The 2011 Banaue Imbayah

Posted: April 28, 2011 in The Philippines
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With a rare twist of cultural luck, the Banaue district festival (called “Imbayah” in Filipino) started on Tuesday 26th April. And we were in town. The festival, patronised by all the local villages, takes place once every 4 years. We had definitely lucked it.

We awoke early, much to my jani’s consternation and protestation, at 7am to get up to catch the start of the procession. Alas it was late in reliable Asian style, so we sat around chatting to the staff until it kicked off at 8.20. The procession consists of a delegation from each of the 18 local villages in Banaue. Each village prepares at least 1 year in advance and it is a real source of pride for the people, a chance to demonstrate the unique culture and customs of their village. The procession starts at the bottom of town and winds its way through the streets, easy viewing from our guesthouse balcony.

In each delegation there are 2 sections: the first section comprises the chiefs (people dressed up as tribal chiefs and warriors) and the ‘security guards’ – carved wooden figures that protect the villagers; behind them is a trail of men and women dressed in traditional robes, singing and dancing and wearing the clothes of the land. Some are dressed as traditional peasant farmers and rice terrace workers, robed in simple sackcloth; others boast colourful outfits reflecting the heritage of their village and ancestry.

Village procession at Banaue Imbayah

Most of the second section for each village is full of children, both boys and girls. The girls march on one side of the road, the boys on the other – very much like a school disco. Except school discos don’t take place on roads, that would be dangerous. It was fascinating to look closely at the faces of the people as they passed; the face is supposedly the window to the soul and we also think it’s the window to the culture. The Filipino people are incredibly photogenic; the older men and women have warm, inviting faces and the children are beautiful. Most people wear eternal smiles that light up the day, so the occasional sour face really stands out. It was fun watching the parade to spot those poor souls who weren’t really feeling the love.

The noise from the street is deafening at times. The men beat primitive instruments. I don’t mean that to be patronising, it’s just that these instruments have been used for centuries in their villages, most of which are crudely hand carved from natural materials. The weapon of choice for the parade leaders is a bronze hand-held symbol that is rhythmically thrummed to create an intoxicating beat. The women clap hands, some coconut shells, to provide a complimentary percussion. The children clack small wooden shells and sway in time. It’s a hypnotic effect but after 2hours we were over it and opted for a little siesta before the afternoon’s shenanigans.

Children of the Banaue villages

Let the games begin

After the hullabaloo of the procession, the serious matter of competition begins. Each village competes in a series of events to gain prestige and also to have a lot of fun.The events are bizarre by our standards but that simply adds to the charm of the experience. Some of the games involved the ritual sacrifice of animals. First up was the wild pig, previously carted through town with its legs trussed up and its snout dangling free. The pig was slaughtered with a farmer’s blade and then it appeared that a drink was made of rice wine and blood. We’re not entirely sure but that is the verdict of our Slovenian friends who embibed the reddy mixture, those crazy Slavics. More fool them, perhaps they’ll be haunted by the ghostly spirit of the pig.

Less violent games involved the men competing in the central square with a series of sticks that they had to knock off of a playing arena. It was like lawn bowls with wooden sticks. The rice wine tasting excluded the audience much to my disappointment. I’d heard good things about the local fire water.

The most enjoyable part of the afternoon was walking amongst the throngs of excited locals, all adding to the unique atmosphere. Late afternoon we congregated by the main stage where a presentation was taking place. We didn’t understand the Filipino announcer and the English version was rather confusing. We got the parts thanking the former President for opening the festival and the Lord Major of the District for his presence. However, we were genuinely confused by the presence of a team of 6 people in blue branded polo shirts on stage. They were receiving a lot of adulation from the crowd and when they exited stage left, everyone queued to have their photos taken with them.

Unknown popular people in Banaue

I nudged Muneeza and asked her to get a photo out of curiosity. One of the team, a surprisingly tall man about my age, clocked the tourists and then headed over to speak to us. I maintain he was checking out Muneeza’s ample charms but she doth protest too much. He introduced himself as Phillip and asked us about our plans in the Philippines. He was a lovely chap and spoke fluent English, having spent quite a lot of time in London when he was younger. Stupidly I failed to ask who he was and why he was on stage, not through shyness but simply being too chilled to think. After he left, we then tried to work out who he was. We showed the photo to the staff at our guesthouse but they were nonplussed as well. So we now have a photo of someone perhaps important, perhaps not, but nonetheless popular in Banaue. I suggested to Muni that he is a celebrity, perhaps an actor or musician, hence the excitement amongst the younger spectators. Or maybe he’s the president’s son. Who knows, the mystery will endure.

A special occasion

It was an honour to be part of the festival. Many of the local Filipino people made the effort to explain to us what was happening and why. They are an incredibly friendly and hospitable people, reminding us of Indonesia. The villagers did everything with a sincere smile. Their faces are warm and kind and show a wisdom that is only gained by being at peace with yourself, your neighbours and nature. It was a wonderful day spent with wonderful people. This is our first taste of the Philippines and we love it.

Love jamer & muneeza x

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