QUEER SMILES: MassKara Festival as an Invented Tradition in the Context of Androgynizing Culture and Queer Spectacle

Mapee Singson
Mapee Singson | Oct 24, 2013
QUEER SMILES: MassKara Festival as an Invented Tradition in the Context of Androgynizing Culture and Queer Spectacle


Philippines is one country which has over a thousands of festivals and celebrations. In fact, the number of festivals all over the country exceeds the number of its islands. The joyous and abundance life are the main reasons why Filipinos love to celebrate. Colorful and exuberant parades, pageantry, luscious feasts of delicacies and competitions are the primary features of these celebrations. Celebration in the honor of patron saints, the flora and fauna, the foundation history, mythologies and epics are the main themes. But sometimes, we cannot help but wonder how these festivals came about. Where they come from? And what were there origins? These questions may be answered by one particular phenomenon, the tradition of invention.

‘Tradition’ always defined as collection and systems of belief, practices, rituals and everyday life of a certain group of people at a particular time that evolves ad copes with the development and social advancement. Individuals or a group of people may be identified not by their name or line of ancestry but by their customs and social practices. According to the book of Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, it basically constitutes the process of formalization and ritualization with references in history and imposing repetition. MassKara Festival is one example of a very effected invented tradition that spans over time and gained its popularity as center of festivities in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental. It is celebrated every third week of October and features street dancing, pageants and merry-making.

The primary objective of this article is to discuss the significance of Maskara Festival to the character building of Negrenses, particularly Bacolod City where the festival is held every year since its conception. It will examine the evolution of the festival from purely gendered festival into a genderless celebration. What factors affected the evolution and transformation and what is the reaction of the larger public? History of the festival will be rooted from its original purpose. Elements such as costumes, choreography and performers will be tackled separately on the basis of queer reading. This article aims to present a whole new perspective in looking into the performativity aspects of the festival, how modern ideas are fused to give a new look and excitement to MassKara Festival and how effective is the ‘invention’ of a tradition.

“Mass” (many) “Kara” (Face) Etymology

From its direct translation, the etymology of the word came from two influential languages of the world. The word “mass” can literally means the masses or many or a multitude of people. “Kara” derived from the Spanish word “cara” which means face. MassKara is a conjunction of these two words and coined by the late Negrense artist Ely Santiago. At present, the new word “MassKara” is defined as a multitude of smiling faces.

History of MassKara Festival in the Eyes of Negrenses

The festival is first held in the year 1980. By that time, Negros Island which is the primary sugar bowl of the Philippines and the world and sugar is the main agricultural product is in the deep sinking crisis. The price of sugar in the world market hits the all-time low brought about by the introduction of high fructose corn syrup in the United States. Another tragedy happened involving the passenger carrying vessel Don Juan which collided with a tanker in Bohol. Because of these shocking events, the local government, local artists and civic groups hold the Festival of Smiles which is later known as the MassKara Festival. It is one way of enlivening, lifting the spirits of the people and the gloomy atmosphere caused by the recent events. They want to exude an impression that whatever problems and challenges Bacolod is facing in the end there is success and triumph.

Over the years, MassKara Festival developed a high fashion of presenting itself. Parades with full colored costumes, wearing unique smiling masks and energetic moves with lively music complete the scene. For people living in Bacolod the festival is also an opportunity to showcase local products and customs. More than the reasons to celebrate life, it is also the time to boost the economy because locally produced vegetables, fruits and handicrafts is on sale. Bacolod plaza which is always the main venue is jam packed with visitors all over the country and ‘tiangge’ is seen in all corners. The main feature of the festival which is the street dancing is participated by different dance groups around Bacolod City and neighboring towns and cities. There are two categories; Barangay category, exclusive for Bacolod barangays dance groups; and Open category where dance groups from different institutions, schools and neighboring towns can join, in other words ‘pangayaw.’ Cash prizes, trophies and prestige are at stake. Major activities include the MassKara Queen Beauty pageant, carnivals, drum and bugle corps competitions, food festivals, sports events, musical concerts, agriculture-trade fairs, garden shows, and other special events organized MassKara Festival ad-hoc committee every year.

Defining Heteronormativity in the Context of MassKara Performance

Heteronormativity is defined as a set of lifestyle norms which include the two distinct complimentary genders, the male and the female. Cathy J. Cohen defines heteronormativity as means of legitimizing and privileging heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships as fundamental and natural within the society. Heteronormative society is limited in the binary choice of gender leaving them lacking possibilities of sexual identity choices and desires are required only to be felt and expressed for opposite sex partners. But many scholars and theorist are contesting the heteronormative views because of its effects resulting in marginalizing other forms of sexuality and gender including queer. For the longest time, queer theory is anchored in gender and sexuality. Debates like whether gender and sexuality are natural or a social construct that every human being is born genderless and the society imposes.

Performance is the basic component of the everyday life. We perform different tasks the moment we open our eyes and wake up in the morning. Performance is also the main feature of MassKara Festival, so it is essential to discuss the heteronomative behavior of performance. In the case of performance, role playing is limited only to males and females dancing as partners. It is the conventional practice because it is the “accepted” normal behavior of performing with partners. Male and female performing in live music, male being the dominant power and female is the subordinate. Male exhibiting masculine, heavy and stiff movements while female moves flamboyantly with grace and elegance. Males are not expected to sway their hips exaggeratedly than female dancers because it may look like deviant in the eyes of heteronormal audience. To some extent if males and females acting outside the conservative way, they are subject to be scrutinized by the norms of the society.

MassKara Festival as a Heteronormal Activity

Looking back into the earliest street dancing performance of MassKara Festival, male and female dominates the dance floor. The number of male dancers is equal to the number of female dancers. They are choreographed separately by two different choreographers. Costume is also a huge factor where females are dressed in bra-top sequenced with glittery gems, Venus cuts and miniskirts complete with stockings and high heels, while males wear open polo shirts tied at seams and the classic pants. They even give awards for “Best Dance Partners”, “Best Male Dancer” and “Best Female Dancer”. Unconsciously, the organizers are imposing the rules of a heterosexual relationship in the society and the viewing public thinks that is it the right practice but not to mention that those people behind the artistic composition of every performance is basically a member of the queer community. This is the reason why MassKara celebration always seen as a heteronormal activity, participated by “heterosexuals”, the male and the female and consumed by a conservative public.

Androginizing Culture and the MassKara Festival

Banking on the post-structuralism views, MassKara festival can be viewed in different ways and can have varied interpretations rather than a straight showcase of binary opposition between sexes. Recent developments in the aspects of performance of the festival exhibit very strong contentions towards the dominating heteronormative structure of presentation. These evidences are presented in four important elements of the MassKara Festival namely choreography/ choreographers, costumes, the performers and most importantly the masks.

Choreography / Choreographers Innovations in choreography from basic to complex have been brought by new trainings and workshops. In the past, dance movements may tend to be conservative and not so loud in nature. Choreographers are gays as we may call them and usually very artistic in creating precession of movements and succession masterpieces. New dance routines done by present MassKara choreographers break the limits and bounds of heteronormal standards, creating movements feasible to be performed by both male and female performers. Synchronized steps make them look uniform and partners are no longer necessary. Visually, like a flock of birds dancing in identical collaborative motion on a single piece dance floor. Dance steps are loud, flashy but performed with class. Sometimes modern choreographies are edging to the idea of camp, famous and appealing because of its often exotic behavior. Once these new innovations are presented, the audience seems to enjoy and accept it without questions and inhibitions.

Costumes Carnival-like costumes are the new trends in MassKara Festival. From simple costumes, wardrobe specialists hired by dance groups to make the dress for them are doing intensive researches and gather inspirations from mardigras of Rio, Brazil down to simple colorful traditional dresses of our very own ethno-linguistic groups. Unlike before, designers create costumes uniform for males and females making them look androgynous to the eye of the public. Designers are making sure that they use as many colors of the spectrum if possible so that costumes will interest the audience and the judges. But sometimes designers overdo their designs making it look like an explosion of unorganized ideas. Costume is a very important visual element of a performance, so it is necessary that it is designed beautifully, artistically and aesthetically pleasant but at the same time economically justifiable.

Performers, The Movers behind the Costumes and Masks Being a performer takes on a lot pressure and time. Preparations for MassKara Festival always take six months before the competition proper. Choreographers take good care of their performers because they are the good souls of the performance. Nowadays, dancers of the festival are dominated by queers, mostly by gay people. It does not matter what gender or sexual preferences the dancers take as long as they move accordingly to the beat of music, no one cares. A group performed couple of years ago in the festival with a membership composed of 75% percent gay dancers won the top prize. They all look the same under the single designed masks. Assets of gay dancers such as flexibility and grace make them in demand for street dances and performances. They can do all kinds of stunts and exhibition that often necessary to make the performances alive and interesting.

Smiling Masks MassKara will never be MassKara without the smiling masks. Masks are produced a year ahead of the competition because t is usually attached to the headdress. Masks material may vary from paper to fiberglass. Some of the designs are hand-painted or machine finish. An unforgettable mask design and winner of the Best Mask Award went to the dance troupe of a famous department store. It was rumored that the masks the group used were auto-finish that gave it a smooth and perfect finish. The androgynous character of the smiling faces always has the role of hiding of every hardship and emotions of the dancers. Behind those smiles are true picture of tolerance from the hot burning feeling brought by the sun, patience from a long distance dancing on a hot cemented highway and emotions from personal problems which is by the way the true essence of the festival.

The MassKara street dancing music repertoire ranges from traditional folk songs, foreign popular music to modern mixed in a medley. The very famous music that was used by the festival for so many years was a medley of traditional and local folk songs such as Ang Alibangbang mixed with Mexican song “La Bamba,” “Lemon Tree,” of Peter Paul and Mary and “Down by the Riverside” by the Accord Singers. The selection of songs was quite unusual but the arrangement was very lively and suitable for dancing and merrymaking, so the medley was used as official music of the street dancing component for more than a year. Through the years the organizers come up with different music and they utilize popular music every year. For 2010, the committee decided to have a competition for music composition and the winning piece will be the official MassKara street dance music. But up until now some of the remnants of the original music are still being mixed with new lively and carnival music.

The Genderless Faces and the Androgynous Beauty

Big factor for these changes and advancements are brought by the dominance and visibility of queers in the MassKara sphere and whatever inspired this “outrage” many people think it is for good. To wrap things up, we cannot deny the fact that when we talk about spectacles and festivals the magic touches of queers always make the celebration extra special and successful. Debates on the idea of queerness in festival is already passé and out of question. Communities now are beginning to accept queers’ presence in their neighborhood and it is a very good sign. After all, these are the only things the queer society wants, respect and acceptance.

MassKara Festival as an Effective “Invented” Tradition

The festival has been in existence for many years and every year it is celebrated it gets bigger and hype created by the media and tourism industry is tremendous. It is the main reason why the festival is very effective aside from most people’s interests nowadays is the lavish pageantry and spectacular street parties. More importantly, the fact that this “invented” tradition is rooted in the culture and economic base of Negrenses makes it more appealing to the people. The way MassKara festival is presented to the public has no hypocrisy in the sense that the message is clear in order to maintain the good spirit of the people amidst all disasters and hardships. People put up these “ironic smiles” even just for a week or a couple of days to celebrate life’s blessings; the bounty of the economy; the culture and tradition that made up the totality of not just the Negrenses, but in particular the Bacoleños.

The MassKara Festival is still in the process of changing and evolving. Every year there is always an element of surprise. The ironic “smiling faces” are taking the festival to a whole new level of celebration and experiences - a celebration one should not miss and taken for granted. Who knows what MassKara Festival can offer its audience in the near future? Change is not bad as long as it is directed towards a common good. Even if the true purpose Masskara Festival is slowly disappearing because of intentions of presenting a high cultured and extravagant pageantry, the future generations of festival organizers must not forget to go back to basics - “the irony of those big androgynous smiles.”

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