The Bay Area’s large Filipino population is painfully aware of the plight of indigenous tribes in the Philippines, who have faced decades of harassment and extermination. The Bay Area dance troupe Parangal Dance Company is performing tribal dances as part of the 38th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival to raise awareness about the threatened cultures.
The future of the tribes may have taken an unexpected upturn with the sudden political ascendancy in May of the iron-fisted, trash-talking Rodrigo Duterte to the office of President of the Philippines. Duterte has pledged to defend the rights of the indigenous tribes, whose resource-rich lands have been systematically seized by transnational agribusiness, logging, energy, and mining companies, and whose leaders and activists have often been slain by paramilitary forces. (The tough-talking Duterte – aka “Duterte Harry” — has also vowed to dump the corpses of 100,000 criminals into Manila Bay and dismantle thieving oligarchies.)
Parangal’s artistic director Eric Solano has traveled from San Francisco to the tribal provinces of the Philippines to learn various ritual dances, some of which run for days and weeks. He then distills them into shorter spectacles tailored to festivals and other events.
Parangal has been in existence for eight years – a relative newcomer to the formidable family of Bay Area Filipino performing arts ensembles that work to keep traditions alive, along with Philippine arts presenter, Kularts. Solano first trained with the Barangay Dance Company before founding Parangal. Other prominent local troupes include San Francisco’s LIKHA-Pilipino Folk Ensemble (also making an appearance at this year’s Ethnic Dance Festival), the American Center of Philippine Arts in Berkeley and Brentwood, Kariktan Dance Company in Concord, San Jose’s Kaisahan and Hiyas Philippine Folk Dance Company, Kawayan Folk Arts in Milpitas, and Haranistas de Manila.
On Saturday, Jun. 4 and Sunday, Jun. 5, as part of the Ethnic Dance Festival, Parangal (which means “tribute” in English) presents a dramatic cluster of ceremonial dances from two neighboring tribes, the Kalinga and Ga’dang, based in the rugged Cordillera mountain ranges of northern Luzon. The stirring rhythms of the sonorous gangsa gongs, bamboo reeds and xylophones, the pounding of shields, and the chanting of the dancers, the vivid costumes, and the intricate patterns of the choreography create a highly charged experience.
The presentation opens with a mesmerizing ritual in which a shaman goes into a trance to lure back a human soul that has wandered off in sickness. The scene shifts to a celebratory dance that mimics the flight of eagles, a courtship ritual, a warrior shield dance, and a peace pact sealed by a group of tribal elders. The movement is large-scale, muscular, and earth-bound, as well as feathery light, supple, and refined, particularly in the arms and inclinations of the torso.
The strapping men sport loincloths; the women are regal in ornamented wrap-around skirts. Both sexes drape themselves in jewelry — multi-strand beaded chokers, feathered and beaded headpieces, mother-of-pearl butterfly earrings, polished horns and boar’s tusk pendants, and gold armbands. No ornamentation is more striking, however, than the sacred chaklag tattoos that snake up the warriors’ chests and around their arms and shoulders. The distinctive body art was awarded to Kalinga men in ancient times for head-hunting, and was meant to inspire great fear in one’s enemies. (Kalinga women were tattooed, too.)
Eric Solano says the Cordillera tribal members were generous in sharing their traditions with him. “I asked them why they are so passionate about our performances in a distant country,” Solano says. “They replied ‘para malaman ng mundo na nandito pa kami’ – ‘so the world will know we are still here.’”
Like a tribal warrior, President-elect Duterte intends to inspire great fear in the greedy and the corrupt. But whether his pugnacity also leads to justice for the long-disenfranchised tribal minorities remains to be seen.
The 38th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival features 32 companies representing over 20 world cultural traditions, including Egyptian belly dance, Scottish traditional, Cambodian classical, South African Zulu and Xhosa, on three successive weekends from Friday, Jun. 3 – Sunday, Jun. 19 at the Palace of Fine Arts and San Francisco City Hall. Details on the Festival website.