Every January, Kalibo in Philippines’ Aklan province honours the Santo Nino in a dramatic festival with roots in the country’s pre-colonial days.
Words: Beverly Rodrigues Photography: Adam Lee
Even before the crack of dawn, a cock began to crow, startling me awake in a pension (guesthouse) awash in Technicolor-tackiness. I was in Kalibo for its most important festival, the weeklong Ati-atihan and the fowl was telling me to get a move on. After all, it was 3.30am, and somewhere down the road, a procession was already underway with a throng of penitents praying the rosary as they walked through a town that had stirred long before that raucous rooster.
BATS AT DAWN
In front of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in the barangay (village) of Estancia, the multi-award winning tribal troupe, Kabog, was ‘soot-ing’ up for one of the festival’s highlights: The Ati-atihan contest in which troupes from different barangays compete for the honour of best costume and performance during an annual street festival.
Costumes were draped on the arms of the stone archangel guarding the chapel entrance, and Kabog troupe members – ranging from tykes and teenagers to grown men and women – were blackening their faces and bodies with a mixture of charcoal and water, and donning tribal dresses that seemed to glow in the dark.
Over a cup of steaming macaroni soup, troupe leader, Wilbur Enriquez, explained that Kabog had been inducted into the Ati-atihan hall of fame in 1987, under a different name – Amots. Having been barred from competing possibly due to its repeated wins – 15 wins in 25 years – Amots rebranded itself. So far, Kabog has won 10 times in its 25-year run, and this year, the Amots/Kabog troupe turns 50!
I was told that the word kabog has many meanings, among them, ‘bat’ in the Aklanon dialect. The association with this nocturnal creature was clearly reflected in Kabog’s stunning costumes that would have turned even the Caped Crusader green! With a lavish headdress featuring a bat with wings outstretched, complete with plumes of bright yellow and black, tassels of fiery orange yarn, as well as brightly-coloured seeds and shells, the Kabog costume was certainly eye-catching. Faces painted and spear in hand, this battleready troupe made a formidable sight.
Enriquez intimated that these days, other troupes had begun copying their colour scheme. “Competition is very stiff. People think it’s Kabog, but it’s another group!”
Competing in the Tribal section, which incidentally is also the biggest category in terms of participants, Kabog is huge. At its largest, the troupe numbers some 120 members! In the history of Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan Festival, it’s always been a close fight between Kabog and defending champs, Black Beauty Boys from Linabuan Norte.
When I asked if Kabog could take down its biggest rival, Enriquez seemed confident. However, he was quick to emphasise a higher goal that transcends the competitive spirit. “The prize is small. It won’t compensate us for what we’ve spent.” Participants bear the cost of their own costumes, and the prize money – approximately USD3,369 – is a pittance once shared among troupe members. “We’re not after the prize. We do it for tradition and religious devotion. We do it because of panaad, thanksgiving. We participate because of our devotion to the Santo Nino.”
TRIBES ON PARADE
At Magsaysay Park, the crowds were already out in full force, all vying for the best spots to view participating troupes. Soon, the first troupe appeared. The little ones were adorable with their faces painted and their tiny frames supporting heavy headdresses. Despite waking up so early, they were full of energy.
There was much fanfare with participants gyrating to drum beats that seemed at once tribal and Latin and somewhat reminiscent of the marching brass bands of New Orleans. Interspersed between triumphant hymns were unusual choices from Jambalaya to Achy Breaky Heart and believe it or not, the Chicken Dance song! The fun and joyousness were infectious. People flooded the streets, dancing with statues of the Santo Nino as if the statues were little children – their little children!
As promised, Kabog delivered a vibrant performance. Enriquez had explained that the troupes in Kalibo do not train; instead, they dance spontaneously and are judged on artistry, originality, pageantry, liveliness, rhythm, endurance and teamwork – all of which Kabog had in spades!
I especially enjoyed the troupes competing in the Balik-Ati category, where costumes were crafted from natural materials like coconut husks, bamboo and palm leaves. According to the rules of the competition, costumes in this category must be devoid of artificial material like plastic or glass. The rules go so far as to state: ‘Kinky hair is highly appreciated’. This is to really get into the spirit of mimicking the Ati people, part of the cultural tale of how the festival came to be.
THE ATI ALLIANCE
Ati-atihan means ‘to be like an Ati’, the indigenous people of Panay in the Visayas. At the Museo it Akean, curator Sumra Rojo explained the history of the festival.
There are many tales but one of the most popular recounts how 10 Maraynon chieftains fled an oppressive ruler in Borneo and sailed for a mountain that resembled their most prized possession, a golden salakot or wide-brimmed hat. That island was Panay and the year was 1212. Upon coming ashore, the chieftains negotiated with the indigenous Ati, led by Marikudo, for land. Marikudo moved his own people to the mountains and granted the Borneans the lowlands in exchange for the salakot. A feast was held to seal a peace pact and the Maraynon people smeared their faces with soot and danced with their neighbours to the beat of drums as a sign of unity and to celebrate a new friendship. The Maraynon made their home in the lowlands, and called it Madyaas, meaning ‘paradise’; every year, this story is re-enacted during the Ati-atihan festival. Another tale tells of how a bad harvest forced the Ati people to leave the highlands in search of food. The Maraynon people helped their neighbours, giving them yet another great reason to sing and dance in gratitude and friendship.
As for when this pagan celebration grew its religious roots, research by historian Beato de la Cruz indicates the baptism of some 1,000 Maraynons to Catholicism back in 1569. Since this mass baptism fell on the day of Ati-atihan, the celebration took on a spiritual significance.
At the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the blessing of children was underway. There seemed to be as many Santo Nino statues here and in the procession as children! Looking into the myriad faces of the Holy Child, I thought back to the first time I’d encountered this rosy-cheeked boy with long hair and cape. That was years ago and back then, I’d had no idea who he was!
Luckily, I managed to steal a few minutes with Bishop Tala-oc – the bishop of Kalibo whose diocese covers Aklan and its almost 600,000 faithful – to learn about this particular devotion. “Looking at the life of Jesus, from His childhood to public ministry, death and resurrection, here, we find a portion of His life that gives us joy. We get the message of Jesus humbling Himself and taking the form of a child, but remaining God. There’s a message for us also to be humble and innocent, and to depend on God as a loving, merciful Father,” the bishop explained.
Touching on the reason for the festival, Bishop Tala-oc said, “We rejoice and are glad because this God, who became man, has come to us and is with us. That’s the reason why we dance and beat drums.”
In the grounds of the cathedral, people queued to take part in a healing ritual called paeapak. Although more of a popular piety than a widespread Catholic practice, Bishop Tala-oc mentioned that such devotion was encouraged by Pope Francis, who called it a breath of fresh air in the Church.
When I reached the front of the line, the statue of the Santo Nino was touched to my forehead and prayers were said. Some people were turning full circles ensuring the statue touched any place they felt pain. Bishop Tala-oc had commented that sometimes such popular piety gets tinted with superstition. He recalled the Gospels and how a woman who’d touched Jesus’ cloak was healed through pure faith. “The paeapak is that type of expression. But, always, this goes with faith and trust that we will be healed if we are pleasing to Him. I always say to believe in God is the power. You just need intention and prayer.”
COMMUNING WITH THE DIVINE
The next morning, I joined pilgrims who had gathered outside the cathedral for an outdoor high mass celebrated by Bishop Tala-oc. It was the wet season, and thunder rumbled, threatening a deluge. But, there was no raining on this parade.
With the church bells ringing, a caro (float) bearing the Santo Nino was carried out of the shrine and onto the altar in a cloud of incense. As is common, the Santo Nino held a crossbearing orb called the globus cruciger – a symbol of dominion – in his left hand, while his right hand clutched a sceptre. A gold crown sat atop his head, while a red and gold cloak billowed from his shoulders. Guarding the statue were the Color Corps of the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal order devoted to charity, unity and fraternity, and dressed in their official regalia that includes a black cape, black chapeau with white plumes and even a sword!
It was a joyous celebration, and I noticed devotees had brought along their Santo Nino dolls, and lined them up like good little children awaiting blessings. Some were dressed in the shiny outfits I’d seen sold along the street, and assumed at first to be children’s clothes.
After the mass, the caro of the Santo Nino moved to the streets, weaving through Kalibo’s labyrinth of lanes surrounded by a sea of dancing devotees. It seemed as though the whole of Aklan had turned out.
Festivities continued into the night. I heard trumpets on street corners and the tinkle of xylophones drifting out of alleyways. Melodies merged as bands passed one another in the street bumping into pedlars and pilgrims.
Through it all, shouts of Viva kay Senhor Santo Nino (Long live the Holy Infant) could be heard. Kabog came in at second place, but from the joyous looks on their faces, you’d think they’d won. In the larger scheme of things, I guess they did.
EAT OUT, FIT IN
Sample local food at the many turo-turo (small eateries) along Regelado Street, just beside the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Kalibo. Jaranilla (Stall number 11) has been serving up a true piggy feast for 25 years. Among the 35 dishes served daily are liempo, crispy pork belly (that’s as decadently crunchy as chicharon) with a dipping sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, pepper, salt and sugar; longganisa, short, sweet and plump pork sausages; purit-purit, a tasty snack of pig tongue and cheek; as well as popular Filipino classics including adobo (meat stewed in vinegar, garlic and soy sauce), pork sisig (a sour dish of pork marinated in lemon juice or vinegar, and seasoned with spices) and afritada (tomato-based stew, usually with chicken).
Visit La Nena’s (Regelado Street, corner of Mabini Street) to savour chicken inasae, a spit-roasted chicken specialty served with rice, a wedge of lime, vinegar and soy sauce, as well as inubarang manok, a wholesome dish of chicken and banana blossom in a coconut milk broth.
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