* Carnivals are not just about making glamour and glitz
By Anote Ajeluorou
Their reputation is built on solid group achievement, to paraphrase Chinua Achebe in his iconic novel, Things Fall Apart. Now, People’s World is quietly taking a strategic part in this year’s Calabar Christmas Carnival. The group has seen carnivals, has brought carnivals into life and has been part of Europe’s biggest street carnival, the Notting Hill Carnival, London. With its Peoples World Carnival Band in Tottenham part of London, the group has been part of stage costume-making and many other community events in the U.K. and elsewhere.
The group arrived Nigeria last week and will provide costumes for the lead participants of Calabar Christmas Carnival. It is in the country in partnership with Nigeria’s stage lighting and decor giant, the Alhaji Teju Kareem-led Zmirage Multimedia Company Ltd, to give the carnival and its numerous visitors an unforgettable time. For Kareem, the Zmirage boss, this collaboration with Peoples World Carnival Band is also part of his yearly International Cultural Exchange (ICE) programme in honour of Prof. Wole Soyinka’s humanistic contributions to the world.
As part of the partnership, Peoples World had worked with Zmirage months ago at the Nothing Hill Carnival to expose and sell Calabar Christmas Carnival to the rest of the world when a big float was mounted to advertise the carnival.
Now, both parties will be providing Calabar Christmas Carnival with something everyone can share, the rich experience of giving carnivals a meaning quite apart from the usual razzmatazz, fun, gaiety and pomp carnivals supposedly generate. With a membership largely made up of Africans from the Caribbean Islands, Peoples World sees carnivals as street theatres, which are not only celebratory, but provide opportunity for some form of self-expression for the people in articulating their vision of the world.
So for them, a carnival should go beyond the mere display of beautiful costumes and colours. It should hold up an aspect of the people’s culture, even their grievances and joys and tell unique stories about how things really are, where things are headed, and possibly how to get whatever destinations the people are headed. Largely coming from carnival backgrounds steeped in street protests that characterised slave-master relationships in the Caribbean Islands of years gone by, Peoples World frowns at carnivals that do not have underlying tones that speak to the people’s daily living conditions and how to better improve such conditions for their better living.
Indeed, this is where the group disagrees with the spirit of the Rio De Janeiro Carnival in Brazil, where the display of naked flesh seems the pervading intent. With Nigeria’s follow-follow, bandwagon effect that has resulted in carnival explosions in recent years in some states, with the Abuja Carnival jamboree leading the way in poor programming conception and cultural/artistic contenxtualisation almost bordering on meaninglessness, the involvement of Peoples World in this year’s Calabar Christmas Carnival may just be the turning point carnival organisers need to redirect their efforts so that carnivals being organised in the country can have impact in the people’s lives.
For Peoples World, carnivals should embrace the totality of a people’s existence and give them a voice to speak to authority and to themselves about their conditions.
INTERESTINGLY, the recently concluded CARNIRIV, with ‘Reminiscing the Past, Consolidating the Future’ as theme, and organised by the Rivers State Government, may just have done well as it accommodated many elements into its agenda, including a symposium or colloquium that addressed many socio-cultural issues that affect the people and perhaps how to move along on the path of cultural promotion and value edification.
Last weekend, The Guardian sought furthwer explanation on members of the Peopls World on their idea of carnival, and coming to lend their expertese to carnivals in Nigeria. Excerpts
FOR me, coming to Nigeria for the first time is quite an experience and a way to portray an art form that I’m passionate about and to work for the first time as a new company and we’re hoping to make an impact for the carnival in Calabar. You know, everybody has a different opinion about coming to Nigeria. On my first day in Lagos, we got caught up in the traffic on our way to the museum. But it felt like home, like Jamaica, where I’m from. What I found was that people’s temperaments are pretty similar; and my friends agreed that it was all familiar – the way people drive, the way they argue – it just felt as if I was home, which to me was very important.
My mission here is to bring costumes for the Master Blaster band that is taking part in the Calabar Christmas Carnival, which we were asked by our link, Shabaka Thomson (ex-Director of Notting Hill Carnival, London) to make. We’ve been asked to produce 30 frontline costumes and four individual costumes. They’ve asked us to make them elaborate and something that can stand out. So, we’ve produced the costumes and we’re hoping they find them acceptable. We’ve done as much as we could in London including the finishing. I actually surprised myself the way we finished them.
Now, we are a group that learn from other cultures; we’re from the different Caribbean Islands with different cultures and living in London. For us, doing anything for Africa is one of the greatest things to happen to us because we have to do research into the particular African culture we want to work with to integrate that culture into the carnival costumes.
Carnival is about celebrating your own culture; it can be anything but it has to mean something and not just celebratory; not just colourful, but it must mean something. And whoever we work for must take ownership of the carnival or production.
From the costumes, we expect you to appreciate what we’ve done; you will see that we put everything we’ve got into it for your benefit. We tried to use the theme that was given to us ‘Masks at Dawn’, and to bring it in a way that is local. And we think that we’ve explored it. So, we will have 30 beautiful ladies to parade the costumes. But it’s the first time we’re doing the costume; so we’re here to see how they will use our costumes. It’s new for us. So, it will be a two-way learning process; but we’ve given them something that will be spectacular.
Carnivals should be uniting people; carnivals mean different things to different people from within their own cultures. Originally for us, it’s about making a statement; it is making a stand for what you believe and about individual customs and beliefs and over the years, with people coming over from the Caribbean to the U.K. and vice versa, we now want to blend. So, we have a lot of colours that are mixed up and stirred up together, to produce something that is knitted together and wonderful. That is what carnival is all about.
What we do with carnivals is to use what you have to exploit what you have to understand the positiveness of your culture, your country and what you actually want other people to see about you. When people come to a Nigerian carnival, they should see what Nigerians are and not go away wondering if indeed it was somewhere else they had been. If you’re having it in Calabar, it should have an element of what Calabar is as well. So, it should have that edge. There should be something unique about Calabar in it - the culture, the people and what else besides. If in Lagos, the carnival should have that Lagos touch, something different. That’s the way to take ownership of carnival for it to be different.
On the social consciousness of carnivals, from the carnivals I’ve been involved in, they are used to say what is going on currently, historically and even politically. But this could be difficult in some countries because of political culture prevailing at the time. But it’s like when you put something on stage or theatre, it should make some statement.
Carnival is street theatre, street stage; it’s the same kind of way of thinking, as long as it’s done tastefully and as long as you have control of what you put out.
It may offend some people; but sometimes you offend. You have to be aware of your political climate and really see how far you can go. I won’t advise somebody to just do that because of the political situation. But you can achieve it within certain parametres so people respect you for what you have done. In some countries, it’s easy; in some others, it’s not. You just have to be very careful how you thread.
Sally (yet to get the full names; have asked Lilian to send), an educational counsellor
We have a carnival costume band in Tottenham, London. I think we evolved with Peoples World carnival Band. We started making costumes for Notting Hill Carnival and other events locally. And over the years, we realised that we’re opening a need for young people. The unique thing was that most of the time we found that most of our young people were sometimes second, third, fourth generation British black children, who know very little about their home culture or history. Their cultures are being diluted and their families are not close together as they should be in their own cultures back home. And there’s also the problem with absentee fathers. I’m not trying to say it’s the only reason for the problem, but there’s a dilution of the cultures and the things that people do together.
So, what we do is work all year round with young people like bicycle maintenance, help them write CVs, introduce skills, help them look for jobs; there are all kinds of work we do with them. We try to teach them to be as good as they can be – the positive aspect of life – we make them learn something and keep it real. And because of the problem we have locally; well, globally now, I guess, in terms of the gang culture and little value for life – young people getting into fight and killing each other, we’re determined that we’ll let them blossom.
So, through the medium of costume-making, you can engage them in other things. One of the main things that we do is to make them learn the world around them or about the history of their respective countries through costume-making so they could have a bit more understanding of their cultures. For instance, in one of our events, we had ‘United in Rhythm’, using the music and colours from the different countries as highlights.
So, for people from St. Lucia, Dominican Republic, we had Zooks; from Jamaica, we had reggae; highlife for the African young people and jungle music for young, black people in London, also. They also had the colours of their countries’ flags as costumes; it was subtly political as well, but not in your face politics.
It was to help young people recognise the cultures that they come from -- from their flags to their music and more importantly, they had to learn about somebody else’s culture, too.
At Peoples World, it’s like a family. We celebrated our 30 years recently, and it was about freedom, freedom of speech, of the elements, of blue. We don’t want to harp on the slavery issue; we recognise it; we had it. But we want to move on and young people learnt about slavery but they also learnt about freedom. They don’t have to be disenfranchised. The riots that happened in Tottenham were about a feeling of injustice, a failing of government.
I think, the fact that our name is Peoples World gives us that international flavour, feel about it. So, at Calabar Christmas Carnival, you will be expecting fabulous costumes, and a kind of marriage of understanding – a two-way process of understanding people and hopefully find a middle ground. We’re working with Décor, which makes the costumes. We’ve taken our cue from the theme ‘Masks at Dawn’ and we’ve taken our perception of that to produce very glamourous costumes. You can be sure of that. I hope we can run with that in spite of the politics!
Now, we’re involved in the biggest carnival in Europe as the fifth element in the Notting Hill Carnival in which people don’t appreciate the amount of work that goes into it. But we work pretty much against the background of so much restriction from the government – ‘oh, you can’t do this’; ‘oh, you have to close early’; ‘oh, you can’t be this loud!’; ‘oh, you can’t use this road’.
So, it’s kind of hard to always keep it sterile even when we always resist those restrictions because the carnival is about people taking to the streets and not used to being restriction to where they can be or how much noise they can make. Unfortunately, there’s so much government machinery involved in policing people and cleaning streets. We have the pressure of having the biggest number of people and the loudest noise during the carnival.
I think that instead of policing us so much, they should be glad. In 2003, they said 93 million pounds came to London over the period of Notting Hill Carnival alone for airlines and hotels. It’s the biggest tourism event in the country! People around the world look forward to the carnival and we’re very much down-played. So, why are we being treated so shabbily when others make all the money? Sponsors come in guardedly.
But you know, carnivals are not just about making glamour and glitz; not just to get drunk and having fun. It should be a celebration of something, a commemoration of something. Unfortunately, the Rio Carnival is diluted so much and is more about funfair. Carnival must have content and it must be relevant to you! It’s your cultural thing and about recycling and regeneration, which can be made as its rule of engagement. It has to be about something locally produced, recycled material. I don’t know the politics around this carnival, but it should be something about sustainability, regeneration. Those judging should be looking for something locally produced. Is it something that is giving back to the community?
I don’t know how you work here, but it could be about inviting church groups or faith groups to make one band. That will be a challenge because carnivals are about uniting people! It could be about resisting sectarianism, you know. Or they want local school children to come together and select them to get a place in the carnival band. But these are things to factor into a carnival to make more meaning out of it rather than just fun. I think these possibilities could make it much bigger and like a household event.
You look at the Rio Carnival and people are going by half naked in bikinis. What message is that really saying? You just go mad and enjoy yourself. You should think how to add to that and what value to derive from it.