Okay I admit that I have a flair for the dramatic as there really isn’t a need for the title of this article. But knowing Nigerians very well, we share this same flair and I am only playing to this national character. Calabar is not the name of a wicked woman who is aborting the destinies of her children; neither are children dying on the streets of Calabar, so no cause for alarm. However, my use of language speaks to another equally important issue that burdens my heart. For me to write about this, which is usually outside the scope of matters I consider ‘note-worthy’, it tells how concerned I am with preserving some of the products of the great city of Calabar. So I hope the right people are reading this; people who can influence change and ensure that we do not lose out in the future simply because we were not careful to invest in our endowments.
Apart from the successes of the state in tourism and entertainment, there remains a lot of untapped resources that we must start investing in. Between the administrations of Donald Duke and Liyel Imoke, we have seen how government can bring prosperity to the lives of people by investing in those areas that are natural strengths for the State. Concentrating on other areas where we do not display comparative advantage is a huge waste of limited resources, and we are not unaware of the effect of this in times past. So this note is just to bring to the fore two other areas where we show relative advantage over other parts of Nigeria. For these, I believe the State needs to create a strategic plan to enhance our position if none exists at this time.
The first is music. I can swear (index finger to the dust, on my tongue, and point to heaven) that every person born of Calabar or with some link to Calabar is musically gifted. Err…okay…that’s an exaggeration. But almost everyone in the town of Calabar is a natural singer. I literally experienced this firsthand growing up in the town. From babies to oldies, nearly every one can make music with their larynx. The whole culture and its appurtenances reveal the beauty of rhythms and harmonies that is infused virtually into all aspects of its manifestation. There is little wonder when you meet a child who is already appreciative of complex movements and advanced harmonies that makes music flow with untutored ease. If you walk into a typical church on a Sunday morning, you will simply be drowned in perfect harmonies coming from the grey-haired folks around you that you wouldn’t even notice the choir.
I was just eleven when my mum registered me with the children’s choir at Wesley Methodist church in Calabar. With several other kids, we made the most beautiful music and our choir directors did very little work to get us going; merely pointing to some technicalities where there was need. In St. Patrick’s College Calabar, an all-boys high school, I also sang in the school choir. We only met during our 45 minutes break period, yet we sang the complete works of Handel’s Messiah. I should pratingly mention here that I sang soprano. Yes! I mean I literally sang soprano and hit all the high notes comfortably. Interestingly I still went back to church and sang baritone in the children’s choir as incredulous as that sounds. Despite this ability, I wasn’t even in the league of those who could drop amazing things with their voices. School choirs were and are a big thing in Calabar and the competitions are intimidating if you ever attend. Singing in one of those events was like writing WAEC exams.
Today, after many years of sustained music culture, the city is producing musicians like no other – Vocalists, Keyboardists, Bassists, Drummers, Producers, etc. Several have made it to the national stage in competitions and this shows that there is something the town can offer the nation in entertainment. A reputable musician in Nigeria noted that Calabar is the “city of drummers”. In other words, if you need a great drummer, get down to Calabar and you will not be disappointed. I was utterly amazed at the talent in the city when I was invited to attend a percussion competition. The judges founding it tough deciding who was best. What’s even more exciting is the creativity with which such talent is delivered to the public.
All these call for a plan to formalize, in a sense, the city’s music culture. We need to find ways of capturing and channeling these drove of skill so as to ensure its continuity into the future; as well as enhancing the talents to world class specimens. Someone may argue that if we formalize things, we may reduce the creative edge. True! However, I am not suggesting an over-intrusion by the government, but for the framework for sustained delivery to be provided. I am a sound believer that government policy should be based on thorough research and not just anecdotal information. Nevertheless, I am not asking for a government policy to be created. What I am desirous of is something akin to administering multivite to a growing child. The idea of a Calabar Music School wouldn’t be a bad one if floated. There are already several musical societies in Calabar that can be brought together to create one cover. We can do this and bring in the best hands to train our screaming potentials and become the number one exporter city of music and musicians. I am actually imagining a time when all the new churches, clubs, bands in our various cities will head down to Calabar to recruit their music directors and musicians.
I also would use this medium to call for a Calabar Music Festival, or Music Week. Some of us actually leave Nigeria and head to Wisconsin for Summerfest or the various music festivals in the UK. We can create a major music movement in Nigeria mid-year, where we bring all music lovers to Calabar to celebrate the very best of African music in all genres. This is possible, and we have the talents to back this movement. The truth is if we don’t do it, someone else will do it, and we will later wonder at why we never thought of it.
No one in Nigeria in their right mind will deny Calabar the first place in culinary repertoire. The city is the destination for the best of local delicacies. I am a Calabar boy, but I admit that I am still discovering some delicacies I haven’t heard of. When I was out of the country for a while, my tongue literally abused me every day for not satisfying it with Calabar delights. I tried everything possible to no avail to replicate the gastronomic satisfaction Efik dishes give me. It was from that moment I knew that it wasn’t just okay to eat a Calabar dish anywhere. It had to be eaten in Calabar, or at the least prepared in the laidback atmosphere of Canaan town. Something about the atmosphere seasoned the dishes that it cannot be satisfactorily reproduced elsewhere.
In Lagos and Abuja, I frequent Calabar restaurants to reset my taste buds and reassure ‘I and I’ that life is indeed beautiful. However, once I step into Calabar and maul a plate of Afang or Edikang Ikong soup (with whatever accompanies it), I feel like I had been poisoned all along. My bowels simply jerk back to life. And for your information, this is not just me. Even the foreigner who visits attest to the fact they haven’t eaten meals as tasty as those in Calabar.
I once met a guy in a UN Conference in New York and was having a networking conversation with him when I mentioned I was Nigerian. He quickly interjected that he had been to Nigeria and totally loved it. I wondered why he was the only one I seemed to have met who loved Nigeria. So I inquired further, only to find out he actually lived out his time in Nigeria in the city of Calabar. When I blurted out: “Yay! I am from Calabar”, he went on a nostalgic narration of how he missed the fresh fish and chilled beer combination around Eight Miles. He confessed he actually had a motorbike accident on his way to service his addiction. Now this is a fully white-British man who did some work for National Geographic. I met another Australian who loves the city and has explored almost everything in its culinary smorgasbord.
I will not be saying anything eureka-ish if I say that Calabar is the seat of the nation’s food culture. I have yet to see one Efik restaurant in other cities that isn’t successful (caveat: with good management). This is because all the known Efik dishes are blockbusters and top the food charts easily – Edikang Ikong, Afang, Abak, Ekpang Nkukwo, Afia Efere (Unen ye Ebot), Ukang, Edesi Isip, Ibaba, Ekoki, etc.
However, there are yet several others that aren’t known to most people and are as mouthwatering as their popular mates. Unfortunately, such dishes already seem extinct because the indigenes who could cook them are gradually leaving this stage of life. If you were to ask the average young Calabarian about such dishes, they either haven’t eaten them in a while or cannot prepare it. I went visiting a friend’s restaurant in Calabar to eat the insanely delicious Ekpang Nkukwo (at the risk of being initiated into Calabar witchcraft), and she complained that she couldn’t find cooks to prepare some of the very rare Efik dishes, as the women who could cook them were gradually becoming rare. This is very sad. We cannot afford to sit and watch a whole generation take their skill away with them to the grave.
So calling for a Calabar Culinary School is absolutely justified in the light of the foregoing. History will never forgive us if we fail to do something about this blessing it has bestowed on us. While other countries have internationalized their foods, we are yet to catch the bug of globalization. Everything local can now be exported to the global market place depending how you can appropriately package it. The world is dying to see new things, and new delicacies are a major component of that. Honestly, it feels criminal to passively watch the continuous recycling of Italian, French, or Chinese cuisines as well as other cultures launching their international versions and we do nothing about ours. Before these skillful hands leave the scene, we must juice every drop of yummy substance from them.
We often compare Nigeria to other countries while celebrating the failures in several aspect of our society. What we usually fail to highlight when making these comparisons is how much the countries input into the process of getting to where they are today. They didn’t arrive there by happenstance. It took them a careful assessment of where they were, what they had, and where they wanted to go with what they had. Then came planning with what they could muster from the available. This principle applies to every society and I would dare to say that what where we are today is a result of what we invested yesterday. If we are reaping the wind today, it means we invested zilch.
So my fellow Calabarian, please do something, anything that lies in your power to ensure that Calabar doesn’t lose its twin children of music and food. Isn’t it ironic that we say music is the soul’s food? Great! The city will not only be feeding the nation physically, but also mentally. Calabar has given us all the materials to make it great. It is now left for us to give it back greatness. Since I always have a hard time knowing how to end a written piece, let me quickly end by saying that I have nothing else to add. Thank you! Please if you know of someone who can do something about my concerns, please send this note to them, tag them or even sell it, I don’t care. Just get the message out, finish!