Sunday, August 23, 2015

Baile, Baler! Aurora Capital Celebrates Coco-Sabutan Festival

Dancers from the Baler Central School enliven the street
August is an important month for Baler, the capital of the province of Aurora, 232 kilometers northeast of Manila. This is because there are three significant occasions that the townspeople celebrate—the feast of its patron saint, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa or Saint Louis of Toulouse, who died on August 19, 1297; the birth anniversary of Manuel Luis Quezon, president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines from 1935 to 1944, which also falls on August 19; and the founding of the town, whose exact date is not ascertained but usually celebrated with the fiesta.
These are the important components of Baler’s Coco-Sabutan Festival, which was conceptualized in 2001, keeping up with the flourishing of festivals in the Philippines to promote tourism, to commemorate important events and to just celebrate. 
Baler’s festival revolves about its two most important products—the coconut and the sabutan or the thatch screwpine (Pandanus sabotan Blanco or Pandanus tectorius Parkinson ex Du Roi).
Being in southern Luzon, Aurora is abundant in coconut trees like its neighboring provinces such as Quezon, Batangas and Laguna. The coconut is still a very important crop, and 2,631.6 hectares, out of the town’s total land area of 9,255 hectares, are planted with coconuts. On the other hand, Baler takes pride in its sabutan, whose leaves are traditionally woven into mats and hats. Recently sabutan leaves have been fashioned into different items such as coin purses, bags, table runners, slippers, etc. Sheets of woven sabutan are even made into gowns to highlight this indigenous product and the many ways to innovate with it. Neighboring town San Luis is also known for sabutan crafts and holds the Sabutan Festival every late August.
Baler’s Coco-Sabutan Festival is usually held from August 13 to 19 with an array of events including a drum and lyre band competition, a women’s beauty pageant, a trade fair, and a talent competition. This year, the festival, according to Baler mayor Nelianto “Pilot” Bihasa, aimed to strengthen the town’s tourism industry, promote environmental awareness and honor God, encapsulated in the theme “Sulong Baler: Turismo ay Palakasin, Kalikasan Pagyamanin, Diyos ay Purihin” (Forward, Baler: Strengthen Tourism, Enrich the Environment, Praise God).
A prelude to the festival was a surfing competition. For many people outside Baler, the town is about surfing, which is concentrated at Sabang Beach. Baler claims to be the birthplace of surfing in the Philippines. When Francis Ford Coppola’s famous 1979 Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now was partly filmed in Baler, the actors and crew went surfing, inspiring the locals to take on the sport after they departed and left behind their surfboards.
Surfing has spurred tourism in Baler, and tourism is further boosted, many locals believe, by Kris Aquino’s featuring of the town and its premiere resort Costa Pacifica in her show Kris TV in January 2014. A tour guide related how, after the episode was shown, the town was deluged by visitors, testing Baler’s ability to manage tourism. Baler has since learned from the sudden influx and is still learning, step by step, to accommodate tourists efficiently. The surging of accommodation, souvenir shops and restaurants in Baler indicate a positive future in tourism.
Still developing, the Coco-Sabutan Festival can be a major means of attracting tourists. While mostly intended for Balerianos, the festival has a variety of events that can attract different people.  
In the last festival, surfing enthusiasts had a field day at the Baler 406: First Baler Surf Fest, held from August 6 to 7 at the famous tourist strip of Sabang Beach. In the junior division, Clifford Banania emerged as champion with Neil Sanchez as first runner-up, John Kaizer Aguila second runner-up, and Kahea Namoro third runner-up. Meanwhile, in the men’s open division, Jefferson dela Torre surged to championship, trailed by first runner-up Smith dela Torre, second runner-up Wilson Faraon and third runner-up Robinson Dela Torre.
Other sporting events included a fun run, a cycling competition, an open fishing competition, a skateboard contest and the Palaro ng Lahi.
These “modern” components were scheduled side-by-side traditional fiesta features such as the sayawang bayan or town dance, where officials and senior citizens of the town’s 13 barangays were given a venue to dance and socialize, and the making of welcome arches.
The welcome arch has been a ubiquitous piece of decoration during fiestas along with buntings, which has been slowly vanishing. Reviving this festive decoration, Baler holds a competition for the best arches. This year, private companies, civic organizations, barangays and government agencies were grouped to form 14 teams to make 14 arches, using recycled items and indigenous materials, and depicting this year’s festival theme. The arches were arrayed along Quezon Avenue, the town’s main thoroughfare, infusing the town proper with a festive air. The group that included the municipal tourism office, declared champion of the competition, made an arch which was a composite of the iconic tourist attractions of the town. The arch itself was also a bridge, inspired by the Tibag-Sabang Hanging Footbridge in Zabali.
The beauty pageant remains to be a highlight in many Philippine fiestas and festivals, and Baler takes its beauty pageant seriously with townspeople filling Sentro Baler to the brim on Aug. 17, the coronation night of the Binibining Baler. The barangay of Sabang’s bet Winnie Rojo was crowned winner, while Cyrhill Renn Querijero of Barangay 3 was first runner-up and April Adrienne Querijero of Barangay 4 second runner-up.
There have been several shows for the entertainment of people. The amateur singing contest Tuklas Talino, a band competition and a variety show amused audiences on several festival nights. More interesting were the cultural ones such as the “Balintanaw: Tanghalang Kultura” which presented an excerpt of the komedya de Baler, a dying folk theater tradition depicting the conflict between Christians and Moros.
A glimpse of the town’s past was afforded by the exhibit “Baler, Noon at Ngayon,” which opened on Aug. 15 at the Museo de Baler, one of the best museums in Central Luzon. Mounted by an association of old families in Baler, the exhibit showed old photographs of Baler juxtaposed with photographs of present-day Baler, allowing viewers to see the many changes many parts of the town underwent.
Additionally, there was a quiz bee on history and an on-the-spot painting contest for students.
As always, the street dancing competition remains to be the most spectacular aspect of a festival. The Coco-Sabutan Festival street dancing parade went through the main streets of the town proper and participated in by students.
Clad in flaming red costume with woven sabutan accents and tiger grass plumes, the dancers of Baler Central School was declared champion in the elementary school category for the second year, beating A.V. Mijares Elementary School, Setan Elementary School, Calabuanan Elementary School, Reserva Elementary School and Obligacion Elementary School.
In the high school category, the energetic Carmen T. Valenzuela Integrated School group rose above the groups from Mariano L. Sindac Integrated School, Aurora National High School, Calabuanan National High School and Baler Institute.
The following day at dawn, August 19, a couple of school bands and the tolling of the bell enlivened the still dark town proper. The statue of the boy bishop Saint Louis of Toulouse was paraded in a solemn procession led by the parish priest and several altar boys. Parishioners held lit candles, walked and prayed the rosary until the first light of day bloomed from Baler Bay.
After the mass, a wreath-laying ceremony at the Manuel Quezon monument at the Quezon Park was led by the Free and Accepted Masons of the Philippines, followed by a celebratory parade and a commemorative program at the town plaza by the municipal government. Fireworks concluded a day of commemoration and a week of celebration.    

Decorative arches along Quezon Street


The street dancing competition on August 18

Binibining Baler coronation night at Sentro Baler

Perya at Sentro Baler
Sayawang Bayan at the municipal plaza

On-the-spot painting contest

Hats made of sabutan

Procession for the patron saint