Festival Location: Philippines, Central Luzon
Nueva Ecija, Philippines: Home of Araquio
by: © Eva Goyena 2003
Araquio festival - one of its kind in the Philippines, and maybe in the world as well. It is Nueva Ecija's very own theatrical-cum-religious presentation likened to that of the zarzuelas during the Spaniards regime in the country. Nueva Ecija is a province in Central Luzon, also known as the rice granary of the Philippines as it produces one-third of the country's rice supply.
Araquio festival is traditionally held in the month of May in this province, but through the initiative of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), we were able to enjoy the festival this February as we celebrated the arts month. Together with the NCCA press staff, we headed to the Cabanatuan City (the government seat of Nueva Ecija), where all the Araquio performing groups were gathered.
Having no prior knowledge about this festival, I looked forward to street party celebrations featuring unique styles of ethnic origins, something like that of Iloilo's Dinagyang. We left Manila for Cabanatuan City before 6 in the morning to catch up on the parade of Araquio participants, which was supposed to start at 8:30 a.m.. But traffic in the north expressway caused by sporadic downpour caused us to be late by almost an hour. Thanks to the rain though, the parade was cancelled and this saved us from the disgrace of coming late. Sadly, the venue for the festival proper was transferred from the town plaza called Freedom Park to the gymnasium of the Nueva Ecija National High School, hassling the propsmen and carpenters in moving and fixing yet again the stage backdrop.
Because of the weather caused-trouble Araquio was rescheduled to start in the afternoon, and this gave us plenty of time to roam the city. Crammed in the NCCA van, we set off for the Philippine Rice Institute (better known as PhilRice), the establishment that was instrumental in developing Nueva Ecija the rice granary of Central Luzon. PhilRice revealed to us the secrets of Tapuy, a locally prepared rice wine adapted from the recognized rice wine of the Ifugaos. At present Tapuy is still in the development stage and not yet commercially available; however the institute already trains local residents interested in making rice wine their business.
Processing of Tapuy from inoculation to bottling takes 2 months. With elements all natural, this rice wine undergoes even natural fermentation process that brings in sugar and alcohol. The final product, which is clear when fresh but discolors when stored, turning almost soy sauce-color after 3 years, tastes halfway of white wine and gin. Containing 14 to 16% alcohol, Tapuy is best if chilled and two months after preparation.
While onboard the van from the PhilRice to the community center where lunch buffets awaited us, I learned my first facts about Araquio. Some school officials were with us, and one of them said that Araquio actually came from the name "Heraclio" which was the name of a bishop during the time of Constantine. At the center while having lunch I was wowed with the colorful costumes of performers fixing up themselves, then I found myself getting acquainted with Araquio step by step.
Araquio features no painted bodies but vibrant attires of the Christians and Muslims--blue, black, yellow, white, and the prevailing color of red. To distinguish between the Christians and Muslims, one needs a keen eye on details. The designs and color combinations of the clothes especially for women are similar, the only distinction is the use of sash they called "banda" for the Christian women and of feathered headdress for the Muslim women. For male performers the Christians wore a combination of blue pants and white top or blue top in black pants, while Muslims wore pure red costumes highlighted by a feathered headdress like that of their women counterparts.
Before long, we found ourselves listening to the brass bands playing timeless songs, which include "Don’t Cry for Me Argentina." It was already four in the afternoon and we were seated at the gym of Nueva Ecija National High School, waiting for the propsmen to finish putting up the stage backdrop that was first sited at the plaza. Hurrah, it was the start of Araquio!
A weeklong festival recreating the expansion of Christianity and the war between Christians and Muslims, Araquio dates back from the Spanish colonial period. The festival features vivacious beats of brass bands, spirited choreography and moving voices embraced with a daunting literary piece. Written in ancient Tagalog, the script tells about the feud of the Muslims and Christians that started over territories. It shows how Christians used the power of the cross symbolizing their faith in defeating the Muslims, who later retaliated by way of stealing the cross from them. Many battles preceded the retrieval of the cross, which in the end led to the Christening of the Muslims.
Normally, there are 16 performers in each Araquio group, nine of them are Christians led by the Reyna (Queen) Elena and Haring (King) Constantine. The Reyna Elena has two loyal servants in the person of Laida and Blanca. The rest are their soldiers with the names of Alberto, Arsenio, Rosauro, Fernando and Leonato. The Muslim group, on the other hand, is composed of seven people, led by Ordalisa or Erlisa and the Emperor. They have Emir, Dublar, Marmolin, Engras and Sagmar as soldiers. These performers sing, act and dance while the band plays. The choice of songs and choreography depends on the master/ director of the group, but the script remained faithfully followed since the tradition started. Another standard thing in this festival is the requirement of stage ---whether made of concrete or indigenous materials, as long as the performers would be elevated.
The first Araquio presentation took place in the town of Penaranda, Nueva Ecija 122 years ago. According to Francisco Vergara Padilla, the master/director of Araquio group in the barangay of Sto.Tomas in Peñaranda, they continue the tradition not just because their forefathers bestowed it unto them but also because it develops into a thanksgiving ceremony for all graces they continuously receive. He explained that this tradition has also the power to heal the sick. On the presentation, when the Christians defeated the Muslims they would find many pieces of cross and the only way to know which of these is legitimate is to ask a sick audience to pick the one he or she thinks is real. The sick person is considered healed once he or she picks the cross, regardless of which is which.
Brass bands are indispensable in the festival that during the time modern musical instruments weren't available yet the bands used indigenous materials like bamboos. Mr. Padilla said that during his grandfather's time they had been using basins and utensils as substitutes. Crowd participation is also present in Araquio, in fact the audience can join in the middle of the presentation. The performers would continue their choreography but pause their dialogues to give way to the dancing audience as the band plays on.
Aside from Mr. Padilla, we were able to interview three other Araquio connoisseurs whose ages are from 50 to 60. But however old they are, they could not trace back the original composer and actor in the festival. All they could remember was that a certain Leon Estanislao who lived not more 50 years ago enlivened this tradition in their town.
Araquio is usually presented in May, during town fiesta ---the feast of the Cross. Because the date of the feast varies from one town to another, Nueva Ecija can be considered an Araquio province in the month of May. This festival starts with a Eucharistic Mass celebration and ends with the ever-elaborate Flores de Mayo. Each performing group is given a day or two to perform in the town plaza, and thus it becomes a weeklong presentation when there are many groups lined-up. Funding the performance has never been a problem for the groups, as it has turned into a spiritual vow of many local wealthy families to sponsor the festival. Sponsors, called hermana or hermano give no less than fifty thousand pesos. If we were interested to sponsor them, Mr. Padilla teased, we would have to line up for the 2003 sponsors because even next year's festival has already a complete list of sponsors.
So who would resist a travel to Nueva Ecija in May? You can contact the provincial government of Nueva Ecija to find out which towns in which days celebrate Araquio.
Araquio festival is traditionally held in the month of May in Nueva Ecija, a province in Central Luzon.