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Ati-atihan Experience

Posted by on Mar 10th, 2010
Filed Under: Festival, Walkabout Pinas

Tourism Philippines Walkabout Pinas ColumnistConsidered by some as Asia’s answer to Rio’s Mardi Gras, the yearly Ati-atihan festival is a party like no other. With a long history of 798 years of celebration this festival has also become an interesting hybrid of cultural influences. But nowadays the Ati-atihan in Kalibo has evolved into a celebration with religious undertones where anything goes as long as it’s in the name of fun.

Philippines Ati Atihan Experience The official parade

The official parade
Photo by Scott Allford

The town of Kalibo is thought to have originally been settled by sailors from Borneo back in the early 1200’s. During the making of a peace pact between the local inhabitants (Aetas/Atis) and these settlers, the Borneans smeared soot on themselves to appear more like the Atis as a gesture of friendship. What ensued was a night of singing and dancing to drums and the Ati-atihan (meaning to look like the Atis) was born. When the Spanish came and brought Catholicism, the festival changed to incorporate more Christian features. As a result, in the modern day Ati-atihan you can see statues of the child Jesus being danced with to the sounds of drums and shouts of “Viva!” by participants smeared in black paint and dressed in colourful tribal costumes.

As I got closer to the centre of Kalibo the drums became louder and more infectious. One of the main characteristics of the festival is the drumbeats. Anywhere around Kalibo you can hear them thundering day or night. The festival itself is all around the streets of the town centre. Where exactly it’s hard to say as there is only a planned route on the last Saturday, which is for the official parade and judging. Otherwise, for three weeks, groups of people in elaborate costumes or everyday clothes dance and bounce non-choreographed steps randomly through the streets to the sounds of drums and glockenspiels.

Right after getting settled I headed to the town centre to see what was happening. The noise was amazing, with hundreds of different songs being played by a hundred different groups dancing through the streets. Everyone wore huge smiles in the friendly chaos of the festival. A few times I saw groups of 50 or more people in costumes and drummers make head on collisions as their groups random paths through the streets met, but it only made the participants smiles grow. Somewhere during the afternoon, I had to take a break so I went for a Paeapak, which is where a seminarian rubs a wooden statue of a Sto. Niño or the Child Jesus over points on your head and upper body to revitalise the spirit. I still wasn’t feeling totally revitalised so I made a quick stop by one of the many people with coolers on the road sides and picked up a beer before making my way back into the crowd. After a day of walking the streets there are a number of concerts around the town with local bands and big name Filipino bands playing. I relaxed to some food and a few beers watching some good music before making my way to bed.

Philippines Ati Atihan Experience A participant in full garb with a figure of the child Jesus

A participant in full garb with a figure of the child Jesus
Photo by Scott Allford

On landing at Kalibo airport back in January for the Ati-atihan, I was filled with anticipation. I had read a lot about this festival being the most riotous festival in Asia and had wanted to take part in it since I first arrived in the Philippines. Luckily I know people in Kalibo, so accommodation was not hard to organise, and I booked my flights way back in August to guarantee myself a seat. For most of the year there is not a lot happening in Kalibo, but during Ati-atihan the population swells and the streets fill with people. So it’s smart to plan your trip months ahead.

Philippines Ati Atihan Experience Paeapak

Photo by Scott Allford

On the day of the official parade I was treated to a seemingly never ending procession of people in colourful costumes and scores of drummers and glockenspiel players. While it is a spectacle to watch, it is a toned down portion of the Ati-atihan as the route is planned and people line the sides of the route to watch rather than just joining in and dancing. I really prefer the joyous chaotic side of the festival. So after the parade I headed into the streets of the town centre to see what I could find. I wasn’t disappointed. A mass of colourful characters abounded. Amidst the dancing people in plain clothes and tribal costumes I found Atis selling potions and charms beside the church, Wonder Woman, two snake men with protruding tongues, a lanky foreigner painted in green with CDs for earrings, and Superman….wearing a diaper.

Philippines Ati Atihan Experience Superman.....wearing a diaper

Superman…..wearing a diaper
Photo by Scott Allford

Then I joined a group with beverage in hand and danced through the streets. Beer showers were everywhere around me, and shouts of “Viva!’ rang out after every turn. Then as we proceeded down a little backstreet someone beside me shot off a Confetti Cannon. Some of the confetti flew into overhead electricity lines and shorted them out. A huge bang followed by glowing blue light emanated from the lines and a really weird buzzing sound filled the air accompanied by a strange burning smell. The crowd and drums fell completely silent and still as everyone watched until the light faded. Then all of a sudden a cheer of “WOOOOOOHOOOOOOO!” burst out from the crowd and the drums and dancing started again. After dancing the day away I headed to the school to catch a fireworks display before going off to catch a set by the famous Filipino band Rivermaya before going to sleep to the sounds of drum beats still emanating from the town centre.

The Ati-atihan experience is truly like no other as it is the epitome of good old fashioned fun. Along with this the festival itself is steeped in centuries of history which is unmatched by any other festival in the country. And as the festival has evolved to incorporate the various cultures that have inhabited the town of Kalibo through these centuries, Ati-atihan carries a feeling of the exotic and the familiar at the same time. This is not a festival for sitting back and watching, but rather one for getting in amidst it all and getting carried away by the beat of a thousand drums.

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Scott M. Allford has lived and worked in Australia and South Korea and has travelled extensively throughout Asia- Mongolia, China, Tibet, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan – fell in love with the Philippines and decided to allocate at least two years to comprehensively cover the country. Learn more about me [+]

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3 Responses to “Ati-atihan Experience”

  1. Eileen Leizel Quilo says:

    Hello.. thanks for your post. Amazing! Can I use some pictures here? I am an ESL teacher and i would like to make a story about ati atihan. Thank you.

  2. Scott says:

    Hi Eileen,

    I guess you can use these pictures. Just make sure you credit me. Actually these pictures are not credited correctly. Only the first one is mine. The other 3 were taken by our other writer Dave Ryan Buaron.

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