Friday, September 21, 2007

Singkaban Fiesta 2007: Harvesting the Meanings of Bamboo in Bulacan

This year I got to know the real meaning of singkaban. It is not just the acronym of Bulacan’s festival. It is actually the decorative arch that adorns the entrance to a barangay or town where a fiesta or any grand celebration is held. After a long time, I heard the Tagalog term gayak, meaning “decoration” or “to decorate,” being used in ordinary conversation. I was amused. It has a literary and romantic ring to it. In Bulacan, the word seems to prop in everyday conversation together with modern colloquialism coming from the urban sprawl of Metro Manila, immediately to the province’s south.
Bulacan’s proximity to the capital affords it access to many conveniences but puts it in danger of being Manila’s extension. A transitional character between the urban and rural can seen in the landscape: buildings and houses sprout in one part and green paddies sprawl in another. Still, Bulacan remains to be a bastion of Tagalog culture and at the same time a crossroad of the traditional and the cosmopolitan, trying to reap the benefits of the old and the new.
This can be seen in the Singkaban Fiesta, the province’s main festival held in the second week of September. The festival actually started as a commemoration of the opening of the Malolos Congress in 1899. At that time, the revolutionary government led by Emilio Aguinaldo held a congress, after declaring independence from Spain, to draw up a constitution for the First Philippine Republic in the capital of Bulacan. The commemoration of this nationally important historical event was adopted by Bulacan more than decade ago as its main celebration, stretching it to weeklong and calling it Linggo ng Bulacan or Bulacan Week.
But it has no “commercial” appeal, said Armand Santa Ana, one of the founders of province’s successful community theater group who now heads the Provincial Youth, Sports, Employment, Arts and Culture Office. Thus, the Linggo ng Bulacan became the Singkaban Fiesta, keeping up with the country’s recent predilection for festivals and spectacles. The Singkaban Fiesta was originally a part of the Linggo ng Bulacan celebration in 1998, Santa Ana related. Then in 2005 the Linggo ng Bulacan itself became the Singkaban Fiesta, using the decorative arch as symbol. The singkaban is a festival icon, he said, and here the sight of which foments celebratory mood. But the new festival must take on a deeper meaning, thus singkaban came to mean “sining at kalinangan ng Bulacan” (art and heritage of Bulacan). Thus, the event aims to showcase the arts and culture, both traditional and modern, of the province. And being culturally rich and home to the most number of National Artists in the country, Bulacan has an ample trove to dig into.
Now, the Singkaban Fiesta is a series of motley events. Aside from cultural shows and exhibits, there are trade fairs, beauty pageants, civic activities of different persuasions, sports events and popular entertainment, strewn along the week which culminates on the last day, September 15, with the commemoration of the Malolos Congress, usually by way of reenactment; a float parade; and a street dancing competition, now a de-rigeuer affair of any Philippine festival. Sometimes, a special event is mounted usually to emphasize the theme, which varies year by year.
This year, 2007, the Singkaban Fiesta revolved around the bamboo, plumbing both its physical attributes and uses and its metaphorical meanings. The newly-elected governor, Joselito Mendoza, younger brother of previous governor Josie dela Cruz, wants to promulgate the idea of the new Bulakenyo, whose traits are likened to those of the bamboo’s. The festival slogan read: Bagong Bulakenyo: maka-Diyos, makatao, makakalikasan, makabansa, mapagpamahal sa pamilya, malakas, hinubog ng panahon tulad ng kawayan.” (New Bulakenyo: godly, people-oriented, concerned with the environment, nationalistic, loving of family, strong, nurtured by the seasons like the bamboo).
It is a set of ideals many leaders of this country have frequently voiced out. The allusion to the bamboo itself has been frequently used on the Filipino, emphasizing the qualities of resilience, firmness and pliantness. The last one is ambiguous. It can mean an ability to weather any situation by going with the flow, a strength, but it can also mean lack of standing or steadfastness, a negative attribute. For the first-time governor, the ability to bend means humility.
To highlight this symbol, a little festival, mostly featuring the bamboo in its tangible form and palpable roles in the lives of people, was held in the middle of Singkaban, a festival within festival. The Kawayan Festival had an exhibition of bamboo crafts, games with bamboo-made implements and a performance using bamboo-made instruments. In this, bamboo is seen in old and new light, and used in both old and new, sometimes crafty, ways. During the event, bamboo shoots were planted along the banks of Guiguinto River, Angat River and Calumpit River, a manifestation of environmental concern.
The bamboo is an abundant grass in the country and most likely in Bulacan that one of its towns is called Meycauayan, meaning “where bamboo grows,” which is now becoming an urban spillover of neighboring Metro Manila. Hopefully, the bamboo shoots that were planted would flourish to neutralize the incoming tide of urbanization, being enduring images of the bucolic and the rural.
The Kawayan Festival gathered the relatively few bamboo-related industries and crafts of the province. Bulacan’s more known major industries include marble and marbleized limestone, jewelry, pyrotechnics, leather craft, aquaculture, meat and meat products, garments, furniture, traditional crops and native sweets. Bamboo is a marginal or emerging industry here unlike in other provinces like Ilocos Sur, Pangasinan, Abra, Iloilo, Mindoro Oriental, Camarines Sur, Bohol, Pangasinan, Cagayan and Bataan, which have pronounced ones.
My Bulacan bamboo experience was ushered in by a band playing bamboo instruments. Bamboo has been traditionally used in fashioning musical instruments by several ethnic groups in the Philippines, usually taking the form of a flute or a percussion instrument. A more innovative use of the bamboo in making a Western instrument is seen in the famous Bamboo Organ, now housed in the church of Las Pinas. The Pangkat Kawayan of Pulilan took it a little further.
In a special performance for us in front of Pulilan municipal hall, several members of the Pangkat Kawayan donned their red floral shirts and salakots (conical hats) and played a few numbers using their instruments made of bamboo. Pieces of bamboo were shaped and cemented together to form trumpets, bassoons, basses and clarinets.
The age range of the members widely—from 74-year-old leader Teofilo Magat to the eleven-year-old clarinet player. The music was curious, sometimes sounding comical or circus-y. In contrast, the tone of Teofilo Magat, popularly called Mang Ato, was serious when speaking about the band. He is the only living one of the founders of the band, which is based in the barangay of Paltao. Mang Ato was a soldier in the Philippine Army, where he learned to play music. When he retired, he formed this band, fashioning the instruments himself. Frequently they performed for the patron saint during Pulilan’s fiesta. Soon they were being invited to perform in different functions around and beyond Bulacan. Presently, the band has about thirty members, including some of Mang Ato’s sons and grandsons.
Mang Ato hoped that his band will carry on after he dies and thanked God that he is able to live this long. Mostly likely, he is favored because of his continuous musical offering to the patron saint and his show of creativity.
In the adjacent town of Plaridel, the bamboo is put into more “mundane” use. Businesswoman Bella delos Santos oversees her workers and tries out new designs for her nascent bamboo craft business in her home in the barangay of Bintog. Her Bulacan Bamboo Crafts, now under the management of her daughter, is perhaps Bulacan’s only major bamboo craft business, and Delos Santos stumbled upon it by accident.
Having formally trained in food and nutrition, Delos Santos’s first and real business is bottling sardines and processing milkfish. Since 1985, she has been distributing El Negrense bottled sardines and milkfish products. During one of those trade fairs, she fashioned holders made of bamboo for her bottled sardines for exhibition. However, more people took a fancy on the holders, wanting to purchase them and ordering for more.
On August 2005, without any training on making bamboo products, she tried out the bamboo business. For inspiration, she would look around shops for household items and try to render them using bamboo. She and her workers design the items themselves. Fortunately, her six workers, farm wormers coming from Bago City in Negros, are adept in working with bamboo. Meanwhile, her fish processing business is put on hold because there is a problem in the supply of the fishes.
She is now beefing up her catalogue of bamboo products, which include towel holders, letter holders, vases, trays, frames and religious decorations, wine holders and candle holders. The religious and decorative items are popular, especially with the balikbayans, she said. These products, framed to hang and stand-alone as knickknacks, have figures made of volcanic ash which Delos Santos purchased from Pampanga, and she would have them set in bamboo frames or pedestals. She gets her supply of bamboo from all over Bulacan, particularly from Santa Maria, Norzagaray and Bocaue, and beyond.
She held to us a new product one of her workers just created: a tray with a set of candle holders. It adds beautifully to her line of trays and vases, which are accented with colored abaca ropes. Nearby, there was a diminutive set of tables and chairs. They are now going into larger products. The chair looked so small that it could have been a child’s toy but it is sturdy enough to support an adult.
Right now, she exports about 4,000 barbecue sticks to Italy monthly and is still testing the market here. She said she is not going full throttle yet and has not invested heavily in it. When she does, she hopes to enjoin her community in this venture.
In another part of Plaridel, one sees little huts of bamboo and coconut leaves for sale along the road. These are the ones that have been popularly used in beer joints, Filipino-themed restaurants, low-end resorts and home gardens.
In the barangay of Agnaya, twenty-three-year-old Marlyn Cayabyab said her family is into making bamboo huts and other bamboo products as long as she remembers. Her father Dionisio makes and supervises the production of the huts, while her mother Edubiges makes papag (bamboo cots) and chairs. Marlyn designs the huts. She pointed out the flower designs made of colored strips of bamboo on the sides of the huts.
There were a few huts lined along the road. The ordinary hut, with a floor area of six feet by six feet, costs P15,000, while the larger one, called de-kuwarto, or “with room”, and measuring six feet by twelve feet, costs P22,000. At the end of the line of huts was their shop, a ramshackle affair, where in and around workers cut and strip pieces of bamboo. Most of their supply of bamboo comes from Pangasinan, their home province. The Cayabyab family hails from San Carlos, which has a thriving bamboo industry. Marlyn said that most of the families making these huts are from Pangasinan. She had no idea why they found themselves in Bulacan. They were looking for opportunities, she guessed.
The most traditional and perhaps the oldest use of bamboo in Bulacan is in making singkaban. The acknowledged master of this folk craft is 83-year-old Francisco Eligio, popularly called Mang Kiko. His decorative arches adorned the entrances to the capitol grounds and the fa├žade of the capitol building during the festival. All made from bamboo, the arches were amazingly ornate and dainty-looking, almost like embroidered lace. Pillars of bamboo sprouted plumes and embellished with bamboo flowers, each “petal” having flourishes. Around the structure, fans of bamboo strips sieved the sunlight, casting delicate and intricate shadows.
Mang Kiko’s arches have adorned many fiesta-celebrating towns in Bulacan as well as in other parts of the country. The actor-politician Bong Revilla and actress Lani Mercado ordered arches from him for their prominent wedding. His works have also been brought abroad whenever a Philippine delegation is sent to international expositions, exhibits and celebrations.
Aside from arches, he also makes sukobs or canopies for Santacruzans and floats for parades. Of recent, he makes Christmas lanterns and Christmas trees, all from bamboo and all with the trademark bulakaykays. The bulakaykay is the flourish or flowerlike set of plumes made from shaving the outer skin of the bamboo. Mang Kiko swore that his bulakaylays are delicate and pliant, setting him apart from other singkaban makers.
He learned the craft from his father Tata Polo, also a known singkaban maker. But it was not until he was forty-year-old and after stints as carpenter that he went into singkaban making full-time. Now, in his home in Santa Monica in the southwestern town of Hagonoy, he and a few workers make singkaban and different items. Some shave off a bamboo pole to make bulakaykay. Others work on making bamboo flowers. Mang Kiko does all the designing, rendering them first on paper, especially for newer items. The Christmas tree he designed with a set of bamboo flowers, bristling with plumes and diminishing in side. These are stuck into a pole until they form the familiar conoidal shape of a Christmas three. Now, he was making a design that will adorn a gown. We saw his drawing, a gown with a large collar made of his familiar bamboo plumes. Now, his age-old craft is being molded for modern ventures.
Here, it seems that the oldest craft prove to be the most beautiful, but is in danger of disappearing. Here, the bamboo is used in new and old ways, and used to symbolized new things like the new Bulakenyo. I wondered if there is really something new to the list of traits of the new Bulakenyo and if the old one does not possess them. I wondered about the old Bulakenyo, and thought that many old ways are still wonderful like the singkaban itself.

Contact Information
Mang Kiko Singkaban and Buntings Maker is at 228, Purok 6, Santa Monica, Hagonoy, Bulacan, with mobile phone number 0906-40087701.
Bulacan Bamboo Craft is at 266 General Alejo Santos Road, Bintog, Plaridel, Bulacan, with telefax number (44) 795-3398, mobile phone number 0928-4676180 and email address
The Bulacan provincial government offices are at the Provincial Capitol Compound, Malolos City, Bulacan, with telephone trunk line number +63 (44) 791-1604. The Provincial Youth, Sports, Employment, Arts and Culture Office can be contacted through telephone number +63 (44) 662-8558. The Provincial Public Affairs Office can be contacted through telephone number +63 (44) 791-5140 and email address Log on to Bulacan’s official Web site at

Published in The Daily Tribune, Sept. 24, 2007, page 12.


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