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A feast of Nigerian festivals in Britain, Austria – Part 1

By Kole Ade-Odutola
07 August 2022   |   4:04 am
The street is where stories live. The eyes and ears of a wayfarer are all that is needed to take a seat in the house of stories. This is not once upon a time but many times upon the road where nearly every face invites a story.

Eyo cultural display during the festival

Scene 1, Take 1
The street is where stories live. The eyes and ears of a wayfarer are all that is needed to take a seat in the house of stories. This is not once upon a time but many times upon the road where nearly every face invites a story.

This time the tale tumbles gbirigbagbi and it landed in a once troubled spot in the United Kingdom. As historians of street have it, Kidbrooke’ (where the first Nigerian yearly festival held) is an Anglo Saxon name meaning ‘the brook where the kites were seen’. It suggests that Kidbrooke was not settled when it was named. It has three streams and heavy, wet clay, so would have been unsuitable for Saxon development.

By the late 11th or 12th century, however, Kidbrooke had a church and presumably a small population – although it didn’t last. By 1428, the church had no priest, and by 1494, it was derelict. The area remained rural until Kidbrooke Station opened in 1895, but farming dominated the area up to the 1930s. After then, development was rapid, especially after the Rochester Way was built.”

If you fast-forward to 2022, this former farming neighbourhood became the choice location for Nigerian Festival UK. The date was a day both sun and rain made separate showings. The chilly wind could not douse the warmth in excited hearts at Cator Park North, Kidbrooke Park Road.

So, what happened at the festival ground? If you asked me, who I saw I could go on dropping names until tomorrow comes but I just may not answer who saw me. One thing is sure, the presence of Councillor ‘Lade Hephzibah Olugbemi, the Labour and Cooperative Councillor for West Thamesmead, could not be missed. To her and other members of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, this was a welcome development and the organisers had their full support.

During a quick chat, Irene Eribo-Ani (a co-founder of the festival) informed me that one of the reasons for staging the festival was to “fill the gap left by the noticeable absence of a Nigerian Festival in the area”, she said other countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia and others were known to have held such cultural festivals in the area. In her view, such cultural festivals go a long way in highlighting, celebrating and conserving the cultural richness and unique heritage of Nigerians.

As a first outing, there were more commercial activities than cultural promotions. According to Abass Tijani, the official media coordinator, he said next year aye maa gbo, orun si maa mo (meaning the earth will hear and the heavens will know about the next festival). There is no doubt that the talk on every lip was that next year will be bigger and if you like I can add on behalf of Yemi Soile (the other wing of the event) that it will come complete with robust cultural offerings.

Also in attendance was Dr. Teju Kareem, the big man of ZMirage, who in his generosity offered me a free drink. To a few others and me, his presence signaled what may be in store next year, as he is known to change the face of festivals.

This is a man many may not recognize as a great achiever and shaker in their midst. He attracted no airs around himself just as Bill Gates would do in such a situation. It was not difficult to notice that he was really enjoying the ambience and conviviality provided by the music and the tunes that came off the sax of Teekeh Sax, (the virtuoso whose lips and fingers on the saxophone drew dancing feet to the arena!).

As the Sax man was blustering tunes, Seun Kuti made an unannounced entry in a well-crafted yellow shirt worn over multicolored pants. The signature neck chains completed the Abami Eda brand.

What needs to be announced for me is a story I heard in Trinidad & Tobago about five years ago. The story was narrated during my accommodation ordeal in Port of Spain. Brother Avery (the cultural merchant based in Port of Spain, Trinidad) informed me about Seun Kuti’s propensity for showing unalloyed support for Nigerians anywhere they could be found.

This story was narrated for an intended psychological effect, and it was to impress on me that my demand for a different accommodation was in contrast to Seun’s flexibility (that part of the story is reserved for another day).

In any case, the real objective of the story was to impress on me that Seun likes to be where the generality of the people are! Are there no times when a person’s words precede his actions? On that Saturday in June, during the first Nigerian Festival in Kidbrooke, Seun repeated the same words during an impromptu interview.

He was asked why he showed up for the event and he said he was informed by brother Omowale that the event was happening and he decided to come to the venue during a break in the tour he was having “because I like to be where my people are and show support in any way I can.”

He moved around freely, taking shots with beautiful teenagers who wanted their friends to experience the moment with them. In my mind, the expression that this Seun is so real and very down to earth was on loop! When it was my turn to register my presence, I was warmly greeted; you will feel he could link my face to a name. In a nutshell when you see Seun, you see Baba Fela!

This first attempt could be said to be a testing ground for greater things to come.

Slate: Scene II, Take 1
EXACTLY seven days after the festival in the UK, I was air bound to Vienna, Austria to attend another edition of the now popular Adire Festival (aptly tagged “Carnival of Peace and Unity”). This carnival was first held in 2013 (though with a few breaks in-between). Though the paint is yet to dry on this year’s wall. Projections for the next festival are already on the plates.

As the festival approaches its 10th year, Ibukun Talabi, the MD, Ibk Economies, Vienna says the organisers are ready to take the festival to the next level. The pertinent question to ask is what will be the nature of a near perfect festival such as this. As the world looks forward to the next festival, let us revisit the recently concluded post-COVID public parade.

As contained in a release by the coordinator, Engineer Oluyemi Ogundele, “this year’s event would be hosted in the historic city of Vienna on 25 June, 2022. Other events include: Nigeria-Austria Business Forum and the Nigeria Cultural Exhibition, ‘Mask and Masquerade’, slated for June 22 to 24.

Ogundele stated that the cultural event would start with the Nigerian Mask and Masquerade exhibition at the Welt Museum Wien, Austria, adding that the opening ceremony will be at 16.00 hours with a drum and cultural display outside the museum.

The exhibition, he said, will be declared opened by the Nigerian Ambassador to Austria and Slovak, His Excellency Ambassador Dr Suleiman Dauda Umar, after a welcome address by the Director of the Welt Museum Wien, Dr Jonathan Fine.” As with every projection not every of the items contained in the press release was possible.
What was possible was the Carnival parade. It passed through Rennweg Street, Schwarzenberg square and the ring road in the city centre of Vienna. The parade terminated at Hoffburg, in front of the Welt Museum. If the names of the streets do not ring any bells, the images of Policemen and women providing security may as well send the needed signal that Nigerians abroad count the Police as their friends.

Since inception of this festival, traditional rulers from Ogun State have always graced the occasion. This year was not different. Royal Majesty Oba Abdulazeez Oluwatoyin Akinde (Arebigbade II), 12th Oloja Ẹkun of Igbesaland and his wife were at hand to grace all the three events; the reception, the parade and the post-parade get together. It is said that the “Kabiyesi is a member of several professional bodies some of which include Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), UK 2000 where he is Fellow. He is also member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation (2016).”

His participation at this year’s carnival puts Igbesa in the limelight. “Igbesa is proud of her culture, farmland, a thriving and dynamic industrial hub in Ogun State.

Igbesa comprises of four quarters namely Osi, Ogona, Igbe and Idomo. Each of these quarters established and founded its own farmland far away from the town centre. Farmlands cover a vast land from Odugbe up north to Agbara in the south, Araromi in the west and Ipatira on the east side.” Igbesa does not only farm the land it plays host to higher institutions such as Ogun State Institute of Technology and Crawford University.

To put this cultural event in its proper context, let us take the roots meaning of carnival into account. First, its meaning, “from Medieval Latin carne vale ‘flesh, farewell!’” may just not fit the cordiality that was on show that sunny Saturday. However, a second meaning from “1590s in figurative sense ‘feasting or revelry in general’ meaning ‘a circus or amusement fair’” would move closer to what happened. The Nigerian music makers including a Bata Drummer from Germany, Ayantunde Anselm Ramacher, and the usual lead trumpeter, Richmond Ojobor, dished out traditional tunes whose lyrics may have been above the pay grade of the average Austrian. If the persuasive music was not to their taste, the Samba group from Brazil aptly identified as Batala in Austria stepped in to fill any gap. They are “a percussion band (formed in 2009 by Lorenzo Gangi) and part of an international group in more than 20 countries worldwide (Austria, Brazil, France, USA, Spain, Netherlands, England, Greece and many more). Worldwide more than 1000 percussionists are part of Batala. Besides many events in Austria, Batala Austria plays internationally at famous carnivals, like Salvador de Bahia in Brazil or the Notting Hill carnival in London. Our samba style is a vibrant mix of ‘Samba reggae’, ‘Axé’, ‘Afox’ and ‘Samba Afro’ and has its roots in Salvador de Bahia, the north east of Brazil.”

To any attentive reader, the name of the group is a chip of the Yoruba deity, Obatala. It was just sheer pleasure listening to the 25 person Band dishing different sounds in their red, black and white costumes. The almost two-hour walk must have been very exhausting for the Band that as soon as the parade arrived at the Museum grounds they all dispersed without an opportunity to find out more about them.

The second part of the Adire carnival included goodwill messages from different persons representing collaborating institutions and corporate sponsors such as the Ethiopian Airlines. According to the company, they are committed to building bridges between cultures worldwide. The General Manager of Ethiopian Airlines in Vienna, Austria, Mrs. Saba Gebremedhin Kassaye said, “that’s why it was a matter close to our hearts to support this year’s Nigerian culture festival in Vienna.”

This part of the carnival took place right inside the bowels of the Welt Museum, which is one of the long-standing collaborators of the Adire carnival. The Nigerian Ambassador to Hungary, Dr. Modupe Enitan Irele, was invited in her capacity as an Ambassador of neighboring country. She not only added color but added elegance to all the events she participated in.

However, his deputy, Mr. Ibrahim Hamidu, represented the Nigerian Ambassador to Austria, who was unavoidably absent. He is also a tested and trusted ally in the terrain of cultural diplomacy. On hand to receive the audience into the massive structure of the museum was the Director of the Welt Museum Wien, Dr Jonathan Fine.

How fascinating that he recently clocked a year as the Director on July 1st 2022. In his opening remarks, he did not shy away from the state of “the art treasures from the Benin Kingdom dispersed throughout the world due to a colonial war in the 19th century.” It is worthy of note that Welt Museum is one of the 13 different museums in Europe discussing the modalities for returning the stolen art works.

Ten years ago, “as a first step, the joint workshop New Cultures of Collaboration. Sharing of Collections and Quests for Restitution: the Benin Case in Vienna (Dec 2 & 3, 2010) was organized. For this, representatives of the royal court in Benin, the NCMM, Nigeria and from European museums with significant collections (British Museum, London; Ethnologisches Museum Berlin; Museum of Ethnography Stockholm) as well as legal experts from Nigeria and Austria were invited to present and discuss their perspectives. At this first meeting, it was agreed to continuously enable the participation of more museums and hold meetings on a regular basis.” To show the complexity of the matter, a last meeting was held in London just last year (2021).

In a typical Nigerian custom, some distinguished personalities were honored during the event. Included in the list were highly placed personalities such as Nigerian Ambassador to Hungary, Ambassador (Dr.) Modupe Irele, the Ambassador and staff of Nigerian Embassy in Vienna, Austria. Dr. Dayo Olomu, a London-based human capital development and business transformation strategist, Nollywood superstar Lateef Adedimeji, General Manager of Ethiopia Airlines in Austria, Mrs. Saba Gebremedhin Kassaye, and Director of Weltmuseum Wien; Dr Jonathan Fine.

The award of recognition given to Dr. Fine did not come as a surprise. His profile informs us “before assuming this position he was head of collections (Museumsleiter) at the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, and curator for the collections from West Africa, Cameroon, Gabon, and Namibia. During his time in Berlin, Jonathan also served as speaker of the museum’s working group on provenance research.

He completed his dissertation, entitled The Throne from the Grassfields: History, Gifts, and Authenticity in the Bamum Kingdom, 1880–1929, in 2020. The study examines a small iconic group of thrones from the largest kingdom in Western Cameroun and traces their histories through the complex and violent pre-colonial and colonial contexts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

He is currently working on a project on the global history of restitution and the return of cultural objects. As expected, “his work on African art grows out of his legal work, which, in part, concerned disputed territory in Africa and the litigation of human rights and constitutional issues in United States court.”

It may appear as a cliché that success has many parents but to the four-person delegation from Dublin, Ireland, there was much to learn from the inner workings of a grand festival such as this. So when invitations start to roll out from Ms. Risiola Omotoso, Princess Pamela Toyin Ogunwusi, Donald Dotun Adegbesan and Ms. Amoke Agboke, just be on alert and remember you read it here first.

One thing is certain, both festivals had the support of their respective apparatus of State; in the United Kingdom, councilors of the Royal Borough of Greenwich did not only endorse the festival their presence showed active collaborations with the organizers. While in Vienna, the Police provided first-rate security to participants just as the Nigerian embassy gave their full moral support. As in every event planned by human beings, there always will be dark clouds. This time the dark clouds came from the Austrian embassy, which refused to issue visas to some participants especially those who had goods to sell at the exhibition spaces. Could this be a case of not mixing commerce and culture at the same time?

Ade-Odutola, a Yoruba poet, photographer and academic, is based in the United States of America.