25 Years of Ibalong Festival

(This article written in September 2016 is in the April 2017 issue of Travel Plus magazine)

ibalong festival

National Heroes Day has a special meaning for the people of Legazpi City in Albay.  Around this day they relive the story of the three legendary heroes of Bicol, which was once known as Ibalong.

The Ibalong Festival, as conceptualized in 1992 by then Legazpi City Mayor Imelda Roces, was meant to break away from the usual themes of local festivals. Festivals in the Philippines are generally religious in nature, stemming from the centuries-long Spanish Christianization of the archipelago. Others are agriculture-inspired to celebrate bountiful harvests, while others are historical, as a throwback to important events in a town.

The Ibalong Festival was created to revive Ibalong, a 60-stanza epic poem transcribed by a Franciscan friar from tales sung by a bard named Kadunung.  The original Spanish text could no longer be found, but portions of it were said to have been copied by Fray Jose Castaño and were later compiled by Wenceslao Retana who included them in the book Archivo del Bibliofilo Filipino in 1895. The untitled and unfinished manuscript got its title Ibalong from the renowned propagandist and essayist Jose Ma. Panganiban.

The legend has it that a long time ago, a brave man named Baltog came upon a rich land called Ibalong. Back then, monsters lived in the dark forests, but Baltog chose to stay and cultivate the fields. The giant wild boar Tandayag saw the fields and destroyed the crops with its long fangs. In retaliation, Baltog patiently looked for the boar and broke its monstrous jawbones, killing it in combat.

The epic hero Baltog and the boar monster Tandayag in mortal combat

The epic hero Baltog and the boar monster Tandayag in mortal combat

Years later, another fearless warrior named Handyong came to Ibalong. Handyong and his men fought several menacing creatures including a three-headed monster and giant flying sharks. The toughest of them all was a she-serpent named Oriol. Endowed with a beautiful voice and the ability to change her appearance, Oriol was a difficult prey. In the end, she was captivated by Handyong’s bravery and chose to help him conquer the other monsters. Thus, peace came to Ibalong.

Tribesmen go down on their knees in the presence of a winged monster

Tribesmen go down on their knees in the presence of a winged monster

Under the leadership of Handyong, Ibalong saw a golden era where slaves and masters were treated equally. It was also a period of important inventions of tools used in farming, weaving, and writing.

But then a big flood, strong earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions hit Ibalong. A new monster, named Rabot, who had the power to turn his foes into rocks also appeared. Conquering this beast fell on the hands of Bantong, a friend of Handyong. Knowing that Rabot slept during the day and roamed about at night, he waited until the monster was sound asleep. At the right moment, he killed the beast with his sharp bolo.

With Rabot’s death, Ibalong regained peace and became the prosperous land it is now.

The tribesmen celebrate after their hero triumphs over their enemy

The tribesmen celebrate after their hero triumphs over their enemy

Ibalong Festival goes silver

On its 25th staging this year, the month-long festival culminated in a street parade and dance competition that attracted 11 schools from Albay, Sorsogon, and Camarines Sur. Only six schools, however, competed for the championship in this year’s streetdancing presentations. After regaling the spectators with its interpretation of the epic tale, Tiwi Central School was judged Grand Champion and went home with the cash prize of PhP300,000 plus trophy. Cash prizes were also awarded to the Best Epic Hero, Best in Costume and Props, Best in Dancing, and Best in Music and Sound.

Keeping in step with the Ibalong music

Keeping in step with the Ibalong music

A tribal muse clad in costume made of native materials

A tribal muse clad in costume made of native materials

High energy levels and bursts of colors marked each presentation

High energy levels and bursts of colors marked each presentation

Pretty maidens in whimsical costumes

Pretty maidens in whimsical costumes

A showdown of heroes. Competition for the best epic character

A showdown of heroes: Competition for the best epic character

Bicolandia: The myth versus reality

Reliving a legend that is more mythical than historical may seem incongruous for a bustling capital that brands itself as The City of Fun and Adventure. As the largest city in the Bicol region, Legazpi City blends modernity with old town charm, which is a rarity these days. Swanky malls stand close to each other in the central business district. Several colleges and universities here give the city that exuberant air. One gets that breezy feeling, too, while navigating the long stretch of Legazpi Boulevard with its numerous restos and many other fun places.

Yet, one does not have to go very far from the city to enjoy nature at its best. Those seeking adventure will find its many forms here. Sea, sand, hills, lakes, and caves. Forests and falls, too. And of course, anywhere you are in Albay, the majestic Mount Mayon is an awe-inspiring presence.

In a place and time where technology is both a major pursuit and conveyance, storytelling and folklore may be regarded as dying, if not lost arts. Despite this scenario, the epic story of Ibalong lives on, not only through characters in whimsical costumes and pulse-raising music, but more importantly through the hardy character of a people that have had to face storms, earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions in recent times—and still have managed to be their own heroes. Legazpi City is officially recognized as one of the three most livable cities in the Philippines, where everyone is safe from both natural and man-made calamities.

That is a feat that would have made Baltog, Handyong, and Bantong very proud.

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