Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dinagyang Festival

Last weekend was a great weekend for me. Festival season has started in the Philippines and the Dinagyang festival is the biggest in Iloilo and one of the most famous in the country. Naturally I was quite excited for it, but this time even more so because Ida, who I'd met in Coron, was flying out to visit for 4 days.
This is a big festival and a big deal for the people around here I guess (even though most of the Filipinos I work with skipped all of it) and had technically started the weekend before, thus running for about 10 days. The only part I saw and the most important is of course on the final weekend.
So, last Friday after class I ran off to the airport to pick up Ida and we proceeded directly to SM City (the big mall) where there was a stage and food court area set up outside in the parking lot. I didn't care much about those festivities as about the firework competition to follow. Seriously, has a better form of entertainment ever been invented? I could watch fireworks all night long every night. Friday and Saturday night they had a competition with 10 teams each night shooting off a short display to a single song thus lasting about 3-4 minutes each and the whole thing lasts close to an hour. Perfect. I know we have the firework competition back home but they have fireworks here for every holiday and event. I love it.
On Saturday we spent pretty much the whole day out in the city centre enjoying the festivities. I don't know that even now I have a proper appreciation of the scale Dinagyang takes place on. They close off a huge portion of the city to traffic. The food festival area covers several blocks around the malls in the centre and the parade route winds its way around a huge circle of the core too. You think of a parade somewhere and you think of a big line down one street with a start and finish. These parades were more of a carousel style. There are 4 official staging areas where the different groups of parading performers do their dramatic dance performances before official judges and paying spectators set up in mini grandstands. They then march between these stages past the masses and do small street dancing and drumming demonstrations as well. I only even saw 2 of the staging areas so don't know the total amount of area blocked off, calculating that it was 4 blocks wide in places and 10 long in others, it was huge (but no, not actually 40 blocks). Since neither Ida or I are locals and we weren't sure of the timing of events we had a lot of luck in somehow showing up right when things were starting and finding the perfect viewing places (it helps when you can easily see over everyone, haha). Not that it wasn't busy because it was.
On Saturday morning the first parade was a group of "tribes" from different municipalities around the state doing a dance performance to tell a traditional story about their area I guess. The groups were usually high school students (some even younger) and used a lot of different costumes, drums and other props. Common themes were of fishing, the harvest and the arrival of Christianity. Some of them were really good and I quite enjoyed watching it for a few hours. We were actually across the street from the first staging area so saw the back of the performers as well as all the chaos at the back with the props and people hurriedly changing between dance sets. Not sure how long each lasted but it was definitely more than just a couple minutes.
In the afternoon they had the sponsors parade a normal parade put on by the local companies with people marching with banners and simple costumes. Still entertaining enough if you like parades and the best part was seeing the hundreds of motorcycles all driving together. Saturday night we watched the final 10 competing firework displays.
The main attraction of the whole festival by far though occurs on Sunday morning. It is the Ati portion of it all and represents the main theme of the whole festival concept because the festival itself is about the history of the island/Philippines and the original Ati tribes here as well as a celebration of Santo Nino (the baby Jesus child?). Some quick background then: The Atis are the original inhabitants of the Philippine islands. They look African, having curly hair and black skin. How they got here I don't know but they still exist though are the bottom of the ladder out here. The only ones I've seen are the beggars in the city though apparently they live in the mountains too. Sadly, they have nothing to do with the festival and do not participate in any way. Most modern Filipinos are related to the Malays and so the story goes that when the Malays first arrived on the islands the Atis willingly sold them the land. (I'm sure it was a little more complicated than that.) Much much later the Spaniards arrived and brought the Roman Catholic church, which is still the dominant religion here today. There are other festivals at this time around the country that also celebrate the Atis this story but again, this one is one of the more important and has been celebrated in some form for a few decades now.
So somehow they've managed to combine the 2 events together and you have "tribes" of dancers dressed in great costumes and with their skin painted black dancing to drums while holding little statues of Santo Nino. In look and feel sometimes if comes across as even more African than Africa and while the drummers must all be totally deaf after playing through such noise all day, it sounds great and is lots of fun to watch. Many people just adopt a tribe and follow behind it all day doing their own dances.
I've added a video below of one of the 16 groups going past doing their street performance for the crowd.

This is the grand performance, and while there is still the food and a few other things going on for the remainder of the day, when the tribes were done we were done and went home exhausted but content.


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