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London's vibrant Nigerian hall parties

“The blandness of a hall adorned with nothing but chipped magnolia Dulux paint would be transformed by a sensory explosion.”

Words by Jumi Akinfenwa


Jumi Akinfenwa is a London-based music supervisor and award-winning journalist, who has contributed to publications such as The Guardian, VICE and gal-dem.


To some, Nigerian culture is now a seemingly ubiquitous part of the mainstream. Artists such as Burna Boy and Wizkid are headlining stadium shows, and the nation’s World Cup kit in 2018 was a must have item for die-hard supporters and fair weather fans alike. But Nigeria is a melting pot of many different tribes and cultures and there are some aspects that are seemingly still underground. As a child, it wasn’t out of the ordinary to find yourself scrambling on the floor to pick up $1 bills from the floor of a community centre. Not distinct to Nigerian culture alone and traditionally reserved for weddings or a major celebration, the practice of “spraying” is symbolic of good fortune for the celebrant. It’s just one feature of a hall party, an essential facet of Nigerian life in the UK.


While festivities in a church hall or sports centre aren’t reserved to the Nigerian community alone, the hall party is a much broader concept and there are often some slight disparities by ethnic groups. Not confined to the capital, hall parties have taken place amongst different Nigerian communities in the UK. For example, Igbo House, an imposing gothic red-brick building in Liverpool’s Toxteth area, though now in a state of disrepair, has been the hub for those from the Igbo community within the city since 1987. (The Igbo Community Association Liverpool has been in operation as far back as 1935, making it one of the oldest African community organisations in the country.) The 1980s saw an influx of highly skilled Nigerians emigrate to the UK in the wake of an oil boom, which in turn created opportunities to not only gather but also celebrate cultures that might not be as widely visible back home. “They served as a good meeting point and also a soft landing for people who were just coming over [from Nigeria],” says DJ Blox, moniker of London-based business owner and DJ Kanene Diobi. Not always characterised by a specific celebration, though usually a birthday, wedding or christening, the blandness of a hall adorned with nothing but chipped magnolia Dulux paint would be transformed by a sensory explosion. The spiced tomato base of jollof rice, the fragrant puff puff (a dessert similar to a doughnut). The hypnotic tones of the talking drum underpinned by the sound of laughter and gisting. The vibrant colours of aso ebi (loosely translates to “family cloth” in Yoruba). 


The highly visual nature of the traditional Nigerian hall party was documented brilliantly by BAFTA-winning film & TV producer, Tobi Kyeremateng, in her short documentary film for Netflix - ÓWÀMBÈ. The Yoruba word roughly translates to “it is there”, and refers to a grandiose party, filled with music and merriment. The film stemmed from an essay that she wrote within the book Black Joy, where she recounted her childhood memories attending hall parties. “I think they were multifunctional,” she says of the parties, equating them to a third space outside of work or school and church. “Outside of celebrating, it was a place to commune, to meet people, and in some cases to find love and build friendships.” 


As part of the film, Tobi spoke with relatives, peers and other creatives within the UK’s Nigerian community, including Yinka Odukoya, co-founder of Faaji Sundays, a day party event that models itself off the hall party tradition after she noticed that there were fewer being thrown for a younger demographic. “I feel like Faaji Sundays allows you to not forget where you came from. Our culture, our heritage, our music, our food,” she says. “The only thing that differs from a traditional hall party is all my events are not in a hall.” It’s unapologetically Nigerian in a country where we’re encouraged to assimilate or where our customs might seem alien to others. “[People] can show the richness of their culture at these parties. Whereas when they're going to work Monday to Friday, they can't do that.”


An essential part of any good hall party is the music. The more milestone based occasions might feature a full band, but even without live music, the track selections always offered up a slice of home. “In the early days, you’d infuse some Nigerian high life and a bit of old school pop,” DJ Blox starts. “But things progressed on, probably in the early 2000s when a new sound started coming out of Africa, which is what we now call afrobeats.” Distinct from the genre of afrobeat pioneered by artists such as Fela Kuti, this new genre borrowed largely from US music styles, sandwiching Pidgin English between hip-hop beats and heavily synthesised melodies. “Most times you probably hear Afrobeats 75% of the time,” he continues. “It's something to identify with, people are there and listening to their own sounds and connecting with it.”


As time has progressed, the traditional hall party is changing. Switching to virtual parties during lockdown in 2020, DJ Blox still continues his cyber shindigs now that the world has opened up again but recognises how much of an impact that the pandemic had on hall parties. “The lockdown was a big disruptor to everything, including our social lives,” he says. “The gigs on Instagram. I mean, that was an innovative way of maintaining that big community spirit, that meeting point.” Due to the pandemic, community centre closures, increased cost of living but also conversely, the social and economic mobility of those who have been settled in the UK for several decades now, the traditional hall party as we know it is becoming less commonplace.


For a generation of young Nigerians in the UK, the hall party seems to be less of a prerequisite in order to gather with their family and peers. “A lot of us were born and raised in this country. We know how the system works. We know how to get things. Whereas our parents, they didn't have that opportunity,” Yinka suggests. “In terms of social media, everybody wants things that are aesthetically pleasing, that look perfect, cool and trendy. Whereas, back in the day, there was none of that.” For Tobi, even if the spaces are dwindling, the key is to keep telling the stories. “I hope it doesn't die, I hope any kind of documentation of it keeps the memory alive enough for people to be able to pick it up.” 

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