Artwork by JuRaCa

Dagyang, Videoke, Paupas: How Baylehans Are Known Today

By joseph batcagan

Nothing is as quintessentially Ilonggo as the ‘baylehan’. Come at me, but you know this to be true.

In essence, the baylehan encompasses two things Filipinos are mostly known for: our capacity for folk ingenuity, and the urgent need to have fun at all costs. It’s particularly true for the latter; why do you think we always have that neighbor who busts out a videoke machine whenever a party’s going on nearby?

So, it should follow that this May—unofficially, the month of the Philippine fiesta—should be the season for baylehans. We’re now at the point that the imagery of the pista—the banderitas, Flores de Mayo, lechon—is coopted from its indigenous roots to promote stuff like three-day mall sales.

Strangely enough, I don’t recall the baylehan being afforded the same treatment, and it’s easy to see why: in the cosmopolitan Ilonggo’s eyes, it seems there’s no use for it anymore. Sure, baylehans still exist, but the closest thing we have to the authentic ones are those taking place in inner-city barangays and the most far-flung provinces outside the city.

Heck, it won’t be a stretch to call baylehans as the premium social centers for the most marginalized sectors in society.

And let’s get this out of the way now: gigs and raves are cool, but those are still a tad bit sosyal by most Pinoy’s standards. The baylehan, on the other hand, has always been lowest-common denominator. It’s buki.

However, it’s still a cultural presence in its own right. It really wasn’t just it’s used to be, is all. As Kristine Buenavista wrote in ‘Baylehan in My Mind’:

The baylehan offered more than dancing; it was a small, intimate space shared by so many people from all ages and walks of life. How could I ever forget how the baylehan looked like? It was made of amakan, a dusty floor, and beautiful lights made of stars and bulbs. Outside, you could find tables for snacks and refreshment. The combo played sensuous music – chacha, rumba, tango, and waltz. Live music gave me this sense of freedom and community.

It’s very easy to forget that not every Ilonggo today is afforded with the modern conveniences we take for granted. I daresay that’s why the baylehan maintains some social cache for a subset of Ilonggos; much like going to a wake from the opposite barangay to play baraha or to indulge in some marathon drinking session because you have nothing else to do during evenings, the baylehan provides a necessary distraction from the backbreaking harshness of everyday living. The fact that activities like these are communal in nature seems to be secondary.

Many old-timers like to point to the baylehans of yesterday as remnants of simpler times. And indeed, it was. Tales abounded then of men being “privileged” to dance with female partners whenever a romantic song plays; barring that, buying a case of beer inside the venue would have guaranteed the said male a date for the evening. Facebook would be exploding right now if someone’s able to document this live.

However questionable some aspects of the baylehan would be these days, that doesn’t mean parts behind the concept have become entirely irrelevant; just like the harana being incorporated into schmaltzy Pinoy pop, the bayle has simply manifested in different forms.

Really, you only have to look at the biggest, modern baylehan of all to know what I’m referring to: the Dinagyang, a celebration that’s arguably less about celebrating the Sto. Niño as much as it’s now just about dancing and drinking oneself to stupor (Speaking of which, would you care to be guided on how to celebrate Dinagyang responsibly?)

Some people may—rightfully, I might add—gripe about the baylehan’s incessant TUGSH-TUGSH-TUGSH, but we’re also forgetting that Iloilo legalizes sound pollution at a city-wide level during certain events. Proof: the ‘Paupas’, a free-for-all sonic melee participated by dozens of “sound systems” from all over Iloilo. If you haven’t been to one, here’s a visual: imagine the “battle of the bands” scene from 2010’s ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ where two bands face each other and literally fight with nothing but huge-ass speakers and amplifiers. In the Paupas’s case, the speakers in question are just lined adjacent to each other because no one’s insane enough yet to hold the contest in an arena setting. With all that bass in the vicinity, it seems like the only criteria for judging the best sound system is to see which one can initiate a heart attack the quickest.

Of course, Ilonggos won’t be Ilonggos if we don’t love singing. For those times when you just want to dance and sing at the same time—and note that doing it inside a club doesn’t count—the videoke has become the alternative for it.

You think I’m stretching for an argument? Well, consider this: hip kids don’t dance to ‘Budots’, and the older ones could care less about hearing the difference between Diplo or whoever the hell the EDM flavor of the moment is. But try punching ‘Buttercup’ or ‘September’ at any videoke machine, and it becomes everyone’s jam. In that respect, the baylehan and the videoke are close cousins to each other, at least in terms of social inclusiveness: no one cares how “cool” the song is on your playlist since they’ll probably be too busy singing along with your garbled lyrics to ever take any notice at all.

Point is, baylehans still exist, particularly if you’re going to a remote barangay’s pista or reception to celebrate a wedding, baptism, graduation or whatever the homeowners feel like celebrating. And it’s not like we’re even wanting for any paeans to this “art form” of the masa: one of my most favorite references to it is by a song made by the legendary Iloilo raggacore band, Point Click Kill, below:

And yes, even Project Iloilo has recognized the influence of the baylehan by creating an event based around the concept (Promise, we’re just doing cheap plugs once every month).

True, we may not recapture what made the baylehans of yesterday so appealing to the more traditionalist Ilonggo in all of us, but that doesn’t mean the qualities it espoused—namely, its commitment to letting people just enjoy themselves without fear of looking like dorks in the process—couldn’t be incorporated into anything of value we create. After all, that’s how culture progresses, doesn’t it?

And besides, we still have yet to arrive at a day when dancing like these people below wouldn’t be seen as a potential embarrassment. Why complicate things when having fun?

As the saying goes: simple lang pero rak.

Joseph Batcagan is the editor and a writer for Project Iloilo.