African Republic of Guinea-Bissau knows how to throw a party

With little more than cow horns, 8ft drums and hollow shells, Guinea-Bissau throws one of the best parties on earth. Rose Skelton reports

A haunting melody rings through the crumbling streets of the city of Bissau, the capital of the west African Republic of Guinea-Bissau. An old man, dressed in a raffia skirt with strings of pink and white seashells draped across his torso, presses a spectacularly curved cow horn to his lips. He puffs his cheeks and blasts a tune, raw and rasping, which echoes through the rapt crowd. Behind him, a parade of pubescent girls, dressed in raffia skirts and strings of shells, glistens in the late afternoon sun, dancing to the beat of a cracked wooden drum.

"This is the dance of the Bijagos islanders," Mamadu, a young local musician watching the parade, tells me. He's referring to Guinea-Bissau's remote island-dwelling ethnic group. "It is a dance which resembles their ancient battles, where the winner is the one who isn't killed. This dance says, 'This is what we used to do in our culture'."

Bissau's carnival, which takes place over the four days before Lent, is like no other. Although traditionally a Christian celebration, less than 10% of Bissau Guineans call themselves Catholic; the rest worship either Allah or the spirits of the islands and forests. Today's carnival, which has been going for as long as anyone in the city can remember, is, as one long-time Portuguese resident put it, about "local ethnic traditions combined with a Portuguese date." Guineans have taken an imported religious festival and used it as an excuse to have a very big, cultural celebration.

But there is no electricity in the country, and petrol is too expensive for most people to afford. So there are no motorised cavalcades of elaborate expensive costumes or amplified music, as in the grand carnivals of Rio or Venice. Instead, hundreds of groups representing the country's various different tribes charter wooden boats and battered trucks and, wearing costumes made of shells, cow horns, leaves, or the blown-up spined husk of boxfish, pour into the city to show off their culture.

It is one of Africa's most vibrant celebrations in a country that is chaotic and quirky at the best of times. Guinea-Bissau is just twice the size of Wales, dwarfed by its larger, Muslim neighbours, Senegal, to the north, and Guinea Conakry to the south. Spilling into the Atlantic on the west coast of Africa, it is a country of forests and islands, remote areas inhabited by people almost completely cut off from modern life. Once a colony of Portugal, it gained its freedom through a violent 11-year war of independence that ended barely 30 years ago. Since then the country has been under the rule of ruthless dictators and army generals, and emerged just a few years ago from a short but brutal civil war that left the economy shattered.

The country has more than 10 ethnic groups, each with its own language and culture, living side by side in relative harmony. The Muslim Mandinkas and Fulas, with their music that shares ties with the kora and balafon (xylophone) music of Mali and Senegal, tend to live in the interior of the country. The Manjaco and Balanta, with their rounded, lilting rhythms and "telephone drums" that beat out messages to the neighbours, come from the coastal region.

Bijagos music, on the other hand, is created from the rattling rhythms of the hollowed-out shell of a calabash, the resounding call of the cow horn, and the deep reverberating thud of handheld wooden drums, which are led by the cangueran etona, an 8ft-long drum that marks the changing rhythms with a sharp crack. The Bijagos inhabit the islands of the Atlantic archipelago, some of the most remote terrain in Africa, and are a matriarchal society where women chose their husbands, who are obliged to marry them when chosen. Music is still used in the ritual context, for passing on messages, for celebrating battle victories, for marking life cycles.

"Some of these dances and rituals are for the men to attract wives, some are for when a girl is ready to marry," says one of the Bijagos group's drummers, a muscular man wrapped in a colourful print cloth clutching an acacia tree drumstick between his fingers. "These rituals are still really strong for us," he explains, moving along the street, half-dancing, half-walking, towards the line of judges who will choose this year's winner.

This year's Bissau carnival has a theme, inspired by the country's latest woes. A slogan is hand-painted on banners strung between rough wooden poles: "Support the fight against illegal immigration and drug trafficking." It is carried by the leaders of each carnival group. Guinea-Bissau, with its unprotected borders and without a sufficient police force or prison, is suffering the depredations of drug lords using the fragile country as an easy route for sending massive quantities of cocaine to Europe. It has become a "drugs supermarket," says Antonio Mazzitelli, the regional representative for the UN office on drugs and crime, and there are no resources to fight it.

In response, groups of children from the various Bissau neighbourhoods spend weeks before the carnival in derelict spaces around the city, tearing up strips of paper cement sacks, and plastering them with hot glue on to sculptures of mud and stick. With limited resources, they create intricate papier-mache masques, which are worn perched on the heads of young men and paraded in front of the carnival judges. These masques, extraordinary feats of engineering, depict scenes of Guinean police arresting drug barons and stashes of cocaine bundled up next to their handcuffed owners. The winner of the masque category receives the equivalent of £500, and the masque will be displayed in the region's museum, or what passes as one.

The winner of last year's Bissau carnival was a group from the Bijagos islands. When one group wins, explains Mamadu, looking down on the carnival parade from one of Bissau's colonial verandas, the prize money is shared between the entire region, which could incorporate thousands of villages and vast tracts of forested land. A committee decides on how to spend the money, either in helping to build a school or support a local hospital. "Or," he says, smiling, "they throw an enormous party."


Rose Skelton

The GuardianTramp

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