“Equestrian Elegance at Sallah-time”: a review of the documentary by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and Bala Anas Babinlata

A little late, but Barka da Sallah! Eid Mubarak. Da fatan an yi sallah lafiya.

In today’s column in Weekly Trust, I reviewed the documentary Equestrian Elegance, written, narrated, and produced by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and directed by Bala Anas Babinlata. To read the column on the Trust website, click on the link, to read the hard copy, click on the photo, or if you have slow internet, just read the piece below:

Equestrian Elegance at Sallah-time

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 12 November 2011 05:00

Before I moved to Kano in 2008, I had heard much about the Sallah celebrations as a “tourist attraction.” Expatriate acquaintances both in Nigeria and outside the country told me of travels to Kano to experience the colour and pageantry of the annual event. In 2008, I attended my first “Hawan Sallah” at the emir’s palace and two days later stood with a friend as the parade of horses and riders, hunters on foot and men on stilts, processed past her Fagge house on the outskirts of the old city. At the centre of it all was the magnificent emir Alhaji (Dr) Ado Bayero, who rode under a twirling silk umbrella. He was greeted with cries of blessing from the crowd, their fists upraised in salute. [For photos of the the “Hawan Nassarawa” during Eid el-Fitr I attended in 2010, click to my flickr album here or for the blog post about it, click here]

What most struck me as I stood with crowd on both days was the community feel of the festivities: onlookers calling out the names of the riders, riders shouting down greetings to friends, the genuine affection in the salutes to the emir. This sense of familiarity is captured beautifully in the 2009 documentary film, Equestrian Elegance: the Kano Sallah Pageantry Festival written, produced and narrated by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and directed by Bala Anas Babinlata. Professor Abdalla of Bayero University is one of the most grounded and prolific scholars of Hausa popular culture, with dozens of books and articles published both locally and internationally. His most important contributions, however, go beyond academic scholarship to actual interventions into popular culture: among which was his founding and moderation of the Finafinan Hausa and marubuta yahoogroups, important critical forums for dialogue about Hausa popular literature and film;  the organizing of concerts and award shows for Hausa musicians, and his innovative creation of what he calls “Hausa classical music” by recording Hausa traditional instruments being played without singing. Professor Abdalla also spans the world of scholarship and art with the films put out by his production company Visually Ethnographic Productions.

The documentary Equestrian Elegance (1 hour 28 mins), which was shot in 2008 but has not yet been released for commercial distribution, covers the four days of parades through Kano city during Eid al-Fitr: “Hawan Sallah,” “Hawan Daushe,” “Hawan Nassarawa,” and “Hawan Dorayi,” and the additional day of pageantry “Hawan Fanisau” during Eid al-Adha. A narrative voiceover by Professor Abdalla, explains the events and an innovative animation traces along a map the parade route taken each day, but the film mostly celebrates the details of the festivities from the sunrise on the first day of Sallah to the sunset on the last day. Within this symbolic frame, the rhythm of Sallah is measured out by each procession out of and back towards the palace.

While I admittedly grew a bit weary about an hour into the film, I think the attention to detail here is important. Professor Abdalla told me that the unhurried pacing was intentional: he wanted the film to “unfold in very slow motion, so you can absorb the details.” The focus here was on capturing “the pageantry. Every horse is different. Every rider is different. People stay out there three hours watching and don’t get tired.” His goal was to show the “high level of refinement” in the Sallah parades and the “structural elegance of pageantry.”

Such elegance is captured in the beauty of the cinematography: the close-ups of the courtier crouching to perform the morning gun salute and his graceful almost balletic twirl through the gun smoke; the rich texture of both horse and rider being robed in layer after layer of damask in preparation for the parade; the hazy glow of Kano swathed in harmattan during the final day of “Hawan Fanisau.”

But beyond presenting the elegance of the event, Professor Abdalla told me that another goal was to present to a global audience that sense of community surrounding Sallah. Although Kano’s Sallah festivities are probably some of the most photographed annual events in Nigeria, the photographs taken by tourists are often formally beautiful but distancing. There is little knowledge or intimacy in them.  Here, however, as Professor Abdalla points out you “can see the sense of community. It’s like carnival, a street party, with mom and dad and kids.” And it is this sense of community and lived tradition that I like most about the film. Kano is often either romanticized by the national and international media as a place of “timeless tradition,” an ancient exotic city of fairy tale, or denigrated as, what one foreign blogger termed, “an overgrown village,” a backwards northern outpost with a medieval mentality. Equestrian Elegance explodes both stereotypes, presenting the richness of tradition from insider’s perspective. One of the moments that best captures this delightful mix of light-heartedness and ceremony is in a shot where the dignified male space of the emir’s speech at the government house is playfully undermined by the little girl playing with a balloon directly behind him. As opposed to stereotypes about Kano under shari’a, women are not excluded from the celebration. While they may not be a part of the main spectacle, they take part in the larger community event. Girls and women hang off of balconies and push into the crowds to catch a glimpse of the horses and riders. As Professor Abdalla points out, Sallah is a family affair.

Part of what contributes to this “insider’s perspective” comes from the camera operators’ ability to get up close to their subjects, not the flattened close-up of a zoom camera but the intimate close-up of someone who is a part of the celebration. The subjects of the camera’s gaze sometimes seem to recognize the person behind the camera, and the film is often self-referential. While tourist photographs often attempt to capture the “timelessness” of the event, avoiding shots of other photographers or signs that situate their subjects in a particular modern moment, this film cheerfully revels in contemporary local knowledge of the event. The parade, as Professor Abdalla points out in his narrative commentary, is located in a very specific and recent history, including a route which began as part of the current emir’s Sallah visit to his mother.

There are multiple references to the way in which the event is viewed both through foreign and homegrown eyes.  The tourists become part of the spectacle. They are depicted laughing on the palace balcony or lining up in front of the crowd with their zoom lenses. But more significant are the frequent moments of easy familiarity when local photographers and videographers enter the camera’s view. The camera repeatedly captures the parade processing past photography and video shops, a subtle tribute to the many Kano residents who use the camera to tell their own stories. Professor Abdalla himself makes a cameo appearance towards the end of the film.

The cosmopolitan mix that makes up Kano is also found in the soundtrack of the documentary. The most striking piece of music is Babangida Kakadawo’s praise song “Sarkin Kano Ado Bayero” to the accompaniment of the kuntigi, used to great effect in the moments where the emir appears. However, the soundtrack is also sprinkled with Malian musician Ali Farka Toure’s guitar pieces and another song featuring Egyptian musician Hassan Ramzy. (Professor Abdalla argues the inclusion of these tracks follows international standards of fair usage since the looped excerpts are less than one minute.) While I initially thought the use of non-Nigerian music detracted from the “authenticity” of the film, I find convincing Professor Abdalla’s argument that he wanted to expose people to music from other parts of Africa, a goal in keeping with Kano’s history as a cosmopolitan trade centre.

The borrowed music, along with the slow pace, could be an attraction or flaw depending on the taste of the viewer. I was not a fan of the digital effects in the transitions, which I thought distracted more than they added to the film.  But these moments of imperfection are far outweighed by the strength in the completeness of the film, which moved beyond the picturesque palace durbar to cover the entire procession and its connection to the people of the city. Equestrian Elegance is an important historical resource that is valuable to outsiders trying to learn about the culture and traditions of Kano but perhaps even more so to those from Kano, who want to remember the richness of a lived tradition, Sallah as performed in the first decade of the 21st century.

 

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2 responses to ““Equestrian Elegance at Sallah-time”: a review of the documentary by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and Bala Anas Babinlata

  1. its a beautiful essay. I’m back 4m Hajji and barka da sallah in arreas.

  2. Pingback: Award-winning documentary Daughters of the Niger Delta screens at upcoming film festivals (plus my review) | A Tunanina...

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