao Paulo Carnival 2011) brought to bear on the carnival its expertise in carnival festivity. The Brazilian group displayed well-choreographed dance steps with a tinge of the renowned Brazilian samba. Their attires were typical of the Rio carnival: skimpy pants, feathers and colour. The Brazilians with their exotic dance steps and skimpy attire altered the course of the carnival. They elicited excitement, applause, and festivity in equal measures. In all estimation, their performance was the clincher for the carnival.
The Trinidad and Tobago still band also joined in sustaining the tempo of the carnival, with a blend of calypso and local rhythms. Some other countries that participated in the 2012 Calabar festival are Ghana, Jamaica, and Cameroun and 22 states of the federation.
On Christmas day, the carnival queens and kings competition night took place at the Calabar stadium. The contest featured both senior and junior categories of the various bands and they displayed their grasp of cultural heritage and colour.
The next day, December 26, featured the cultural carnival, a display of the rich cultural heritage from all the local councils of Cross River state.
Also, on the same day, the children's carnival, a 2km street party by children, was held. The children's carnival suggests that the management of the Calabar carnival is futuristic with an eye on producing a generation that will sustain it.
“The children will sustain the future of the carnival,” Onah said.
Also, local international musical artistes complemented the cultural heritage on display at the carnival. Akon, Hugh Masekela, Mi, P Square put up spectacular performances at the carnival.
After the street party on the morning of December 28 apprehension and expectation gripped attendees waiting for the results.
However, the judges were fair and their decisions struck a chord with popular anticipation. The Masta Blasta Band emerged winners with a star prize of N10million as band of the year.
Passion 4 Band took the second position and the third was Freedom Band. They went home with N5 million and N3 million respectively. The Masta Blasta Band also won the Carnival Float, Best Band on the Move, Carnival Spirit, Best Interpretation of the Carnival Theme and Best Costumes and received N2 million respectively.
In the Junior Category, Seagull Band emerged the Band of the year; Masta Blasta was second and Passion 4 placed third. Each of the bands got N3 million, N2 million and N1 million respectively.
The Junior King was won by Masta Blasta and Queen by Seagull and each went home with N5 million respectively.
However, despite widespread commendation that has become the signature of the Calabar festival, acting governor Asuquo said he thought more could still be done to make the festival even better. “We are not where we want to be but it’s encouraging because it improves everyday”.
“Sometimes the crowd overwhelms the law enforcement officers that we deploy. So, we are thinking maybe we should have our own security to handle this, even though God has been faithful in that there have been no security-related incidents,” Asuquo said.
“I’ve played in the Trinidad and Tobago carnival and during the entire train, people do without their cars because this delays the train.”
The Calabar festival was first held in 2004 and has grown to become Nigeria’s most viable tourism product. As everything Nigeria, it has been copied by other states in the country but none has been able to transform into a tourism product. It is a 32-day festival that runs from 1st December to 31st December in Calabar, south-south of Nigeria. The city of Calabar is noted for its clean streets and serene atmosphere and has been described as Nigeria’s cleanest city.
“I wish I lived here, Calabar is small London,” Adeola told the Daily Independent.