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Filipinos Celebrate Harvest Festival

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The spirit of gratitude and introspection did not end with Thanksgiving last least not for one group of Filipino-Americans that is extending the harvest celebration. A local Filipino-American television show is celebrating its fourth anniversary with a seasonal performance this weekend. It's called A Celebration of Thanksgiving and Good Harvest, and features performing arts from the Southern Philippines. For Chicago Public Radio, Blair Chavis has the story.

Alpha and Emil Nicolasin with Hataw Pinoy Chicago say they've been asked so many times if there's Thanksgiving in the Philippines.

EMIL NICOLASIN: Is there Thanksgiving? Like, especially for children who grew up here, they don't know.

ALPHA NICOLASIN: Yes and no, the answer is both yes and no. No, in the sense that we do not celebrate Thanksgiving like here in the States with turkey and trimmings and, you know, kids learning about the Mayflower.

Alpha says she and her husband grew up Protestant in the Philippines; the last week in November they'd attend church and bring harvest offerings.

A.NICOLASIN: We do have harvest festivals and festivals that celebrate thanksgiving for a good harvest. So, pre-Hispanic Filipinos had these harvest festivals and thanksgiving festivals to give thanks to the gods.

They wanted young Filipinos in the Chicago area to sample what harvest festivals looked like—before hundreds of years of Spanish, American and Japanese colonization. Emil asked a California arts organization, comprised of alumni from his Mindanao college days to help create this cultural experience.

FELIX TAPONGOT: We are here to tell you a story about our culture, about ourselves, about Filipino…

ambi: Music from creation scene”

That's Kambayoka Arts director Felix Tapongot leading community members through a workshop-rehearsal for their upcoming performance.

TAPONGOT: We are using group improvisation for us to create scenes. We're doing this afternoon, the creation scene, how the world began, you know, how the creation of the earth, how the universe, and the mankind…

Traditionally, Mindanao's Kambayoka art form is not staged ahead of time—at least not to the extent that Western theatre is. In rehearsal, the actors on stage dance, sing, narrate and even transform into props; improvising fluid motions with their bodies to mime sun rays, the wind, waves and birds, together, they even form mountains.

TAPONGOT: I want you to create another shape, another form, another mountain or whatever, just reshape yourself, just flow, let the movement flow… 

Because of improvisation, Tapongot says the final performance may look very different from rehearsals. Julius Valmores with Kambayoka Arts describes the creation story—the first of the play's three parts.

VALMORES: The birth of Malakas at Maganda—the Filipino Adam and Eve—or the first couple, was out of the bamboo.

In this version of the creation story birds peck at bamboo until it cracks open and the first woman and man emerge. They go forth and multiply—which Valmores says leads to the second part of the play.

VALMORES: Then you have these young lovers which is called Nonoy and Inday and they meet each other and the love story begins. The two lovers are from different tribes, a scandalous taboo, and they don't know they're already promised to different spouses for arranged marriages.

Alpha Nicolasin:

A.NICOLASIN: We're going to sing a Tagalog song, actually, that's going to be part of a love scene that's like a serenade that's being done by the male lead. This is written by my husband, Emil, during his college days, so he didn't write it for me; he wrote it for somebody else.

ambi: love song

The story plays out a bit like Romeo and Juliet, except this story has a happy ending and a wedding.

A.NICOLASIN: And then we segue to the last part which is the festival of thanksgiving. And so all the tribes and all the elders of the tribes are going to gather, and then that's when they're going to be presenting the different tribal dances.

ambi: sounds of a kulintang and a dabakan.

The show features brightly colored tribal costumes and a kulintangan, or group of brass instruments. A kulintang is a set of graduated gongs laid in a row on a stand; when tapped, each produces a different sound. With over 7,000 islands, eight major dialects spoken, and hundreds of years of colonization, it's no surprise the Philippines doesn't have a unified theatre form. The Kambayoka form used for this performance showcases uniquely Filipino theatre styles, which Alpha says is important.

A.NICOLASIN: There's really a big, big need for Filipinos in the States to overcome the sort of invisibility that we sometimes suffer, because they say we blend in too well, we assimilate too well, and what happens is that we are not politically empowered.

The performance of “Amulaan Kaligaan—A Celebration of Thanksgiving and Good Harvest” will take place on Saturday evening at the St. Scholastica Academy Auditorium in East Rogers Park.

ambi: Song: “One with the Universe”

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