Hala Bira! Ati-atihan Festival

The month of January plays host to a handful of festivals in various places in the Philippines. One of these celebrations is the Ati-atihan Festival in Kalibo, Aklan.

Kalibo, the capital of Aklan Province in the island of Panay celebrates Ati-atihan every 3rd week of January. Often a one week continuous celebration around the plaza and in front of the Kalibo cathedral, Ati-atihan is one of the most popular festivals in the country. Kalibo derives its name from the phrase “sangka libo” (one thousand) probably because about a thousand Ati people attended the first Catholic mass in that area.

My first Ati-atihan experience was in 2009.

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Ati-atihan is celebrated in the streets of Kalibo through dance and drumbeats. Said to be the mother of all Philippine Festivals, people gather at the main plaza of Kalibo and the adjacent blocks to dance with the beat. Several groups of dancers, wearing the Ati costume (some fancy and outrageous), walk around the town plaza, engaging people to dance with their beat.

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Ati-atihan itself started as a pagan event. One the earliest people to inhabit the Philippines was the Ati. They are dark-skinned, kinky-haired people who settled in the area years before the Malays from Borneo arrived on the shores during the 13th century. The Ati people offered these migrants some land as welcome gesture. To celebrate this gesture, the Malays painted themselves black.

Thus, the gesture became known as Ati-atihan (to look like an Ati). This gesture was carried on for centuries as a pagan activity up until the Spaniards came and transformed the event by infusing Catholic meaning to honor the Holy Child Jesus.

It is said that the Ati-atihan is a unique blend of pagan and religious elements celebrated through rhythmic drum beats, chants, prayers, tribal dance and Ati costumes.

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The Ati-atihan is different from other festivities honouring the Sto. Niño. While some celebrations limit the people to watch the parade at the sides, Ati-atihan is more interactive and engaging. Everyone can get on the street to dance along with the costumed participants.

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It is a mix of animism and religious expression of faith. Some people are dressed in tribal costumes or had their skins covered in black while others brought along their Sto. Niño icons and danced to the beat of the drum. The participating barangays or tribes usually form 3 lines to cover the space on the streets. One can hear chants of “Hala Bira” between drumbeats. ‘Hala Bira! Pwera Pasma!’ is an Aklanon phrase which means ‘pour or dispense all means’. They often pull people from the sidewalks into their group and fill the spaces in between and dance to their music.

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The culminating parade falls on the second Sunday of January is actually a long religious procession of different images of the Holy Child in carozas adorned with flowers and light. Everything happens in front of the Kalibo Cathedral. Each caroza has its own playing band and a performing contingent clad in colourful costumes and covered in soot black. There were silent chants of prayers. The chants are drowned by the rhythmic sound of the drums.

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