Sallah Durbar Festival in Kano, the magnificent celebration in Northern Nigeria

Back home after the Sallah Durbar Festival in Kano…

Ranka ya Dede! (May you live long!) shouts the people and the nobility as the emir passes through the streets of Kano during the Sallah Durbar Festival…

Nearly a week has passed since I returned home and the shouts of the crowd, the sounds of drums, kakakis and algaitas are still echoing in my head. Even in the distance I can still hear the galloping of decorated horses with riders drawing swords at a run.

When intense experiences are lived, it is easy to remember and therefore easy to write. From a quiet room in the centre of Madrid, I look back and immerse myself again in the chaos of the street parades, to walk day and night through the palace labyrinths following the trail of nobles, musicians and magicians.

Let’s start…

10 interesting facts about the Durbar Festival and the city of Kano

  • Did you know that Kano is the oldest city in West Africa, populated more than 1000 years ago by the Hausa people?
  • The Durbar in Kano is possibly the largest festive equestrian rally in the world.
  • The Durbar festivals are an event for men only. During the parade, we can see how in the Emir’s entourage there are decorated horses and dromedaries without riders, these are the ones belonging to the wives of the Emir and they parade on his representation.
  • The most repeated shout during the Durbar is “Ranka ya Dede” which means “May you live long” and is said to nobles and elders.
  • The clenched-fist salute common at the Durbar means “gratitude” and is called Jinjina.
  • Turbans or rawanis with one or two “ears” denote royal lineage, and purple or dark-coloured ones signify guards whose ancestors were slaves (we tell you in depth).
  • No one who is not invited by the Emir is allowed to parade in the Durbar and for some years now, for example, the “hyena men” have not been allowed to participate in the Durbar in Kano.
  • The exact dates of the Eid al-Fitr Durbar may vary up to even a day or two earlier depending on the moon.
  • Some instruments such as the kakakis (long trumpets) and the ‘drums’ carried on the backs of dromedaries played by the Yan Tambari can only be played in the presence of the Emir.
  • The horses can sometimes cost upwards of USD 10,000 to decorate, with decorations brought in from Morocco or Egypt.
Hausa culture
A tsatsiba (“magician man”) belonging to the Matsafa clan shows his talents at the Durbar.

Kano Durbar, the great festival of northern Nigeria

If Nigeria is often referred to as the “Giant of Africa”, due to its large population and large economy, the Sallah Durbar Festival in Kano could not be any other than magnificent. We travelled to northern Nigeria to attend this important festival during Eid al Fitr (end of Ramadan), also known as the ‘small’ Sallah Durbar, even though it is not small at all.

If you want to know more about one of the festivals that most impressed us, we invite you to continue reading this first article about the Nigerian Durbars.

Festival Durbar
Hawan Daushe Day

What is the Sallah Durbar Festival in Nigeria?

The Durbar Festival is also known in northern Nigeria as Hawan Sallah which means “the riding of horses during the Muslim festival of Eid” (Hawan means horse riding and Sallah from the Arabic word salat, meaning prayer).

Durbar of Kano

In short, the Durbar Festival in Kano (and other emirates) is a grand street procession where hundreds (or thousands) of decorated horses parade through the streets of the cities with the Emir for several days. These majestic parades also involve governors, district chiefs, noblemen, soldiers and policemen, magicians, acrobats, musicians and many other participants representing the highlights of Hausa society and culture who come to pay homage to the Amir.

Hawan Sallah

Origins of the Durbar in Nigeria

In ancient days, the Durbar festival was associated with loyalty in times of war. A procession of decorated horses, aristocrats and soldiers paraded in front of the Emir to show the readiness and loyalty of their regiments for war or battle. Today, the Durbar festivals of northern Nigeria are still rich and colourful events that are usually held to celebrate the important Islamic holidays, Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha.

Nigeria festivals
Lefidi, the Emir’s personal guard in ostrich-feathered dress

When and where is the Durbar Festival in Nigeria?

Two Durbar festivals are celebrated every year in the major emirates of northern and central Nigeria. Some of the most representative cities where we can find big Durbar festivals are: Kano (the biggest by far), Zaria, Sokoto, Illorin, Bida, Maiduguri or Dutse.

It is celebrated in connection with the Muslim festivals of Eid al-Fitr or the end of Ramadan (small Durbar) and 70 days later the Eid al-Adha or Feast of the Lamb (‘big Durbar’).

The great Durbar Festival in Kano

As we have already told you, Durbar festivals are held in many cities in northern Nigeria, but in this article we will focus on the biggest of them all: the Sallah Durbar Festival in Kano.

Durbar of Kano

We do not have official information but it is possible that during each Durbar parade in Kano more than half a million people gather in the streets, squares and esplanades of Kano. We are talking about Kano, the main city in the north of Nigeria, with an estimated population of about 5 million inhabitants.

Sallah Nigeria

Terms, words and expressions used in the Durbar

It is important to know some of the terms and words commonly used during Durbar celebrations, here are some of them:

The word “Hawan” and many other significant words during the Durbar

We will see how each of the Durbar Day celebrations begin with the term “Hawan”, for example Hawan Daushe or Hawan Nassawara. The word Hawan means “Riding / Mounting”, referring to the riding of the horse. It was first introduced by the emir Sarkin Kano Muhammadu Rumfa in the 14th century.

Other words we continually hear during the Durbar parades and celebrations are:

  • Eid: There are two types of “Eid”. One is the end of the month of Ramadan (Eid el Fitr) and the other (Eid al Adha), which marks the celebration of the sacrifice of the lamb.
  • Sallah: pray, traditional festival in northern Nigeria
  • Wasan: ceremony, game, performance.
  • Babban Daki: Queen Mother’s Palace
  • Yan Tauri: people with powers, someone whose knife can’t penetrate their skin
  • Sarki: King, boss, chief..
  • Kofar Fatalwa: Ghost door
  • Wasan Dawaki: horse racing
  • Rawani: turban
  • Jinjina: clenched fist salute

Days of celebrations during Sallah Durbar Festival in Kano

During the 5 days of the Sallah Durbar Festival in Kano or in other emirates of Nigeria, it is essential to have a good local guide (and we have the best), who will inform us of all the programme that takes place during the big Durbar parades but also of the ceremonies (Wasan) that take place in parallel and in other towns.

Focusing on the great Durbar in Kano, this is its main programming.

Hawan Idi, first day of Durbar (Ride to Ed’s prayer ground on Sallah day)

The first day of Durbar is identical in all the northern emirates of Nigeria and begins early with prayer. Hundreds of thousands of people gather on a large esplanade to join the emir and the various governors for the communal Ed prayer.

Eid al Fitr Nigeria
Prayer ground during Eid in Kano
Eid pray Nigeria
After the Eid prayer, crowds go to the streets to celebrate Hawan.

The Emir of Kano and hundreds of thousands of others pray the Eid (end of Ramadan). Once finished, the first of the spectacular parades begins. The Emir and his entourage, accompanied by musicians and other participants, accompany the Emir from the prayer ground to the royal palace.

Nigeria tours
Parade of Hawan Idi

After a short but very intense parade, the first horse racing and the emir’s first speech take place just outside the palace gates. Just before the emir’s arrival at the palace, the red-clad guards called Yan Bindinga (dang gun) welcome the Emir of Kano with gunpowder shotguns.

Durbar Nigeria

Crowds of jockeys and decorated horses, different types of royal guards, nobles, musicians, journalists, film-makers, spectators and a few tourists are privileged witnesses to the colourful and dusty horse races on the ground next to the mosque’s courtyard.

Travel to Nigeria
Horse racing on the first day of Durbar on the esplanade of the mosque
Emir Kano
Emir of Kano during the first Durbar speech

Here, each group taking part in the parade takes its assigned place before the Emir arrives last with his splendid retinue of guards and musicians. Groups of horsemen then gallop across the esplanade of the Great Mosque with swords drawn, passing the Emir and stopping to salute him.

Sallah Durbar Festival of Kano
Riders gallop across the square to greet the Emir
Durbar of Kano
Each group of Durbar participants invited by the Emir has its place in the square.

Hawan Daushe (oldest ride), Durbar Day 2

The Big Day!!

Hawan Daushe is in our opinion the best day of the Kano Durbar. It takes place in the afternoon and ends at sunset, which makes for great light.

Sallah Durbar Festival
Palace grounds during the Hawan Daushe of Kano

The Emir rides on a two-hour parade to visit his mother’s palace, if she is alive. As she is not, the Emir rides to receive gratitude from those attending the parade, and it is up to the Emir himself to choose the itinerary to follow that day. This parade is longer than the one on the first day.

Trips to Nigeria

The Emir and his entourage (including bodyguards) ride through a series of historic family quarters before returning to the palace through the Kofar Kudu gate for the Jahi (or Jafi), the horsemen’s salute. The Jahi (or Jafi) ride is the central event of the Durbar and the last item on the Hawan Daushe programme. Several horsemen from the emirate run at full speed towards the emir and stop abruptly. When they approach him, they wave their sword or flag in the air.

Durbar of Kano
Horse racing during Hawan Daushe
Sallah Kano
Emir of Kano during the Hawan Daushe

The palace guards, in their characteristic red dress, stand next to the Jahi and fire several shots into the air signalling the end of the Hawan Daushe Durbar. A huge celebration culminates in a general stasis after the shotgun blasts just as the sun sets.

Hawan Nassarawa (Victory Parade), Durbar Day 3

Hawan Nassarawa Day: i.e. a visit to Government House to express gratitude on behalf of the Emir. This tour arose out of colonial activities, but is still practised today. It takes place early in the morning when the Emir walks through the wide avenues of Kano, still sparsely attended, to the government palace.

As the morning progresses, parade participants and spectators join in at different points along the route. This third day of Durbar is very interesting for taking photographs and for getting into detail with certain groups participating in the Durbar, such as the Tauris.

Tauris Nigeria
Group of Tauris surrounding the Serkin Baka (leader)

On this day in Hawan Nassarawa it is possible to visit the interior of the Emir’s palace and other government palaces. In the Emir’s palace we discover a labyrinth of passages and beautiful squares where Hausa women of the Kutumbawa and Yan Amada clans play music on instruments made of pumpkins.

Sallah Durbar
Yan Amada women, one of the early Hausa clans, playing the water punpkin

Hawan Dorayi or Hawan Fanisau, (ride to Dorayi or Fanisau palace), fifth day of Durbar

If you have been reading carefully, you will have noticed that we have skipped the fourth day of the Sallah Durbar Festival in Kano. We have done this on purpose as the fourth day is a rest day for the participants.

The fifth and longest day, which lasts the whole day, is Hawan Dorayi or Hawan Fanisau: the Emir can decide which of the two daughters he visits in his palace. He can choose to visit his daughter’s palace in Dorayi or Fanisau. Dorayi is one of the Emir’s palaces built by Sarkin Kano Alhaji Abdullahi Bayero (1920-53). This Hawan Dorayi is usually the last parade of the Sallah Durbar Festival of Kano and starts before 8 am.

Rawanis, the language of the turbans of the Hausa people

Of course, the time has come to talk about turbans. One of the most striking aspects of the Durbar and Hausa culture is the turban.

The Rawani (turban in Hausa) is much more than a simple piece of clothing, it is a symbol of prestige and royalty for the Hausa people of northern Nigeria and Niger. Through them, depending on how it stands out at the top, its style, its length, its colours or the way it is carried, we can know to a large extent who the person wearing it is and what his or her position or social role is. Sometimes we can also find out which is the event in which he is participating.

Kano rawanis, three types of turbans

Undoubtedly the most eye-catching garment at the majestic Durbar parades are the rawanis or turbans. Let’s take a closer look at some of them, specifically the three main types of Hausa turban.

1. Rawani Mai Kunne Biyu, the royal turbant

This is the “two-eared” turban that can only be worn by princes of the royal family on their father’s side. It is said that this two-eared turban originated during the time of the Fulani kings. The crown surround signifies patience, and the two ears signify two lambs of the lillahi.

Rawani or “two-eared” turban (Rawani Mai Kunne Biyu)

2. Rawani Mai Kunne Daya (one-ear turban), nobleman’s turban

This is the one-ear turban, which is traditionally worn by members of the Hausa nobility or members of the royal family on the mother’s side.

One-ear turban “Rawani Mai Kunne Daya”.

3. Rawani Dunkufe, turban without ears

These are turbans that do not have “ears” and the wearers do not belong to the royal family or nobility. For example, the Rawani Dunkufe is worn by different types of royal guards. It can also be worn by elders or clerics. In this type of turban we could make a subdivision, because depending on the way it is worn or the colours it can explain aspects and roles of the person who wears it.

Durbar of Kano
Rawani Dunkufe earless turban

Dark colours, the turban of slaves’ descendants

Due to the large number of royal guards participating in the Durbar parade, the most common turban is the Rawani Dunkufe or turban without ears.

Yan Damara (royal guards) normally wear purple or black Rawani Dunkufe. This means that they are descendants of slaves. Of course, in a culture as complex as the Hausa, we can also differentiate styles and types of turban among them, which indicate different statuses.

Yan Damara (royal guards) with the dark Rawanis who indicate that they are descendants of slaves.

Other representative Rawanis of the Durbar

We could go on talking and writing about turbans, as it is a theme that gives us so much to talk about, but we will simply show you two other curious and representative examples:

The Rawani “Kasko” turban, which indicates that the wearer is a voluntary servant of the nobility. And the red Rawani “Kasko” turbans which are possibly the most numerous ones worn by the Yan Bindinga (palace guards).

Yan Damara, the royal guards of the Emirs

Hundreds and hundreds of royal guards parade alongside the Emir at the Sallah Durbar Festival in Kano. Common to all emirates, there are royal guards of many kinds and with many different roles. Without wishing to be exhaustive, here are a few curiosities.

Durbar parades are still performed according to tradition, so it is common for each nobleman riding on horseback to parade with his two trusted guards (Yan Damara), one on each side. The one parading on his left is called Sarkin Fada (king of the palace) and is his closest trusted guard. On his right is another Yan Damara called Shamaki, which means “in charge of the horses“. Of course, each nobleman has many more guards at his service.

In the next picture we see a member of the royal family performing the Jinjina, the clenched fist salute common at the Durbar which means “gratitude”. To his right we see a trusted Shamaki guard “in charge of the horses”.

African turbants
Royalty salutes with a clenched fist “jinjina”, on his right a guard “Shamaki”.

The Emir’s bodyguards

Of all the types of royal guards, the most striking are undoubtedly the Lifidi with their impressive ostrich-feather garments. These are the guards closest to the Emir.

Let’s talk about some of the most striking Hausa musical instruments of the Durbar.

The “Shantun busa” is a traditional Hausa flute that dates far back in history. This peculiar instrument, which can only be played in the presence of the Emir, is made from a pumpkin.

Shantun Busa
Musicians with the “Shantun busa” large pumpkin flute

Kano Durbar

Music instruments Hausa

Other traditional Hausa instruments found in Niger and Nigeria are the typical algaitas and kakakis (long trumpets).

Visit Nigeria’s Durbar Festival

If you want to travel to Nigeria and visit one of the most impressive festivals in Africa, do not hesitate to contact us through our email: or through our contact form on our website.

Nigeria is one of the most impressive destinations in Africa, if you want to know more about this country click here and we will show you other highlights of Nigeria.

Documentation: Ahmed Nasir (Kano, Nigeria) Documentary contribution: Stephen Mak (Hong Kong) / Austerio Alonso (Spain) Writing: Austerio Alonso Photography: Austerio Alonso and Morgan Hatch (US)

Special thanks to Ahmed Nasir, anthropologist and documentary researcher from Kano for sharing his professional passion and great knowledge of Hausa culture during our trip.

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