I remember as a kid going to my town's "Harvest Festival", generally held the last week of August, just before we packed off for a new school year, which in the U.S. starts in early September. The festival was great fun. They'd block off Main Street in town and the carnival people would come in with their game booths and portable Ferris wheels and merry go rounds. For a kid, it didn't get much better than that.
As the town got swallowed up by a rapidly growing city, Denver, Colorado, to be exact, the farmlands got swallowed up by housing developments, miles and miles of them, plastering the plains with wood and brick boxes all the way to the Rocky Mountains, and onward east toward Nebraska.
Somewhere along the way, the Harvest Festival lost its relevance. The name was changed and it became a street carnival, somehow detached from its origins of crops harvested and stored or shipped, and money in the bank. Then it just died.
The reason? The plowed fields were gone and the joy of the harvest was gone. The harvest meant a lot to the agricultural community. But agriculture was bought out, the farmers left or died, and the festival became a cheap, junky traveling carnival hosting gangs and druggies and drunks.
Yet fiestas remain big in the Philippines. Very big. There must be a reason. And the reason must still exist.
Perhaps it is found in the drums, pounding today on hypersonic amplifiers that bounce the thumps off the surrounding buildings. Hell, some nights the thumping bounces off the nearby mountains.
I once watched the fiesta parade in Gingoog City, in Mindanao. Area schools competed in a street-dancing competition judged during the parade. Winning prize, P30,000.There were six different groups the day I watched. It was fantastic. Amazing creativity went into the costuming and choreography, the same story told six times through six different creative visions. The winner featured a fantastic opening where about 50 dancers somehow crammed into a gigantic ball surrounded by huge feathers, colored nipa palm branches. The pounding music began and the dancers exploded out like the fast-motion photography of a flower in blossom. Golden bronze warriors with blond hair and loincloths pounced across the street, twirling and stomping, raising the energy so high that you could get lost in the moment.
The common story is of love, of course, and conquest. You know it better than me.
I imagine it was like that around a huge fire in the forest so many centuries ago. A small world, defined by darkness. The black night held at bay by the blazing yellow fire light. Dancers glistening in sweaty splendor as they pounded around the fire to the beat of tribal drums. The dancers told the same story as today, older than their grandparent's grandparents. Feathered spears jabbed upward, angry, defiant, victorious. The elders sat together babbling in toothless tuba-stoked joy, the women held babies in their arms and fretted over the cooking fires.
Well, it's baaaaack!
Fiesta time is here again here, in the big city. The bands are out rehearsing at odd hours of the morning or night. They use cut-off oil drums and big sticks of wood to work up a fine, loud, throbbing beat. And somewhere, for some reason, off over there, an electronic beat, amped to max, is throbbing another everlasting story of love, conquest, and victory. Thumping, thumping, thumping until four in the morning.
Somewhere creative people are once again putting together choreography for their dancers. Walking through the rehearsals. Soon, we will get the seasonal tents springing up all over town, selling mostly cheap things, tin ware, clothing, plastic goods.
Then on the final day, visitors from across the Philippines will flood in to partake of the main event. Eating.
Every door in town is open wide to anybody. Every guest is served the fiesta meal as graciously as the mayor is served. Need is set aside for a mammoth day of kindness and spiritual unity and generosity. Those who have, share. Those who don't have, help out. Heh, or just stop by. And everybody eats big time.
Why is my Harvest Festival long dead, but the Philippine fiesta lives on, strong and loud?
Here's a guess.
Because the Philippines has yet to find a modern passion anywhere near the joy of a tribal dance. If the One Man Band or Lady Gaga do the music instead of a bunch of mostly naked drummers, so what? It is the spirit, the pounding, that matters, not the tune. In the Philippines, there is no wealth to aim for. No war to march off to. No grand patriotic vision. But always trials and tribulations, the roots of soul and music around the world.
Pound them into oblivion with drums and bass.
In that regard, the Philippines is still a collection of tribes, not a nation. It is a nation still dancing in the firelight.
Most people don't live in the wilds any more, but a good many still cook over a fire. And they spend their days with their friends and neighbors, not worrying about impeachments or even Chinese gunboats. And they play their music loud.
The modern era of Philippine national history has largely been one of submission. To Spaniards, to Americans. To Japanese. Liberated with help from the Americans, at the cost of a destroyed Manila. Then a dictator, Marcos. Since Marcos, ruled by cheaters, the powerful and the corrupt.
The "free" and genuinely independent Philippines is still non-existent, a figment of people's imagination unfulfilled by patriotic bonds. The nation is not even born yet, if you think about it that way. It is trapped in the darkness by thieves and lackluster productivity. And leaders taking advantage of their power.
Patriotic spirit is hard to summon if your leaders command no deep respect.
Security and bonding here have always been found closer to home, in the family, and the tribe. Not the national government. Even today, with Ampatuan Senior in jail, his representatives are (allegedly) out murdering the witnesses who might testify against him. His tribe remains strong and lethal, defying the national government. Mayors of Davao City and Cebu run their cities as kingdoms. They are the law. Not those pantywaists in the Palace.
President Aquino bowed to the powerful locals who wanted to keep their private militias. The nation bowed to the tribal leaders.
Today the family names still dominate government offices, handed down, one to the other on fierce local loyalties. That's why the names Marcos and Estrada and Arroyo and Aquino live on, no matter the scandal or shame. It is why three senators once plotted coups, yet serve today, elected by those who value history and the comfort of whom they know above democratic valor and even competence.
Democratic purity pounds no drums, in the Philippines. Nor does getting things done productively. The Constitution is a document, not a passion. It lights no fires in the soul.
Tribal loyalty, close to home, is where the fires burn.
And yet. And yet, I sense something is changing. Modest perhaps. Found in the maturity of an impeachment carried out in lieu of murder or a coup. Of a bill providing freedom of information based on the principle that government is owned by the people, not the other way around. Of the HR Bill beginning to move again through the Senate, perhaps on the profound realization by the old folks (Senator Enrile and his band) that people are watching carefully, and the senators' legacy rides on modernization. Not staying inept.
Will fiestas disappear? Ha ha. Not in my lifetime, nor yours. But the way things are going, I suspect more and more people will turn to the national leadership and say, "yes, I buy into this".
"This is a nation I don't have to apologize for, or make excuses for. I don't need to cheer a boxer or singer. I can cheer my country, the Philippines. MY country."
THAT may be Mr. Aquino's biggest contribution to the Philippines, if he continues constructive acts. The establishment of a national allegiance stronger than local loyalties. Perhaps one day the history books will record this simple achievement:
He molded a nation from a gathering of tribes.