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Contagious chic: Why Aso-Ebi rules Nigerian celebrations

Singer Banky W in a group photograph with friends and other guests who all appeared in the same aso ebi during his wedding
Singer Banky W in a group photograph with friends and other guests who all appeared in the same aso ebi during his wedding

This month, August, on the 25th, leading Yoruba musician of the Fuji genre, Abass Akande Obesere, will be performing at the Lagos Television premises, Alausa, Ikeja. The gate fee is N2,500. But it’s actually the fee to purchase the Ankara fabric that will pass as the compulsory must-wear uniform to usher in any social enthusiast wishing to party with Obesere.

At Lagos Television/Radio Lagos, an Aso-Ebi is also being sold for the annual Amititi day (an annual event that attracts different musicians in). Ankara, the Aso-Ebi is the gate fee and is being sold for N4,000. There is no gift attached to the Ankara but there will be food and entertainment.

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In the Southwest, that’s how elevated the Aso-Ebi has become, from being the material chosen by a celebrant for family members and close friends to don at his/her social event, to assuming the status of a gate fee at musical shows, and perhaps even beyond.

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Aso-Ebi has lost its regional innocence, and gone are the days when only the Yoruba people were known for uniform dressing at social engagements and parties. Now, the three major tribes and virtually every other have been bitten by the Aso-Ebi bug. In March 2018, when Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje’s daughter, Fatimah, was being married to Idris, son of former Oyo State governor, Abiola Ajimobi, family members, friends and well-wishers of both families who attended the ceremony were all glowing in their Aso-Ebi.

The Aso-Ebi ‘mentality’ has become a fad that’s here to stay. From weddings to birthdays, funeral rites, child-naming ceremonies, association meetings and annual festivals to even graduation ceremonies, wearing Aso-Ebi has become a necessity that has even cut-across language, religious, and ethnic barriers. In fact, the fad has so been embraced that the other day, when a top political leader was being released from prison, his supporters turned out in large numbers in an ankara Aso-Ebi to celebrate his freedom.

While it appears Aso-Ebi may be trending now, it all actually started many years ago. A Nigerian economic historian, Ayodele Olukoju, believes Aso-Ebi became a novelty in 1920 during a period of post-World War I economic boom triggered by higher prices for produce like oil palm.

An American folklorist, anthropologist and museum director, William R. Bascom (1912-1981) traced the origin to an earlier period when members of Yoruba age grades wore uniform materials to mark fraternal bonds.

In the 1950s, members of women organizations turned out at ceremonies and anniversaries of relatives in the same material and style of wrapper, smock, and even jewellery, to signify a culture of close friendship. Aso-Ebi could be a symbol of rivalry among various groups, with families, associations and social clubs competing to outshine one another in terms of affluence and originality.

With the oil boom in Nigeria from the 1970s, wealthy Yoruba families began to replace Ankara with imported lace fabrics as Aso-Ebi, which again increased demand for handcrafted traditional dresses such as Agbada, a big flowing gown, leading to a resurgence of tailors specialized in making native attires.

What is the Aso-Ebi phenomenon really all about? Firstly, it is a Yoruba term which means ‘family outfit’. Other sources describe it as a uniform dress that is traditionally worn in Nigeria and some West African cultures as an indicator of cooperation and solidarity during ceremonies and festive periods.

The main purpose of wearing Aso-Ebi in social occasions is to serve as self-identification with agemates, relatives or friends. When the phenomenon started, it was merely a uniform dressing by members of the same family during a ceremony. However, the practice has gone beyond family dressing alone because guests of a celebrant also now don Aso-Ebi to express their solidarity.

Although the Aso-Ebi ‘contagion’ has not been without its major criticism that it’s an ostentatious aspect of celebration, it’s been rubbing off on the economic gains of dealers of imported and local textile materials. These dealers have been benefiting extensively from the boom in demand for fabrics for use by hundreds of guests at once. Some textile dealers offer consultation services and bulk rates for the choice and cost of fabrics.

Women from the eastern part of Nigeria in beautiful aso ebi to add a spark to the occasion
Women from the eastern part of Nigeria in beautiful aso ebi to add a spark to the occasion

Also benefiting from the culture are tailors, or fashion designers if you like, many of whom have been smiling to banks virtually every week sewing Aso-Ebi for partygoers.

A Lagos-based business woman, Madam Safiat Adewunmi, explained the different types of Aso-Ebi and the rationale behind the selection of a fabric for an occasion. According to her, choosing Ankara for an occasion does not necessarily state the status or class of the celebrant. Fabrics used for Aso-Ebi depend largely on the type of party, she said.

While Ankara is the most commonly-used fabric when paying the last respects during a burial, lace, on the other hand, is usually chosen for weddings, birthdays and naming ceremonies and child dedications. Adewunmi explained that some celebrants deliberately postpone their party dates so they can make the event elaborate, while enabling the family members as well as their guests the financial ability to afford the Aso-Ebi.

Aside lace and Ankara, other expensive textiles like Aso-Oke, damask and others, are all used for Aso-Ebi. At many occasions, the Yoruba Egba (Abeokuta) people, choose their local kampala and adire tie-and-dye fabrics as their Aso-Ebi.

In the eastern part of the country, it used to be mostly the case that only the core family members wore the Aso-Ebi at occasions, and the fabric was almost always the one nicknamed George.

In the North, the Aso-Ebi culture is also gaining ground, boosted by increasing inter-tribal social occasions, especially weddings. A typical example is the traditional wedding of the Ganduje-Ajimobi children. Being a big wedding where governors were involved, one would have expected the guests to turn out in lace, Guinea brocade or other very expensive fabrics. But many were amazed when they showed up in colourful Ankara fabrics.

But the narrative has been rewritten and one can now observe celebrants, friends and all donned the same material, many times Ankara, at their social occasions. For those in the upper class, the Ankara is likely the expensive Hollandais material, topped with matching headgear.

In the North, the Aso-Ebi culture is also gaining ground, boosted by increasing inter-tribal social occasions, especially weddings
In the North, the Aso-Ebi culture is also gaining ground, boosted by increasing inter-tribal social occasions, especially weddings

It is pertinent to mention that though the choice of an Ankara for a social occasion may immediately draw thoughts of cheap material, not all Ankara fabrics come with low prices. Alhaja Fatia Oluwole, a dealer of fabrics at Balogun, Lagos Island, disclosed that she has for sale Ankara fabrics of N2,500 for five yards, just as she sells some for N40,000 for the same bundle.

One of the criticisms against Aso-Ebi fad is that some people who partake in it overreach themselves in their spending sense. A teacher in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, Mrs Khadijat Bakare, expressed her knowledge that not all those who participate in buying Aso-Ebi have the financial wherewithal to do so. Rather, she said, many people end up borrowing just to “feel among”. She narrated how a male parent was always owing his children’s school fees in the school she worked, while he was always spending exorbitantly on Aso-Ebi for social occasions.

Mrs Bakare noted that among the Yoruba, many people buy Aso-Ebi for every occasion, including their children’s apprenticeship graduation and walimat (ceremony for completion of the Qur’an). Most times, she said, Ankara was mostly the chosen fabric. She spoke of her own direct experience: “I belong to a family that each time we are having any wedding, we don’t buy Aso-Ebi  that is less than N25,000  (lace, to be precise)  and head gear not cheaper than N2500. We distribute as gifts items like umbrellas, big plastic bowls and tin milk. Another family may buy a not-too-expensive lace or Ankara as Aso-Ebi and distribute small buckets or bowls.”

A banker in Lagos, Mrs Taiye Alao said, “When my sister was getting married, we distributed as Aso-Ebi  for purchase lace and gele (head gear) worth N10,000. We gave out a tin of Milo as souvenir. The souvenirs given at social parties for those who bought Aso-Ebi  can be anything from beverages, soap, vegetable oil, plastic buckets, mop stick and slippers to mugs.”

Mrs Alao added that some people purposely throw social parties and sell Aso-Ebi at high prices to generate money for themselves.

Madam Adewunmi said the price of every Aso-Ebi celebrants give out to be bought must be topped. Some celebrants, she added, can be greedy, increasing the price of an Aso-Ebi by 100 per cent. “A cloth worth only N5,000 can be given out for N10,000,” she said.

Adewunmi also spoke on Aso-Ebi as gate fee. “People can’t just gate-crash at such parties because there will be bouncers at the gate. There was a party I wanted to go but couldn’t. An access card came along with the Aso-Ebi. There is a big hotel where the party took place and without the access card, no entry to the venue. The cloth was sold to guests for N35,000. Such a gesture will reduce crowd and only the proposed number of guests will be seen at the party,” she said.

At Aso-Ebi social occasions, there is almost always preferential treatment for guests decked out in the chosen material. “Whoever comes to the party without buying the Aso-Ebi from me won’t be treated like those who bought from me. In fact, if someone buys a six-yard cloth and shares it with another person, the souvenir they will get will be different from that of someone who sews and wears the whole six yards,” Alhaja Oluwole said.

Aso-Ebi has lost its regional innocence, and gone are the days when only the Yoruba people were known for uniform dressing at social engagements and parties
Aso-Ebi has lost its regional innocence, and gone are the days when only the Yoruba people were known for uniform dressing at social engagements and parties

Madam Adewunmi disclosed she sometimes buy different Aso-Ebi four times in a month. “It depends on the people you know and what they are doing. We buy every week because here, people can’t do without celebrating something. There are various reasons people buy Aso-Ebi, whether they have the money for it or they will borrow. If Mr A has done a party and Mrs B buys the cloth, then once it’s the turn of Mrs B, Mr A must also buy whether he has money at that time or not, just to pay back the favour. And some merely buy just to feel among.”

A Nigerian based in New Jersey, in the U.S, Mrs Kofoworola Tijani, told our reporter that the Aso-Ebi bug has eaten deep into Nigerians in America. She said: “The ankara craze in America is even getting worse than it is in Nigeria. Even your fellow Nigerians there don’t accept you into their social occasions if you don’t buy their Aso-Ebi. The Aso-Ebi goes strictly with the invitation card. There is hardly a party done now in the US by Nigerians now that the celebrant doesn’t select an Aso-Ebi. A friend of mine whose father died in March has gone to Nigeria to select the Ankara for Aso-Ebi she wants people to wear for the burial party. She told me the six-yard Ankara is $100. People go to Nigeria to bring into the US all forms of fabrics for their ceremonies. And the colours you hear now are something else. There is Moi-Moi Yellow, Curry Yellow, Fuschia Pink, Turquoise Blue, Agbalumo Amber, and all sorts. In the US, there is even the Dollar-Green colour of Aso-Ebi.”

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