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Dance to Vivacious Drum Beats at the Ati Atihan Festival in the Philippines

Published by Valerie Caulin, Writer

Country: Philippines

The Experience

Almost all towns and cities in the Philippines have their own festivals, but one particular festival in the Visayas island group stands head and shoulders above the rest—the Ati Atihan Festival. Held every third Sunday of January, this jovial celebration transforms the quiet district of Kalibo, in the province of Aklan, into a lively and upbeat place filled with dancing, music and other merry-making activities. Known as the “Mother of All Festivals,” the Ati Atihan Festival has been celebrated for more than 700 years, and still ranks as one of the main festivals in the country.

The Atis (or Aetas) are one of the indigenous people of the Philippines. Dark-skinned, and short with kinky hair, these Atis were the first settlers of the Philippine archipelago and still live in the highlands all over the country.

The Ati Atihan Festival holds street dancing competitions from different groups called “tribu” (or tribe), and these performances are the main attraction of the entire celebration. Dancers in their flamboyant costumes, with headdresses made from indigenous materials, paint their bodies in black and dance along the streets of Kalibo. Almost all Philippine festivals of dancing, drum music and elaborate tribal costumes trace their origin back to the Ati Atihan Festival.

You can choose to watch the Ati Atihan Festival from the sidelines and enjoy this carefree sight, but with all the energy it's hard to resist joining in the street dancing. Expect someone from the crowd to drag you up to dance or paint your face. A clean face is frowned upon during the Ati Atihan Festival, and some tourists and locals smear their arms, legs, and even their whole torso with soot. Black is undoubtedly the most prominent colour during the Festival, and “black dancers” identify the Ati Atihan Festival from other Philippine festivals. The word “Ati Atihan” means “to be like an Ati,” and covering the body with soot mimics the appearance of an Ati.

The Ati Atihan Festival started when a group of Malayan chieftains, known as “datus” from the neighboring Borneo, sought refuge and found a new home as they escaped a tyrant king in their homeland. When they arrived in the island of Panay, where Aklan is located, it was inhabited by the Atis. Diplomatic and courteous as they were, the Bornean datus made a pact with the king of the Aeta, Marikudo, to settle in their land. In exchange for some gifts, specifically a golden hat locally known as “salakut” for Marikudo and an anklet for Marikudo’s wife, the Atis agreed to settle in the highlands leaving the lowlands to the new settlers. To celebrate the new relationship between the Atis and the Malays, they danced and drank day-in-and-day-out. At that time, the Atis were celebrating their good harvest, and so to join in the celebration, the Malays covered their bodies with soot to appear dark-skinned just like the Atis. Hence, the first Ati Atihan Festival was born—which is still going 700 years later.

Attached to the Ati Atihan Festival is the Santo Niño (or the Holy Child Jesus) which is highly venerated in this Catholic country. When the Spaniards came to the Philippines to convert the natives to Catholicism, they performed the native Ati Atihan. Today, the tribal festivity also has its own religious aspect, and some devotees carry images of the Holy Child and dance their petitions to God for the success of their children and their business.




When to Go to Ati Atihan

The Ati Atihan Festival runs during the third week in January and includes other activities like a food festival and musical concerts from famous bands. The best way to enjoy the Ati Atihan Festival is to stay in Kalibo for at least three days. Kalibo is the gateway to Boracay Island: the most famous island-paradise in the country. You can include a trip to Boracay in your itinerary.

Since January is the peak tourist season of Kalibo, hotel rates are high (if you can get one), so you must reserve your hotel as early as you can.

Odds n' Ends

To avoid staining your favorite or expensive shirt, wear an older coloured cotton shirt during the Ati Atihan Festival. Bringing water and a face towel is also advisable.

Be aware that some people celebrate the Festival with a drinking spree, so expect some drunken people on the streets.


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French , Hindi , Indonesian , Italian , Japanese , Mandarin , Spanish , Vietnamese are some of the languages spoken in Philippines. If you know of a freely available phrase book or podcast for one of the missing languages, let us know!


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