Dear Mesdames and Messieurs:

Thank you for accepting the noble task of sitting as judges in the Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival of Festivals. You were, of course, chosen on account of your sterling credentials and unquestioned integrity.

I argue that no singular activity has raised awareness of and pride in Ilocano greatness more than the two-year old Tan-ok. With tens of thousands of people watching it live and many more witnessing it on television and online, it is no doubt the most witnessed event in Ilocos Norte history.

It is a wonderful activity worth every centavo (or million) spent for it, and Governor Imee Marcos is right to push for this showdown of the respective festivals of every Ilocos Norte town and city. Its return of investment cannot be quantified; in fact, it is priceless. The greatness of the performances on stage permeates the consciousness of our people, who in turn reflect and multiply greatness in their respective spheres of influence.

I have one concern though, and this is on truthfulness. Some groups have won in previous years because the performances were really artistic and entertaining though lacking in authenticity while some authentic festivals lost mainly because they were dull and unexciting.

Ilocos Norte Tourism Officer and Tan-ok organizing committee head Ianree Raquel wrote an article for The Ilocos Times when he was still an arts instructor in a state university. It was aptly titled “Awe inspiring but untruthful.” During a municipal fiesta, he witnessed a festival performance which, he observed, gave primacy to entertainment over truthfulness, artistic license over cultural integrity. His essay, excerpts of which follow, details the same words I wish to convey.

“In the midst of awe with the spectacles unfolding one after another, I begun asking: Where did these stories come from? Am I watching stories by and of our people? Is this Ilocano culture, history, tradition? Or, am I watching loose, misguided offshoots of the “creative” mind?

“It was difficult to battle with the visual spectacle because, oftentimes, what we visually perceive cloud critical perception.

“Understanding performance should not stop at enjoyment for its own sake. I believe it is not enough to just dismiss a production as “boring” or “entertaining!” To do so would default the claim of the organizers, as announced by the host, that the festivities showcase Ilocano culture, tradition, and history.

“Nonetheless, in our efforts to promote our image as Filipinos with a rich and authentic culture on a globalized stage, a more critical attitude towards the construction and presentation of our “stories” is of great essence.

“Of course, one might readily say that these were just stories. And in the context of artistic license, one might claim freedom- that with the intention to ‘create,’ and to ‘contemporise,’ it is the prerogative of the director, choreographer, or writer to use an uncanny conflict

“Yet, in the midst of awe with the spectacles unfolding one after another, I begun asking: Where did these stories come from? Am I watching stories by and of our people? Is this Ilocano culture, history, tradition? Or, am I watching loose, misguided offshoots of the ‘creative’ mind?

“Innovation is not at all wrong. But training artists to be sensitive, respectful, and knowledgeable about the dance forms, and stories, they stage, will significantly contribute to the celebrations of fiestas, making the audience appreciate culture and history in their rightful contexts.” (End of quote)

Raquel was referring to the Empanada Festival of Batac which won the grand prize in the Tan-ok’s November 2011 debut. Let me clarify that he wrote the prophetic article in 2009. The then young academic noticed the “uncanny conflict between balot and empanada.” He also raised doubts whether “the empanda was invented due to the will to survive scarcity, when the quintessentially frugal Ilocanos would not think of using papaya or beans for empanada because there is, obviously, a more practical dish to prepare—the dinengdeng. …More so, pulverising rice for pinais instead of cooking it plain, or perhaps lugaw.

Last year, Laoag City’s Pamulinawen Festival bagged the crown. Choreographed by nationally acclaimed dance guru Christian Espiritu for whom I have very high respect and admiration, the presentation was spectacular! It kept me smiling after watching it. Sweet! But the smile would soon wear off, and that was when I began to ask, is this sweet story really our story?

To begin with, Pamulinawen itself is a questionable festival, for it was created with no clear historical and cultural roots in the City of Laoag. It sprouted out of nowhere in the mid-90s as a response to the well-established festivals in other parts of the country. Laoaguenos cannot associate themselves with it, and all they know is that it is a song which, in fact, originated, not in Laoag, but in another town. Being the most popular Ilocano song, Pamulinawen was chosen as the festival name, with high hopes that it would provide a good brand and good recall.

So, what is the Pamulinawen? Because it is virtually meaningless to the people for whom the festival was invented, interpretation became an open field for artists. This led to a manufacturing of facts and meanings. During the first Tan-ok, the presentation was about blacksmiths in Laoag, a place never known and distinguished for blacksmiths. It was a poorly research, poorly executed presentation which merited a poor finish for Ilocos Norte’s capital. For all its vaunted resources—human and economic—Laoag, out of the 23 participating municipalities and cities, did not even land in the top ten.

Pamulinawen Festival at the Tan-ok 2012
Pamulinawen Festival at the Tan-ok 2012

Last year was a complete turnaround for Laoag. It won first place as its contingent interpreted Pamulinawen as a love song. The plot related the story of difficult courtship, with the man trying various things to win a girl like offering a bountiful harvest, doing the harana (serenade) and giving flowers—none of which would work. The young man felt sad but was determined to win the maiden’s heart. Eventually, he discovered the secret to winning the girl: he prayed to St. William the Hermit, the city’s patron, and what immediately followed was Pamulinawen’s sweet ‘yes’.

St. William the Hermit as patron of courtship? Gimme a break.
St. William the Hermit as patron of courtship? Gimme a break.

It was a nice plot which was elaborately, magically staged, except that the story is not really ours. Certainly, it was not even St. William’s. If only the Laoag storytellers would do even the laziest research, they would find out that being a hermit, St. William is not exactly known for love and matchmaking. He, in fact, turned his back on the world and lived in solitude in the mountains. If only he could speak, maybe he would remark, “Haandak iramraman dita man. Nananahimik ako dito.”

These said, dear judges, the weight of responsibility is on your broad shoulders to sift through truth from lies, to draw the line between artistic license and plain deceit, to distinguish well-defined, culturally rooted festivals from the pure imagination of a manipulative few. As outsiders, you have the distinct opportunity to look at the Tan-ok Festival with objectivity, and that allows you to help us shape our own festivals and rediscover ourselves in the process. A lie told often enough becomes the truth, warns Lenin. Tan-ok performances should not just tell good stories, they must present OUR story. The lies must stop being told, fictionalization of ourselves must not be warranted, and more so in a grand scale as that of the Tan-ok.

Your job then does not begin when you sit down on December 6 in your elevated seats at the Marcos Stadium. Judging what is truthful and authentic entails a lot more work, for at the core of a good cultural presentation is not gracefulness in dancing nor gigantic props and glittering costumes, but a story—a true story of a people’s true greatness.

Again, thank you. I strongly wish to see this year’s Tan-ok as I did in the past two years, but I am currently on vacation abroad. Wherever I may be that night, my heart and mind will be with my people, and wishing that only our true stories be celebrated and told.

Dios ti mangtarabay kadakayo.


Herdy La. Yumul and other Ilocanos in search of cultural integrity



Author: Herdy La. Yumul

A hesitant academic pimp, writer

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