As the volume of the drumming increases and my ears start to take a beating, it suddenly dawns on me that the noise is slowly morphing into a harmonious rhythm that signifies the celebratory mood of the moment. Soon, I find myself thumping along and as the sound reverberates to the farthest distance, a sea of people takes turns into dancing on their own. This is the Ati-atihan, I tell myself, no wonder it is one of the premier festivals in the Philippines. Wild, euphoric, no other party in the country can rival its reach in terms of excitement.
The Ati-atihan festival is celebrated every third Sunday of January. The festival began in Kalibo in the early 1200's making this year's as its 800th undertaking. It depicts the period in history when ten Malay Datus sailed from Borneo and found themselves in the island of Panay. Here, they were granted a place to settle down by the Ati tribe. In exchange they gave the Ati chief a golden salakot, basins, jewelry and cloth. Festivities soon followed. The Ati-atihan initially was a pagan ritual that was transformed into a religious festival by the Spaniards in the 15th century. It is now a celebration in honor of the infant Jesus Christ, known as the Sto. Niño.
The modern day concept of Ati-atihan, which means "to be like ati or aeta", is an event where various tribes from different barangays and towns of Kalibo participate by dressing in different costumes with unique face and body paints adorning their physical features. Thus making the spectacle a colorful visual feast for observers.
Arriving in Kalibo via Roxas City Friday evening, we find a city quietly gearing up for the festival weekend. The streets are already bursting with activities and areas where the parade will pass through are already set up. I can easily feel the festival air. It resonates even through the drumbeats have not yet begun.
The first thing we did upon waking up on Saturday was to go on a side trip to Bakhawan Eco Park. It features the biggest mangrove reforestation project in the Philippines. The moment I start my walk over the 800 meters bamboo path, I knew I wouldn't be disappointed. Passing through dense mangrove presents a dream-like scene as apparition of their stems jut out from the ground, whilst birds of different rare species chirp against the backdrop of waving trees. Alighting from the thick mangroves I find myself facing the open sea. The image is truly remarkable.
The Bakhawan Eco Park is only a few minutes away from the town center and as my friend and I return for lunch we proceed to the Cathedral where we get our first glimpse of the various tribes. As the crowd thickens and the drumming becomes more intense, the whole place starts to pound and vibrate to the pulsating beat. It is such a fantastic sight to witness that I have to remind myself that the highlight of the festival is still on Sunday.
Mardi Gras unfold with blistering pace and merrymaking all throughout Saturday. I observe a group of foreign tourists laughing and tugging around doing the Ati-atihan walk, which consists of a unique juggling of the feet against the timely beat of the drums.
If Saturday was already a blast, Sunday couldn't be less conspicuous. It starts with a solemn mass officiated by Kalibo Bishop Jose Corazon Talaoc in front of the cathedral. After the mass, shouts of "Viva kay Senor Sto Niño" is heard all over the place. On cue, the drumming begins. The louder it gets the higher the fevered pitch becomes.
One great thing about the Ati-atihan is that it is more convenient for the audience to join the parade. There are no ropes between the tribes and the spectators neither is there any photography passes needed. Visitors could easily join the fray and take photos whenever they want to. There are no rules, which I like, aside from the fact that I'm just required to have a grand time and roll along with the celebration.
The morning's street dancing and parade lasted until lunch. Then a break for everyone to rest, eat and gather enough energy for the afternoon's last hurrah. Around 4pm, the tribes come out for the last time joined by more contingents from the other barangays in Kalibo. Rocking and drum beating continue into the night. As I stand by the side of the road listening to the frantic beats and watching dozens of contingents dance the Ati-atihan fast moves, I get lost in the moment. I realize right here that I am experiencing a different kind of festivity. One brought upon by a tradition that began 800 years ago.
* This was published in the Issue 4 / Volume 3 (April 2012) of the Republic of 7107 Island Travel Magazine.