A sustained whistle followed by three successive short blows signals the beginning of a multi-sensorial feast. Consider the tribal warrior covered in paint wearing fire-colored headdress making aggressive steps towards the center. Behind him, the tribe members aim their arrows at you: together, they kick, jump and roll with the brute force of an exploding volcano. Movement after movement, in synch to the beat of 70 drums they tell different stories: the journey of island natives from animism to Christianity, the triumph of good over evil, the pain of unrequited love, or the price of war and tribal conflict.
Are they the same people you see everyday in the streets of Iloilo? Don’t blink now because the show you are seeing is just a prelude to the greater Ilonggo story that continues to unfold before the eyes of the world.
On any regular day before Dinagyang, a visitor will likely notice the laid-back, small-city vibe of Iloilo. Food and language contribute to this unhurried atmosphere: the sing-song quality of Hiligaynon projects Ilonggos as a very affectionate, gentle people; while the hearty goodness of Pancit Molo and Lapaz Batchoy is meant to be savored slowly.
The Ilonggo in me find it interesting that every fourth Sunday of January, we shed our usual laid-back disposition and allow another facet of our collective identity to shine through. As performers, we dance to the beat of drums – unrestrained in our pursuit of fun, devotion, and thanksgiving in the company of our visitors. As spectators, we erupt in applause at the sight of jaw-dropping choreography and artistic, colorful props – always appreciative of the visual banquet laid down before us.
Last Sunday was the first time I experienced Dinagyang after nine years. Many things have changed – the choreography, music, even the commercial aspect of the celebration. But even with all these changes, I’m happy to see that the foundation of the festival remains very strong. Dinagyang after all, does not only tell the story of the Atis – our ancestors and earliest settlers of Panay. It also manifests a vision of a progressive future built on strong ilonggo values of cooperation and unity – the same values that make this festival unforgettable.