Folk Against Pop Culture
Carabao turds are greenish-gray-brown in color and mushy when you step in them. Kiping is edible – first deep-fry or microwave. Buntal hats and fans make interesting decorations.
You learn something interesting every day, as we found out when we attended the Pahiyas festival in Lucban, Quezon, last May 15. The fiesta honors the town’s patron saint, San Isidro Labrador, and celebrates the agricultural harvest. The bounty of the land –vegetables, fruits, rice husks, bamboo - is used to decorate homes along the procession route. Kiping is the signature decorative element: these are leaf-shaped ornaments of rice flour, cooked to stiffness, tinted with food coloring to traffic-stopping hues. The procession route is changed yearly to give the residents of different streets a chance to showcase their creativity in adorning their houses.
It’s a small town. You can walk around the main parts in a couple of hours. Most of the houses are decorated for the fiesta. The most eye-catching was a large, multi-story house, well-built of expensive materials, imposing next to its humbler neighbors.
From ground to roof, sunflowers crafted of colored kiping and pamaypay (fans) and decorative circles of bamboo sections and vegetables – eggplants, stringbeans – covered the façade so completely that the original paint color could not be discerned.
A large model of Lucban church with models of miniature people was displayed on a table in front of the door; before it, smiling teenagers in salakot, barong, and baro’t saya posed for photographers.
One wall of a house across the way was festooned with yards of fabric of scarlet, emerald, turquoise, and magenta, glowing in patterns embroidered in gold and silver thread. The sheer audacity of the sumptuous cloth nonchalantly stapled to the house’s window frames was breathtaking.
After that, a kaleidoscope of details: dense crowds of people, posing and taking pictures. Sun-yellow, leaf-green, and orange kiping strung into ornaments like chandeliers. Fringes of rice husks. Farm implements, vegetables, and hay used to create tableaus.
Suddenly, amidst the jumble of visuals and sounds, a jarring note. Banners of products passed by, borne by parade participants, advertising snacks. Juice. A daily newspaper. A telco. Erika Alcasid, an 11-year-old visitor from Manila, was disappointed. “With the decorations and all, it looked like I imagined fiestas would be,” she said. “Then I saw the flags with the ads. The specialness was gone.”
Pahiyas began as a religious festival in honor of a Roman Catholic saint, whose intercession merited the townspeople’s thanksgiving for blessings and bountiful harvests. Today’s Pahiyas is the collision of folk culture and popular culture. Popular culture is mass media-based, commercial in nature, and oriented to the individualistic, new, and trendy, constantly changing. Folk culture is rooted in the traditional, rural, religious, conservative, transmitted interpersonally within the community; change happens slowly and infrequently; individualism is subordinate to traditional community standards.
Commercialization is not a feature of folk culture, though some of its elements may be co-opted or copied by pop culture. The inclusion of advertising in Pahiyas points to the increasing commercialization of festivals; religiosity seems an afterthought, rather than the primary purpose. The commodification of the event, once an occasion celebrated with joy and solemn ritual, shows how heavy and far-reaching the impact of market forces are upon practically all aspects of society.
Yet some would argue that sponsors’ resources are needed to ensure the event’s “success”, more so in during the current hard times brought about by the global economic recession. Yet the people of Lucban did fine before using simple farm tools and produce to decorate. Do they really need those vinyl advertising banners?
India, with its myriad of religious and folk rituals, is looking for answers to the same question. Gayatri Sankar comments, “The impacts of commercialization and consumerism have polluted the true religious meanings and traditional customs…People tend to celebrate festivals not only as a customary practice but also as a means to exercise their spending power…festivals are no longer simple religious practices but are ways when producers make their fortunes.”
A study done by Ajit Abhimeshi et al, concluded that “The commercialization of the festivals (is) mainly driven by markets and the nexus between the local leadership, (and) companies who want to market their products.”
An opposing view from Rita Putatunda derides the “sanctimonious nay-sayers who talk piously about the so-called ‘terrible commercialization’ of the festival…” Speaking about Diwali, a “unique festival about light, noise, joy, ebullience, and mirth…rooted in the ancient culture of this land,” Putatunda says any commercialization is adapted into the celebration. “Indians being Indians, we will just go ahead and send off another salvo of colorfully noisy rockets into the Diwali sky.”
And that is what Filipinos do as well. We assess, absorb, adapt, and embrace all that is useful and functional into that which needs to be carried on. We have no problem merging pop with folk because it not a matter of folk “versus” pop, rather it is folk “plus” pop.
Just as Pahiyas celebrates the survival of farmers in an often harsh environment, so too does the present-day adaptation of commerce and pop culture into existing traditions represent the effort to sustain the staging of traditional events at the appointed time. Filipinos have roots in the past and hopes for future, yet always live in the present, celebrating life in all ways and with all means that may come.
And Erika’s disappointment was forgotten after she saw a black carabao whose back was adorned with painted leaves in rainbow colors.
Munching on the town’s specialties of meringue and apas cookies, sipping from a can of Sprite and listening to Korean boy band music on her iPod, she epitomized the merging and blending of cultural elements, even as she was one with the annual ritual of gratitude for the land, the water, and the plentiful harvests. ***
All photos by Jenny Ortuoste.