Bacolod, Philippines

A Festival to Laugh at Tragedy

Masskara time
Bright choreography of one of the groups participating in MassKara's street competition.
On my way
Young competitors aboard a jeepney, the Philippines' national vehicle.
Andro Masskara
Two of the many transgender dancers who, year after year, liven up Bacolod's MassKara festivals.
Venetian style
Mask of an intervening group. In artisanal times, masks were influenced by the Carnival of Venice and even Rio de Janeiro.
dance & color
Lush costume and mask during a street MassKara exhibition.
just a test
Girl tries on one of the many masks on sale during the festival.
a serious faint
A young participant in the street parade is assisted after going into convulsions due to the heat and humidity, both of which are even higher inside the masks and suits.
Masks and costumes of one of the barangays competition participants.
other faces
Motorized police try to contain the enthusiasm of the public that had already narrowed the procession too much.
Deep inside
MassKarado featured in the midst of a colorful troupe of plush dancers.
Around 1980, the value of sugar, an important source of wealth on the Philippine island of Negros, plummeted and the ferry “Don Juan” that served it sank and took the lives of more than 176 passengers, most of them from Negrès. The local community decided to react to the depression generated by these dramas. That's how MassKara arose, a party committed to recovering the smiles of the population.

Two-thirty on a Sunday afternoon arrives. Since dawn, the usual Turkish bath in the rainy season has warmed and the tropical atmosphere has become more oppressive. We didn't know why but it was at that hour in the greenhouse that the MassKara Festival, one of the newest festivals in the Philippines, was about to start.

MassKara was born out of suffering. Suffering ran through him as in so many others Philippine spiritual purging rituals. Bacolod, the secular capital of Negros, remained in its sedated mode. The streets, compared to the days of work, almost deserted. This until we turned a corner and bumped into the calm that preceded the storm.

A battalion of MassKarados occupies the asphalt. He is surrounded by a crowd of supporters of family and friends, of onlookers eager to delve into the parade's exposed backstage. And for enhancing your selfie collection.

We emulate the errant movements of these meddlers. We walked down the street, paying attention to the extras' peculiarities. A common link, more subtle than we could imagine, catches our attention. Filipino ladyboys abounded there, the baklas as the population calls them, in a somewhat pejorative way, participants of the local transgender community.

Transgender dancers, Masskara festival, Bacolod, Philippines

Two of the many transgender dancers who, year after year, liven up Bacolod's MassKara festivals.

The Bonanza that Precedes the Storm

As we walk, we scrutinize their androgynous faces and fragile bodies, molded to feminine precepts and as white as they could become. In return, those targeted contemplate our lenses with their gaze lost between the shyness and seduction of protagonism, pouting and mischievous smiles, hip adjustments and other poses of street models.

Throughout this strange preamble, they share an obvious good mood, aware that they will soon have to submit to the suffocation of their masks and suits.

The end of that street leads to a much wider one, Lizares. Bacolod was there in weight, divided into two opposite sides by stretched ropes that kept the asphalt walkway free.

A song with an accelerated and convulsive electronic rhythm serves as a separator from a series of others, somewhat less distressed, sung in tagalog, the national Philippine dialect. It serves to compartmentalize different phases of the parade which, in the meantime, had started a few dozen meters upstream from where we were.

MassKara Festival, Bacolod City, Philippines

Bright choreography of one of the groups participating in MassKara's street competition.

At a glance, successive waves of dancers in different eccentric, gaudy, fuzzy or other types of costumes appear dancing down the road.

One or more experienced dance choreographers guide us. Some, awarded, are disputed. Year after year, they strive to make their barangays (neighborhoods), companies or schools win the street competition. Accordingly, they react angrily to every harmful interference from the public or photographers.

According to Jesus Panoy Cabalcar: the King Choreographer of the MassKara Festival

According to Jesus "cloth” Cabalcar, one of them, better known as “Sir Panoy” holds the record for triumphs at the MassKara Festival. They are, neither more nor less than twenty-one victories, divided between different barangays and schools: 29, Estefania, Pahanocoy, Villamonte, Alijis, Mandalagan, 17, 16. He was still behind the triumph of the ETCS3 elementary school.

Dancer at the MassKara festival, Bacolod, Philippines

Lush costume and mask during a street MassKara exhibition.

The whole island has its dancers and choreographers in high regard. It pays tribute to them year after year, for the unconditional delivery they show – many since their debut – and for the merit of making the festival the iconic moment of Bacolod.

The procession we followed is just one of a series of events at the MassKara Festival. It also has the sister competition of arena.

And with MassKara Beauty Queens and dance, drumming and gastronomy contests, music concerts, sporting events and even an agricultural fair.

A bunch of Filipino photographers and videographers precede the procession. We join the clan. Like them, we are dedicated to recording the action as best as possible without disrupting its flow.

Choreography of the MassKara Festival, Bacolod, Negros, Philippines

MassKarado featured in the midst of a colorful troupe of plush dancers.

For almost two hours, we did it backwards. We enjoyed the choreographies ahead, to avoid tripping over the crowd that crossed the procession or anticipated it.

The Commotion and the Inevitable Tropical Suffocation of MassKara

All this agitation and human friction seemed to heat the already saturated air more and more. Who suffered were the parades. After a while, some of them appeared to complain and even stagger. Certain more cautious choreographers and assistants sprayed their faces through their masks and helped them to ventilate.

Not all dancers received this care. One of them, androgynous like so many others, goes into convulsions right in front of us.

Fainting of participant at MassKara Festival, Bacolod, Philippines

Young participant of street parade is assisted after going into convulsions due to heat and humidity, both even higher inside masks and suits

Family members and members of your group help you. First, inside an event support van. Until rescuers realize that the stuffy interior of the van only aggravates his distress and transfer him to the seat of a tricycle designed to collect costumes and masks.

Saved the due proportions, the hardship and the scene lived by that young effeminate boy made us remember the past by Christ during the Via Crucis. And this is another event that Filipinos – the only major Catholic nation in Asia – are keen to re-enact all over the country, holy week after holy week. But it was October. This month, Negros used all his belief in the therapeutic effects of the MassKara Festival.

From the wreck of the MV Don Juan  to the Painful Counter Peak of Sugar

Thirty-seven years after the night the MV Don Juan ferry collided with the oil tanker MT Tacloban City in the heart of Tablas Strait and sank, a good part of the victims' families will have recovered from the grief.

Questions related to the sale of sugar produced on the island come up from time to time. Because the price of raw material drops to miserable levels and because the population of Negros finds it difficult to swallow.

Mask testing during MassKara Festival, Bacolod, Philippines

Girl tries on one of the many masks on sale during the festival.

Since the beginning of 2017, sugarcane producers and workers have been protesting against the fact that Coca-Cola on the island of Negros has started to use high fructose corn syrup in its drinks instead of local sugar. . Cindy Rojas, councilor for the municipality, took this dissatisfaction further.

It repeated a measure already taken in previous cultural events in Negros: it approved a boycott of the multinational's products.

Coca-Cola and the like were little missed. The MassKara Festival continued, sweetened and caffeinated by the excitement it generated. As that popular furnace and enthusiasm intensified, the event organizers found it difficult to control the crowd that the ropes could barely hold. Police on motorcycles and some military personnel take action.

Police control of the Masskara Festival audience, Bacolod, Philippines

Motorized police try to contain the enthusiasm of the public that had already narrowed the procession too much.

Necessary Trawlers and MassKara Parada Masks

Reinforcements guarantee the retreat of people in tighter areas of the street. Guardians of each participating troupe began to push the longitudinal ropes that made way for the MassKarados with redoubled determination. This tight control ends up dragging some spectators, photographers and even elements of the organization.

It happens to us and more than once we see the masks from the bottom up. And what magical and awesome they revealed themselves.

Initially, the smiling faces that today continue to illustrate and liven up the festival had native Filipino looks, hand-painted and decorated with typical local beads and feathers. Over the years, influences from the Carnival of Venice and even that of Rio de Janeiro overlapped with the tradition.

Masskara Festival Mask, Bacolod, Negros, Philippines

Mask of an intervening group. In artisanal times, masks were influenced by the Carnival of Venice and even Rio de Janeiro.

Modern plastic masks, shiny beads, with the largest and most exuberant feathers that those responsible for the design and choreographies could arrange were accepted.

Torn Smiles in the City of Smiles

The core element of the festival, the open smile, has remained the same over time on the many faces that make up the MassKara Festival. The festival is made up of a crowd of laughing faces. The conceptual thread of the event matches, in fact, with Bacolod's Anglophone motto: “The City of Smiles".

Towards the end of the artery and the long stop, we noticed how several emblematic companies in the Philippines took advantage of the crowd of people and participated in the party to promote themselves. The Jollybee - a kind of MacDonalds pinoy (Filipino equivalent of Tuga) – he was represented by his little yellow and red bee.

The mascot starts by waving to fans on the side of the road with the promise of some sweets but it doesn't last long. When we notice her, a mob of ecstatic kids runs to the fluffy puppet and savagely disputes them. This final, more commercial and self-interested phase of the procession did not, however, mark the end of the party.

We turn Lizares Street onto Avenida Araneta. There, in the absence of official dancers and the floats or corporate cars that follow them and Coca Cola soft drinks, the people have fun in their own way. Some musicians with drums and other basic instruments set the pace.

MassKara Festival attendees in jeepney, Bacolod, Philippines

Young competitors aboard a jeepney, the Philippines' national vehicle.

Some spectators indulge in delicious alcoholic creative stimulation. They dance without ceremonies or constraints, to the delight of others who cannot resist joining them. The MassKara Festival was far from over. By then, as always happened, the promise of returning Negros' happiness had been more than fulfilled.

Article created with the support of Philippines Tourism and Philippine Embassy in Portugal.

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