Tribes parade pride in Philippines festival

  • World
  • Saturday, 08 Mar 2008

MYT 3:46:16 PM

MALAYBALAY CITY, Philippines (Reuters Life!) - The hill tribes of Bukidnon in the southern Philippines dance to their own beat.

Dancers perform at the annual Kaamulan festival showcasing Bukidnon's tribal cultures in the provincial capital of Malaybalay City, southern Philippines, March 8, 2008. (REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

Some were gyrating vigorously with brightly painted swords and shields, others swayed from side to side tilting their red feathered headdresses as they danced on the street on Saturday.

Adding a thrilling touch, a lone indigenous man brandished a hissing snake as he swayed to drum beats and chanting.

The annual Kaamulan festival in the provincial capital of Malaybalay City showcases Bukidnon's tribal cultures and the province's agricultural riches.

"It's a festival of pride of place," said Catalino Chan, a regional director of tourism and one of the judges in the spectacle. "The tribes show to the world that they have distinct traditions."

Floats festooned with pineapples, cobs of corn, peppers and lilies throb past carrying scores of young men beating drums and chanting. Rows of dancers move in sync down Malaybalay's sun-baked main street in vibrant shades of red, yellow and black.

Seven tribes comprising more than 1,000 people, from toddlers to village elders, compete in the festival. They put in weeks of preparation.

Chan looks for fluidity and authenticity when judging. The winning tribe gets 150,000 pesos ($3,650) prize money.

Recognition and a chance to forget about the harsh manual life on Bukidnon's verdant mountains are also important.

"When you see how they really live, it's not always as happy," said Elisabeth Wagner, a Swiss missionary who has been living in Bukidnon for four years.

Unemployment is high among indigenous people, especially in the southern Philippines which, despite fertile farmlands and billions of dollars in untapped mineral wealth, is the poorest part of the country due to insurgencies and land disputes.

Kaamulan is an indigenous Bukidnon term for "gathering" and the tribes' dances, chants and floats display war, love and harvest-time as well as an epic tale of a human-eating serpent.

Some of the male dancers carried spears and had their lips stained purple. Chests were tattoed with henna and ornate beads were draped around necks, ankles and heads.

Kaamulan has grown from a small fiesta started in the 1970s to today's large spectacle watched by thousands.

Some tribespeople have stopped participating, arguing it has become too commercial but the organisers insist it is still true to its roots.

"We go to the mountains to research the dances," said Edsel Quemado, a secondary school teacher, who choreographed members of the Higaonon tribe. "It's true that natives do not dance in unison but the moves are authentic."

The crowds were certainly pleased with the results. "We have Mardi Gras but this is a lot more cultural," said Christina Johnson, a native of the U.S. city of New Orleans.

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