dinagyang recap

my article on the dinagyang festival in iloilo came out yesterday. i think i am suffering from textual diarrhea because although i pretty much like the article, i couldn't get myself to actually read it. i had given it a single pass after i finished it (or at least, after i thought it felt finished), and didn't spot anything i would regret later. so i emailed it immediately to my editor along with captions for a few photos they had chosen from out of 30 i initially submitted.

anyway, here's the article as i had written it, and a few pictures i'm sure wouldn't have made it on print, but for me are quite interesting to see.

Hala Bira!
Text and photos by Alman Dave Quiboquibo

The black soot is starting to flake-off the sweaty bodies of the warriors long before the brooding sky turned to a steady drizzle, and which eventually progressed into rain. A small plane is flying dangerously close to the tallest building downtown, while helicopters hover overhead as crowds gather along the sidewalks of Iloilo City’s main thoroughfares. Small plastic triangles proclaiming brand names hang from strings that connect the roofs and facades of old buildings along Iznard St., even while political as well as commercial advertisements battle with colorful pronouncements of the Dinagyang Festival’s 30th year in front of the Freedom Grandstand, where 20 tribes are set to compete for glory and the hefty prize money.

All over the friendly city of Iloilo, which is known as much for the gentle melody of the local dialect, as it is for its old houses, churches and tasty delights, the fever of fiesta is overflowing. The deluge of tourists is causing massive traffic jams deep into the night. At Smallville, where a string of new and glitzy bars and restaurants and a couple of nice hotels are located, parking spaces become precious commodities, and places to sit for the patrons are few. Parties spill out of it like an airborne infection, and afflict the locals with a happy disease: the desire to celebrate.

The affliction spreads rapidly: streets are jammed with pedestrians who have converted sidewalks into makeshift bars. A raggedy table, chairs, and ice-cold beer are the bare essentials. And the sound of passing cars is not the only source of entertainment. At nearly each intersection, big black boxes pumping over a hundred decibels of ear-shattering dance music have been installed, that drivers and passengers of vehicles stuck in traffic are lured into the irresistible beats and do not complain, neither for the noise, nor for the delay.

All corners of the small city resonate fun and wild abandon. The revelries have been raging for over a week. Earlier, a beauteous lass had just been crowned Ms. Dinagyang, and the search for her dashing consort is about to take place. The ports are rife with action as visitors from nearby Bacolod arrive in droves. The new Iloilo Airport, an impressive gateway of international standards fashioned from glass and steel, is also packed, and the numerous flights are all fully booked.

The Dinagyang Festival, adjudged recently as the country’s best tourism event, is staged annually in honor of the Christ Child. It is said that it had its beginnings over three decades ago, when the image of the Santo Niño arrived from Cebu, and the faithful trooped behind it as it traveled from the airport to the church. The festival culminates with a day-long celebration that fills the streets with the plumes of the various tribes eager to showcase their delirious movements depicting a story that dissects themes of Christianization, birth, and life of pre-historic Filipinos.

The performers are referred to as warriors, perhaps to demonstrate the barbaric ways in the days prior to the arrival of Catholicism. Their bodies are painted black, and are covered by a mere whisper of cloth. But the costumes are far from being plain. Each tribe is uniquely adorned by an exciting explosion of reds, yellows, and oranges. Huge colorful feathers fan out of heads like a dyslexic halo; tribal shapes are drawn on arms, legs, and faces; short skirts are wrapped around lithe bodies, prompting a tourist to ask what the Ilonggo diet consisted of that hundreds of warriors paraded proudly, having no hint of a belly.

In the morning of the competition, the streets downtown were emptied of vehicles as the tribes queued for their turn to perform. Each of them is accompanied by an army of percussionists and drummers. There are strange-looking instruments, home-made drums and snares, including long shoots of bamboo pointing downwards, hollowed and pounded at one end by a rubber pad the shape of a pingpong racket.

Not far away from the judging area, a man in a green shirt dips a big paintbrush into a bucket of paint and slaps it onto a canvass of skin. The rain has stopped, but it has left the streets wet, and the colors of the warriors bleeding to the ground. The smell of paint is dizzying, and a day of frenzied dancing has taken its toll on some of the performers, as their support crew hand out energy drinks just before their dance begins.

Each performance starts almost consistently with wild shrieks and whistles accompanied by banging of huge drums, as the dancers rush to the center of the stage. Despite the heat that has overtaken the morning, the tribes electrify the staging area with their rapid movements, and neither rain nor sun had drained the warriors of energy. However, the Dinagyang, like its older cousin the Ati-atihan, is a strange festival. Although it is made in honor of the Santo Niño, the dance is inherently pagan, delving deep into the warrior and nomadic roots of the first settlers on the islands. The story of Christianization is muddled in a confused celebration of birth, friendship, and revelry. The image of the Christ Child is always feted prominently by each of the tribes, sometimes more creatively than others, but it serves little purpose but to be carried around by gyrating dancers. And somewhere in the dizzying and hypnotic performance, the movement and the music momentarily halt as the warriors shout in unison: “Viva! Señor Santo Niño!”

Nevertheless, the performances are always visually stunning. The performers outdo each other with the difficulty of their choreography, the complexity of their props, and the innovation of their gimmickry. One tribe’s warriors gingerly enter the stage with a huge salakot covering the body, and in an instant, the hats are removed to reveal a smiling face attached to the crotch of a tiny thong. Although a little risqué, the surprise is met with great applause and laughter. Each tribe finishes in under 10 minutes what has been practiced for months prior to the competition. And it pays off handsomely, even for those who don’t win. The highly appreciative crowd is composed of a motley of personalities. At the Freedom Grandstand, a throng of photographers have gathered along with local and national politicians, tycoons whose businesses have sponsored a few of the tribes, and a variety of media personalities reporting on this colorful event.

Towards the afternoon, some tribes have completely lost the soot on their bodies. Although the judging has ended, the celebration on the streets continues, and the warriors keep dancing in the same possessed way as they did when prize money was at stake. Beyond the grandstand, what matters is to be loved and cheered by the crowd.

By nightfall, the colors of the dancers took off and flew high as a series of fireworks displays consumed the sky above the Iloilo capital, and the silent river dissecting the city captured the explosions in its still waters. After a week-long celebration, the streets will soon be emptied of the makeshift tables, the banderitas hanging among the wires, and there will be relative peace again as the speakers and amplifiers are disassembled. Warriors of various tribes will have more than ample time to peel the paint off their bodies and rest their calloused feet. The Ilonggos, after a week of delirious celebrations, will return to their simple lives, welcoming visitors with the gentle melodies in their voices, refusing to hint that the timid have no place during Dinagyang.

here are some sources of distraction for iton. g-strings, tangas, t-backs were aplenty. this has got to be the most risqué festival of them all.

we did really well pretending to be professional photographers, sans the professional gear. in the other photo, i pose with a santo-niño bearing boy.

the warriors were generally slim, except for this boy. he had a bigger canvass, and more paint was used on him than on two other performers. and even atis need better vision.

how many chickens were slaughtered for these costumes? and what did i say about being lithe? i have got to ask about their diet.

a last minute retouch and some fiesta standards on the street.
D300 na ba 'to? :)