Hala Bira! Ati-Atihan Festival in Kalibo, Aklan 2014

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For the first time, I was able to join in the celebration of the Ati-Atihan Festival in my parents’ hometown in Aklan. Although I only got there the last day of the festival (January 19) in Kalibo, I still got to experience the fun that the people of Aklan bring to this festivity.

Our AirAsia flight (moi, Dindin and Papa) from Manila to Kalibo was at 6:30 am. We got there before 8:00 am.

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At the airport, we were greeted by my ever fun and gleeful Auntie Vilma. Her smile is always so welcoming and it readily makes you feel that you belong. Her husband Uncle Belio brought his tricycle to give us a ride to Capitol, in my Tita’s house, where we stayed for a couple of days.

Once we dropped our bags, took our breakfast, and finished freshening up, we went straight to Lolo Willie’s house, just nearby in Kalibo, to join my cousins and aunts for the festival. Yes, the festival is our first activity right after the flight. It was a Sunday and the last day of the festival in Kalibo and it would be a shame if I won’t get the most of it.

The Ati-Atihan festival literally means “to be like ‘Ati’s or Aetas”, who are the indigenous people of the province. The Aetas were the first settlers of the whole island of Panay. The festival’s history dates back to when the Aetas allowed Malay Datus from Borneo to settle in their island during the 13th century. When a famine broke in the land of the Aetas, they had difficulty producing food, so they went down from the mountains to seek help from the Malays who readily gave them food. In gratitude, the Aeatas sang and danced around for the generosity given to them. The festival was initially a pagan activity but when the Spanish missionaries came, a Christian meaning is added. Today, the Ati-Atihan festival is celebrated annually in honor of the Sto. Niño (Child Jesus).

The catchphrase being shouted during the festival, “Hala Bira!” is actually the battlecry used by the Panay soldiers in the 17th century during the Moro attack on the island. When they fired their gunpowder, the soldiers looked like atis shouting “Hala Bira!”. The people of Panay gave thanks and reverence to the Sto. Niño who saved them from the Moro attacks.

Hala Bira! Pwera Pasma!” is the phrase shouted today while the Ati-Atihan participants sing and dance around from morning until late at night for weeks, honoring Sto. Niño and praying to Him for a life free from illness or pasma. 

The Ati-Atihan Festival is considered to be the “Mother of all Filipino Festivals”  and inspired the other colorful festivals of the nearby provinces.

Anyway, onto my story… Tita Lette, who arrived there a day before we did, told us that the Saturday events were so amazing and fun because all the tribal groups were parading the streets of Kalibo, and so many peole were joining in, dancing, drinking, and it was fun. That made me pout sadly 😦 But thankfully, Mommy Baby assured us that the tribes will still be parading the streets that Sunday so there’s nothing to be depressed about.

And yes, there was indeed nothing to be depressed about when what greeted you in the plaza was an amazing display of vibrant costume-clad characters, rhythmic beating of the drums, fun melodies of the glockenspiels, and of course, the dancing Aklanons with their faces and bodies painted with black soot, clad with their colorful elaborate costumes.

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From morning until night, the parade went on and on and nobody seemed to be taking a break. Foreigners were also seen dancing in the street, moving their bodies in rhythm with the music as the parade progresses. Mommy Baby told us there were at least 80 tribal groups with their own themes and costume designs parading the whole town that time.

It was a street party I could always remember. I had never witnessed something like Ati-Atihan before. We joined in the dancing during the night, when the images of Sto Nino were being paraded in the streets. We drank a little as we danced and it was a truly fun evening.

It was indeed a unique experience for me. The parade and all the dancing were not just exhibitions of merrymaking, there is something more about it that makes you feel this warmth in your chest because it’s clear as a cloudless sky how you belong, that you are one with them. And no matter how many disasters would come to our country, the Filipino people will still sing and dance because there is so much more we are grateful for. This is my first festival so I could not compare this one with Sinulog or Dinagyang but if all festivals are like this then surely being a Filipino is something that I am very proud of and glad about.

***photo credits: Rommel Bobiles, Joeffrey Isagan, Geraldine Rufin

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