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Africa’s Biggest Street Party (Calabar Carnival) Takes Centre Stage

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Cross River


Image: Calabar Carnival 2011




Two days from now, the Calabar festival would reach its climax with the ritual annual carnival already renowned for being Africa's biggest street party. Demola Ojo went  behind the scenes to feature the highlights

If you've not already made arrangements to be in Calabar for the carnival on Tuesday, you're probably too late. Flights and accommodation are booked to the hilt, as tourists from both within and outside Nigeria, line up to experience an event that has progressed in leaps and bounds since the turn of the century.

Images from previous carnivals, and events since the beginning of the month, point to another exciting, fun-filled celebration for fun-seekers. However, while the whole essence of the carnival is play, gaiety, merriment and more, a lot of work - sometimes tedious - has gone into making it a successful spectacle. 

One reason is the fact that the carnival itself is a competition among five different bands, with both pride and cash rewards at stake. The bands, in alphabetical order are Bayside, Freedom, Masta Blasta, Passion 4 and Seagull. Every year, the bands are given a theme which would be interpreted by each band. This year's theme is 'Endless Possibilities'. The theme was divulged about six months ago and since then, each of the bands has been thinking up ways to interpret it best.

Competition for the carnival is fierce, and there is more than pride at stake. There are cash prizes to be won. The good thing is, there can be multiple winners. Apart from the prize for the overall winners ( which was N10 million last year), there are prizes for the winner of the children's carnival, carnival king and queen, junior king, junior queen, the best interpretation of the theme, the best float and best costume.

Some of these attract a prize of N2 million and are doled out by private organisations that sponsor the carnival.

Re-jigging the Carnival
“We took a look at the framework when we came in (the new Cross River administration in 2007) and the first flaw we noticed was that government was totally funding the carnival. So we brought in the private sector and against all odds, we raised half a billion naira,” said Nzan Ogbe, special adviser to the governor of the state, and festival commission chairman for the past five years. He explained how there has been a focus for every year since then.

“In 2008, we realised that the biggest expenses went into renting technical equipment which cost about N100 million yearly. So we've been steadily buying equipment over the years so that we can produce our show with our own equipment. The plan is to buy gradually and get something new every year. We just got the screens that you saw at the stadium this year. I must say this has been the best decision we ever made,” remarked the former entrepreneur.

In 2009, the festival commission had to get even more inventive due to the recession. “We lost a lot of sponsorship and had to review our marketing strategy.” This review led to the segmentation of the festival, among other decisions. Now each part could have a separate sponsor. 

“In 2010, we did a traffic study to find out how many people were coming in and the places they go within the state.” These places include the Marina Resort, the Drill Ranch, famous for the drill monkeys unique to Cross River, TINAPA, the Canopy walkway, the Agbokim waterfalls, and the Ikom monoliths, among others.

“The study was very positive. We found out that there was a 175 percent increase in the population of the town during the period of the festival. Of course, this translates to humongous capital inflows.

You can't deny how much effect the festival has on the lives of the citizens. Hotels are fully booked and people also rent out their homes. Taxi drivers, construction workers, hairdressers, food sellers, you name it. Everyone in the value chain is touched,” he enthused.

“This year, we believe the festival is no longer a local project. We've concentrated on ICT and the social media - twitter, facebook and blackberry - in spreading the message. We've also introduced ticketing to help generate capital, even though the vast majority still watch the events for free. However, VIPs have to pay for access.”

Mr Ogbe is of the opinion that ahead of financing, the biggest challenge for the festival is being innovative. “It is not easy giving the people something new, being creative. How do you impress people? Because when you're in front, you need to keep reinventing yourself.”

Carnival Bands

The carnival bands have been rehearsing for Tuesday's showpiece, some since July, at different locations within town. Rehearsals start from around 4 pm until dusk, before 7pm. Most band members are university undergraduates.
All the band leaders spoken to were unanimous in their belief that passion is the overriding factor that drives the carnival, since participants aren't paid to take part.
We present the five bands as they prepare to entertain revellers and tourists come Tuesday.

Masta Blasta
“All we do is assist with transportation and refreshments. However, band members also get to share a percentage of winnings,” said the band leader of Masta Blasta, Maurice Ekong, a businessman who owns and runs a hotel. The band which won the best float and queen of carnival last year, rehearses at the expansive Calabar Water Board grounds.

With a membership of close to 2,500, they came third last year but are gunning for the top spot this time. “We've gone on working trips to Trinidad and Tobago, and Brazil to see how they go about their carnivals there. However, we're making an effort to Nigerianise our performances.

“We can't totally emulate them because some of the other elements might not sit well with the Nigerian culture. For example, skimpy dressing,” he said.

Passion 4
The Passion 4 band, overall winner of the carnival on all but one occasion, rehearses at the Calabar Municipality complex under the watchful eye of band leader, Chris Aigbe, a trained nuclear physicist. Rehearsing band members are 2,800 but are expected to rise to 5,000 on carnival day.

“We have 34 different groups rehearsing separately. But at the snap of a finger, they all harmonise,” Aigbe said with a laugh. Not surprising for a band that has dominated the carnival over the years, and which still has grandiose plans.

“In 2008, we devised a five-year plan that would make the band good enough to perform in any carnival in the world. Recently, I played a CD of our band last year and compared it to the Rio Carnival in 2008 and the difference wasn't much. I realised that in two to three years, we would catch up. We're not just competing with these other bands here. Every year presents us with an opportunity to practice.”

He went on to highlight the family atmosphere within his band. “We get really close; a lot of magic happens here,” he revealed with a broad smile. “Since we started competing at the carnival, we've had 17 weddings between band members. This means I'm a godfather to 17 couples.”

The Seagull band is led by Sen. Florence Ita-Giwa, the only female band leader in Africa. The band's best performance was in 2009, when it tied for first place with Passion 4. However, the children's carnival is its forte; the band has won it more than any other competitor.

Sen. Ita-Giwa is very proud of this fact and leaves you in no doubt how tasking it is: “Winning the children's carnival is the most challenging because it entails the ability to manage children, some of them as young as three,” she said. Their success over the years however, means more children want to join.

She is quick to point out that there's more to the carnival than just partying. “It is intellectually challenging to interpret without talking but displaying the theme through a drama sketch, which includes dance and costume.”

She lets out an interesting revelation: “I used to enjoy it (the carnival) more when we weren't winning. Now there's a lot more expectation and we're under pressure. Maybe for the onlookers it is fun but for us, it's a lot of work.

“However, I have able lieutenants because we go to the universities to get intellectuals to work with us.” This quest for only going for experts is responsible for the fact that Seagull's costume makers have been brought in from Lagos and housed in Calabar since October.

“Seagull is the most colourful band, very glamorous. We bring highly-rated movie stars to perform with us and also people from out of the country,” she explained.

It is very capital intensive running a band, Sen Ita-Giwa remarked. “It is like owning a football club. In the end, though, it is worth the effort, not only because of the possibility of winning cash prizes but because the carnival enables us to see the potentials of Nigerians.”

The Freedom band led by Iyam Ugot, hold their rehearsals at the swimming pool complex of the U.J. Esuene stadium. Entrance to the complex is heavily monitored, as bands are wary of spies. Mr Ugot was rushing to a meeting, then a football practice match when THISDAY caught up with him. However, deputy band leader, Francis Ekpo, was just as glad to speak about their band.

“We've not had rest since July. Before that, the earlier part of the year was spent seeking sponsorship,” Ekpo said, as he went on to insinuate that compared to the other bands, Freedom was operating on a shoestring budget, a disadvantage, but added, “Spiritually, we're rich.”

Revealing that 1,300 costumes had already been ordered, he divulged that more revellers from out of town have already called to indicate that they want their costumes made.

Ekpo was of the opinion that much of the success of the Calabar festival and carnival is due to the temperament of the indigenes. “The former governor (Donald Duke) studied us well. There is this stereotype that Cross Riverians are laidback, maybe lazy. But he saw us as a fun-loving people and took advantage of it by introducing the carnival. Fun-loving people are very hospitable and welcoming. These are ingredients that help in making the place a great tourist destination.”

He continued: “That's why other carnivals around the country cannot stand up to us. For example, it would be difficult to tell a Lagosian that he won't be able to go about his business because all roads would be closed to vehicular movement for a street party. But here, the people are happy to have fun.”

Another interesting aspect of the carnival bands is that members cross from band to band, just like footballers changing clubs. Crossovers could include dancers and choreographers or costume makers. “Our costume makers used to work with Seagull,” he revealed. 

“Presently we have a dance crew from Lagos that was contracted by another band but something happened and they fell out. So they decided to join us so their trip will not be a wasted effort. All we do is to provide accommodation, feeding and transportation.”

The overall winner of the 2007 carnival, the Bayside band is also keen on recapturing past glory. The band founded by former Governor Donald Duke, were joint fourth during last year's street party.

“We've gone back to the drawing board,” said Austin Cobhams, a band manager with Bayside. “Last year, the new band leader took off very late so we were not coordinated. We already knew we wouldn't do so well.

“This year, we are playing 100 percent Calabar. We will be playing a historical theme,” he said, the most any of the bands had revealed about their closely guarded plans.

He was eager to reveal why the Bayside band is unique. “Our band is the only one that has an academy and a music school. We go on public outings and perform at major events. We are in discussions with a paint company to sponsor a nationwide tour very soon,” he divulged.

It was obvious that the bands have all hands on deck to come out victorious at the end of the carnival. Of course, this is to the benefit of spectators. As if to buttress this, Mr Ogbe said, “There is no other place in the country where people should go for their Christmas than Calabar. We need to take our internal tourism in this country seriously. I used to live in Lagos and I've come to realise that many people in the urban cities have a restricted view of Nigeria.

“You would sooner see expatriates - maybe officials from the British High Commission, or top executives of multinationals at the Canopy Walkway, in touch with nature, than the average Nigerian. Our people would rather go to London in the winter. But you can't get what we offer here in Calabar in London - 32 days of non-stop entertainment. There's always something to excite; sports, drama, music, and the spectacular carnival.”


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Updated 7 Years ago

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