Masking for sugar’s sake

Since the dawn of human history, masks have always played a crucial role in various communities. Their origins unfold ancestral tales and practices, either entertaining or terrifying. Masks are commonly worn to mobilize benevolent spirits, but also for remembrance and the celebration of identity. Compared to the culturally acclaimed mask festivals spanning the globe from Venice via New Orleans to East New Britain, the Filipino edition emphasizes rather new events but draws already worldwide attention.

Strolling through the capital of Negros Oriental on an average day, a visitor might be questioning if Bacolod would have ever made it on the tourist map without its annual spectacle. But besides the festival and the kindness of the Bacolodnons, some architectural remains have endured the post-colonial periods, making it a worthwhile trip throughout the year. Not to mention the surrounding’s natural beauty – above and even below sea level. However, at the heart of the MassKara project is a series of parades and dances which not only highlight the region’s creativity, but also an era of tragedy and economic dislocation. Today, there are many versions documenting recent history. Rodney Martinez, a gifted artist and founding member of the Art Association of Bacolod, has overseen the festival’s initiation in 1980 and recalls how it all took off. „MassKara started from a get-together session among artist and we were discussing how to promote art to the community. A very talented artist Ely Santiago suggested that we should go to the different Barangays and teach the youth how to make paper mâché masks.“ Ely Santiago (†) sharped his craft through studious experimentations, journeying from caricatures to acryl paintings with any materials he had on hand. The communities adored the idea from Bacolod’s art clique, and with all the sponsored colors by local paint companies they launched tinkering sessions fairly soon. At first, these masks wouldn’t seem „factory-made“, neither were they featuring a flashy smile like those being displayed today, as the artists strove to cherish indigenous materials and characteristic designs.

The artwork eventually resulted in a mask competition between the Barangays held during the charter day on October 19, 1980, followed by disguised locals parading the streets with their individually composed masks. „Actually, our idea was to establish a mask industry so we can sell masks as a souvenir,“ reveals Mr. Martinez, adding that the city started funding MassKara only one year after the original idea had succeeded. Meantime, the province was shaken by an economic downturn in the sugar cane industry (its primary agricultural crop) due to newly introduced substitutes like fructose corn syrup in the US. And a few months later the regional passenger vessel MV/ Don Juan collided with a freighter en route to Bacolod and sank off the Tablas Strait causing a considerable death toll. An estimated 750 out of 1000 passengers people drew after abandoning ship without life jackets.

Amidst the drama the local government decided to unify all masks with the appeal of a broad grin, in order to frankly cover up the grief and to pull through by putting on a smile – Ever since Bacolod claims the triumphant alias „the city of smiles“. As soon as dance competitions had been additionally implemented, the fun-loving Bacolodnons were all hooked. Schools, institutions, government organizations, civic associations, and commercial establishments started training or financing dancers for the contests – within the following decades, MassKara (themed after „mass“ for crowd or many, and the Spanish word carafor „face“) evolved into an event not to be missed. Today, the masquerade is thriving beyond the founders’ dreams, with tens of thousands of visitors flocking into Bacolod to witness one of the most colorful show of the archipelago.

During the multi-day event, the streets are overwhelmed by enthusiastic dancers, floats, and musicians – K-pop bands and Filipino folk singers alike. Evidently, all the fun peaks towards the evening hours at the Lacson Strip where local cuisine like Chicken Inasal or Pork Lechón caters until late, as extremely pimped rides stuffed with boomboxes, firework, a variety of games and even ladyboy aka creativity contests along the city’s back alleys are entertaining all ages. Since recently, Electric MassKara, the night version of the parade, enriches the agenda with illuminated floats that are carrying dancers garbed in neonised costumes with sparkling LED lights.

Although MassKara appeals to a broad range of fun loving folks, for some, the festival is longing for cultural identity and feels the longer the more choreographed. Whereas earlier masks, thus the festival’s keynote, had been hand-painted and adorned with indigenous feathers, beads or flowers, the contemporary ones take on LED, decorations of plastics and sequins. Rodney Martinez, one of the pillars in the local art scene is yet trying to raise awareness – „As for us artists we would rather prefer creative masks, but we are not giving up hope. We are still willing to come up with an original mask industry.“

Masking for sugar’s sake @ Bacolod – The city of smile