Sunday 9 August 2009

Kwakoe - A multicultural festival in Amsterdam

A multicultural festival in Amsterdam

I first heard of it last year and that is because I have friends who really live in Amsterdam and have their fingers on the pulse of happenings in Amsterdam.

I live in Amsterdam but it is really not my city, I do not know what is happening in my city except when it appears in the water under my window, the gets on the international news usually as a past event or the Economist covers it as a long term exhibition.

Kwakoe [1] is a multicultural festival of the ethnic minorities from Africa, the Caribbean, the old Dutch colonies of Surinam and the Antilles and many other places where there is a kindred spirit of familiarity with minorities.

In fact, it started as a Surinamese festival in 1975, though it is no more so evidently so, there are strong influences everywhere.

Football, food, music and dance

I did not visit the Kwakoe Festival last year, but this year, I decided I would try and find out what it was all about. This yearly festival takes 6 consecutive weekends of July and August, this being the last weekend of activities.

I had arranged with a friend to visit the festival, me thinking it was not a daytime thing than a late afternoon to night time event, we drove up to a nearby station and then took an illegal cab called “snorder” to the festival sited at Bijmerpark in the notorious but mostly gentrified Amsterdam South East.

These festivals revolve around four main themes of football, food, music and dance, there was a lot of all of this, stalls with sellers and patrons catching up with nostalgia or experimenting with unfamiliar meals – a whole field of cows might have been corralled for the barbecues.

Where are the sponsors?

There were no expected sponsors for a demographic that spans more than half the globe, it was the usual transactional partners of mobile phone calling cards and services, money remittance services and the church.

For all the drink we consume, there was no Heineken nor Coca Cola, no blue chip companies nor banks, there were such humongous speakers but no Philips and for all the trainers we wear no Nike, Adidas, sportswear firm, fashion outlet or whatever else of note.

Basically, we are demographic well represented in those high street shops buying those things but not one to be considered for free sponsorship – it is probably indicative of how the “community” has not matured into a pressure group with clout that demands to be noticed, respected and catered to.

This also meant the setting was completely cash-based, no mobile cash dispensers or card reading facilities for electronic payments.

Tribes, clans and nations

Walking around the park, the layout on paper belies the fact that most stalls were not prefabricated spaces but slum-like hutches all seemingly held up solidly but could be blown over if the fox really had a good huff at it.

The place was alive, people made do with what they have and showed up to celebrated, the crowd was global in representation and decibels banged on decibels for the variety of music at play.

There were flags above stalls all around the place, the Surinam flag fluttered in the wind in many places, just as the Ghanaian, the Jamaican, the Zairean and even the Nigerian, in five different places.

Much as the festival was multicultural, the stall holders did not come as nations, they came as tribes and clans, Northern Niger was not represented, the Western Nigerians gave a Yoruba feel to their setup and there were two distinct clans from Eastern Nigeria.

All characters came out to play as the sun went down, the eccentric, the embarrassing, the entertaining and the nuisance, the funny and the downright outrageous; there was scope for much and a good police presence for a sense of safety and security.

Within these communities, I could not help but notice the powerful women who controlled the business in the stalls, where many of the male hands took their marching orders off the ladies, they, commendably are the backbone of many of these ethnic minority settings.

Settling down to the vibe

On a second loiter round the grounds there was a football tournament going on and for a split second I thought it was women’s soccer until I realised the chests were telling me something different from the amount of long braided hair on display, that is the way many men look nowadays, hours and hours at the hairdressers doing their hair. Phew!

We had food at the Zaire stand which belonged to an acquaintance of my friend’s lady, spicy spare ribs, fried plantain, fried rice and lots of salad – it was quite filling.

We then returned to the big Nigerian gathering where I was not too sure that the music was that representative apart from the fact that Nigerians were the performers, the language at times was parental advisory rather than just advisory and we were regaled with the provocative dancing of a rather well dressed lady of a certain age.

Everyone was doing what that dear Motown dance coach warned performers not to do, wiggling backsides in jerking motions that could call for radical hip replacement surgery, I was not ready to do my back in as I nodded my head at times and shook my shoulders a bit, the fanfare was exhilarating.

There would be Kwakoe again

The damning part for me was that in 9 years of living in Amsterdam my not being an ethnic minority community person meant I literally knew none of the people out there, whether that is a good or bad thing – well who knows?

I think I would do Kwakoe again, we left when it seemed the party was about to start and that was just gone 8 o’ clock, my friends insisted in getting me back home, it was a beautiful setting and wonderful evening of taste, colour and noise.


[1] Kwakoe Summer Festival - I amsterdam

Kwakoe Festival 2009 The official site in Dutch

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