I awoke at the first instance of sunlight on a Saturday morning, keen to witness the colorful street parade of the contingents, whose snaring drums already started to reverberate across the town of Kalibo. Joining some friends from Air Asia and fellow media members, we marched to the rendezvous point of the participants and I was quickly greeted by a snowballing euphoria. All around us were men, women, and children adorned in colorful costumes and face paint, all eager to put on a show. Even a day away from the highlight, I already felt the Ati-Atihan reaching fever pitch. “This is going to be a rocking weekend,” I told myself.
JUST BEAT IT
The Ati-Atihan Festival traces its origins way back to the early 1200s, when the locals started to commemorate the arrival of 10 Malay datus, who were shipwrecked into Panay Island after sailing away from the island of Borneo. Welcomed by the Ati Tribe, the Malay datus expressed their gratitude by rewarding the Ati chief with an assortment of gifts ranging from jewelry, golden salakot, brass basins, and cloth as they cemented their inclusion within the local community. Initially starting out as a pagan ritual, the Ati-Atihan morphed into a religious festival honoring the infant Jesus Christ (Sto Niño),when the Spanish arrived in the 15th century. Since then, the Ati-Atihan has been celebrated every third Sunday of January.
It’s a day after my birthday—and what better way to celebrate one’s birthday than listening to the beating drums and watching a sea of revelers doing the sadsad, the native word for “dance,” all over the streets of Kalibo? As order formed in the joyful and chaotic streets, one by one the contingents representing the many barangays of Kalibo, started its march and the crowd huddled by both sides of the streets prepared for a visual and auditory feast.
As each contingent walked by, I noticed the drumming beat intensifying until my ear became accustomed to the loud growl of merriment. Under the morning sun breezed by a cold January wind, the men, women, and children left a trail of rhapsody along its path. As the crowd decongested from the sidewalks to prepare for the highlight the next day, one could still hear pockets of thundering drum beats and shouts of “hala bira!” from the distance. I got a sense that for the whole week leading up to the big day, the Ati-Atihan party would be unwavering.
During the night the party switched places from the streets to town plaza circles where a big stage was set up for bands to play music while the revelers were still hungover from the pulsating parade earlier, gulping down bottles of beer and chewing on local delicacies.
The town of Kalibo still presents that provincial vibe devoid of towering buildings. Here, you can feel the unassuming atmosphere that, as everyone knows, will explode the next day into a massive revolt of the senses. You get a feeling everybody is caught up with anticipation. As I enjoyed my bottle of beer with my companions and listened to a local band playing, I was also gearing up for the next day. As the memories of my first Ati-Atihan experience in 2012 came back to me I muttered to myself “It’s going to be wild tomorrow.”
A local photographer ushered us to an elevated platform for a better view of the parade. It was a little bit after noon and the sun couldn’t get more discernable because of the clear skies. The January weather felt like summer. The streets were packed from both sides and from afar I could see the initial wave of contingents starting its march.
A chorus of “hala-bira” filled the air accompanied by the rising decibels of the drumming beat. An uneasy feeling started to get over me. “What am I doing up here?” I asked myself. Sensing that fun was down at the streets, I hurriedly walked down the stairs and started my march toward the incoming battering force of the wild, ecstatic throng out to paint the town red.
As one contingent passes by it brings along hordes of spectators along with it, doubling the size of the marching group doing the “sadsad”. Locals and visitors from other parts of the world are seen trudging along juggling their feet to the beat of the thunderous drums. As I took photographs of the flood of vibrant colors worn by the street performers in front of me, I couldn’t help but shuffle my feet once in a while. A random stranger handed me a bottle of beer. Finding myself holding a camera in one hand and another one gripping my beer, I toast passing merry makers with an obligatory ‘cheers’.
Since I first experienced the Ati-Atihan, I find it as a more intimate gathering that lures the spectators to hop into the area of performers and join with the carousing. There is no need for such crowd control measures, even though most are seen downing beers, everything are just for fun and camaraderie are formed between the unacquainted revelers. A toast here and there, a bow of head acknowledging each other’s presence brings forth a connection that sweeps along the dense crowd. It is no wonder why it is always regarded as the “mother of all festivals” in the country.
The whole shindig lasted until the evening and we capped off the stimulating day viewing the culmination of the parade at the town’s plaza atop Kalibo Cathedral, near its bell tower. Body exhausted but spirit so alive, I stare below me and I notice the crowd as thick and retaining the same vigor as the day started, displaying body movements as if boogying to the raucous beat of the Ati-Atihan festival, as I imagine much like the other folks from the past 800 years of this storied festival.
* This article appeared on the Lifestyle pages of the March 13, 2016 issue of Manila Bulletin *