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Ati-atihan Festival

Festival Location: Philippines, Kalibo, Aklan
Article Title: Ati-Atihan Festival
by: © Ian Watson

The noise strikes you first. It's thick, heavy, relentless, a bone-rattling clamour that fills every available inch of airspace. It sounds like the march of a thousand jackbooted skeletons on their way to pay a visit on someone unpleasant, like the dentist or the taxman. Your brain takes it in as an all encompassing roar initially, but gradually the different rhythms and tempos become apparent. Over here an intricate staccato. Over there a dull thud. Right over there a mixture of the two but at twice the speed.

Then come the colours, vivid tropical splashes that suggest fire, anger and passion. There's the yellows of a hundred mansized sunflowers, bobbing and singing in the blazing January sun, waving spears like going to war was a cause for celebration. There's the reds and oranges of a horde of tribal peacocks, their ornate feathers spread wide in a show of strength and elegance. And there's the silvers of the traditional "Blue Peter" battle dress, seemingly fashioned from silver foil and egg boxes. Everywhere you look, there's more to see, more to absorb, more to lose yourself in.

This is the Ati-Atihan, the celebrated Filipino Mardi Gras that marks both thanksgiving and the anniversary of the purchase of the island Panay by Malaysian immigrants from the indigenous Ati tribespeople. Every year, hundreds of thousands of revellers flock to help throw one of the planet's most exhilarating street parties, and find themselves being smeared with mud for their trouble. Strangers rush up, black goo in hand, and provide an impromptu makeover, leaving some with Adam Ant stripes and others with new identities. All in the name of Ati-Atihan: "making like the Ati".

Right now, though, the carnival looks like one of those scenes from the Asterix books where opposing Roman phalanxes marched head-to-head into conflict. The only difference is that the banners fluttering above each faction don't represent the latest Imperial Emperor, but the names of local businesses. It appears the Philippines believe Ati-Atihan will bring good trading to those who participate and so every entry from the south east Asian Yellow Pages has turned out in force. And everyone else has come to cheer them on. God knows what would happen if there was a plumbing disaster in a nearby village. Nothing most likely. For days and days.

All human life is here, from the cradle to the grave. A group of employees in matching t-shirts from Rachelle Mac Garments wave broomsticks with sets of baby outfits on them and a sign that reads "We dress the baby's (sic) in the world!" Advertising abounds. There are plugs for electric co-ops, engineering companies, Mountain Dew fizzy drink, Dutch Boy paint ("Looks Always New"!), Gold Crown beer, enough logos to give Naomi Klein screaming fits. And wandering around, like refugees from the far off Mexican Day Of The Dead, are two guys in skull masks and skeleton boiler suits carrying painted scythes. One holding hands sweetly with his five year old son.

In the evening, Ati-Atihan takes a turn for the unhinged, with the crowds flocking to an open air bullring-type structure in the middle of the Panay capital of Kalibo. We laugh at a sign on the way in that sternly announces that "guns should be left at the door", but find ourselves thanking joyless council officials everywhere once we get inside. Chaos isn't the word for it. Hundreds of people mill around, beers in hand, slowly generating friction in a country usually defined by generosity and calm. A group of lady boys receive stormy glances from some sozzled blokes and suddenly a guy bursts through the crowd clutching a bloody stab wound in his chest. The police move in before we've had time to blink and a bloke is dragged shouting and kicking to a wooden cage in the centre of the bullring where he's deposited next to another forlorn looking felon. And as quickly as the fracas blows up, it's gone again, to be replaced by the resilient cheer of the party atmosphere.

Different nights bring different events to the bullring. The first evening we find a beauty pageant in full swing, with hopefuls parading onstage in tasteful ceremonial dress in the hope of becoming Miss Ati-Atihan. A choice is made and the MC announces that a big shot politician from Manila will be bestowing the honours. A ten minute, "This Is Your Life"-style resume of the MPs greatest achievements follows, to much muttering and shuffling of feet, until the MC finally has to admit, "but sadly he can't be here tonight, so here's his son. . ." As a moment that speaks volumes about the Philippines, it's as ramshackle and endearing as they get. Ati-Atihan shrugs and parties on.

Night two is music night and it's here that we encounter the much lauded "snake dance". Images of the Chinese New Year colliding head on with strange voodoo rituals quickly dissipate as about fifty fast moving congas break out around us. Meanwhile, onstage, a bizarre battle of the bands is unfolding. A super laidback New Orleans type brass band lurch through a magnificently dog tired song and at the last note a guy with a bontempi organ kicks off with a chirpy Blackpool pier effort. The snake dancers love The Bontempi King the best, becoming increasingly frenzied as the tunes get cheesier, but at the slightest hint of the end of a song the brass band kick in and the power is wrest back. The stylistic volley creaks on well into the early hours, leaving the guys in the cage to grow more and more depressed.

Day three sees revellers flock to the churches to purify their souls and we're amazed to discover that the services are in English as well as the local tongue. Like the kind-hearted souls the carnival was named after, it seems Ati-Atihan puts its visitors' welfare right up there with its own. If only someone had warned us about the 70 per cent gin. Now that would've been generosity.

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