FIRST STOP on FESTIVAL PILGRIMAGE: MASSKARA FESTIVAL in “City of Smiles,” Bacolod, Negros Occidental
Each festival is unique to place. Each festival commemorates unique histories & geographies. Each festival celebrates unique convergences in space-time. Yet, despite this diversity, Visayan festivals all have a common feature of street dance celebrations. But within this universal spectacle is also a massively complex infrastructure to make public dance possible.
As an “outsider,” I’m still learning the “insider” histories.
Most Visayan festivals organize through municipal politics to manifest. Meaning that they depend on the elected officials to finance the street dance production (meaning that during election years, city leaders may opt out of festival celebrations due to ‘budget’). The biggest festivals, like MassKara, have a private foundation to produce the festival outside of complicated city politics, with the city’s economic interests in mind. MassKara, and its festive parties, is now one of Bacolod’s biggest sources of revenue.
I got the opportunity to interview sir Eli Tajanlangit, the director of Silver MassKara Foundation, the private organization made in the early 2000’s to manage the growing festival of “masks.” His insight on the history, transformations and speculative futures of the festival illuminated my driving question,
“What makes MassKara so special?”
A quick research into the history of MassKara will reveal its origins. Sir Eli, made certain to credit the artists, Ely Santiago and George Macinuan, who first approached the former city-leader, Mayor Digoy Montalvo, with the idea of mask-making festival. Upon seeing its reviving effects on the people, the politicians grasped on the idea and grew it from the grassroots. As sir Eli said, this is a fact not to be erased from history – that this festival, this huge economic industry, this defining event of Bacolod’s identity, is derived from the creative imagination of local artists.
Unlike other major festivals in Visayan region, MassKara is “not based on religion, history, mythology” nor geography, resources, trade goods – it comes from the vision of artists!
Artists channeled this idea to uplift community spirits through festival at a time when the sugar industry, which had established the wealth and growth of Bacolod City, fell drastically. With the introduction of high fructose corn syrup in the international market & rising oil prices to transport sugar to western consumer societies (LOCAL IS GLOBAL Y’ALL), the sugar abundance on the island of Negros lost trade value. Elite families, once among the wealthiest of the world, lost everything overnight. The city and its community fell in near ruin.
On this foundation of local arts imagination, the sugar industry’s collapse & city-wide financial loss, MassKara Festival became born.
Today, the province still subsists on sugar, but not as it once did. Did the extravagant spirit of sugarcane ever really leave the city? Sir Eli made an interesting point that, in fact, the energies of the Negros people is preserved in the festival’s spirit of abundance.
“We are a people who love the good life. At least in the past. You will realize if you go down deeply, that this city is the city of creativity. From the grassroots to the literate, there are always creative people in the family.”
Before MassKara could become a central economic force for Bacolod, its organizers needed to pull out of politics and its puppet-string effect on municipal funds. In the early 2000’s, local politicians actually lobbied to have MassKara be managed by a private corporation, so that politicians did not use it to their electoral advantage. Silver MassKara Foundation became established at the 25 year anniversary of the festival. This allowed the festival to grow, from mere street dance spectacle, to multiple events held on three major grounds, including the infamous Lacson street parties and electric float competition (seen above).
Since MassKara is managed by a private company, the festival mainly subsists on private funds. The local government, through the school board, provides funds to the participating elementary and high schools (which one principal confirmed as 150,000 pesos per school) to develop their dance entry in the festival. To present competitive work, school teams have to appeal to private corporations for extra financial assistance. In addition, the local government supplies the police security force, which every year in the festival’s expansion, becomes ever more complex. At this point, I am still learning the fractal network of power between politics and private sphere to organize these mass public festivals.
As an artist-researcher studying the festival cultures of Visayan islands, I think this information is important for thinking about long-term strategies of global collaboration necessary for financially sustaining local creative arts. While local politicians and private corporations have conflicts over control of festival finances, who else in global public (i.e. Filipino diaspora) will support grassroots cultural arts production? Given recent news about how climate change is caused by 100 companies, it is important to reflect and consider other resources which might avoid the potential for disaster -if it strikes the global, and local, economy again.
I am super grateful to have the chance to speak with sir Eli and ask questions about the past, present and future direction of the festival rooted in the arts.