Foreign and local tourists have long been drawn to the festive and entertaining showcase of cultures across the Philippine archipelago. But time constraints and cost implications have discouraged even the rabid fiesta-goers from visiting each exciting festivity. In a brilliant stroke of public relations, friendly neighbors Manila Broadcasting Company and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, in cooperation with the cities of Manila and Pasay, removed the hassle of traveling from island to island just to savor the different Philippine festivals by bringing the best of the regions to a single venue in a grand cultural extravaganza. Since its inception in 2003, Aliwan Fiesta has gathered the country’s most talented artisans, street dancers, and a bevy of beauties to represent the best festive traditions from the different regions in a much-awaited annual event. Traversing the length of Roxas Boulevard from Quirino Grandstand to the CCP Complex, it has been a sizzling summer spectacle that offers millions of pesos worth of prizes to competition winners in the float design and street dance categories. Easily five thousand people take part every year, with triple that number attending the nightly festivities along Sotto Street right outside Star City and Aliw Theater. Flea market habitués get fantastic bargains on the most outstanding products sold by the different regions. And because Pinoy Entertainment also spells music to the max, Aliwan Fiesta has likewise become an opportunity for the current crop of music stars to be seen and heard. Of course, no fiesta would be complete without the ubiquitous beauty pageant, which is a significant part of Filipino culture. Indeed, the Reyna ng Aliwan contest has already become a stepping stone for beauteous young women who aspire to fame, modeling opportunities, and even a showbiz career. But it is definitely the festival dance showdown, coupled with a float parade on the third and final day that regional participants eagerly look forward to, so much so that in many towns, their festival awarding ceremonies resound with the audience chanting “Aliwan, Aliwan, Aliwan!”
Dubbed the festival of champions, Aliwan Fiesta brings together the best contingents from the most popular festivals in key cities and towns throughout the archipelago. Participants from north to south of our festive islands harness regional pride in a kaleidoscopic preview of their socio-cultural and economic profiles through music, dance, and physical theater. Choreographers and festival organizers in various regions who have observed Aliwan Fiesta through the years are already familiar with the criteria set for the competitions that they have encouraged local schools to incorporate dance rehearsals into their music, arts, and physical education curriculum. Cities like Iloilo, in which the Dinagyang tribes draw participants from various public high schools, admit to having students rehearse for at least six months prior to the competition. Moving out of the mere percussive drum and bass nature of festival routines born of the Ati-Atihan influence from Kalibo, many of the festivals center their own requirements around their indigenous music and dance practices. Through a series of regional training workshops and fora, Aliwan Fiesta officials have stressed the need to incorporate local folklore, religious devotion, or their simple day-to-day living in thinking of their concepts, costumes, and props. From myths and legends learned through epic poems like Biag ni Lam-ang, or mystic tales chanted by the Babaylan, to quaint traditions like a wedding dance set to the lyrical Balagtasan, or the fierce filial pride carried on by the vengeful ride of Islamic communities, vis-a-vis barren women dancing to their patron saint in order to beget a child, or simply enacting the lives of farmers and fishermen in than for nature’s bounty all these converge in the grand showdown called Aliwan Fiesta. And while towns in Luzon proudly carry on the marching band tradition introduced and left behind by the American regime, festivals in the Visayas have innovated on percussion instruments, opting for the bigger sound of hollowed-out drums beaten by rubber slippers, or the use of bamboo instruments and carabao horn, prevalent throughout the islands. Mindanao, in turn, plays out its sounds through the kulintang, backed by dabakan drums and the brass gong.
Aliwan Fiesta is a grassroots theatre at its very best. The talent, physicality, and buoyant performances of its participants leave no doubt as to the creative energy that envelops their everyday lives. Color, pomp, and pageantry converge, highlighting regional differences, yet with a definitive pitch that cultural ethnicity takes a backseat to national identity.
THE PANDEMIC YEARSBut through the four-year hiatus since 2019 due to circumstances brought about by the pandemic, Manila Broadcasting Company turned to its digital platforms to continue the excitement and the fervor. The search for Aliwan Fiesta Digital Queen. conducted online – brought forth three lovely young ladies from Mindanao (Jannarie Zarzoso of Cabadbaran, Agusan del Norte in 2020), the Visayas (Shanyl Kayle Hofer of Minganilla, Cebu in 2021), and Luzon (Marikit Manaois of Baguio City in 2022), who have shown, through their advocacies on health, social entrepreneurship, and environmental awareness, that beauty does not just run skin deep, and that the Aliwan Fiesta crown can be used for responsible citizenship in searching for tomorrow’s leaders. The virtual search, which carried a special award for Pride of Place, also provided an outlet for the candidates to work with young filmmakers relegated to working from home throughout the lockdown, in showcasing the cultural traditions, eco-tourism draws, and one-town-one product campaigns of their respective regions.THE RETURNCome July 13-15, 2023, Aliwan Fiesta will take to the streets of Manila and Pasay once more, albeit on a smaller scale, with the nightly festivities and the grand parade being contained within the CCP Complex. Nevertheless, it is a highly awaited return and one that regional festivals all over the country have been gearing up for since the government started easing public restrictions. After all, in epic proportions, Aliwan Fiesta is a microcosm of life in these 7641 islands.