Ati-Atihan: An Education on a Truly Filipino Festival

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Bouncing, bobbing, skipping from side to side. The incessant drumming, a constant since the morning, was ringing in my ears, complimented at this point by some expert xylophone playing of a familiar tune I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Armed with red paint and streaks of charcoal on my face, a swig from my quickly emptying can of beer in between gyrations was rapidly becoming second nature. Deeper and deeper I found myself being absorbed into this pulsating organism of ceaseless movement and rhythm – self-control proving an increasingly tedious concern. It seemed a responsibility more fittingly surrendered to this never-ending mass of color, music, and smiles.

The Ati-Atihan Festival is an occasion ingrained in the psyche of the inhabitants of Kalibo and its neighboring towns, and I was experiencing a boisterous orientation. For almost 870 years, the celebration has been a fixture in this particular municipality in the Philippines, an event highly anticipated well in advance of its annual staging on the third weekend of January. Although billed a celebration in honor of Santo Niño – the representation of Jesus as a child – the festival’s roots originated centuries before the Spanish, and their Catholic faith, ever stumbled across the Philippine archipelago en route to the Spice Islands.

The tradition is said to have emerged from the coexistence of two vastly different groups of people. On one side, a large migrating group of Borneans, desperately looking for a new home, after making a precarious escape from their crumbling empire. On the other, the Atis, a group of indigenous inhabitants of the Filipino island of Panay, wary of outsiders that could bring harm. But despite an inhibiting language barrier and their distinctly unrelated backgrounds, cultures, and priorities, the two tribes managed an arrangement of peace and prosperity.

Agreeing on a trade of precious Malayan items in exchange for flatlands in the area, the Malay immigrants and the Atis celebrated the pact with an explosion of music and an overflow of food and drink. To further cement intentions for unity between the two tribes, the Bornean refugees covered their skin in soot in an attempt to imitate the appearance of their dark-skinned hosts. The gesture of homogeneity towards the Atis, which translates in Filipino to “Ati-Atihan,” was warmly received by the natives, sparking a yearly celebration between the two tribes.

Roughly four centuries later, with the emergence of Spanish rule in Kalibo (which was named so after 1,000 inhabitants were said to have been baptized in one day), the celebration was injected with the image of Santo Niño, adding a religious undertone to the tradition.

“This was where I first wished to Santo Niño to guide me with my dreams of starting businesses here in Kalibo. He answered my prayers, and I continue to go every year,” said entrepreneur Anne Lukban, who moved from Manila to settle in the home of the Ati-Atihan celebration in 2010. She has since put up a successful travel agency (Manila Travel), while handling numerous coffee shops, a gym, and a restaurant. Anne represents one of many devotees who frequent the festival. Some, like her, come in search for divine assistance from the revered religious symbol, while others simply take the time to give thanks. Whichever the case, the festival’s religious quality is taken very seriously by practicing Catholics, as highlighted on the Saturday of the festival, as droves diligently wake at 3 am to march for kilometers – praying the rosary, complete with Santo Niño floats and statues in hand.

For others, the festival represents a more creative proposition, an outlet to be involved in bringing vibrancy to the occasion. Wilbur Enriquez, the man behind the Kabog tribe (formerly known as Amots) – which also happens to be the solitary inductee to the Ati-Atihan Street Dance Competition Hall of Fame – recalled how feeling left out brought about the start of his group’s 51-year existence. “We organized a group because we were tired of standing around while people from the different barrios enjoyed. We knew others in our area wanted to get involved with the dancing and the drum beating, so we took matters into our own hands.”

Like many others, despite having moved to Manila, Enriquez makes the trip every year to oversee his tribe’s involvement in the much-awaited street dance parade – the main event of Saturday’s festivities. The grand ordeal draws dozens of hopeful tribes, all who had undergone months of preparation in order to assemble elaborate headdresses and costumes, varying from vibrant colors to more tribal hues, depending on the category entered into. Although cash prizes ranging from P3,000 to P150,000 were at stake, the figures merely represented a bonus. With the expenses for the creation of costumes far exceeding even the highest of payouts, the real prize was the bragging rights – of which Kabog added to, with another first-place finish in their category.

The parade, which strictly disallowed choreographed dancing to honor the celebration’s tradition of individual expression, was a fantastic display of colorful pageantry, originality, and undeniable energy and rhythm. And as if compelled by the parade’s vigor, onlookers simply could not resist jumping in to take photos and sample the rush of being involved in such an ordeal.

On the Sunday when the festival culminated, the celebrations reached a pinnacle, with all the participating tribes joining a procession around the town. Kalibo locals, visitors from all over the Philippines, and travelers from around the world were welcomed to jump in and immerse themselves in the hours-long parade – of which I had thoroughly enjoyed being completely engulfed in a haze of dancing, drinking, and humorous conversation with friendly strangers.

The Ati-Atihan festival’s success and unique local flavor inevitably has led to similar, more heavily commercially funded celebrations in nearby provinces. But Albert Meñez, who has headed the Ati-Atihan’s organizing foundation, KASAFI, for the last five years, remained confident that Kalibo’s historic tradition would remain unaffected. “We’re a small town, but we make sure everyone is a participant, not just a spectator. You can dance, have your own choreography, you can do your own thing, and have your own costume,” he said. “Also, we still practice the Filipino way of celebrating the fiesta. You can go to any house and they’ll have food on the table to share with you.”

As quickly as I was swallowed into the very heart of Kalibo’s hospitality and exuberant merrymaking, the coming of the new week signaled my unwilling departure from the town I would never again associate with as the stopover en route to Boracay. The town was now synonymous to the 250-hectares of mangroves that make up the scenic Bakhawan Ecopark, the remarkably tedious process of creating pineapple cloth detailed in the Piña Village, and the renowned inubarang manok, a delectable local chicken dish. But most of all, Kalibo now brought images of a genuinely Filipino festival, fueled by the townfolk and deeply rooted in its significance to the inhabitants who participate. To partake in a historical tradition of oneness through rhythm, food, and plenty of drinking was truly a privilege to experience.

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