Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The 2013 T’nalak Festival: South Cotabato Weaves Dreams and Identities into Reality

Street dancing participants from the town of T’boli paraded through the main streets of Koronadal City

The halo-halo, placed inside the shell of a young coconut, perked us up, dispelling late afternoon sleepiness after about an hour’s drive from the airport in General Santos City, the commercial hub of southwest Mindanao, to Koronadal City.
The first thing we did in the capital of South Cotabato was to have refreshments at Mang Johnny Halo-Halo sa Buko. The halo-halo, the Filipino dessert of preserved fruits, roots and beans with pinipig, crushed ice and evaporated milk, is popular here, placed inside the buko with strips of young coconut meat. There was an accompanying ball-shaped, fried pastry binangkal, studded with sesame seeds, something brought from Cebu. Chewy, it reminded me of day-old donuts. The restaurant, a rustic affair along the National Highway in the barangay of Saravia, also sells langkawas sinamak, coconut sap vinegar generously spiced with chilis and galangal, looking like sukang pinakurat of Iligan City and also of Cebuano origin with the langkawas giving it a Minadanao flavor; boneless bagoong, a legacy most likely of the Ilocano settlers; and dayok, a curious condiment of tuna intestines in vinegar.
My first night in Koronadal City was laced with the scent of rain and exotic marang at The Farm at Carpenter Hill, a sprawling resort with gardens, ponds, a plush restaurant and the most luxurious accommodations one can find in the province. Four kilometres away, a portion of Alunan Avenue at the city proper was throbbing with street parties and festivities. There were different stations, each with a stage, featuring musical acts to cater to different tastes—rock, acoustic, pop—as well as drinking and food. This temporary night strip was part of the week-long celebration of the T’nalak Festival, then on its fourth day. We were invited to drop by, but the rain did not subside and we had to leave early for the planned tour of Allah Valley, which included the picturesque town of Lake Sebu, where many T’boli live, some still retaining their traditional ways including the weaving of the t’nalak.  We would return to Koranadal City on the final and culminating day of the festival.

T’boli t’nalak weaver Lang Dulay, a Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan awardee, in her weaving center in Tuko Lefal, Lamdalag, Lake Sebu
            In the upland town of Lake Sebu in the southwest part of the province of South Cotabato, we met Lang Dulay, best known of the t’nalak weavers, hailed for her craftsmanship that she was bestowed the Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan, literally “creator of the nation award,” or the National Living Treasure award, the highest recognition by the Philippine national government to outstanding folk/traditional artists and craftsmen. 
            About 700 meters above sea level in the Daguma mountain range, Lake Sebu is South Cotabato’s tourism capital with its nippy weather, sites of interest and unique indigenous culture. Sebu, the lake, is the most prominent feature, dreamily blanketed in haze in the early morning, where residents raise tilapia, said to be the most delicious kind in the country. Several resorts nestle on its shores, but it is the T’boli culture that many come to see. Lake Sebu is one of the two South Cotabato towns with sizable indigenous T’boli population. The experience of Lake Sebu is not complete without a visit to Lang Dulay.
            About 30 minutes from the town center is the sitio of Tuko Lefal in the barangay of Lamdalag, where Lang Dulay lives. We passed by the Santa Cruz Mission School, where students were rehearsing for the T’nalak Festival street dancing and showdown competition. Also a site of interest for tourists, the Catholic school, which was established in 1961 to cater to the indigenous peoples in the area, has been influential in the preservation and promotion of T’boli culture.   
            Electrification has not reached Tuko Lefal, where most of the residents are T’boli. One of the larger structures here is the weaving center of Lang Dulay. The lower part of the house serves as a showroom, displaying products including beadworks. Tarpaulin posters tell something about the master weaver. The upper storey, mostly made of bamboo and patterned after the traditional T’boli abode with raised portions for sleeping and other activities, houses several looms with weaving in different stages of completion. This is where Lang Dulay teaches the age-old craft to the women of the community. Through the years, those interested in learning how to weave has become fewer and fewer, putting t’nalak weaving in danger of vanishing. Lang Dulay is said to be 89 years old, weak and unable now to weave, but she is still passionate about teaching the craft. She can also climb the stairs, which many visitors have a little difficulty tackling, and sit in the middle of the room, like a queen, to greet visitors and answer their questions. A translator is needed for she can also speak T’boli. The guide or one of her grandchildren usually acts as translator. She is respectfully called “bae” or “bey,” meaning “grandmother” or “old woman.”
            The day we visited her we found her already waiting for us, sitting on her chair in the middle of the room in the soft light of dusk. Dressed in a malong and a black blouse with generous and colorful cross-stitching, she was surrounded by her daughter-in-laws, grandchildren and students. The second wife of a T’boli man, Bey Lang Dulay has only two sons. Since t’nalak weaving is reserved only for women, she can only passed on the craft to her son’s several wives (The T’boli practice polygamy), female grandchildren and interested students. Bey Lang Dulay learned to weave from her mother and started weaving at the age of 12.
Hanging and arrayed behind her were several pieces of t’nalak cloth bearing her designs, a beautiful backdrop of vibrant patterns and designs that seem to pulsate. One can see the craftsmanship that sets her creations apart from the ones being sold at souvenir shops. And they are more expensive. A meter or so costs from P700 to P1,000, while others cost about P200 to P300.     
            Though unable now to weave, Bey Lang Dulay instructs the able weavers on her designs, which, like in all t’nalak cloth, are bestowed in dreams by Fu Dalu, the spirit of the abaca. T’boli weavers are often called “dream weavers.”

            The weaving process is a tedious one, which puts off many girls. It starts with extracting the fibers from the abaca tree of the right age. When the fibers are ready, they are set taut on a bed for the mebed, the tying of portions of the threads to form the pattern before being dyed. Sometimes beeswax is applied on the tied portions to further prevent the dye from getting into them. Here, one can already make out the outline of the design. A short prayer to Fu Dalu is uttered. Then the fibers, as fine as hair, are soaked into a steaming pot of black dye, extracted from the kanalum tree. For the red color, the roots of the loko tree are used. The t’nalak basically has three colors: black, red and beige, the natural color of the abaca fiber.
            Then the weaving begins using the back-strap loom with the weaver’s weight providing tension to the threads. It can be taxing to the back, as well as the eyes. Weaving is usually done in the early morning or in late afternoon, when the fibers, sensitive to temperature, are less brittle. In between, women help out in the farm and do household chores. The newly woven cloth is then burnished with the use of a large cowrie shell. The whole weaving process usually lasts from two to four months and during that time, sex is forbidden for the weaver. One is advised not to step across a loom with the abaca threads lest one gets sick. The t’nalak cloth is considered sacred by the T’boli and was oftentimes used as a dowry.
The t’nalak design is one-of-its-kind like artwork. And like artwork, it can have titles or names like “Bubbles Rising” and “Rice Stalks in the Wind,” two of Bey Lang Dulay’s work. As we pointed at the pieces of cloth, the women recited what the designs were—a brahminy kite, wings of the Philippines eagle, wavy patterns on the sand, pineapple leaves, a Kalagan woman, etc.—gifts from the spirit of abaca.
            As the dark crept into the room, we said farewell to the august weaver.  There was soft rain outside. It usually rains in the afternoons here in Lake Sebu. The visitors, touched and impressed, bought bolts of precious t’nalak and trooped out. Bey Lang Dulay sat still among the dark and looms. Later, she may have dreamt of another t’nalak design in the cool tranquility of Lake Sebu, mostly likely oblivious to the noise and merriment in Koronadal City, 40 kilometers away in the Cotabato Valley.

Participant from Lake Sebu showed the T’boli practice of demsu in their dance
 The T’nalak Festival actually is not about the traditional T’boli hand-woven cloth. You will not readily find a profusion of t’nalak fabric or T’boli women weaving it. In the weeklong celebration, which started on July 11 and concluded on July 18, we saw instead many other things; many had become de rigueur in many festivals all over the country.
This year, the T’nalak Festival featured motorcades and parades, a motocross competition, a tricycle design competition, a fun run, a cheer dance competition, a job fair, a pop music competition, a beauty pageant, a job fair, hip-hop and ballroom dances competitions, and even a dog show. The agricultural fair along Judge Alba Street near the provincial capitol building was lush with ornamental plants. On another street there was a tiangge of ukay-ukay clothing. More interesting was the Bahay Kubo Showcase and Competition, where several municipalities set up their versions of the native hut to showcase their products. The kubo of the town of Tupi was easily the most attractive, with a wall that simulated rain falling through the windows, but was excluded from the competition, being in the Hall of Fame after winning for three consecutive years. The spacious kubo of Tantangan, which featured its terracotta products among others, was judged the first-prize winner, while Banga the second and Norala third. We found the kubo of Lake Sebu, which also featured a waterfall, live tilapia for sale and T’boli trinkets and t’nalak.
The t’nalak is taken more as a unique symbol for the province, promoting further this cultural item to become perhaps the most known among T’boli crafts. We are weaving our dreams and aspirations for South Cotabato, said its newly installed and returning governor Daisy Avance-Fuentes.
            The festival, which has been held for 14 years now, is actually in celebration of the founding of the province on July 18. South Cotabato was declared an independent province in 1966, separated from the province of Cotabato through Republic Act No. 4849. 

Street dancing contingent from the town of Tupi depicts B’laan culture and legend during the showdown of the 14th T’nalak Festival in Koronadal City
             The t’nalak was chosen as symbol of the province and the festival to represent the “three cultures” of the province— the indigenous groups, the Muslim Maguindanaoan and the Christian settlers—all woven into one multi-colored tapestry.  They are fond of saying “tri-people” or “tri-cultures” to refer to the people of South Cotabato.
            The indigenous groups, regarded as the earliest settlers of the area, comprise about 20 percent of the province’s 827,200 population and include the T’boli, the B’laan and the Obo Monobo. There are about 120,000 T’bolis in the Philippines, most of them in South Cotabato and some in the province of Sarangani, once part of South Cotabato until 1992. The next settlers are the Muslim group, particularly Maguindanaoans, which presently comprises about four percent of the population. Most of the Maguindanaoans are in the province of Maguindanao, north of South Cotabato.
            In 1913, the area was opened by the national government for homesteading. Christian settlers came in from Luzon and the Visayas, majority of which were the Hiligaynons from Panay and Negros islands, who settled mostly in Norala, Banga, Surallah, Santo Niño and Koronadal, and Ilocanos from northern Luzon. About 8,300 families were resettled by the National Land Settlement Agency from February 1939 to October 1950. Now, the province is predominantly Hiligaynon, more than half of the population. There is also a significant Cebuano population, about 14 percent, mostly found in Polomolok, while the Ilocanos form five percent of the population. I met someone with the same surname as mine, who traces her roots in Pangasinan, my father’s home province.  
The “tri-people” or “tri-cultures” of South Cotabato found representation in the T’nalak Festival’s highlight, the grand parade and street dancing showdown, on July 18. There were three categories in this showy competition—the Madal Be’lan, which requires depiction of the indigenous cultures; the Kadsagayan A Lalan, which represents the Muslim Maguindanaoan culture; and the Kasadyahan sa Kapatagan, which displays the cultures of the Christian lowlanders. 

Group from T’boli depicted Maguindaoan courtship practice during the showdown
T’boli group in Maguindaoan-inspired costumes for the Kadsagayan a Lalan category
             Starting at seven in the morning, the street dancing participants in gaudy costumes paraded through the main streets of Koronadal City ending at the South Cotabato Sports Complex for the showdown, cheered by the people and judged by the country’s leading artists and cultural workers.
Through pageantry, we were told stories and legends, seen images of ethnic groups as filtered or romanticized by another, as well as glimpsed mergings of different cultures.
This year’s Madal Be’lan category champion, the students of the Lemsnolon Elementary School of T’boli, clad in t’nalak vests and malongs, danced the T’boli legend of Desawo, a barangay of the town. The legend tells of women disappearing near the spring, but people thought they had eloped with their men. After farm work, townsfolk washed themselves at the spring and found malongs being washed away, some months or even years old.  They heard a women screaming and saw a huge snake. Warriors rushed to the big cave where the giant snake lived. With spears, they hunted down the snake and killed it.  It was an enthralling watch, the giant snake with skin of t’nalak coming out of the cave. A big celebration followed. The terror had ended but lives in the name of the village, Desawo, meaning “big snake.”
            The Santa Cruz Mission School of Lake Sebu was a runner-up this year together with the Tupi National High School of Tupi. The Lake Sebu group gave a more “sedate” performance compared to its competitors. Its “Demsu be Lemlunay” depicted the T’boli demsu ritual, which honors and gives thanks to the spirits of forest, water and earth, performed before sowing and after harvest.  The performance opened with a meton bu or shaman and eight libon bo-i or sisters asking the spirits for good harvest.  It proceeded to show different facets of T’boli life—warriors defending their community, hunters going after game, fishers catching fish and the community planting and harvesting rice. People again performed the demsu culminating into the festivity called helobung.  
On the other hand, the Tupi contingent, spectacular with crafty props showing macaques, boars and birds, depicted B’laan culture beginning with their creation myth—the supreme god Maleh breathing into a banana tree and creating the first man and woman. The goddess of water Fon Eel, the goddess of plants Fon Kayo and the goddess of animals Fon Agaf were shown to be happy about this. The couple grew into a family then into a community, happy and grateful to the gods. However, the people abused the environment resulting into natural disasters. Having suffered, the people asked for forgiveness through the to almaes, a shaman, and offered food to the gods. Their prayers were answered and they celebrated.  

Kasadyahan sa Kapatagan category champion San Vicente National High School of Banga celebrated the kasalang bayan or mass wedding and the sacredness of the family  
             In the Kasadyahan sa Kapatagan category, the San Vicente National High School of Banga emerged as champion. Theirs was a relatively unusual presentation—a bevy of girls in weddings gowns prancing on the streets. The central themes of the performance were the kasalang bayan or mass wedding, one of the most conspicuous Catholic rituals, and the sacredness of the family.   
First runner-up Tupi National High School Dance Ensemble focused on the pineapple, which is widely cultivated in the municipality of Tupi. The dancers related how the plant was brought in by the Spaniards and is now being propagated.
The T’boli National High School, the second runner-up, showed how settlers cultivated the land with banana, rice and corn; mined it for its gold; and thanked God for the rich resources and heritage. The farming life was also celebrated by another contingent, the Tampakan National High School.

A show of T’boli culture by the Santa Cruz Mission School of Lake Sebu
            The Kadsagayan a Lalan proved to be most visually scintillating—the pinks, aquas and purples of the costumes assuming an eye-catching sheen. The stories and rituals portrayed enriched the mind.
The victorious Edwards National High School of T’boli captured hearts with their story that exemplified the Maguindanaoan courtship dance kabpendulong and courtship practice dulong. A prince fell in love with a princess, their dance told. He waited for a chance to capture her with a malong. In Maguindanaon tradition, when a man is able to catch a woman with a malong, she belongs to him and is obliged to marry him even against her will. When the prince caught the princess with the malong, he danced the kabpendulong. The families of the princess and the prince were invited by the elders to reach an agreement. There was a kuyog a damak, the parade of foods. The kandulong was highlighted by pageantry, the lema-lema.

Contingent from Tantangan

             The Hamungaway Performing Arts group of the Panay National High School of the municipality of Santo Niño, the first runner-up, presented a dance drama, inspired by a Maguindanao tudtol or folk tale called “Antig at Tarabusaw.” The story followed the poor hunchback Antig, who was in love with a princess. He offered flowers to an enchanted tree and hoped for a miracle. When the princess appeared, Antig offered her flowers but was driven away. The tarabusaw, a giant monster, emerged from a cave, terrorizing the village and kidnapping the princess. Antig and the warriors went after the tarabusaw but failed to recapture the princess. The fairies of the enchanted tree, the bidadari, having heard Antig’s patient pleas, transformed Antig into a prince. With new strength, Antig was able to defeat the tarabusaw and save the princess. They were joyfully welcomed back by the villagers.

Surallah’s Purok Sison Elementary School clinched the second runner-up place with the retelling of the legend of the Tinidtiban Mountain of North Cotabato. The story began with Prince Dumaraya and his beautiful sister Princess Ulak Pagayanen, who ruled the island of Tunaw a Bulawan. The princess had many suitors but she turned them away. One of the irate suitors, a datu, created a whirlwind, which blew away the princess. She landed in the kingdom of Lumbayanagi. Prince Agial of Lumbayanagi fell in love with Princess Ulak Pagayanen upon seeing her. She transformed herself into a child to get away from the prince but the he saw through the illusion. The prince’s parents learned about his feelings and were against it. Because of this, the prince ended his own life. When Princess Ulak Pagayanen attended the mourning, she was requested by the queen to bring his son back to life. The princess set off to heaven to ask God to resurrect Prince Agial. She was given a magic egg. When the prince was about to be buried, the princess arrived and was able to bring him back to life with the magic egg. The princess returned home and found Tunaw a Bulawan terrorized by a horse possessed by an evil spirit. Prince Agial followed the princess on a big boat but had difficulty tackling a narrow passageway at the foot of a mountain on the way to Tunaw a Bulawan. With his mighty sword, he hacked off a portion of the mountain. In Tunaw a Bulawan, he was able to defeat the evil horse and was welcomed by Prince Dumaraya. Prince Agial and Princess Ulak Pagayanen were wed and peace reigned between the two kingdoms, and the mountain where Agial passed by was called Tinidtiban.

A princess also figured prominently in a story told by the Christian School of Polomolok. In this one, her newborn child was kidnapped by a former suitor and was successfully brought back. Banga’s San Vicente Elementary School also told a love story. A prince turned down a woman, who happened to be a tarabusaw from under the sea. In her anger, she kidnapped the beloved princess of the prince. The prince went after the tarabusaw and saved the princess.  On the other hand, Tantangan’s Intang Maguindanaoan Dance Troupe told the story of a village and extolled the importance of peace and unity, things many provinces in the Philippines aspire for, including South Cotabato. 
Though there were conflicts in the past, the province strives to achieve unity while celebrating its diversity. This interweaving of cultures and the dream of harmony they find symbolization in the mystical t’nalak. Another thing can also represent South Cotabato and its festival—the refreshing halo-halo, a mix of different and colorful peoples in a land as rich as milk and sugar.

The eye-catching bahay kubo of Tupi, a perennial winner, at the city proper showcased their products

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