Yesterday, we took a short, one-hour trip to Grand Bassam (Côte d’Ivoire’s recently named UNESCO World Heritage Site) to participate in its iconic Abissa festival. We have been to Bassam many times, and its a city that has much to recommend it during normal times. However, during Abissa, this sleepy colonial capital takes on a life of its own, fills up with N’zima –who travel from near and far to participate in the celebrations– and multiplies to at least six times its normal population.
For those who have spent time in Louisiana, Brazil, or any one of the many nations that comprise the Caribbean, Grand Bassam’s Abissa celebrations would feel familiar –yet different and more authentic. As we all know, the festival known as “Carnival” around the world has its roots in Africa. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Grand Bassam’s week-long Abissa festival bears a striking resemblance to global Carnival celebrations.
The parallels between Carnival and Abissa are profound and ought not be reduced to dancing in the streets, wearing costumes, and letting loose. As with other Carnival celebrations across the globe, Abissa is the one time in the year when profound political and personal truths are aired in public. Due to customary restraints on communication between various segments of N’zima society, some of these truths may be veiled in the double entendre we all know and love in West Indian calypso music. However, these brazen statements –whether political or personal– are understood and tolerated by all because of Abissa.
Abissa is the pre-eminent festival in the N’zima calendar. It is a time of brutal honesty, renewal and forgiveness. It is a celebration of the ancient N’zima culture, history, royalty, and religion. It is also a time when the entire community comes together and lets loose, releasing the proverbial steam from the pressure cooker of life and politics in the modern age.
The week-long Abissa festival is powered by drummers, whose infectious beats drive its many dances and rituals. During Abissa, the beat of the cosmic drum releases the N’zima from their customary restraints and allows them to speak candidly to their leaders and to one another. Airing truths during Abissa allows the truth-tellers to forgive and those who have strayed from the proper path to be forgiven. It is a time of collective catharsis that leads to renewal and a spiritual re-birth of the entire community.
Abissa is magical and has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. I hope these photos wet your appetite to come and enjoy Abissa for yourself.