For all its occasional tackiness, ostentation, artifice, theatrics, commercialism and loose interpretations, a festival is a considerable summation of a place with its display of folklore, livelihood, history, character, aspirations and identity. With the recent Buglasan Festival, the province of Negros Oriental, the Cebuano-speaking half of Negros Island at the heart of the Visayan archipelago, presented a moving panorama of itself via dance, costumes, songs, tableaux and mock rituals in a grand showdown from several of its towns and cities.
The cavernous Lamberto Macias Sports Center in the capital Dumaguete City burst with colors and pulsated with energy as dancers converged for the Festival of Festival Showdown on October 23, 2009. The event later spilled on to the streets including the famed Rizal Boulevard, which is flanked by a strip of bars, restaurants, hotels and remnants of old mansions on one side and a street lamp-lined promenade overlooking Tanon Strait on the other.
We gawked at the spectacle from the bleachers in the sports center, entertained by the brisk movements, crafty costumes and the stories they tell. Later, from the terrace of the old Perdices house, we gazed at the jubilant images of towns we’ve visited or longed to visit as floats in the form of icons of each towns, carrying their “kings and queens,” trailed behind groups of dancers—a papier-mache volcano of Canlaon City, the caves of Mabinay complete with indigenous Atis drinking tuba, the chocolate pot of Tanjay City. The stories were told during the showdown, participated in by Negros Oriental’s 13 towns and cities—Santa Catalina with its Pakol Festival, Canlaon City with Pasayaw Festival, Zamboaguita with Baulan Festival, Dauin with Kinaiyahan Festival, Dumaguete City with Sandurot Festival, Bayawan City with Tawo-Tawo Festival, Jimalalud with Hambabalud Festival, Tanjay City with Bodbod Festival, Bindoy with Libod Sayaw sa Bindoy, Bais City with Sipong Festival, Sibulan with Gapnop Festival, Mabinay with Langob Festival and Bacong with Sinulog de San Miguel.
Santa Catalina made a rousing start with dynamically choreographed dancing with the dancers, mostly high-school students, swayed, jumped and ran, carrying bunches of bananas, the town’s most important crop, to enact the Pakol Festival, which it celebrates every April 25 in honor of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Choreographed by Widmark Alanano, the dance enacted a common town scene—bananas being harvested, brought to the tabu-an or makeshift marketplace, and sold or bartered in a practice called tag-ilis. As a comic interlude, children dressed as monkeys tried to steal the bananas. The dance concluded in a thanksgiving to the saint for the good harvest of bananas or pakol, saying that “the devotees celebrate their prosperity and well-being, believing that in the heart of the lowly pakol their lives are alleviated [sic] and their faith strengthened.”
The cultivation of cut flowers and vegetables was the focus of the dance, choreographed by Stalen Gabuan, for the Pasayaw Festival of Canlaon City, the northernmost local government unit of Negros Oriental. The dancers traipsed across the ground carrying large replicas of calla lilies and vegetables in a dance that celebrated the fertility of the land because of Mount Canlaon and told the folklore on the origin of the volcano—the ill-fated romance between the warrior Kan and the princess Laon. The name of the festival, which is celebrated every July 1, the city’s Charter Day, is a contraction of “pasalamat diha sa mga sayaw,” a thanksgiving through dance, which is an important purpose of many festivals in the country.
Many contingents showed grandiosity and gimmickry such as Zamboanguita, a coastal town south of Dumaguete City. Aside from the dancers carrying big replicas of corn, there was a humongous corn wheeled in, revealing children dressed as grasshoppers gnawing at the kernels upon peeling of the husk. Men fetched the “pesky” kids from the corn with bamboo poles, to the amusement of the audience. Not only that, the float was fashioned into a convincing likeness of a giant grasshopper for the parade. The dance, choreographed by Ryan Garcia, aimed to relay the meaning of Zamboanguita’s Baulan Festival, the name meaning “field” and celebrated every May 12, which implies the people’s transformation from being hunter-gatherers to cultivators of the land, with the corn being the main crop and the grasshoppers or locusts one of the problems of farming life. The show was able to incorporate the Polka Biana, Zamboanguita’s unique dance, as a tribute to the town’s culture.
Dauin, very near Dumaguete and where many resorts cluster, presented a melange of superstition, environmentalism and religious faith in a dance for the Kinaiyahan Festival. The dance, choreographed by Angelo Sayson and Ronilo Jaynar, told of townspeople cutting down the galawin or dalakit trees which “they believed were the refuge of supernatural creatures and were therefore cursed.” As a consequence, their town and farms were flooded when strong rains came. A dawinde or elf suddenly appeared from a galawin and offered seedlings for the people to plant. The seedlings they planted grew into forests, and they realized the importance of caring for the environment. The dance also showed the people’s devotion to their patron saint, Nicholas of Tolentino, whose feast day on September 10 is the origin of the festival.
Another patron saint, Catherine of Alexandria, was the featured in Dumaguete City’s Sandurot Festival, held every November 22, in the dance, choreographed by Ariel Distrito, relating the social history of the city, the different people coming together, and the role of the saint, who protected the city in times of danger. A gigantic image of Saint Catherine was the highlight of the show.
Choreographed by Arlan Entac, the number from Bayawan City for its Tawo-Tawo Festival, celebrated every February 17 before the feast day of its patron saint Thomas of Villanueva, condensed the history of the town—the life of the early settlers, the Bukidnons, and the coming of the Spaniards—with emphasis on farming, showing how birds were pests to their crops and the tawo-tawo or scarecrow, said to be “an indigenous device…perceived as representative of the guardian spirits of the rice fields to protect their crops.” The festival dance, they explained, “revisits the defining moment from hostility to assimilation, from simple rice production to celebration. It breathes life into the central character of the rice fields: the palay, the tawo-tawo, the maya birds, the farmer with his wife who play roles as protagonists in the age-old struggle for survival between man and nature.” Simple made dramatic, indeed.
The town of Jimalalud presented a medley of its culture. The Hambabalud Festival, celebrated every January 14, was originally the feast day for its patron the Holy Infant Jesus, and was named after the hambabalud trees, from which the town also derived its name. Basically, the festival is a form of thanksgiving, particularly, for saving the town from a destructive typhoon long time ago. This was re-enacted in the dance, which was made more colorful by incorporating cultural elements like the reciting of balak or poetry and the signing of balitaw and harana, native songs.
The contingent from Tanjay City presented images the city is known for or wants to project—as the province’s oldest settlement and first parish, as a “city of professionals” because of the large concentration of degree holders, a “city of musicians” and the native sweet called bodbod. The last became the focal image of its festival, the Bodbod Festival, held on December 15, and the dance, choreographed by Jaymar Salboro, had maidens dancing with bodbod.
Choreographed by Robert Enopia, Rico Valencia, Jovanie Ampil and Joel Eullaran, the show of Bindoy to represent their Libod-Sayaw sa Bindoy emphasized the importance of the coconut, a ubiquitous sight in the town and in most of the island. Actually the festival—whose name libod means “to move around” or “sway” and sayaw means “dance”—is to honor of their patron saint, Vincent Ferrer, every April 4 by dancing. It is said that the present form of the festival originated with Jesus Trumata, once the town’s parish priest, to “draw crowds and set a festive mood,” as well as preserve the “dance traditions that enrich Bindoy culture.”
Thanksgiving was also one of the main themes of the number from Bais City, choreographed by Glenn Vincent Torres. It was for their Sipong Festival, celebrated every September 7, inspired by sipong, a thanksgiving gathering. “The Baisnons traditionally celebrate their bountiful harvest with merrymaking…comprising a Holy Mass, dancing, a tabo, agri-fair and other post harvest activities,” they explained. Bais, like most of the towns of the country, is an agricultural city, and its main crop is sugarcane, covering 36 percent of the cultivated land.
Gapnod means “driftwood.” In the town of Sibulan, there is a popular local lore about a fisherman finding what he thought was useless driftwood. While the fishers of the town were having bountiful catches, one fisherman was having no luck since daybreak. By the afternoon, he caught something but turned out to be only driftwood, which he threw back to the sea. But he kept finding the same driftwood in his net. The puzzled fisherman called out to his fellow fishermen and examined the wood. An image was engraved on it. They took it to the priest, who said that it was the image of Saint Anthony of Padua. Now, Sibulan celebrates the Gapnop Festival to commemorate the founding of the image, and the story was dramatized in a dance choreographed by Archie Baconaje for the Buglasan Festival grand fete.
Held on January 25, the Langub Festival honors its patron saint, the Holy Infant, and promotes the caves, with which Mabinay is endowed and is famous for. One of the few landlocked and upland towns of the island, Mabinay is a backwater place whose charm lies in its rusticity and feel of adventure. Its Buglasan presentation choreographed by Wisley Magalso highlighted its trademark geologic attributes with a story of early cave dwellers clashing with new settlers and an environmentalist aim. “The new settlers, who were lovers of nature, made efforts to stop the cave dwellers from destroying the Mabinay environment. In time, the cave dwellers came to understand the good intentions of the new settlers, stopped hunting bats and birds, and began to care for all creatures and the environment,” they told.
Another form of thanksgiving, the Sinulog de San Miguel is celebrated by the town of Bacong. Its presentation showed a peacefully and abundant town being ravaged by disasters and pestilence under the rule of the fallen angel Lucifer and being saved by Saint Michael the Archangel.
These 13 delegations showed their arsenals of creativity and energy to impress the crowds and the showdown judges, mostly dance experts from Metro Manila, to win pride, prestige and the cash prize. In the end, Santa Catalina’s mesmerizing Pakol Festival presentation was declared the most impressive, the group taking home Php100,000 in cash, a trophy and the right to represent the province in Cebu’s Sinulog Festival, as it did in 2008.
The Tawo-Tawo Festival number of Bayawan City was placed second, while the Kinaiyahan Festival of Dauin was third. Special prizes went to Sipong Festival of Bais City for having the best in drum corps, which accompanied the dance; Baulan Festival of Zamboanguita for creating the best float—the amazing grasshopper!—with Libod Sayaw Festival of Bindoy and Hambabalud Festival of Jimalalud the second and third best, respectively; Zamboanguita again for the best identification arc, which preceded the dancing contingent during the parade, with the Langub Festival of Mabinay and the Pasayaw Festival of Canlaon City the second and third best, respectively.
As jubilant as the winners were the festival organizers, headed by provincial board member Mariant Villegas, who has been at the helm of the festival for several years now. People have been very participative this festival. In 2008, only five towns and cities deployed contingents for the showdown and parade.
The showdown and parade were two of the highlights of the 10-day festival that transpired in late October. The festival calendar was replete with events—parties; contests on cooking, singing, and dancing; sports activities; a congress; religious services; fairs; awarding and recognitions; and exhibits. The incorporation of traditional arts and entertainment—rondalla, kumparsa, balak, balitaw and harana—in the form of contests was commendable.
The fireworks display and competition over the Tanon Strait were spectacular, the varicolored sparks embellishing the night sky and being reflected on tenebrous waters. It drew sizable crowds to the city’s night strip. A band started playing while the oldest building of the Silliman University, a century old, which houses an ethnological museum, loomed in the background. On another side of the city, in the barangay of Piapi, the Sidlakang Negros Village was also abuzz.
Aside from the street dancing parade and the showdown, another staple of Philippine festivals is the fair/exhibit/expo, in which products are displayed and attractions promoted. In the past years, the Buglasan Festival organizers invited the provinces towns and cities to set up booths on the provincial capitol grounds. Through the years, the booths have become grander and more elaborate, some recreating their famous landmarks. The capitol grounds had virtually become a theme park of sorts. At the end of the festival, the booths had to be dismantled and it could be a heartbreaking occasion. Additionally, many people saw the activity as a waste of money as much had been spent in building the booths.
Thus the Sidlakang Negros Village, built and opened in 1988, was expanded to include permanent booths for all the province’s towns and cities. The village was designed to be one-stop showcase and shop of the province’s tourism, delicacies, arts and crafts. The main building houses the administrative offices, the office of the provincial tourism, a souvenir shop, a showroom featuring furniture and other products, a conference hall and a gallery.
The buildings were tastefully designed by Rene Armogenia, one of the province’s famous architects, who used to own and designed the Bahura Resort in Dauin and now operates the charming restaurant Azalea perched on a cliff in Cambaloctot, San Jose. He merged the rustic and industrial looks—an assemblage of unpainted cement walls, steel pipe banisters, glass panels, bamboo beams and grass roofs.
Behind the main building is an open-air auditorium of sharp geometric design, where the Festival King and Queen pageant was held and crowned. Beauty contests are another festival staple. In Buglasan Festival, the contestants, both male and female, are part of the major activities. They are featured in the dance showdown and they ride in the floats, representing the best of their towns and cities. On pageant night, they show their poise, beauty and alertness in answering questions. The 2009 Festival Queen and King crowns were both clinched by contestants from Bayawan. The Festival Queen first runner-up honor was won by Bais City and the third runner-up place by Dauin. The Festival King first runner-up title went to Santa Catalina and the third runner-up to Jimalalud.
Scattered on the one-hectare grounds were the booths of the different towns and cities. One was given to the province of Siquijor, which was formerly part of Negros Oriental. The province’s 25 towns displayed their wares and promoted their attractions. Tanjay’s house was virtually a cafeteria serving bodbod, which is their version of the suman or cylindrical rice cake, eaten with hot chocolate and slices of ripe mango. The Mabinay house exhibited photos of its many caves, the façade made to look like a cave entrance. One could arrange for a dolphin and whale watching excursion at the Bais house. There was no need to cross Tanon Strait to reach Siquijor for its amulets, talismans and even potions. They were all available at the Siquijor booth. Perhaps, there are no other permanent exposition grounds in the country of this scale and attractiveness. Although many of the booths are closed without an occasion, Sidlakang Negros Village is open year-round.
The Buglasan Festival is getting grander through the years, showing its aspiration to be at par with the festivals of their neighboring islands, which have garnered much attention, such as the Sinulog Festival of Cebu, the Ati-atihan Festival of Aklan, the Dinagyang Festival of Iloilo, the Masskara Festival of Negros Occidental.
The first three were borne out of tradition—feasts in honor of their patron, the Holy Infant Jesus—which has acquired the flamboyance of the Mardi Gras and Brazilian carnival, as the national government wants to draw visitors and created a tourist attraction. In the process, festivals have been made where there is no or little tradition on built on like the Masskara Festival. Likewise, the Buglasan Festival is of recent concoction. It started in 1981 as a contingent to the Folk Arts Festival convened by then First Lady Imelda Marcos. Organized by Foundation University and the Balikatan sa Kaunlaran-NCRFW Negros Oriental chapter, with support from the provincial government, five towns showcased their dances at the Folk Arts Theater in Manila—Siaton’s inagta, Zamboanguita’s Polka biana, Dauin’s kasal Kadauinonan, Tanjay’s sinulog and Manjuyod’s amamaranhig. Collectively, they named themselves Buglasan Festival, after buglas, the napier-like reeds that once covered Negros Island. Also, Buglas Insulis was the former name of the island, according to a1572 map attributed to encomendero Diego Lope Povedano, a member of the expedition of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. Legazpi’s men saw dark-skinned natives, which they called negro, on the island, which was eventually called Negros.
Eventually, the Buglasan Festival came under the management of the local government, culminating in the passing of an ordinance in 2002 designating the Buglasan as the province’s official festival. So every October, the usually laidback Dumaguete City, a known educational center, springs to life with a frenzy of activities. Negros Oriental claims the Buglasan Festival as the country’s first “festival of festivals,” a festival that gathers all other festivals. This proved to be true with the substantial participation of its towns and cities for the 2009 celebration. The provincial government with Negros Oriental governor Emilio Macias is always in full support as well as numerous national and local organizations and institutions. Hopefully, the crowds and the visitor influx will get bigger in the coming years, making the Buglasan Festival not just a window to the culture of Negros Oriental, but also a cherished tradition.