Notes on the 2014 Tan-ok: Spotlight on stories

story conference b
Tan-ok choreographers and tourism officers from around Ilocos Norte
Aian Raquel, Tan-ok Creative Director
Aian Raquel, Tan-ok Creative Director

It’s November and all 23 cities and municipalities of Ilocos Norte are in full swing with their respective preparations for this year’s edition of the Tan-ok ni Ilocano Festival of Festivals happening on the 29th.

I highly anticipate this year’s Tan-ok as organizers have given premium on what I, together with well-meaning Ilocano culture advocates, have been wishing for in previous editions: faithfulness to the Ilocano story. Indeed, any self-respecting festival should have at its core the true story of its people who are celebrating greatness, be it of an object, food, event, or any phenomenon.

Last October 24, your karikna was invited by Aian Raquel, the event’s creative director, to serve as resource speaker in a story workshop participated in by choreographers from the various towns and cities. With the exception of a few who failed to attend, I was glad with the receptiveness of the participants.

I delivered a brief lecture on the history and culture of Ilocanos but not after making a clear caveat that everything that I was to say in the workshop was my own insights as a fan who happens to have some knowledge of Ilocano culture and history, and not of the Tan-ok management. I also said that they are not obliged to heed my humble recommendations.

At the onset, I stressed to the participants that artists like them are powerful personas. They, in fact, could even be more influential than politicians, for they shape their people’s consciousness, help them define their identity, and empower them to preserve their heritage while embracing evolution and change. Any artist who sees his value only by the trophies he has won is underestimating, even insulting, himself.

In the course of making the presentation entertaining and winnable, overeager choreographers either in the guise of claiming artistic license or sheer arrogance and plain ignorance, twist and alter the story to the extent that it is rendered unrecognizable by the people who supposedly own it.

Most notorious, of course, in fictionalizing stories is Laoag City’s Pamulinawen Festival. Ironically, it has, over the past four years, brought home 3 championship trophys, lording over the competition since 2012.  Over the years, Pamulinawen has been portrayed as blacksmith trade (2011), courtship (2012), and songwriting (2013). In the Mini Tan-ok Dance Competition last February, Pamulinawen was interpreted as cockfighting.

In terms of wealth, both in terms of financial and human resources, Laoag, the city I live in and love over and above any place on earth, arguably has the upper hand. I wish that choreographers will finally zero in on a proper story which will properly shape and define the Pamulinawen Festival which still badly pales in comparison, mainly on account of lack of consistency and character, to more established festivals across the nation. Unfortunately, Laoag was the only group which decided not to talk about their storyline during the workshop.

But why has Laoag consistently won?

Aside from the superb artistry of its contingent, at the heart of Laoag’s success are clear and engaging stories. Whether those stories are real or not, however, is another thing.

The problem always with the board of judges is that they come here in Ilocos hours, a day at most, before the event, and they have basically no time to investigate whether or not the presentations are historically truthful and culturally relevant. They may be experts in dance, stage plays, or modeling, but knowledge of Ilocano culture is something that cannot be obtained overnight.

Let me note some festivals which caught my ear during the workshop. I promise to discuss about other towns in next articles.

First is Pasuquin’s Panagasin (saltmaking) which laments having consistently placed poorly in the competition. They will now, instead, showcase the Sunflower Festival, the oldest organized gay parade in Asia.

Then there’s Bacarra which previously did Bac-bacarra in celebration of “bukto” a freshwater fish. But who cares about fish when you go to Bacarra? This year, they will celebrate balikbayans and overseas Ilocanos whose grand mansions, some of them cake-colored, are monuments of success. There are now over 10 million Filipinos across the globe, and this wave of outward migration started in Ilocos.

Vintar wanted to shift the spotlight from their mighty hawk Siwawer to its newfound stature as rice granary of the province. But rice planting is an all-too-generic plot, and I’m sure the audience will badly miss the highly anticipated big bird. And so the choreographers decided to let the Siwawer continue soaring high on the 29th.

And then there’s Batac, which will have a major revision in the story. Previously, their tale was ludicrous to say the least. It went this way: there was hardship after World War II, and the Batacqueños found ways to deal with famine and starvation. A family of good cooks started to make a delicacy which could be a complete meal, using what is readily available in the agricultural lands and their poultries. This family produced what we now know as the Batac Empanada.

The question is, if you are already starving and distraught, why even bother to cook something that entails a lot of time to prepare, and not to mention ingredients which do not exactly come cheap? Why not just eat kamutig or corn, or maybe lugaw with some nutritious herbs?

This is the new story: The Batac empanada was prepared by some local women to satisfy the cravings of Illustrados who had a penchant for Spanish food. The local women, however, invented a unique crust and, for the filling, made use of locally available ingredients such as the longanisa, monggo, papaya, and egg.

This new story, to me, is more sound, and while this might imply that we were just taken for a ride in years past, any effort towards truthfulness is always welcome.

The empanada, of course, is a foreign import, and it is difficult to imagine that Ilocanos integrated it in their own culture and embraced it as their own fifty years after the Spaniards left. And, as mentioned, it is food more fit for the privileged than the destitute and dying.

With the illustrados as main actors in Batac’s presentation, they have reportedly chosen only the most good looking men and women in town to play the part.

In closing let me say that the joy of performing and truthfulness in storytelling are oftentimes sacrificed in the quest for the grand prize, but truth, dear karikna, is, and has always been in a broader spectrum of the universe, its own reward.

Author: Herdy La. Yumul

A hesitant academic pimp, writer

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