I HAVE always believed in Paoay’s Guling-guling, which, I argue, is the only authentic festival in the region, being deeply rooted in the history and culture of the townsfolk, unlike most festivals, including Laoag’s Pamulinawen, which came out of nowhere, and which, after over a decade, very people understand, if there is anything at all to understand.
Laoag may claim that the Pamulinawen is a great festival because it has won in the Aliwan Festival, an annual competition of festivals. But note that it has won only in the Best Float Category, and such feat, which comes at great cost to Laoag’s taxpayers, does not mean the Pamulinawen is meaningful. It only means that the organizers know how to make good (and extravagant) floats. It occasionally wins as runner up in street dance, but neither does it assure us that the festival is meaningful and unique, it simply means that the dancers know how to dance well based on formulaic criteria.
I agree that festivals could help spur the development of tourism in a certain area, but we should only share to the world those which we strongly feel form part of our historical and cultural legacies. The Guling-guling of Paoay is one festival I approve of because the people have actually practiced the Guling-guling (marking their foreheads with white ashes the day before the season of Lent begins) long before they thought of formally making it a festival.
However, I went to this year’s Guling-guling, together with a balikbayan friend, but alas, found disappointment.
Late afternoon, there was a dance parade leading to a stage where a showdown between different performing groups was to be held. We arrived just in time to witness the street dancing around the Paoay Church, and my initial reaction was, “Oh boy, this is getting generic.” With the entry of choreographers from everywhere where fly-by-night festivals abound, the Guling-guling street dance is beginning to be just like one of those so-so-ness. The school kids, main participants in the street dance, looked like robots who effortfully followed the machinations of the choreographers. Meanwhile, people just watched on the side. This leads me to my second point, that the Guling-guling Festival has ceased to be participative.
I say that the competition among different performing groups is partly to blame. There is now a great divide between performer and audience. What used to be a community event has become just a local version of Showtime. I do not say the competitions be scrapped (although I’d be happier without them), I say that there must be greater effort to get the people engaged. People dance and revel in Brazil’s Mardia Gras and in New Orleans’ Fat Tuesday. In the Philippines, the most participative festivals would be the Ati-Atihan in Kalibo and the Fertility Festival in Obando.
Remember that before Guling-guling became a “Festival,” the locals, especially those of the earlier generations, did it neither for prizes nor for prestige, but all because it was meaningful to them. There was a feeling of “ownership” for the festival. Today, old women, who were the players of the original Guling-guling, just watch from the sidelines, and I am not sure if they are happy with what they see.
In an effort to make the festival grander, organizers and choreographers even fell into the trap of adopting elements from other festivals which are not exactly Paoay’s. I have heard some of the sounds somewhere, the sights elsewhere. To be fair though, the organizers, specifically Perry Dafun, the festival’s artistic director, tried, albeit not so successfully, to ensure that what they would show are only those which are theirs. When we share to the world something that is not our own, we share to the world our pretensions and lies.
Also, the performances lacked focus as all the contingents unmercifully tried to incorporate various aspects of Paoay history and culture: pre-spanish life, occupation and Christianization, construction of the Paoay church, the guling/smearing, and the making of dudol and basi. All of these in ten minutes? “AWWW,” was all that my fab friend Aian could say.
(Pasingit: Congratulations to my friend Rowell Tagatac who choreographed the performance which won first place in the showdown. I may not be a fan of the competition, but I am a big fan of Rowell, who was assisted by Lew Jerez and Chris Jimenez.)
And where is the joy? The Guling-Guling Festival is touted as the Asian version of the Mardi Gras, which is a very happy event. The Guling-guling main program, however, kicked off on a surreal note. The sun has set when the program started, and performers with candle lights did their rituals while eerie music filled the air. Then the town mayor urged the people, via a frightening voiceover, to repent and ask forgiveness for their sins. Isn’t that to be the order for the next day, Ash Wednesday? The Guling-guling ought to be festive as it is the last day before the season of Lent, the season of great sorrow begins. I do not say that it be decadent, I just say allow it to be really joyful. This is the reason why the cross smeared during the Guling-guling is white, not black. The same Christ who would be crucified on Good Friday could be a source of joy and rejoicing on Fat Tuesday.
For most of us in the audience, there was almost no joy. I should mention that the venue was designed, I hope not intentionally, in a manner that allows only the VIPs on stage to enjoy the performances. Common folks, like me and my balikbayan friend, had to see it from afaaar, where we could only see the upper bodies of the performers as there was a concrete fence which blocked our view. Aian and friend Mark, sat on the floor below the stage so they can see the performances, but security personnel repeatedly asked them to leave their lowly space. Aian and Mark stood their ground (or sat their ground?) and did not leave. Let me ask then, for whom is this festival really? Is it only for VIPs like politicians from the provincial level down to some forgettable barangay in an nth class municipality? How can we share it to the world when we cannot even share it generously to the locals?
Aian would later post this in his Facebook account: “If we intend to make Guling Guling a national and most likely global event, we should start accepting the truth that for most of the audience, it is very very very difficult to watch the festivities. Only a limited, chosen number of audience were able to view the showdown pieces from the front. Perhaps funding should be allotted for the construction of a festival grounds where performers, the general audience, and op cors VIPs would be given equal importance.”
I have the feeling that the Guling-guling remains a small-town festival. I am not sure what elements are missing, but it is still surely far from being an event tourists and fun-seeking people would care go to.
Much has to be done and undone so that the Guling-guling, which I still love and will still go to next year, won’t degenerate into yet another pretentious, confused, and forgettable chuva.