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The Bicolano People or the Bikolanos (Bikol: Mga Bikolnon) History, Culture and Traditions [Bicol Region Philippines]

The Bicolano People or the Bikolanos (Bikol: Mga Bikolnon) History, Culture and Traditions

Bikol and Bikolnon both refer to the people, culture, and language of the Bicol region. The term “Bikol” could have been derived from “Bico,” the name of a river that drains into San Miguel Bay. Possible origins also include the bikul or bikal bamboo trees, which line rivulets, and the ancient native word bikod (twisted or bent).

Administratively known as Region V, the Bicol region is located on the southeastern end of Luzon. It is surrounded by the Visayan Sea in the south, the Pacific Ocean in the east, Lamon Bay in the north, and Sibugan Sea and Quezon province in the west. It comprises six provinces: Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Catanduanes, Albay, Sorsogon, and Masbate.

Bicol has a rugged topography. Its highlands tower over the few expanses of plain, which are concentrated in Camarines Sur and Albay. These include Mayon Volcano, Mount Malinao, and Mount Masaraga in Albay; Mount Isarog, Mount Iriga, and the Calinigan mountain range in Camarines Sur; and Bulusan Volcano in Sorsogon. Important bodies of water are Lamon Bay and San Miguel Bay; the Lagonoy, Ragay, Albay, and Asian Gulf; the Sibugon Sea, Burias Pass, Ticao Pass, and Maqueda Channel; and the freshwater lakes of Buhi, Bato, and Baao in Camarines Sur and Bulusan Lake in Sorsogon. Rains fall regularly and heavily over the region; precipitation generally exceeds 2 meters annually, with Baras in Catanduanes receiving 5.4 meters of rain annually—the highest in the country. Frequent and destructive typhoons mark the later months of the year.

In 2010, the regional population stood at 5,420,411, spread out over a land area of 17,632.50 sq km. However, the Bikol people are widely dispersed outside the Bicol region. As of 2000, they make up the largest non-Tagalog group in the following cities of Metro Manila or the National Capitol Region: Caloocan City, 59,276 or 5.05% of the city’s population; Pasig City, 24,678 or 4.9%; and Valenzuela City, 21,896 or 4.55%. In Quezon City, they rank second in population size after the Bisaya, numbering 108,293 or 5%. In Manila they number 39,295 or 2.5%, ranking third, after the Ilocano and Cebuano. They are the largest non-Tagalog group in the following provinces of Luzon: Rizal, 73,253 or 4.30%; Laguna 57,282 or 3%; and Batangas 11,661 or 0.42%. They rank second after the Bisaya in the following provinces: Cavite, 52,031 or 2.54%, Bulacan 43,605 or 1.95%, and Quezon, 36,339 or 2.45%. They are found as well in the following provinces: Aurora, 7,079; Pampanga 6,685; Oriental Mindoro, 2,930; Cebu 1,534, which is 0.06% of the population; and 247 in Marinduque. In just this random survey, the Bikol people make up a total of 545,544 or more than half a million, residing outside their region of origin. On the other hand, other ethnolinguistic groups in the Bicol region, besides the Tagalog, are the Bisayans, particularly the Cebuano and Ilonggo; and the Kankanaey from northern Luzon.

The Bicol region has at least eight Bikol languages: Buhi’non Bikol, Central Bikol, Libon Bikol, Miraya Bikol, Northern Catanduanes Bikol, Rinconada Bikol, Southern Catanduanes Bikol, and West Albay Bikol. These further include at least 11 dialects. The Bikol that is spoken in Naga, Albay is generally considered to be Standard Bikol. The number of households in Metro Manila that speak Bikol is 11,689, thus comprising the third largest non-Tagalog-speaking group in Metro Manila, after Ilocano and Bisaya.

History of the Bicol Region

The Bicol region was known as Ibalon, variously interpreted to derive from ibalio, meaning “to bring to the other side,” or ibalon, “people from the other side” or “people who are hospitable and give visitors gifts to bring home.” It might also be a corruption of Gibalong, now a sitio of Barangay San Isidro, Sorsogon, where the Spaniards first landed in 1569. The Bico River was first mentioned in Spanish documents in 1572. The region was also called “Los Camarines,” after the huts found by the Spaniards in Camalig, Albay.

Cagsawa Church ruins in Daraga, Albay with Mayon Volcano in the background
Cagsawa Church ruins in Daraga, Albay with Mayon Volcano in the background, 2011 (Christian Bederico)

No prehistoric animal fossils have been discovered in Bicol, and the peopling of the region remains obscure. The presence of the Aeta from Camarines Sur to Sorsogon strongly suggests that aborigines lived there long ago, but the earliest evidence is of middle to late neolithic life.

Ancient artifacts have been discovered in several areas of Bicol: stone tools and burial jars in Bato, Sorsogon; burial jars in Bahia, Bagatao Island in Magallanes, Sorsogon and in the Batongan Cave in Mandaon; golden crowns, believed to date from 91 BC to 79 AD, in Libmanan, Bulan, and Juban; and 14th- and 15th-century ceramic plates, clay pots, and human skeletons with bronze arm and leg bands at the Almeda property in Cagbunga, Pamplona, Camarines Sur. Excavated from the limestone hills in the Kalanay cave, Aroroy, is pottery labeled the Sa-Huynh-Kalanay complex because of its correlation to Vietnam artifacts dating between 400 to 100 BC. Other artifacts in Masbate indicate early trade relations with China. In Burias, Masbate, caves yielded pre-16th-century sealed, wooden caskets, not the hollowed-out logs commonly found elsewhere. The Ticao Stone, also discovered in Masbate Island, consists of a pair of stones on which characters from the baybayin (indigenous syllabary) are incised. Although the authenticity of the two stones has yet to be determined, these have been put on display at the National Museum in Manila.

Interior of a Bikol house (Le Tour du Monde, Nouveau Journal des Voyages by Edouard Charton. Librairie de L. Hachette et Cie, 1884.)
Interior of a Bikol house (Le Tour du Monde, Nouveau Journal des Voyages by Edouard Charton. Librairie de L. Hachette et Cie, 1884.)

The Spaniards arrived in Masbate in 1567 under Mateo del Saz and Martin de Goiti, only to come upon abandoned villages, because the natives had fled to the highlands in anticipation of their arrival. For the Spaniards, however, this was no inroad but merely a stopover to restock. It was Luis de Guzman’s military expedition in 1569 that began Bicol’s colonization. From hereon, Spanish abuse in the area, as in all the other islands, began. The natives were first oppressed by Andres de Ibarra, who reached Bicol in 1570. Their gold mines too were exploited, upon Juan de Salcedo’s discovery of these during his explorations of northern Bicol in 1571. The natives’ quick defense brought upon them the whip of conquest in the forms of property confiscation, forced labor, conscription, and loss of traditional power. Within a few months of Bishop Domingo de Salazar’s arrival in the colony in 1581, he was writing letters to King Philip II bitterly complaining about the cruelty of the tribute collector in Ibalon. Tortures inflicted upon the chieftains, who were made responsible for collecting the tributes from their people, included crucifixion and being hanged by the arms until they died.

The Augustinian missionaries Alonso Jimenez and Juan de Orta pioneered the conversion of the Bikol people, who were the first natives of Luzon to be Christianized. Pedro de Chavez founded the Spanish city of Caceres near the village of Naga. In 1578, it became a Franciscan mission and in 1595, became the capital of the bishopric. On the other hand, soldier-turned-Franciscan missionary Pedro Ferrer, who was assigned to Camalig, nearly lost his life to the natives, who resented his sudden interference in their way of life.

In 1636, the region was subdivided into Ibalon and Camarines, the former composed of Albay, Catanduanes (once part of Albay), Sorsogon, Masbate, and the Ticao and Burias islands, while the latter included towns from Camalig northwards. In 1829, Camarines split into Norte and Sur, but these were reunited in 1893 and in 1919 were formally established as provinces. Bicol would also produce the first Filipino bishop of the Catholic Church—Jorge Barlin y Imperial, 1850-1909.

The Hispanization of Bicol was seen in the introduction of religious education; the introduction in 1669 by Fray Pedro de Espallargas of a hemp-stripping machine in Sorsogon, which promoted Bicol’s abaca industry; the cooperation between the natives and the colonial government in fending off Muslim invaders; and the establishment of a shipyard for the building of Manila-Acapulco trading galleons. The biggest shipyard was the Real Astillero on the island of Bagatao at the mouth of Sorsogon Bay, a site close to Sorsogon’s timber source and the San Bernardino Strait, where ships would enter from and depart for Acapulco, Mexico. In 1849, Governor-General Claveria’s decree that the natives adopt surnames nominally erased what remained of their ties to their indigenous past.

The Bikol were described by Spanish chronicler Fray Martin de Rada as very fierce warriors. Thus, their history comprises many battles against foreign incursions. Sorsogon participated in Samar’s Sumuroy Revolt in 1649. In Camarines, minor rebellions occurred contemporaneously with the Sumuroy rebellion and during the British occupation of Manila between 1762 and 1764. The natives resisted the Spaniards mainly through armed confrontation, which included an ingenious system of alarm signals when overwhelmed by the opposition. Failing these, they retreated to the hills. Mount Isarog became the refuge of renegades, whom the Spaniards called the remontados or cimarrones. Defying an order to speak only Naga Bikol, the natives continued to use 15 different languages and dialects as an act of rebellion.

From September to December 1896, some citizens of Bicol were tried, deported, or executed on grounds of subversion. Very few of those deported to Africa returned after the change of regime. Ildefonso Moreno founded the Bikol chapter of the Katipunan, the revolutionary movement, in 1897 but their uprising failed. The tribunal de cuchillo (military court) of the province killed about 500 natives to prevent future uprisings. The governor of Albay and Sorsogon and Bicol’s church officials issued other counterrevolutionary measures. Hundreds of Bikol volunteers were shipped to Manila in 1897 to reinforce the Spanish army in Luzon. Naga’s bishop forewarned the ministers of his diocese, and the vicar-forane of Sorsogon, Father Jorge Barlin, instructed his parish priests to engage in surveillance. In 1897, 11 Bikol martyrs, three of whom were priests, were executed in Bagumbayan, also known as Luneta. However, all these failed to hold back Sorsogon’s shipyard workers from revolting in Panlatuan, Pilar, Sorsogon in 1898.

On 18 September 1898, Elias Angeles and Felix Plazo led the mutiny that ended Spanish dominion over Naga. Vicente Zardin, the last provincial governor of Ambos Camarines, signed the capitulation document. Albay’s governor, Angel de Bascaran, turned over the government to Anacleto Solano after the Spaniards surrendered to Ramon Santos on 22 September 1898. After the Spanish defeat, the Philippine revolutionary government approached the Chinese for financial support. However, the generosity of the Sorsogon Chinese had been abused by Diokno’s soldiers; hence, it was more difficult to solicit funds from them. General Jose Ignacio Paua, the only Chinese revolutionary governor, claimed that between November 1898 and October 1899, he had raised 400,000 pesos from Bicol’s Chinese community.

The role of the “frailocracy” in the first phase of the Bikol revolution is uncertain. An anti-friar movement could have resulted in the 1897 execution of the Bikol martyrs. It is equally possible that Bicol’s revolutionaries were not as anti-friar as the rebels of other regions, since most of Bicol’s parishes were under the Filipino secular clergy. The Spanish Franciscans and Vincentians were well treated when the revolution broke out in Naga, and the Franciscans willingly departed with their fellow Spaniards from Albay. However, the friars suffered persecution when the revolutionary government was turned over to masonic leaders such as Vicente Lukban and Wenceslao Viniegra; and certain revolutionary government policies pressured Antonio Guevarra and Estanislao Legaspi to take a firmer stance.

Problems of financing the revolution persisted through its second phase, the anti-American campaign. For instance, Colonel Amando Airan in Sorsogon and General Paua in Albay were not sufficiently armed. When the Philippine-American War erupted in Bicol, the troops of Colonel Felix Maronilla and Captain Policarpio Ruivivar confronted the Americans under Colonel Walter Howe in February 1890. William Kobbe landed a military expedition in Sorsogon in June of the same year to sever Aguinaldo’s links with his army there and to gain American control of the abaca industry. This was countered by Gens Vito Belarmino and Paua in Albay but not by Colonel Airan in Sorsogon. Belarmino subsequently relieved the latter of his command. In February 1900, General William Bates met fierce retaliation in Camarines. Revolutionary combat escalated under Colonels Elias Angeles and Ludovico Arejola. Later in March, Arejola, Angeles, and Colonel Bernabe Dimalibot consolidated Bicol’s guerrilla forces. These 20th-century fighters revived the use of the tirador (slingshot) and anting-anting (amulets).

To entrench themselves in the region, the Americans encouraged native collaboration. However, collaborators like Claro Muyot and Anastacio Camara of Sorsogon were condemned by the local revolutionaries for accepting American posts. The Partido Federalista formed in late 1900 would become instrumental in ending resistance, such as that of Colonel Emeterio Funes in Sorsogon. Where the rebels rejected peacemaking overtures, the Americans returned in force by burning, pillaging, and killing. In addition to conventional battle and mass arrests, many war atrocities were committed throughout the region; strategic areas such as Burias Pass and Ticao Pass were blockaded. The capture of Burias’s rebel leaders deprived the Sorsogon and Albay forces of their last main supply source in the region. Arejola capitulated on 31 March 1901 but declined the governorship offered by General William Howard Taft. In Albay, even after Belarmino and Paua’s surrender, Simeon Ola prevailed until 1903. Ola was the last Bikol general to submit to the Americans.

In April 1901, the American military government was replaced by provincial civil governments under the Philippine Commission. Bicol’s economic development helped to bring it closer to the nation’s mainstream in and around Manila. With the introduction of popular education, a new curriculum was established, although Spanish remained the medium of instruction until the 1920s.

Fifty-three American Thomasites arrived in Bicol to help implement the First Philippine Commission’s policy on public instruction in the first decade of the century. Later, they were replaced by American-educated pensionados or scholars. American government and education, however, did not immediately erase the Spanish presence in the region. But like all other provinces in the country, the Bikol were soon transformed by an American education that taught Anglo-American culture. The English language was imposed and knowledge of it became an important consideration for public and private employment. Similarly, Bicol towns and provinces adopted the local government structures imposed by the Americans.

However, problems of land ownership, originating in the Spanish colonial period, were exacerbated by American colonial policies, which required all land claims in the Philippines to submit to legal formalities, particularly the Torrens title system. Residents of an area had traditionally claimed land ownership by the simple cultivation of a parcel of land. Members of the principalia (local elite) generally owned no more than 20 hectares, while the common people, an average of three. Communal land was that which had trees and plants, the fruit of which any resident was free to take. Non-residents or outsiders who desired to avail themselves of these products were required to ask for permission from the municipal officials.

However, a shrewd individual could take advantage of the sudden shift to colonialist, legal-bureaucratic procedures. In 1890, Don Mariano P. Villanueva, a migrant from Binondo, Manila, claimed the legal title to 1,300 hectares of so-called pastos (pasture land) on San Miguel, an island lying across the sea from Tabaco, Albay. In 1897, the town mayor noted in an official document that ownership of the land was under question because the San Miguel residents were reclaiming it as communal property (“terreno que reclama el pueblo ser comunal y pendiente de cuestion”), which, since before 1890, had been planted with “coconuts, cacao, banana, bamboo, nipa palm, coffee, lemon trees, sugar cane, abaca, anahao [fountain palm], galyang [root crop], and caragomoy [pandan]” (Supreme Court 2013). Nevertheless, in 1902, Villanueva, in compliance with the Torrens Title Act, again obtained the legal title to the same land. A year before this, about a hundred of San Miguel’s naturales y vecinos (natives and residents) had petitioned the government to reinstate Miguel Berces as their presidente (mayor). The name of Miguel Berces resurfaced in 1902 when, in a suit filed by Villlanueva, he and 13 others were named as “usurpers” of the land in question. In 1905, Señor Juan Loyola, himself among those dispossessed, remarked that Villanueva had sold to some Americans part of the land in question that was near Point Rawis. In 1906, with the Attorney General in attendance to represent the US government, the American judge, Grant T. Trent, ruled in favor of Villanueva.

Up till 1913 suits and countersuits were filed. By 1908, the court records were referring to the so-called “usurpers” as “The Fourteen” appearing in behalf of 305 other evicted residents of San Miguel. One of them was Irineo Bonagua, who, in 1901, had led the signature campaign for the reinstatement of Berces as the town mayor. In 1909, the head of the Presbyterian mission in Albay wrote home in a letter: “Most of the people have lost their land through defective title to a rich man.” In 1913, the Supreme Court upheld the original decision in favor of Villanueva because “the occupants of the land were absolutely destitute of any title,” and they had not acted sooner “in defense of their rights and interests.” “The Fourteen” who fought to keep their land were Miguel Berces/Berses, Saturnino Bon, Leon Buison, Basilio Buela, Alejandro Bogñalos, Idelfonso Buera, Vicente Bolga, Jacinto Brotas, Alberto Beniste, Tomas Berlon, Alejandro Brusola, Fabian Bonagua, Mariano Bonagua, and Agustin Bonagua. One of the defense lawyers for the San Miguel residents was Filipino poet in Spanish Tirso Irureta Goyena.

World War II in Bicol broke out when Japanese soldiers landed in Legazpi on 12 December 1941 and two days later marched into Naga. They met negligible resistance, since most of the USAFFE (United States Armed Forces in the Far East) forces in Bicol were serving in Bataan.

The first guerrilla force against the Japanese in the Philippines was organized by Wenceslao Vinzons of Camarines Norte in December 1941. Prominent people of Camarines Sur organized guerilla units and in March 1942 blitzed Naga. Bikol guerrillas operated between Pasacao and Pamplona and in the districts of Lagonoy and Rinconada in Camarines Sur. The guerillas, led by Constabulary Sergeant Faustino Flor and Teofilo Padua, recaptured Naga in May 1942. Almost simultaneously, Vinzons attacked Daet, Camarines Norte, and Governor Salvador Escudero staged his own offensives in Sorsogon. In July 1942 Vinzons was apprehended and reportedly executed. His patriotism was later immortalized by his birthplace, Indan, which was renamed Vinzons.

Lt Francisco “Turko” Boayes took up Vinzons’s fight against the Japanese. He was joined by two large forces, the Tangkong Vaca Guerrilla Unit (TVGU) and the Camp Isarog Guerrilla Unit (CIGU). The TVGU reportedly ambushed General Takano, the chief military commander of the Japanese in the Philippines, in November 1942.

In 1944, American planes bombed Legazpi, Pili, Iriga, and Naga, destroying many homes, even as most of the Japanese had already evacuated from fear of US attacks. In March and April 1945, Douglas MacArthur’s Sixth Army, aided by Filipino guerrillas, defeated the Japanese in the region. Shortly after, all the guerrilla units in the region merged into the 158th Regimental Combat Team of the US Army. It was divided into two regiments: the first stationed in Legazpi under Major Eladio Isleta, and the second stationed in Naga under Major Licerio Lapuz. The Commonwealth government in Bicol was restored.

After World War II, the agricultural region of Bicol remained one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions in the country such that out-migration reached “near-epidemic proportions.” Violent disputes intermittently arose between the subsequent landowners and alleged “squatters” on the San Miguel estate well into the 1970s. In 1950, Santiago Gancayco Sr. bought the land and established the Agricultural Management and Development Corporation (AMADCOR). In 1958, his son, Santiago Gancayco Jr, who was also the manager of Hacienda San Miguel, was killed by a group of armed men, one of whom had reported to them the bulldozing of the camote plantations of his relatives, designated as hacienda “squatters.” Nine days later, the group leader, Pedro Borja, was arrested in Cavinti, Laguna, along with 39 others whom he had recruited to start a rebel movement against the government.

Street demonstrations started in 1970, when Bikol student activists of the First Quarter Storm (FQS) came home from Manila to organize in the region. The Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) and youth and students organizations such as Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK) were organized. The more moderate and Church-aligned Kilusang Khi Rho and Lakasdiwa were also formed to espouse nationalism, justice, and human rights, while rejecting what they perceived as the violent and Communist leanings of their radical counterparts. In Octobercarp 1971, hundreds of students and farmers participated in a “long march” from Naga City to Legazpi, stopping to stage rallies in every town. The private army of an Albay politician attacked the students in Camalig, Albay and followed them to the town church, where they had sought sanctuary.

The most notable of the Bikol activists was Romulo Jallores of Tigaon, Camarines Sur, also known as Kumander Tangkad, of the first unit of the New People’s Army (NPA) in Bicol. He and his comrades formed a guerrilla zone in the Partido district of Camarines Sur in 1970 to 1971. The first encounter of Jallores’s armed group with the Philippine Constabulary (PC) was on 26 August 1971 in San Pedro, Iriga City. Jallores’s armed group moved on to eliminate cattle rustlers, rapists, and other criminals in the localities where they operated. They organized the peasants and implemented “revolutionary land reform.” Jallores was killed by military forces in 1971 in Naga City.

The death of more than a hundred persons, caused by the collapse of the Colgante Bridge during the September fluvial procession of the Peñafrancia fiesta, was read in the popular mind as an omen of martial law in Bicol. A few days later, martial law was declared, media outfits were padlocked, and journalists, clergy, farmers, and student activists were detained. Some of them were tortured; some simply disappeared.

Two types of resistance sprung as a response to martial law: armed and non-armed. Armed resistance was exemplified by student activists going underground or to the hills or both. Former “moderates” joined the radicals, getting killed as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)-NPA in encounters with the PC and Armed Forces of the Philippines whom they called mga hapon, an allusion to World War II Japanese soldiers.

From 1973 to 1975, after Tangkad’s fall, the CPP-NPA in Bicol suffered setbacks after the “encirclement and suppression” of their Yenan-inspired NPA base around Mount Bulusan in Sorsogon, and the surrender or capture of the regional leadership based there. In the late 1970s to early 1980s, the CPP-NPA recovered and gained strength in Bicol, from Camarines Norte through Camarines Sur, down to Albay and Sorsogon. In the towns, core groups were formed within offices and organizations.

The second form, which was of non-armed resistance, was led by local journalists who, despite having been detained by the military, continued to assert press freedom. From 1976 to the last days of Marcos, the local paper Balalong exemplified Naga free press, mainly in the courageous assertion of press freedom by human rights lawyer Luis General Jr and the anti-Marcos poems of poet Luis Dato. In the mid-1970s, then Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) governor for Bicolandia, J. Antonio M. Carpio, wrote a poem critical of the dictatorship, which he read in an IBP national conference in Manila, with Marcos present as the guest of honor. Concerned members of the Catholic clergy and pastors of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), especially in Albay and Sorsogon, were part of the resistance, sheltering and aiding activists; some of them joined the underground movement during the martial law years.

Some citizens approved of martial law because of the curfew and the discipline and relative quiet it brought, as there were fewer crimes and chaos on the streets. For many, however, it was a time of worsening poverty, marked by fuel rationing, rice queues, and unemployment. Local politicians like Villafuerte and Fuentebella of Camarines Sur, Imperial of Albay, Alberto of Catanduanes, and Espinosa of Masbate sided with Marcos and ensured that their bloodline would sit in positions of prominence.

Martial law was formally lifted in 1981. The Kilusan ng Mamamayan para sa Tunay na Demokrasya (KMTD) or Citizens Movement for Genuine Democracy was organized and at once launched the boycott campaign against Marcos-rigged elections. Four farmers were shot by military elements in what is now known as the Daet Massacre of 1981. When the KMTD leaders Carpio and Grace Magana-Vinzons sought justice for these farmers, they were instead detained.

The assassination of the popular senator Benigno Aquino Jr. on 21 August 1983 triggered mass protest actions nationwide. The Bikol Alliance, which was founded in 1982, published newsletters openly critical of the Marcos administration. Other anti-Marcos organizations founded during this period were the Nationalist Alliance; Bicol Lawyers for Nationalism, Democracy and Integrity Association, also known as Bicolandia Lawyers; Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan, also known as KaAkBay; Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, also known as Bayan; and the Task Force Detainees (TFD) in Bicol. Organizations of various political colors formed an alliance under the umbrella movement called “Justice for Aquino, Justice for All” (JAJA) and side-by-side engaged in protest rallies and marches.

With the rise of the anti-Marcos opposition, local politicians shifted allegiance, as in the case of the legendary “Apat na Aguila” (Four Eagles), referring to the Villafuerte-Cea-Alfelor-Andaya coalition, versus the “Uwak” (Crow) or the Fuentebella-Triviño-Bigay-Ballecer group. Villafuerte joined Cea in the opposition (Briguera, 71; Santos 1994, 35-39). Local politics remained dominated by the dakulang tao, literally “big people,” which was the popular label for wealthy, traditional politicians.

In San Miguel, the farmers’ century-long struggle to regain possession of their land continued. The farmers joined protest rallies in Legazpi City and Tabaco. In 1982, the estate was transferred to Gancayco’s grandson, Celso de los Angeles Jr. Farmers Nelson Brutas, Rodolfo Burce, and 15 others were killed amidst protest actions on March 25, 1983. In 1984, Freddie Burce led 14 farmers in a long march from Tabaco to Malacañan called Lakad ng Bayan para sa Kalayaan (LAKBAYAN) and were later joined by other farmers from Lucena. Finally, on 27 March 1984, the farmers repossessed their own land in San Miguel by order of the Department of Agrarian Reform.

In 1986, Marcos was driven out of the country by the Filipino people in a people’s revolt popularly known as People Power or Edsa Revolt. However, up to the early 1990s, well into the presidency of his successor, Corazon Aquino, activists continued to be harassed, arrested, or became desaparecidos, literally “disappeared.” Sotero Llamas, also known as Kumander Nognog, represented the NPA in the peace talks at the beginning of President Aquino’s term but returned to the hills to head the CPP-NPA in 1987 after the Mendiola massacre. He was captured in 2004, ran as candidate for governor of Albay but lost; he was assassinated in 2006.

The Anti-Subversion Law was lifted during the presidency of former martial law strongman Fidel Ramos. In 1988, Naga City declared a “People’s Ceasefire” and became one of the pioneer Zones of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in the country during the September fiesta of 1988. This was achieved at the initiative of the local peace coalition Hearts of Peace (HOPE), together with then-Mayor Jesse Robredo, and despite the non-cooperation of the military forces in Bicol.

Bicol's Economy and Traditional Occupations

Geography defines the region’s traditional occupations: agriculture and fishing. In 2013, Bicol contributed 2.01% to the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Its Gross Regional Domestic Product (GRDP) increased by 9.38% with agriculture, hunting, forestry, and fishing accounting for 23.35% of the economy. The service sector contributed 57%, and the industry sector, the remaining 23.3%. The growth rate of agriculture from 2012 to 2013 was 4.63%; crops, 5.05%; livestock, 1.26%; fisheries, 2.52%; and poultry, 17.69%. The region’s top agricultural commodities are chicken, corn, tambakol or tulingan (skipjack), galunggong (round scad), and eggplant. The region’s production of chicken ranked 11th in the national production in 2013, while its production of corn and eggplant ranked seventh. Rice, coconut, and abaca are major crops. About half of the farming land is planted to coconut, while 20% is planted to rice and 10% to abaca. Bicol ranks second to eastern Visayas in abaca production.

Workers drying abaca in Sipi, Bato, Catanduanes
Workers drying abaca in Sipi, Bato, Catanduanes, 2016 (Annielyn L. Baleza, Philippine Rural Development Project - Regional Project Coordination Office V InfoACE Unit)

Rice, the staple, is supplemented with corn and root crops. Coffee and cacao are also grown. Camarines Sur has the biggest livestock and poultry production and is the region’s main source of carabao, duck, and chicken. Hogs and goats are mostly raised in Masbate. It is also the region’s leader in cattle production, although this is controlled by wealthy families. Camarines Sur is the largest fish producer in the region; Masbate, the best inland fish producer; and Camarines Norte, the most efficient commercial fish producer. The growth of the local population has diminished the supply of fish such as dalag and hito, which were sold in Manila before World War II. Sinarapan ortabios, the world’s smallest fish and a delicacy, is found in Buhi but is now an endangered species. Bicol’s long coastline—the Lagonoy Gulf, Lamon Bay, Ragay Gulf, Visayan Sea, Samar Sea, and Sibuyan Sea—provides rich fishing grounds.

Farmer in Tabaco City drying newly harvested palay near the foot of Mayon Volcano
Farmer in Tabaco City drying newly harvested palay near the foot of Mayon Volcano, 2013 (Michael Jaucian)

Region V has the most iron reserves, comprising 57% of the national total. Its nickel and gold reserves make up 38% and 43%, respectively, of the national total. Camarines Norte has 90% of Bicol’s metals and has the largest deposit of titaniferous magnate sand in the region, followed by Sorsogon. In the country, Camarines Norte has the largest gold and copper deposit, the third largest laterite iron deposit and, with Zamboanga, holds the only lead deposits. In the region, Camarines Sur has the most limestone resources and the only chromite deposit, 3.44% of the national total. Substantial coal reserves can be found in the Batan Island, Albay, Catanduanes, Sorsogon, and Masbate. Except for clay, Bicol’s nonmetallic minerals are often sold as raw materials. Large-scale mining in Rapu-Rapu Island, Albay, and in Prieto Diaz, Sorsogon, has destroyed the environment. Similarly, a cement plant and its related quarrying activities in Palanog, Camalig, Albay has provoked much protest over environmental concerns and labor issues. Kaingin (slash-and-burn cultivation) and, more than this, the logging industry, have eroded Bicol’s mountains. As in the region’s mining industry, which is dominated by such firms as Benguet Corporation and ABCAR-PARACON, a few corporations have monopolized large capital investments in logging. Local furniture making has also suffered from the loss of timber.

In 1999 to 2009, Bicol became one of two abaca-producing regions—the other being Eastern Visayas—that were the worst hit by pests and plant disease. The destruction of abaca plants adversely affects various related businesses. The processed abaca fiber is delivered to traders, who in turn sell these to exporters, rope factories, and pulp mills. Pulp mills manufacture the fibers into fiberboards, which are delivered to paper mills. While the inner sheaths of the abaca plant are processed into fibers for paper and rope, the bacbac (bark) is used for such handicraft items and textile called sinamay. Most communities engage in abaca craft, which consists of machine-made or handmade novelties such as wall decor, mats, baskets, rugs, hats, and slippers, all made from strands of plaited abaca material. These items of fiber craft are exported to the United States, Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

Several other industries sustain Bicol’s economy. Bicol’s exports include gifts, toys, and houseware made from coconut, minor forest materials, and seashells. Tiwi’s clay, especially from the hilly areas of Putsan and Bolo, is used for decorative items such as flowerpots and water jugs, and construction materials such as clay and bricks. Large deposits of red and white clay have given rise to a ceramic industry, which targets the domestic market. The region’s second largest cottage industry is the cutlery of Tabaco, Albay, which includes scissors, bolo, knives, razors, and chisels. Camarines Norte—the gold-rich Paracale-Labo-Panganiban area—is the center of Bicol’s gold jewelry-making industry, specializing in handcrafted filigree. The lasa grass of Catanduanes is used for brooms and dusters. Perlite comes from Bacacay. Cement manufacturing in the region is based on the shale and limestone of Camarines Sur (Balatan-Sipocot-Cabusao), Catanduanes (Manamrag and Tibang), Albay (Palanog in Camalig). Lime quarrying is done in the mountains of Camalig and Guinobatan. Seaweed culture and processing for food, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical purposes have been developed in Sorsogon since 1960. Other regions patronize Bicol’s various food products such as the pili nuts of Sorsogon and Albay, the meat of Masbate, and the seafood of Camarines Norte and Catanduanes.

Video: CARAMOAN Camarines Sur, Mahiwagang Bangus sa Matukad Island, Island Hopping [2022 Bicol Tour Series]

Bicol’s tourism industry is another source of income. Among the more popular sites are the perfect-cone-shaped Mayon Volcano, the Cagsawa ruins, Tiwi’s hot springs, and Misibis Bay Resort in Albay; Lake Buhi, Caramoan, and the Camsur Watersports Complex in Camarines Sur; Donsol for the butanding (whale shark) and Bulusan’s mountain lake in Sorsogon; and Calaguas Island in Camarines Norte. The top tourist destination, however, is Naga City because of the pilgrimage to the Virgin of Peñafrancia.

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The Philippine Tourism Authority is developing the Marinawa falls in Bato, Catanduanes into a nature park and resort. Also to be developed in Catanduanes are the Capitol Park in Virac and the Luyang Caves in San Andres, and in Camarines Sur, the Consocep Falls and Atulayan Beach. Provincial festivals such as Albay’s Magayon Festival and Sorsogon’s Kasanggayahan Festival have increased the number of local and foreign tourists.

From 2009 to 2012, the peninsula of Caramoan in Camarines Sur became familiar to worldwide television audiences when it was used as a regular site for eight seasons of the reality show Survivor, which features participants of different nationalities. The media exposure has transformed the place into a tourist spot for swimming, diving, snorkeling, and spelunking.

As of April 2015, Bicol’s labor participation rate was 65.3% and its employment rate, 95.4%. However, despite its resources and opportunities, Bicol remains one of the country’s most economically depressed areas, with the lowest income recorded among the regions. In 2012, the average annual family income was 162,000 pesos or 13,500 monthly. In April 2015, unemployment was 4.6% compared to the national average of 6.4%. In 2010, urban-rural distribution was uneven, with 831,380 of the total population concentrated in urban areas and 4,589,319 in rural areas. In 2000, Bicol lost 38,575 of its population to overseas employment—an increase of around 20,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) between 1995 and 2000. By 2012, the number had risen to 43,546 or 1% of the Bikol population, the male overseas workers outnumbering the female ones by only 7.68%.

Infrastructure for agricultural support remains inadequate. In the 1990s, Bicol averaged a mere 0.33 km of road per sq km of arable land, as against the national standard of one kilometer per sq km. From 2012 to 2013, the region’s national road length increased by 1.4%, from 1,165.16 to 2,344.08 km. Concrete road length increased by 7.5%, from 1,165.16 to 1,252.34 km.

The region has five airports, four major seaports, and six interregional ports. The most important ports for trade and commerce are those of Legazpi City and Tabaco City, both in Albay. Providing additional support for local sea travel are nine more ports located in Masbate, Pilar in Sorsogon, Burias Island, Libon in Albay, Pio Duran, and Siruma in Camarines Sur. The Tiwi Geothermal Complex in Albay is the world’s seventh largest, producing steam-generating energy with a capacity of 275 to 330 megawatts. Together with the BacMan geothermal field in Bacon, Sorsogon and Manito, Albay, it powers the Luzon grid. Five hydroelectric plants, classed as “small,” are found in the following sites: Cawayan in Guinlajon, Sorsogon; Buhi-Barit in Buhi, Camarines Sur; Inarihan in Panicuason, Naga City; Yabo in Pili, Camarines Sur; and Solong in San Miguel, Catanduanes. Nevertheless, electricity is unreliable and more expensive in the region than in Manila.

Located in the typhoon belt, which subjects the region to about 12 storms yearly, Bicol has had annual floods that would inundate 42,000 hectares of prime land for a month. The Bicol Express, which plies the Manila-Naga route, is intermittently suspended due to the damage and destruction wrought by typhoons on the railways. A history of volcanic eruptions and a small landholding system have also contributed to Bicol’s underdevelopment.The Bicol River Basin Development Program was created in 1973 under Executive Order No. 412 “to reverse the downward transitional trend” of the region and in 1978 was expanded to cover Camarines Sur, Albay, and Sorsogon. The program on the Bicol River Basin watershed that succeeded it was closed for lack of funds in 2010.

The Bicol region moved from second to fourth poorest region in the country in the first decade of the millennium. Although mainly still dependent on an agricultural economy, its seven cities, especially Naga and Legazpi, are urbanizing and globalizing. Conversely, the Bikol out-migrants in urban centers and overseas are pouring in material benefits for their families in the region.

Political System

A barangay system was in existence prior to Spanish arrival in 1569. Records show no signs of Islamic rule nor any authority surpassing the datu or chieftain. Precolonial leadership was based on strength, courage, and intelligence. The natives seemed apolitical. Thus the datu’s influence mattered most during crises such as wars. Early Bikol society was family centered, and the leader was the head of the family.

Provincial government building of Ambos Camarines at Nueva Caceres (now Naga City)
Provincial government building of Ambos Camarines at Nueva Caceres (now Naga City) (American Historical Collection)

The memory of some of these chieftains who wielded enormous power and prestige has been preserved in the Spanish chronicles and records. Among these were Panga, who reigned over the village of Lupa; Tongdo, the chief of Bua, presently the town of Nabua; Bonayog, ruler of the village of Caobnan; Magpaano, the chief of Binoyoan; and Caayao of Sabang. What is now the city of Ligao in Albay was dotted with affluent villages ruled by Pagkilatan, Makabangoy, Sampongan, and Mabao. Hokoman, the chieftain of the wealthiest of these villages called Cavasi, earned the submission of these chiefs.

The people’s religiosity and respect for authority facilitated adjustment to Spanish leadership patterns. Eighteenth-century reforms introduced the principalia into local office. The gobernadorcillo (town mayor) was selected from 12 electors who were of this class and who were preferably well versed in Spanish. To assure full and timely collection of taxes, Simon de Anda’s 1781 decree stipulated that the cabezas de barangay (barangay heads) be wealthy. Such posts that were exempt from tribute and forced labor were much coveted, and this gave way to election anomalies.

Kinship continued to play significantly in local colonial politics. Political rivalry came between influential native clans, like the families Hernandez and Abrantes in Donsol, and Calmosa and Ubaldo in Matnog. The influences and even their political competition extended to the provincial level, such as in the case of the family of the Abella and Arejola in Camarines Sur. Many of these families later led Bicol’s revolutionary efforts.

Depiction of a policeman Man riding horse
Depiction of a policeman (Le Tour du Monde, Nouveau Journal des Voyages by Edouard Charton. Librairie de L. Hachette et Cie, 1884.)

Revolutionary governments were established under Vicente Lukban and Antonio Sanz in Ambos Camarines, and Anacleto Solano in Albay. Domingo Samson, Justo Lukban, Marcial Calleja, Tomas Arejola, and Mariano Abella represented Bicol in the 1898 Congress in Malolos, Bulacan; and Abella sat in the constitution-drafting committee. Thereafter, several Bicol towns continued to enjoy autonomy under governments sanctioned by General Emilio Aguinaldo. The Spanish officials in Sorsogon remained there until the end of their rule. When they abandoned the province, no provisional government was set up before the arrival of Aguinaldo’s expeditionary force headed by General Ananias Diokno. Spanish laws prevailed during these revolutionary years, particularly in the selection of town officials from the principalia. Hence, when Diokno arrived, he staffed Sorsogon’s provisional government with its illustrious citizens.

Presently, the capital of Camarines Norte is Daet; of Camarines Sur, Pili; of Catanduanes, Virac; of Albay, Legazpi; of Sorsogon, Sorsogon; and of Masbate, Masbate. The region has seven cities: Legazpi, Tabaco, and Ligao in Albay; Naga and Iriga in Camarines; Sorsogon City in Sorsogon; and Masbate City in Masbate. And it has 107 municipalities, which have 3,471 barangays.

Some national executive offices and constitutionally mandated bodies have regional branches in Legazpi. Bicol is served by five regional trial courts and four municipal circuit trial courts. In Congress, Bicol is represented by 16 members (1991): five from Camarines Sur, two from Camarines Norte, three from Masbate, two from Sorsogon, one from Catanduanes, and three from Albay.

As of 2013, each Bicol province has a governor, a vice governor, and 5 to 10 provincial board members. There are 18 mayors and 18 vice mayors in Albay, 12 mayors and 12 vice mayors in Camarines Norte, 37 mayors and 37 vice mayors in Camarines Sur, 11 mayors and 11 vice mayors in Catanduanes, 21 mayors and 21 vice mayors in Masbate, and 15 mayors and 15 vice mayors in Sorsogon.

Notable political names in the history of the region are Imperial, Sarte, Lagman, Borceos, Rayala, Bichara, Ziga, Sabido, Marcellana, and Aytona of Albay; Padilla, Panotes, Unico, and Pajarillo of Camarines Norte; Fuentebella, Cea, Villafuerte, Andaya, Roco, Pilapil, Alfelor, Velarde, Villanueva, del Castillo, Robredo, and de Lima of Camarines Sur; Alberto, Tapia, Almojuela, Verceles, and Arcilla of Catanduanes; Escudero, Gillego, Frialdo, Lee, Michelina, and Diaz of Sorsogon; and Espinosa, Fernandez, Bacumana, Bantiling, Yaneza, Ortiz, Aquino, Guyala, and Medina of Masbate. Dynastic politics continue to color the local scene, and the region is affected by communist insurgency.

Some efforts have been made by a few local politicians, such as Naga City’s late Mayor Jesse Robredo, to provide good governance and services to the poor and to work for peace. Former activists have joined local government and staff NGOs and people’s organizations (POs), working without fanfare on pro-poor measures such as agrarian reform, people’s councils, and peace zones. Notwithstanding such attempts at legal reform, Bicol remains the second strongest rebel stronghold, after Mindanao.

Social Organization, Customs and Traditions

Naming children according to their attributes or the conditions marking their birth was a regional custom; hence names such as Macusog (strong) and Magayon (beautiful). The practice still exists among a few Bikol families.

Traditional courtship, usually prearranged, progressed in several stages: lagpitao or palakaw-lakaw, the initial acquaintance through an intermediary; pasonco, the examination of the prospective match by both parties; pag-agad, the rendering of service by the groom to the bride’s family; and the pre-wedding negotiations setting the dote (dowry). The dowry consisted of the pagdodo (gift to the bride’s mother); sinakat, gift to the bride from a relative attending the wedding; and the ili-nakad, which was an additional fine if the bride had an unmarried older sister. After sayod or the drawing of the marriage covenant, both parties undertook the tronco, a genealogical tracing to prevent incestuous alliances, and finally held the pagcaya, the wedding feast, and the purukan or hurulungan, the bestowing of gifts. Extravagant weddings have continued on to present times, although they are smaller and simpler for the poorer folk. The pamalaye, the meeting of the two families for the wedding agreements, is observed today with greater simplicity, stripped of many of its old formalities. In modern times, Bikol weddings are no longer arranged for familial alliances.

Filipina women in Maria Clara dress at Drawing room of a Chinese trader’s house in Daraga, Albay
Drawing room of a Chinese trader’s house in Daraga, Albay (Le Tour du Monde, Nouveau Journal des Voyages by Edouard Charton. Librairie de L. Hachette et Cie, 1884.)

The solemnity of Bikol death rites, however, has never been determined by class, even if this has tended to be more elaborate for higher ranking individuals. The deceased used to lay in hagol (palm tree) coffins. Indigenous funeral rites, called pasaca, were comprised of basbas, the cleansing of the corpse; dool, the dutiful reverence for the deceased; and yokod, the recounting of the deceased’s life. Mourning consisted of the deceased family’s abstinence, displays of grief as in chanting and wailing, and dancing with the toldan, a big clay plate containing a dressed chicken without its innards. Before the actual burial, the deceased’s nearest kin recited “Da-y na ma-olang, padaygosan mo an simong lacao” (Tarry no longer; proceed to your journey).

Religious Beliefs and Practices

Bikol religiosity is deeply rooted. Sometimes Christian faith is expressed through indigenous forms, and indigenous beliefs may assume a Christian face.

Some beliefs and customs related to farming, the life cycle, talismans, and divination survive in the consciousness of the contemporary Bikol. Certain objects are believed to bear special powers, such as the lumay, a love potion; hinaw, a thief detector; and various anting-anting, such as kibal, which makes one invulnerable to sharp objects. The para-bulong or arbulario (folk doctor) is called upon to cure certain afflictions, such as hilo (poison), which gives the stricken person a tubercular appearance but is said to be caused by a supernatural being.

Our Lady of Peñafrancia procession in Naga City
Our Lady of Peñafrancia procession in Naga City, 2016 (Sherwin Magayanes,

Indigenous beliefs determine certain actions and forms of behavior. Night birds like kikik or tiktik convey ill omens that may prevent one from venturing out of the house. Dreaming of one’s teeth falling forebodes a close relative’s death. The deceased’s relatives attending the funeral should throw a bit of soil into the grave so as not to be haunted by the deceased. Using the remains of the materials for making the coffin causes bad luck.

The pre-Hispanic pantheon of deities, ranging from bad to good, is to a limited extent preserved. There are certain common expressions that acknowledge the invisible world, such as “Tabi po, maki-agi po” (Excuse me please, I would like to pass by). The Christian God and heavenly host have replaced the supreme god Gugurang and other deities, each of whom had a special function. Ancestral spirits are still invoked in the atang, in which food is offered to them in a postharvest thanksgiving ritual.

Thus, religion pervades daily life and becomes ceremonial during special occasions. Agricultural rites like tamoy, talagbanhi, and rigotiva combine indigenous and Hispanic influences. In Iriga City, tinagba is celebrated after the harvest during the feast of Corpus Christi; and formalities observed therein— pagdalot, pagarang, simbag —could be said to have both political undertones and religious overtones. Towns honor their patron saints during pintakasi. On the 11th of May, tumatarok, a prayer offering and oratory with song and dance, sanctifies a devotion to San Felipe and San Santiago in Minalabac, Camarines Sur. The vivahan may have its roots in the indigenous tradition.This is the welcoming of a new year with shouts of “Viva sa Bagong Taon!” (Long live the New Year) and with songs, food, and money being tossed onto the streets to ensure prosperity for the new year. The Catholic Christmas and Lenten seasons are observed through prayer and rites. Religious rituals include the vesperas, flores de Mayo, lagaylay, pastores, osana, siete palabras, soledad, dotoc, and alleluya, as well as the pasyon and the tanggal. There is also a preponderance of devotional art and literature.

Image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, Naga City
Image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, Naga City (CCP Collections)

The most popular and distinct manifestation of Bikol faith is the special devotion to Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia, Patroness of Bicol, who is endearingly addressed as “Ina” (mother). Her feast is commemorated with the procession of the traslacion (transfer) to the Naga Cathedral on the second Friday of September and a huge fluvial parade on the third Saturday of September back to the Basilica.

In 2003, the Roman Catholic Bikol comprised 94.27% of the region’s population, followed by Iglesia ni Cristo members, 1.41%; the Evangelicals, 0.82%; and all the others combined, 3.17%.

Historical Colonial Architecture and Ancestral Houses 

View of Albay houses and Mayon Volcano
View of Albay houses and Mayon Volcano (Le Tour du Monde, Nouveau Journal des Voyages by Edouard Charton. Librairie de L. Hachette et Cie, 1884.)

In precolonial times, many Bikol houses were perched on trees for protection from the sun and insects. Towns later grew from settlements established near rice plantations, which were scattered throughout the valley and coastal plains. The villages of Handong, Candato, and Fundado in Libmanan, Camarines Sur are believed to have been the site of “pile villages” or lake homes.

A village in Albay
A village in Albay (Le Tour du Monde, Nouveau Journal des Voyages by Edouard Charton. Librairie de L. Hachette et Cie, 1884.)

In Sorsogon, towns emerged for various reasons: the repopulation of the coast after the 19th-century Muslim invasions, such as that of Castilla; the establishment of astilleros (shipyards), which generated employment and assured protection, as in Magallanes; the conflict of economic interests, as in Barcelona; and the conflict of political interests, as in Irosin. By and large, community planning has followed the pueblo layout of most Philippine towns, as seen in Nueva Caceres, which is now Naga City, Old Albay, now Legazpi City, and all other towns.

In Naga, a huge stone cathedral looms before a large square. On one side of the cathedral stands the region’s oldest seminary building, Seminario Concillar de Caceres, with its graceful arched portico. Built in the late 1700s, the Seminario, the only one of its kind remaining in the country today, was one of the few schools of higher learning open to Filipinos in the 19th century. On the lateral side of the cathedral once stood the Palacio, residence of the bishop of Caceres, which resembled the Ayuntamiento in Intramuros. On the ground floor of this Palacio, Mariano Perfecto established, upon the invitation of Bishop Arsenio Campo, the Imprenta de Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia in 1890. Presently the Palacio stands across from the Cathedral. Beside the Palacio is the historic Colegio de Santa Ysabel, one of the first schools for girls in Bicol. In Spanish times, the residences of the Spaniards and wealthier Filipinos encircled this area, while the other locals built their homes in the nearby suburbs.

Churches were erected within 20 years following the arrival of the Franciscans in 1578. Daraga’s present church, overlooking the ruins of the lava-covered town of Cagsaua, Albay, exemplifies folk baroque architecture. It is unique in the country for its solomonica columns, which are twisted columns adorned with leaves. Its facade exhibits ornamental flowers, cherubs, medallions, and even the Franciscan emblem done in the popular colonial stucco method.

Daraga Church in Albay
Daraga Church in Albay, 2008 (National Historical Commission of the Philippines)

The style of Naga Cathedral’s facade is even more eclectic; it seems to have variations of the Romanesque, the baroque and neoclassical, and the Moorish. The massiveness of the structure itself may be characterized as “earthquake baroque.” Outstanding are the murals of Naga Cathedral that have been restored several times over the decades.

The Fuentebella house in Sangay, Camarines Sur stands apart from the church, exhibiting stone carvings of religious themes. A few blocks away from the church, Tabaco’s cemetery is dominated by an old arch and a domed cemetery chapel, which is one of the most beautiful in the region. On the other hand, Camalig, Albay is distinguished by its capillasposas, which are outdoor patio altars.

Several ancestral Bicol houses have preserved the architectural features peculiar to the region. The 125-year-old Nuyda house in Camalig, Albay has unusually large capiz panes measuring 7.5 x 7.5 centimeters, arranged diagonally. A penchant for variety is evidenced in the numerous carving designs, particularly of the balusters and panels. Such houses rarely had identical balusters, although among the more common is the Renaissance-style molave balustrade of the Buenaventura-Pardinas house in Guinobatan, Albay. Likewise, houses often had doors with unique designs. In Camalig, Albay, both the Buenaventura-Pardinas house and the Nieves-Guerriba house display characteristically intricate carvings on their molave door panels. Another regional hallmark was the use of volcanic rock for construction, as in the ground floor of the Honrado house in Camalig.

The Pabico house in Daet, Camarines Norte presents an interesting study in interior design. As in many old Bicol and Southern Tagalog homes, its ceiling is painted with cobwebs to attract insects. Unusual geometric patterns over its windows create shadows in the living room. The tracing on its living room arch outlines the owner’s surname.

In the same city stands the Valdeo (Pimentel) house, another Bicol architectural classic, although not necessarily regional in concept. Gothic arches adorn the doorway and the ceiling. Its grilled ventanillas (windows with sliding panels under the window sill) were of the 1870s mode, and its use of cast lead decor was popular from the 1890s till World War II.

The windows are the most practical assets of the Jaucian house in Ligao, Albay. One could look out from behind old-fashioned windows with persianas, capiz windows, and balusters—without being seen from the outside. The nipa panels, when lifted with bamboo stays, shield the occupants from the elements. This fusion of the functional and the aesthetic can be seen in the structure of the Lopez-Jaucian and Pardinas-Buenaventura houses in Guinobatan, Albay.

A 19th-century bahay na bato (stone house) in Tabaco, Albay, originally constructed for Mariano Villanueva, has been declared a Heritage House. It was purchased from him by the British-owned shipping corporation Smith, Bell, and Company, to serve as its Bicol office. In 1965, poet and plantation owner Angela Manalang Gloria purchased it for use as a family residence.

In Sangay, Camarines Sur, the Fuentebella house, which burnt down in the 1950s, was a large stone-and-brick structure linked to a smaller building at the back by a long wooden bridge. Down below was an elegant courtyard with two fountains on each side of the bridge.

The Almeda residence is a landmark along Abella Street. An iron arch above the wide porch is duplicated in wood with lacy swirls over the grand staircase. Polished narra walls and movable partitions give the spacious house a light and airy atmosphere. An innovation is the front stairway inscribed with the names of the family members on the steps. French windows on the second floor have glass panels. Vents above the graceful arches outside the house serve as ornamentation and coolers. Other notable bahay na bato in Bicol are the ancestral houses of the Imperial, Hernandez, Macandog, and Badiong families.

In the Spanish and early American colonial periods, the less privileged lived in native huts located some distance from the center of town, in coastal or inland barrios. These dwellings had wooden posts and were elevated about one to two meters above the ground. Their framework and floor were made of bamboo; their walls, flap windows, and steep hip roof were made of leaves of nipa or cogon grass. These one-room houses, which usually had no divisions, had minimal furniture like a bench, low table, and chests for storage of clothes. On a separate platform connected to the house was a place for water jars.

In the contemporary period, the relatively well-off may live in American-type one-story bungalows or two-story houses with the sala, kitchen, and toilet below, and the sleeping quarters on the second floor. These houses are made of hollow blocks and cement. Wood is used for the second floor of two-story houses. Roofs are of galvanized iron; windows either slide or are of the louvre or vertical-flap types. Makeshift shanties have replaced the nipa huts in urban areas, but these huts still dot the rural landscape.

Arts and Crafts of the Bicol Region

Sample of gold jewelry
Sample of gold jewelry, 1990 (CCP Collections)

Paracale, “the golden country” in Camarines Norte, has grown to be the center of a jewelry-making tradition. Although the art has declined since colonial times, some antique styles have survived the centuries, like that of the agrimon (also known as the alpajor and alakdan), the flat necklace chain of the 18th century, and the tamborin, the intricate golden bead necklace of the 19th century. Ely Arcilla, “Manlilikha ng Bayan” Awardee for 1990, continues this Bikol legacy using old tools and methods and the finishing process called sinasapo, which produces a reddish patina.

Gold panning in Paracale, Camarines Norte
Gold panning in Paracale, Camarines Norte, 1990 (CCP Collections)

Goldsmiths in Paracale, Camarines Norte
Goldsmiths in Paracale, Camarines Norte, 1990 (CCP Collections)

Sample of gold jewelry, 1990 (CCP Collections)
Sample of gold jewelry, 1990 (CCP Collections)

The Kalanay pottery specimens dug up in Masbate have 15 different patterns combining triangles and scallops, among other designs. Today, this tradition of earthenware making is preserved mainly by women in Bigajo Norte in Libmanan, Camarines Sur, and in Bolo and Baybay in Tiwi, Albay. In Bigajo Norte, the women use the gayangan (pivoted turntable). The men make larger pots, such as water jugs, by a complex forming method including slab molding and coiling. The men also use the turntable to position or support their jars as they paddle, and in turn molding their rims. Other tools used are the hurmahan, a cylindrical tin mold used in forming slabs for jar bodies; pambikal, the paddles; gapu, the anvil stone; hapin, the top part of a broken jar wrapped in a mat or sack; and polishing tools like the lagang from a mollusk or small glass bottles called pambole. The pottery is decorated in three ways: first, the shaping of the sulpo clay of Tiwi; second, for the tibut-tibur storage jars, resin coating using the almaciga resin of Sipocot, Camarines Sur, while the vessel is still hot from firing; and third, for tibut water jars, cementing with pure Portland cement on the exterior and only rarely on the interior of the newly fired jars. As in Tiwi, the Libmanan firing technique is simple. Vessels stacked mouth down on bamboo laid on the ground are covered with grass, husks, and bamboo, then burned with kerosene.

Baybay specializes in novelties and toys called kawatan, which are sold near the town church of Saint Lawrence the Martyr. Bolo, like Bigajo Norte, produces standard items like kurun (cooking pots); gripo (unit faucet water jars); kaldero (kettle-like pots); gulgurek (pitchers); pugon sa uling (charcoal-burning stoves); and masetera (flower pots). The molding sequence in Bolo is much like that of Bigajo Norte. Producing Baybay’s clay novelties, however, requires a special tool kit. The most essential tool is the hurmahan, which can be a suitable item or a model made of an item out of clay. All these molds are initialled by the owners for identification. Other molding tools are the sarik, a pointed piece of bamboo used to bore holes and scrape edges; the pako (nail), which can also be used as the sarik; barasan, a flat tin used to hold powdered shreds; and baras, the powdered shreds, which prevent the clay from sticking to the mold. After firing a pot by the usual method, the potter coats the novelties with commercial enamel paint applied by brush and/or spray gun.

The Bikol excel in the carving of religious statues. Known masters of the craft are Barcenas of Naga, Neglerio of Nabua in Camarines Sur, and Castro Vibar and his sons, although there seems to be a sculptor of religious images in every town. Favorite subjects are the Virgin, San Antonio, San Isidro Labrador, the Santo Niño, and Christ on the Cross.

In the Bulusan municipality of Sorsogon, the foremost handcrafted, trade product is the hat woven from the karagumoy (pandan) leaves. About a million hats a year are produced in Bulusan by women weavers. There is a name for each of the steps in the hat-weaving process. Tukbas is the harvesting of the karagumoy leaves. Han-gulid is the removal of the spines from the sides and midribs of the leaves. Reras is the process of slicing the leaves into narrow strips with tools called the sangnan and rerasan, also called batakan. The unit of measurement for the length of the strips is a dangaw, which is a handspan. The strips are briefly laid to dry under the sun before these are softened by being pressed against a hiyod (bamboo stick) and pulled in the opposite direction. The weaving begins with the balay (crown of the hat), which is in a pinwheel pattern. Strips six dangaw long are used for the balay. Palingkoong is the weaving of the sides of the hat supporting the crown. The paldiyas weave is combined with tugda to create the brim. The sapuy weave forms the edge of the hat’s brim, and pahot is the insertion of the ends of the strips back into the brim to secure the edge. When the hat is fully formed, the last step is gusap, in which strips with ends sticking out are removed. The finished hats, about 10 daily per weaver, are sun dried for a day. Other products woven from karagumoy are sleeping mats and the bay’ong (a rectangular utility basket). The pinwheel pattern of the hat’s crown is a recurring pattern in Bulusan’s woven products.

According to Bulusan lore, the local trade of karagumoy hats reached interisland proportions more than a century ago when Chinese merchants found a market for the hats in the sugar plantations of the Visayas. The plantation workers not only wore the hats to shield their heads from the sun but also folded these to use as shoulder pads on which they carried their load of sugar cane.

The art of abaca weaving has long been developed in Albay and Camarines Sur, although the art has given way to commerce in what has become a lucrative industry. The weaving of traditional textiles of cotton is still found in a few towns of Bicol, notably Buhi, Camarines Sur.

Literary Arts

The patotodon (riddles) reveal a concern with the familiar and material. In the Bikol riddle, the abstract is made concrete. The first part is a positive metaphorical description, and the second part introduces an element meant to confuse, as in these examples translated by Realubit (in Goyena del Prado 1981):

An magurang dai naghihiro

An aki nagkakamang.

(The mother does not move

The child crawls. [Squash plant])

Aram mo pero dai mo masasabotan

Dai mo nasasabotan pero aram mo.

(You know but you do not understand

You do not understand but you know. [Death])

Old riddles are still being learned, but riddling has ceased to be a recreational activity in Bicol today.

The linguistically sophisticated proverbs called kasabihan, arawiga, or sarabihon emphasize values like independence, honor, and humility. The human condition is the central concern of these proverbs. They may be abstract or may use images from nature such as plants, animals, and the human body. For example:

Kon ano an mawot, iyo an inaabot.

(Whatever you choose is what you get.)

An bayawas dai mabungang tapayas.

(The guava tree will not bear papaya fruits.)

Half-woman and half-snake Oryoll seducing Handiong
Half-woman and half-snake Oryoll seducing Handiong (Illustration by Lou Pineda-Arada)

The Bikol culture hero Handiong in the epic fragment Ibalon may have been named after the barrio Handong. Also, there was in the early times a variety of rice called inandong or inandiong. Of uncertain authorship, the epic was first published in 1895 by Father Jose Castaño in Spanish. To date, texts similar to Handiong have been found and sung by an old man in Bato, Camarines Sur. Father Bernardino Melendreras, who served as parish priest in Bicol from 1841 to 1867, was said to have published an anthology titled Ybal, containing Ibalon, the folk epic.

This epic of 60 stanzas speaks of the adventures of Baltog and Handiong. In the beginning, Bicol was a fertile land, where lived the first man, Baltog of Botavara of the race of Lipod. His gabi plants (taro) were the biggest in the land, but they were often destroyed by the wild Tandayag boar. Incensed, Baltog hunted the boar down and tore it apart with his own arms.

Soon after, Handiong arrived in Bicol. For many months, he battled and conquered the beasts with one eye and three throats, winged sharks, wild carabaos, crocodiles big as boats, and finally, the elusive Oryoll, whose body alternated between snake and woman. Having freed the land of all the monsters, Handiong taught the people how to plant gabi and rice, and how to build a boat. His companions, Guinantong, Dinahon, and Sural invented the plow; Dinahon, the household utensils; and Sural, the Bikol syllabary in stone. Handiong and his men also built towns and houses perched on trees to escape the heat, insects, and wild animals.

A great deluge came and destroyed the towns. Three volcanoes erupted and caused Pasacao to rise from the sea. Mountains, islands, and lakes were formed; whole tribes perished in the disaster. Finally, Handiong sent his young warrior Bantong to kill the half-man half-beast Rabot, who could turn people into stone. Bantong attacked the sleeping Rabot and cut its body in two. The warrior then brought the pieces of the monster back to Handiong, who was stunned by the sight.

In precolonial times, the natives wrote many ballads with catchy rhythms about battles, a hero’s exploits, massacres, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, and other natural catastrophes. In this tradition, the “Romance Bicol,” composed by a native, tells about the 1814 eruption of Mayon Volcano. It was translated by Father Melendreras.

Precolonial lyric poetry is divided into awit and rawitdawit, also called orog-orog or susuman. The awit is more sentimental and difficult to improvise than rawitdawit, the more popular form, which is spontaneously composed, using six to eight syllables to a line, four to eight lines to a stanza, and with full or alternate rhyme scheme. Like the ballads, most of these poems have been lost. What remains are developed skills in punning, a breadth of themes from the mundane to the profound, and a partiality to songs. Some general characteristics of Bikol folk songs are a preference for old melodies with relatively new lyrics including a few Spanish words; a tendency to be risqué, often for comic effect; a constant allusion to nature’s beauty; and an abandonment to love’s whims in serenades.

Social life is enlivened by toasts called tigsik, kangsin, or abatayo. These are four-line verses occasioned by happy gatherings whether around a sari-sari (variety) store or during feasts. Toasts can be made on any subject, from religion and tradition to love and sex, and the tigsikan ends when the participants become too inebriated for poetry. For example:

Tinigsik ko ining lomot

Sa kahoy, sa gapo minakapot.

An daragang idudusay an buhay sa pagkamoot

Nungka nanggad an kalayo sa daghan minalipot.

(I toast to this moss

That clings on tree and stone.

A maiden who gives herself away for love

Will never cool the fire of the heart.)

In the old days, a champion emerged from such contests of wit as a poliador, who then would roam about like a wandering minstrel.

The Bikol worldview is expressed, either explicitly or implicitly, in most of their anecdotes. Animal stories abound, involving either tricksters or ungrateful animals, the monkey being a favorite. Heroes and heroines, adventures and misadventures, good and bad spirits animate Bikol fairytales. The more renowned figures are the onglo, who seeks the dark; the taong-lipod or engkanto, who assumes many forms; and the tambaluslos, who pesters the traveler.

Outstanding in folklore is the tale of Juan Osong, counterpart of the Tagalog Juan Tamad. Narrated in some 50 different versions, Juan Osong’s life depicts the common man’s travails and choices when confronted with various challenges. He is born to an old couple. Thumb-size at birth, he grows to be a pygmy with a huge appetite. His impoverished parents drive him away from home. He later fights and defeats two giants who become his servants upon defeat. He saves a kingdom from a dragon, then marries off its princess to one servant. He saves a second kingdom from a fatal odor, then marries off its princess to his other servant. He becomes emperor of these united kingdoms. He frees a third kingdom that had been imprisoned by a wicked giant, then marries its princess. Among Juan’s numerous adventures are those with strong men, a magic hat, a monkey, a goat, a linguist, a dead girl, a governor, and his mother.

Other subjects of Bikol folktales are local heroes such as those in the Aeta tales, patron saints such as those who helped deliver the towns from the Muslims, and “miracle” men such as “Lola” from Joroan in Tiwi, Albay.

Bicol’s creation myths trace the beginning of the universe and man and woman. There is a characteristic dichotomy between the divine and the human, and a frequent use of the bird as a key figure. In one instance, it is the bird that opens the bamboo and brings forth man and woman thus: On the land, Tubigan planted a seed that grew into a bamboo tree. One day a bird flew up the bamboo tree and, as it alighted on the branch, the bamboo shook. Angry because it was moved, the bamboo whipped at the bird in retaliation. As it did, out came from its internodes a man and a woman.

Some of the myths are similar to those of Sabah and Borneo, especially the Sorsogon myth that says that man and woman came from a dog’s tail. The Hispanic influence appears in some later myths of Albay and Camarines, featuring a strong man called Bernardo Carpio.

Combat myths portray the eternal battle between good and evil, as in the fight between the gods, Gugurang and Bathala, and their evil foes, Aswang and Kalaon; between god and the people, as in the victory of Maguindanao, the god of fishes, over the people; and between goddess and man as in “Irago and a Young Man,” one of Bicol’s most captivating stories.

Legends enrich the region’s oral tradition. There is a fascination with giants and bells. Kolakog, the giant, appears in both the origins of Catanduanes and of Ginsa, a riverside place near Pasacao, Camarines Sur. In these legends, Kolakog is a bridge: His wife Tilmag crosses over his legs to plant in the far side of the field, and the natives cross over his extended genitals to flee the Muslims.

The bells have a historic backdrop—the Muslim invasions for which they were endowed with magic. Generally, Bikol legends deal with cause and effect. Things are said to originate as a result of the people’s defiance of nature.

As in other regions, the Spanish missionaries in Bicol used poetry for conversion. Soon the native poets were reciting loas (poems of praise) to begin and end dramatic performances, and korido, poetic romances of legendary-religious or chivalric-heroic origins. Many korido were originally in Spanish and then translated into Bikol by local writers. Several evolved from Bikol folktales. Mag-amang Pobre (Poor Father and Child) and Doña Matia asin Don Juan (Doña Matia and Don Juan) directly relate to the Juan Osong tale, mainly the episode of Juan’s exile.

Among the earliest religious pieces are found in Platicas para todos los evangelios de las dominicas del año 1864 (Sermons for All the Gospels of the Sundays of the Year 1864) by Pedro de Avial and Francisco de Gainza’s Coleccion de Sermones en Bicol (Collection of Sermons in Bicol), 1866. In the 1860s, Bishop Gainza commissioned Tranquilino Hemandez to translate the 1814 Tagalog Pasyong Genesis into Bikol. Soon after, the Pasion Bicol was published under the title Casaysayan can mahal na pasion ni Jesucristo Cagurangnanta, na sucat ipaglaad nin puso nin siisay man na magbasa (History of the Holy Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ That Will Inflame the Heart of the Reader).

Both priests and laity wrote poems of praise, invocation, and prayer. Some of the first priest-poets in Bicol were Simeon Oñate, Severino Dias, Joaquin Abad, Remigio Rey, and Pantaleon Rivera. Laymen like Manuel Salazar of Bonbon, Camarines Sur, and Antonio Salazar of Malinao, Albay contributed to religious poetry. Rosario Imperial, former mayor of Naga City, used the corrido form to translate English works such as Shakespeare’s classics into Bikol. Moreover, religious playlets like the lagaylay, aurora, and kagharong are in poetic form.

Lagaylay in Camarines Sur
Lagaylay in Camarines Sur, 1990 (CCP Collections)

After the execution of the Bikol priests, Fathers Severino Dias, Inocencio Herrera, and Gabriel Prieto in 1897, Bikol poetry departed from religion and took on patriotic themes. Mariano Perfecto’s “Padre Severino Dias” was published in Kalendariong Bicol in 1898. Rizal’s poems were also translated into Bikol.

The extant poems in Spanish by Bikol poets are few. Besides critical essays, Angel Fernandez de Celis wrote poems in Spanish. Numerous works composed by Manuel Fuentebella and Bernardo Garcia were published in 1963. Some of the poems that appeared earlier in La Vanguardia, El Ideal, El Debate, and El Renacimiento Filipino are anthologized in Al pie de Mayon, Poesias (At the Foot of Mayon, Poetry).

The production of print literature significantly increased at the turn of the 20th century when ownership of printing machines was no longer monopolized by the church and the system of mass education was established by the colonizers. Following his successful Libreria Panayana in Mandurriao, Iloilo, Mariano Perfecto established Imprenta y Libreria Mariana in 1890 in Bicol. Originally meant to serve the needs of the Church in the region, it was soon printing secular materials in the Bikol language.

In 1903, less than 30% of Bikol 10 years and older could read and write. However, in 1902, a year after the arrival of the SS Thomas, 30 American and 50 Filipino teachers were serving about 2,400 students. By 1918, literacy had increased by about 20%, with Sorsogon reporting the highest percentage at 59%. As a result, the number of publications increased in the first three decades of the century, with more than 20 publications.

The increase in literacy rate did not, however, cause orality to disappear in the region. Extant materials show that, for most of the Bikol, versification remained the dominant means of literary expression in the first few decades of the 20th century. The Ignacio Meliton collection of the University of Nueva Caceres Museum includes clippings of various verse narratives from different publications in the early 20th century. These show that the Bikol narrative tradition continued from the mythical into the empirical and fictional. At the turn of the 20th century, there were versified narratives with a strong empirical basis, such as the following, which leans more toward the news report:

Mapongao na Noticia hale sa Buhi, Camarines Sur

Magna catood cong parabasa

Caining periodico gnaran Bicolandia

Talinga quilingan asin hinanioga,

Can ipag-oosip diit na historia.

Historiang iniho daing iba naman

Cundi si nagniari sa Buhing banuaan,

Nin huli qui Disoy ni Dicay guinadan,

Honra nia hinabon asin dinayaan.

Cundi an sasaco gotoson co sana,

Gnaning di malangcag camong nagbabasa

ta anoman lamang con labilabina,

iquinacaoyam isinisicual pa.

Nagniari ini can bulan na Junio,

Sa isladong lugar an paggnaran Poro

Mala ta balaquid pagduman na tao,

Sa paghihignita bancay ni Dionisio.

(Sad Notice from Buhi, Camarines Sur

My friends who are readers

of this newspaper named Bicolandia

Lend me your ears and listen

to a short osipon that I will tell.

This osipon is nothing else

But what happened here in the banua of Buhi

Because Dicay’s Dicoy was killed,

Robbed of honor and cheated.

But I will cut this short

To keep you readers from being bored,

Because if long,

It will annoy and will be put aside.

This happened this month of June

In the isolated place named Poro;

See how many people went there

To see the body of Dionisio.)

The Sanghiran nin Bikol, which was the publication of the Bikol writers’ organization, and An Kalendaryong Bikol demonstrate the continued dominance of verse. The 1927 issue of the Sanghiran nin Bikol published several rawitdawit, which, like today’s letters to the editor, presented the writers’ respective positions in the debate over the Bikol language. Long narratives, such as the pasyon and korido, bearing secular and nonsecular concerns, continued to be in verse.

Two writers of social narrative poetry during this period were Lorenzo Rosales, pseud. Siling Layas (Wild Pepper), and Zacarias Lorino. An excerpt from Juan Nicolas’s narrative poem, “Sadang na Katigbak” (Small Katigbak), follows:

Sa kusog nin labyog si sagna nadakop

Sadang na Katigbak, si balagon kapot,

Sa taga nin sundang si payo na pugot

Mangirhat na sawa, nagadan nasayod.

Alagad ta sayang idtong pagkahulog

Huling si lalake, gadanang nahulog,

Si bulong sa [bote] dai na nagdolot

Huling pagtiloka, guinhawa napatod.

(With a strong shake he caught the branch

Small Katigbak, the vine he clutched,

With one bolo’s strike its head fell off

And the fearful snake fell dead.

But then efforts were vain

The man fell down dead.

The cure in [the bottle]— it did not serve

With the snake’s choke, he lost his breath.)

Noted writers of personal poetry are Manuel Fuentebella, Angelo de Castro, Valerio Zuñiga, Mariano Goyena del Prado, Ben Frut, Antonio Salazar, Agapito San Antonio, Clemente Alejandria, Fortunato Reyes, Juan Peñalosa, Cirilo Salvador, and Adolfo Caro. Rafael Grageda wrote “Vulcan Mayon” (Mayon Volcano), an excerpt of which follows:

Pakpak ning panahon bagsik ko inagaw,

Daena maka tukod daena maka dalaw

Pigtanaw ko ika sa harayong lugar

Puso ko nalamos sapagka lipungaw.

(The wings of time snatched by strength

No longer can I climb, no longer can I visit you,

I watch you from a distant plain

My heart drowned from missing you.)

The poet in English, Angela Manalang Gloria, though born in Pampanga in 1907, moved with her family to Tabaco, Albay when she was 10 years old. Manalang Gloria has one book of 79 poems, published in 1940, with a revised second edition in 1950. Her poems have been praised by critics, professors, and writers for their lyricism, romanticism, social content, nationalism, and groundbreaking feminist sensibility. Bicol serves as a backdrop and a source for lyrical imagery in some of her poems: “To a Mestiza,” 1927, is a salute to a friend she meets in “the willowy glimmer of a Bicol pool”; “Recognition,” 1928, and “Virac,” 1935, depict hurricanes in Masbate and Catanduanes; “Mayon Afternoon,” 1937, is a reflection in the shade of Mayon Volcano; “On the Bicol Express,” 1940, contains scenes of forest and waterfalls from a coach of the Bikol Express train. She is a Bikol woman in “Filipina,” 1940, breaking the regional stereotypes: “The Bicolana burns away her night... For though I step out high and wide tonight,/Tomorrow I shall break my back, and how!”

Colonization and nationalization have shaped Bikol writing as much as the increase in literacy and the proliferation of publications. Bikol verse suffered against the onslaught of the English language and American literary tradition. The English poems of Johnny Belgica published in An Parabareta illustrate the violence brought upon the Philippine literary tradition by Americanization. While Belgica’s poems in Bikol clearly illustrate his art and its Bikol ground and roots, his English poems reveal the psychic disjunction of the Filipino artist. However, his son Juan Rafael Belgica Jr., whom he trained himself, has published Toob (Healing Ritual), 2011, a poetry collection expressing the Bikol identity.

Other Bikol poets are Luis Cabalquinto, Jazmin Llana, Rudy Alano, G.B. Calleja, Gabriel Bordado, Victor Velasco, Jose Leveriza, and Agapito Tria. Francisco Peñones Jr won the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Creative Writing Grant for Poetry (Bikol) in 1991.

Poetry collections are Raffi Banzuela and Ju. Rafael Belgica’s Duru’ngan: Mga Rawitdawit (Harbor: Verses), 2003; Rodolfo Alano’s Kauntukan: Mga Pinili asin Binikol na Berso (Silences: Selected Poems and Translations), 2010; and Banzuela’s Selebra (Celebrate), 2011. Alano is featured in In Our Own Words, Filipino Writers in Vernacular Languages, 2000.

The poems of Nicolasa Ponte de Perfecto, Remedios Bibal, Leonor Dy-Liacco, Francia Clavecillas, Merlita Lorena Tariman, Merlinda Bobis, Jazmin Llana, Maryanne Moll, and Kerima Lorena Tariman are included in the multigenre anthology, Hagkus: Twentieth Century Bikol Women Writers (Girdle: Twentieth-Century Bikol Women Writers), 2003, edited by Paz Verdades M. Santos, also known as PVM Santos. Included in this book are sample works and some information on the life of women writers who were in the underground movement.

Bikol poets writing in either Filipino or English or both are Marne Kilates, Allan Popa, and Abdon Balde. Some of Popa’s poetry books are Hunos (Molting), 2000; Samsara (a Hindu word for “the cycle of life”), 2002; and Drone, 2013. Kilates’s poetry collections in English are Poems en Route, 1998; Mostly in Monsoon Weather, 2007; Pictures and Poems and Other (Re)visions, 2012; and Time’s Enchantment and Other Reflections, 2015. Kilates also publishes his works on his website Nameabledays and shares some of his poems on his Facebook page as well. Ecology is the subject matter in the poetry collection in Filipino titled Bagyo sa Oktubre (Typhoons in October), 2008, by Honesto Pesimo Jr.

Bikol edition of Ani, edited by Marjorie M. Evasco
Bikol edition of Ani, edited by Marjorie M. Evasco, 1988 (CCP Collections)

Literature in the regional languages has gained relatively greater support from government agencies and institutions such as the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino (KWF), and the CCP, and has been published in academic journals. Hence, poets writing in their own variants of the Bikol language have gained some national recognition, such as Kristian Sendon Cordero, Jesus Jaime Borlagdan, Rizaldy Manrique, Estelito Jacob, and Victor Dennis Nierva. Some of these writers, like Cordero and Borlagdan, also write in Filipino.

Kristian Cordero writes not only in standard Bikol, which is spoken in Naga City, but also in Rinconada Bikol, the language spoken in his hometown, Iriga. Eduardo Uy of Gubat, Sorsogon, writes poems in Gubatnon and translates them into English. Jesus Jaime Borlagdan writes in the language of his hometown, Tabaco City. Niño Manaog’s poems in Naga Bikol include a smattering of Hiligaynon. Besides holding writing workshops in the language, such as the Tabaco Writers Workshop (TAWO), 2008, and the Albayanong Parasurat Workshop, 2011 and 2012, he publishes the online Bikol literary folio Karangahan: Pagranga sa Panurat Bikolnon Online (Consolation: Cherishing Bikol Writing). Francia Clavecillas’s Wounds of My Landscape/Mga Lugad kan Sakong Kinamumugtakan, 2013, is a poetry collection in both Tabaco Bikol and English. One hundred poems in different Bikol languages are anthologized in Sagurong (Bamboo Waterlines), 2011, edited by PVM Santos and Kristian S. Cordero.

Orality characterized many of the early published prose narratives, such as Aniceto Gonzales’s “An Tolong Magtorogang” (The Three Brothers). Nicolasa Ponte de Perfecto’s short prose narratives published in the An Kalendaryong Bikol as well as Juan Nicolas’s two short prose narratives in An Parabareta continued to carry folkloric materials. With the rise of westernized literacy, coupled with the surge in publication, came the changes in the literary forms. In 1939, the Roces publishing house launched the magazine Bikolnon. In December 1939, four months after the launch of Bikolnon, Valerio Zuñiga’s “An Sacong Aginaldo” (My Gift) appeared in An Parabareta. It heralded the new orosipon, which adhered to the standards of western short realist fiction.

Bikol short realist fiction published in Bikolnon were variously called orosipon, osipon, katha, or nobela. Like Liwayway for Tagalog, Bikolnon spurred Bikol writing. It published three to four stories per issue, thus providing the incentive for Bikol fictionists to write more osipon. Most of the region’s most prominent writers, such as Patricio Janer, wrote literary pieces for the Bikolnon. The magazine launched a literary competition awarding the writers of the best written orosipon and rawitdawit. Although the only extant issues of the Bikolnon magazine are those of the 1940s, it continued to be published well into the 1950s.

Patricio M. Janer appears to have been the most prolific of the osipon writers during this period, having about a hundred osipon to his name. Other osipon writers of this period include ON Morato, Leonita R. Moreno, Rachel D. Romero, Inday Romero, Conchita Romero, Marieta Peñalosa, Teresa Roco, Adolfo Camposano, Maria M. Marro, Fe Ty Uy, Cirilo Labrador, Bert Atutubo, Anastacio Angeles, Juan P. Nieva, Tomas N. Pleta, Titan Miranda, Gaudencio Bataller, Rogelio Basilio, Apolonio Buban, and Francisco D. Polintan. Novelists include Valerio Zuñiga, Angeles Estacio, Carmencita Pamplona and Victoria H. Victorio.

Since the second decade of the 21st century, there has been a resurgence of osipon writing coming from its various provinces. The anthology Hagong: Mga Osipon (Resonate: Stories), 2012, features 22 osipon in different Bikol languages, which are written in the orthographic systems particular to these languages, including two of Bikol’s most published languages: Bikol-Naga and Bikol-Legazpi. Raffi Banzuela and Ju. Rafael Belgica’s Bugkos Bikol (Bikol Sheaf), 2011, is a collection of short stories and essays.

Like some poets from the region, there are Bikol fictionists who write in Filipino, English, Bikol, or more than one of these. Fictionist and filmmaker Alvin Yapan has published a collection of short stories in Filipino, At Nabulag ang mga Tagapagsalaysay (And the Storytellers Went Blind), 2005, and a novel, Ang Sandali ng mga Mata (The Moment of the Eyes), 2006. Christine Bellen is an award-winning writer of children’s stories in Filipino. Fictionists in English are Carlos Ojeda Aureus, who published Nagueños, 1997, and Maryanne Moll, Married Women: Short Stories, 2011.

Abdon Balde has four novels in Filipino: Sibago, 2010, Awit ni Kadunung (Kadunung’s Song), 2008; Hunyango sa Bato (Chameleon among the Rocks), 2004; and Sa Kagubatan ng Isang Lungsod (In a City’s Jungle), 2002. His short story collections in Filipino are Calvary Road, 2005; Mayong, 2003; and Mga Pangarap at Pangitain (Dreams and Visions), 2001. 100 Kislap (100 Flash), 2011, is his collection of flash fiction. Balde’s Magayon an Satuyang Probinsiya (Our Province Is Beautiful), 2007, is a collection of his stories, essays, and poems in Bikol. An active social media practitioner like Kilates, Balde uses Facebook to share his work. He also posts tigsik in both Bikol and Filipino daily on his personal Facebook page.

The first known Bikol organization of writers was the An Sanghiran, established in 1927 by Mariano Nicomedes, Lorenzo Rosales, Casmiro Perfecto, Francisco Celebrado, Ignacio Melito, and Alejo Arce. The first issue of the organization’s paper, also named An Sanghiran, featured a debate among the writers on the different aspects of the Bikol language. In 1954, prominent writers in the regions, such as Patricio M. Janer, Ignatio Meliton, and Luis Dato, organized the Akademyang Bikol, which lasted for at least three years.

Kabulig was conceived by Realubit in 1993 and founded in 1999, with Rodolfo Alano as its first head. In 2000, with the cooperation of the NCCA and Aquinas University in Legazpi, it helped organize the regional conference of Bikol writers and teachers, called Pagsurat Bikolnon. Held every four years since then, it promotes Bikol literature through its literary discussions, poetry reading, and book launches. In Tabaco, Albay, young artists have formed An Banwa: Kultura buda Arte kan Tabaco (ABKAT), a community-based organization that promoted the Bikol language, culture, and literature in its workshops and publications. One of its projects was the printing and distribution of tigsikad, coined from the words tigsik and traysikad, meaning foot-pedaled tricycles. Tigsikad are stickers with tigsik printed on them and posted on the tricycles. A smaller albeit active writers’ group is Parasurat Bikolnon.

Since 2004, Premio Tomas Arejola para sa Pagsurat nin Literaturang Bikolnon, the regional literary award, has been conferred on Eduardo Uy, Jay Salvador III Salvosa, Niles Jordan Breis, Eden Elizan-Valerde, Richard Madrilejos, Jeffrey P. Regullano, Jaime Jesus Borlagdan, Eilyn L. Nidea Parocha, Jonher A. Caneba, Juan Escandor Jr., Jerome Hipolito, Sonny C. Sendon, Marissa Reorizo-Redburn, Victor Dennis Nierva, Judith Balares-Salamat, Edgar A. Ramores, Nestor Alagbate, Adrian V. Remodo, Carlos O. Aureus, and Jose Jason Chancoco.

The Ateneo de Naga University Press has published multiauthor anthologies and single-author collections, such as Estelito Jacob’s Pinagrok (Poached Fish), 2014; H. Francisco V. Peñones’s Cancion Tawong Lipod (Song of the Unseen) and P.I., both in 2014; and Obras Maestras: A Manual on Teaching Bikol Literature, 2014, the first manual for teaching regional literature, by PVM Santos and Marifa Borja-Prado.

Books of translation into Bikol are Kristian Sendon Cordero’s Minatubod Ako sa Diklom (I Have Faith in the Night, 2011), poems by Rainer Maria Rilke; Nierva’s Doros asin mga Anghel (Air and Angels, 2011), poems by John Donne; and Father Wilmer Tria’s An Profeta (The Prophet), 2013, prose poems by Kahlil Gibran. Translations from Bikol into English are some poems in Cordero’s Pusuanon (The Zealous Heart: Verses in Bikol), 2007; Nierva’s Antisipasyon (Anticipation), 2012; and Peñones’s Cancion Tawong Lipod, 2014.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Bikol essay expressed the Bikol writers’ preoccupation with the history and state of their language as the mark of their identity. The newspapers and magazines An Sanghiran nin Bikol, 1927, and An Parabareta, 1939, published essays about the Bikol alphabet, phonology, lexicon, and the connection between Bikol language and identity. Eustaquio Dino, publisher and editor-in-chief of An Parabareta, debated with Felipe Herrera on the specific features of the Bikol language in several issues of An Parabareta. Dino’s essays were in the Bikol language whereas Herrera argued his point in English. Dino’s “An Orosipon kan Bikolnon” (The Bikolnon Short Story), published in An Parabareta in 1939, appears to be the first attempt to define the Bikol osipon.

A book exemplifying the Bikol expression of abstract and theoretical thought is Ako asin an Kapwa Ko: Pilosopiya nin Tawo (I and My Fellow Man: Philosophy of Man), 2009, by Wilmer Tria. Two books on the poetics and history of Bikol Literature are Pagsasatubuanan: Poetikang Bikolnon (Native: Bikol Poetics), 2008, by Jason Chancoco, and Maharang Mahamis na Literatura sa mga Tataramon na Bikol (Spices and Sweets Literature in the Bikol Languages), 2010, edited by PVM Santos. Collections of informal essays are Sinaraysay: Halo-Halong Blog nin Buhay (Essays: Assorted Blogs of Life), 2011, a compilation of writers’ columns by H. Francisco Peñones, Judith Salamat, and Rizaldy Manrique; and Hagong (Resonate), 2013, edited by PVM Santos and Peñones. Two books of essays in English by Bikol writers are Kinalas Kinunot Kinamot (Pork Noodle Soup, Shark in Coconut Milk, Eating with Bare Hands), 2013, by Luis Ruben M. General, Jose B. Perez, and Tito Genova Valiente; and The Naga We Know, 2013, edited by PVM Santos with Kristian S. Cordero.

The works of expatriate Bikol writers such as Merlinda Bobis, Godofredo Calleja, and Luis Cabalquinto navigate the space between their Filipino and migrant identities. Writing in English from Australia, Bobis has published poetry and short story collections as well as novels. In Canada, Calleja publishes a Bikol literary magazine, Burak, which he started in 2003. In 1986, immediately after the Marcos regime ended and with it, censorship, Calleja established the Kalikasan Press and over a period of seven years published a total of 57 literary and academic books, starting with one book in 1986, peaking to 21 books in 1990, and tapering off until it stopped in 1993, except for three books published intermittently until 2002. Luis Cabalquinto, who lives in New York, published a number of poetry collections in English before Tignarakol (High Tide), 2013, a collection of his Bikol poems all previously published in Calleja’s magazine, Burak.

Bikol writing has contributed significantly to that stream of Philippine literature that denounces state repression and violence, particularly during the martial law period. The press was suppressed in the early years of martial law, although some individual journalists such as J. Antonio M. Carpio, Luis General Jr., and Luis Dato risked their lives to defy the censorship. Anti-dictatorship manifestos printed on leaflets, with the note “ipasa pagkabasa” (read, then pass on), were left on church benches, slipped under doors, or littered on the streets.

Underground journalism and literature thrived via the national democratic movement and in the hills. In Sorsogon, farmers sang songs about poverty and suffering with the refrain, “Pagboot ni Marcos, Pagboot ni Marcos, sobrang kapasloan” (Marcos wants, Marcos wants, What extreme greed!). Poet Wilfredo Gacosta was a full-time cadre of the New People’s Army (NPA) in Barcelona, Sorsogon during the early 1970s and was killed in a military encounter on 13 October 1977. Gacosta has nine poems in Filipino, with English translations. His poems are a personal and historical account of the organizing efforts of the NPA in Sorsogon from 1971 to 1975. In “Ang Mga Kaibigan” (Friends), he describes the grassroots class as his friends. In contrast, his “Agosto 5, Hindi Kita Malilimot” (August 5, I Won’t Forget You) describes treacherous comrades as gluttons dipping their share of roast pig “in the sauce of the blood of the revolutionary martyrs.” Gacosta’s last poem in this collection, written when their camps in Mount Bulusan fell to the military after a major assault, is “Ang Kabiguan Ay May Pangakong Tagumpay” (In Failure Is the Promise of Victory). His central metaphor for both rebel and country is the martyred Christ who, after falling repeatedly and being nailed on the cross, will rise again. Gacosta’s last three poems mark the disorientation and bewilderment of the rebels in the face of treacherous comrades and the enemy’s encirclement of their Mount Bulusan camps.

The NPA published its Silyab newsletter in 1975 to 1976, sometimes mimeographed in government offices or parishes where there were secret sympathizers. The glossier news magazine Paninindugan of the National Democratic Front-Bikol was published in the late 1980s and contained poems and stories written in Filipino. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Ulos and then Punla appeared as cultural publications from the hills. An issue of Ulos carried images of a daragang magayon carrying an M-16 against the backdrop of Mount Mayon, a map of the Bicol region, sili (chili pepper) as metaphor for “revolutionary culture,” and the tigsik or Bikol poem. However, the Introductory Note of Ulos explains that because of the large number and varieties of the Bikol languages and dialects, the publication aims to reach the majority of the “masang Bikol” through Filipino.

Daragang Magayon: An Istorya ni Mayon
Daragang Magayon: An Istorya ni Mayon, CCP, 2013 (Photo courtesy of Joey Sarte Salceda)

Punla’s 2004 issue titled “Tanghal” has 12 poems, three short stories, two songs, and one play. Its regional identity is also highlighted on the cover, with a red seedling growing out of the letters of the publication name. Although most of the texts are in Filipino, there are two poems in Bikol, both accompanied by translations in Filipino: “Padagos” (Onward) by Ka Ophelia and “Tigsik Ta Ining mga Taguyod” (A Toast to Our Staff), written collectively by Ka Mar, Ka Ruby, Ka Jack, and Ka Lino.

The poems in Bikol are rhythmic and flavorful, carrying culture-specific terms. For example (Ulos 2004, 43):

Tigsik ta ining parahag-ot

Na sige an hag-ot dai nin irapnot

Minasakor, minasupnit, minabotong

Dai pa namahaw payt na sa maghapon.

(We toast the abaca strippers

Who strip abaca but have nothing to wear

They choose, cut, and strip the fiber

Without breakfast, they still work all day.)

In one pithy stanza, the poet captures the images of the laborious process involving abaca farming, harvesting, and processing: Sakor is the selection and cutting of abaca plants that can be used; supnit is the act of separating the useful part of the abaca from the rest of the plant; botong is the act of manually pulling the abaca through the stripping machine to turn them into bandala, which is the dried and processed abaca fiber.

The poem in Filipino titled “Tereyn” (Terrain) by Red Altura demonstrates the poets’ deliberate use of conventional poetic techniques, such as defamiliarization, to describe the NPA’s “new tasks” (Punla circa 2004, 14):

... bagong gawai’y ...

Tulad ng paggurlis ng mga sanga, o ng talahib,

Pagtalisod ng kabatuhan sa iyong tindig,

Tulad ng pagkadulas sa bangin, pagdausdos—

May lihim na hliahil ang ’di inaalam na bundok

(... the new tasks are ...

Like the lashing of the branches, or tall grass,

Tripping over rocks to lose one’s footing.

Like skidding down the precipice, slip and slide –

There are secret ridges on the unfamiliar knoll.)

In the Bikol poem “Kudot” (Pinch) by Roja Esperanza, the persona recalls the pain of the pinch she received as a child from her grandmother. Now an adult, the persona continues to suffer from the pinch, but this time of abject poverty. The poem concludes with the vivid image of the conventional revolutionary color: “Nagpupurula na kita/Sa kadagitan” (We are turning red/in anger) (Ulos n.d.,22-23).

Social analysis and criticism is popularized in the subversive rewriting of the Bikol poetic form tigsik and traditional songs “Sarong Bangui” and “Si Nanay si Tatay.” Still in the interest of popularization, the Ulos editors call on writers to infuse revolutionary content into the sinakulo form, and even to produce a revolutionary version of the epic fragment Ibalon.

Myk Solomon as Handiong and Jenine Desiderio as Oryoll in Tanghalang Pilipino’s Ibalong
Myk Solomon as Handiong and Jenine Desiderio as Oryoll in Tanghalang Pilipino’s Ibalong, 2013 (Tanghalang Pilipino Collection)

An explicit social critique in the form of a children’s story is “Timbangan” by Ka Bino (Ulos n.d., 52-53), which shows how a weighing scale is rigged by a comprador (buyer, middleman) to cheat farmers of the rightful price of their harvest. Punla also features revisions of some radio top tunes, such as the “Spaghetti Song,” which is rendered into a jingle, “Resikada,” for a mass campaign to lower the comprador’s percentage on the price of copra (Ulos n.d.,86):

Resikada ibaba, ibaba nang ibaba

Presyo ng kopras itaas nang itaas

Aw!!! Magdarangog kita!

(Resikada, lower, lower, lower it

Price of copra, add, add, add to it

Aw!!! Let’s listen all together!)

Resikada or resekada, literally “dry,” refers to the cost of drying the copra that the comprador deducts from the price paid to coconut farmers.

Besides its consciousness-raising and peasant-and-grassroots-organizing functions, revolutionary literature has an indispensable place in the Philippine literary tradition: It provides access to reading and artistic materials. Regional identity is more clearly defined side by side with the Filipino identity of the Bikol rebel. Thus, the underground movement, besides serving as an alternative government in remote areas, has served as an alternative center for culture and the arts.

The Punla circa 2004 issue contains more texts in the Bikol language than do the 1998-9 issues. The adaptation of the tigsik as a venue for revolutionary advocacy has elevated this folksy toast-and-roast into a vehicle for teaching a vision of a better society. Another value of such literature is the documentation of the cultural and organizing work of the rebels in the countryside for posterity, so that when the histories are written, they will not be absent or marginalized. IPASA’s Muog: Ang Naratibo ng Kanayunan sa Matagalang Digmang Bayan sa Pilipinas (Fort: The Narrative of the Countryside in the Protracted People’s War in the Philippines), 1998, includes one piece from Bicol film writer Ricardo Lee’s account of Romulo Jallores alias Kumander Tangkad. The issue of Punla titled “Pa-Iraya” (Upstream, Against the Tide), 2008, features an introductory poem, “Ang Burabod” (The Spring), and biographical essays in Filipino on lesser known NPA cadres Romulo Olivares, also known as Ka Pekto, Mario, or Quiel; and De la Salle University graduate Gil Lacsamana, also known as Ka Boy, Johnny, or Mumar.

Pulang Hamtik (Red Ant), 1997, co-edited by Reynaldo and Ella Jamoralin, consists of the stories of the 10 young Bikol martyrs during the martial law years: Tony G. Ariado, Jemino L. Balaquiao Jr., Floro E. Balce, Alex Belone, Juan B. Escandor, Nanette Vytiaco, Kumander Tangkad, and the brothers Pilapil. The writers in this anthology are Ricardo Lee, Ma. Leny E. Felix, Ryan V. Filgueras, Antonio Camillus A. Ayo, Oscar G. Molenilla, Soliman M. Santos Jr., and the two co-editors. Included in the anthology Hagkus is a letter in English by Ka Dolor (pseud), explaining her decision to go to the mountains to serve the people. In the same anthology is a story in English, “Kumusta Na, Kulasa” (How Are You, Kulasa) by Ana San Victores (pseud), which was first published in Paninindugan, the regional news magazine of the underground movement. The anthology of Filipino revolutionary plays Bangon: Antolohiya ng mga Dulang Mapanghimagsik (Arise: An Anthology of Revolutionary Drama), 1998, includes Kamugtakan kan Banwaan: Kalbaryo Kan Kasaraditan (The Nation’s Plight: The Poor’s Calvary), 1992, by Jocelyn Bisuña.

Bikol Dances, Songs and Performing Arts

In precolonial times, people were often judged by their ability to sing or create new songs that would be accompanied by the community on musical instruments that the singers themselves made. Among Bicol’s ancient instruments were the tultugan (bamboo cymbal), agong (metal drum), bangsi (bamboo flute), kudyapi (bamboo guitar with five abaca strings), and talasang or baringbaw (lyre).

Salampati, a dance of Albay province
Salampati, a dance of Albay province (National Library of the Philippines Collection)

Early Bikol vocal style was tense and nasal. Many Bikol songs marked an occasion or a ritual: abiyabi (happy songs), ambahan (leisure songs), angoy (sad songs), kundiman, harana, and panawagan (love songs), kunigrat (triumphant songs), daniw (drinking songs), horasa (songs commemorating a natural catastrophe), hudlo (hauling or rowing songs), homolu (songs when putting out to sea), panayokyok (lullaby), panambitan, tagulaylay, katumba, and ulaw (songs for the dead), kulintang (songs of disenchantment), kurigat (howling songs), dumago (songs to ancestors), sorangue (songs of the priestess and the women to the god Gugurang), sinalampati or salampati (wedding songs), and tigay (priestess’s songs to cure the sick). Most of these songs are gone. However, the ologolo (songs for the dead) are still sung in some rural areas of Albay. Songs of varied themes called kutang-kutang, including work songs, domestic songs, humorous songs, children’s songs, and erotic songs have survived; so have courtship songs like the harana or serenade and the kundiman. For years, music was the highlight of social gatherings like the sorompongan, a song contest between males and females, usually courting couples, held customarily by moonlight; and the Spanish-influenced tertulias during which conversation, poetry, and music filled the parties of the affluent of Naga, Daraga, and Legazpi.

Singer Carmen Camacho, also known as Carmen Toledo, born in 1939 in San Andres, Catanduanes, started as a member of the Mabuhay Singers in the 1950s. By the 1960s, having gone solo, she had become popularly known as one of the “kundiman divas,” along with Norma Balagtas, Norma Ledesma, and Pilita Corrales. She sang Tagalog, Cebuano, and Bikol songs. In 1999, a digitally remastered CD of her popular album The Best of Bikol Folk Songs was released. Her versions of such popular Bikol songs as “Sarung Banggui,” “Si Nanay, Si Tatay,” and “Pantomina” are some of the Bikolano’s favorites.

In the pop music scene of Catanduanes, a homegrown group called ISLA was formed by two brothers Jose Icaranom Jr. and Nelson Icaranom, and a friend Jerry Tabirao in 1974. They sang original songs with lyrics in the Virac language and with traditional musical idioms. “Bakero ning Karbaw” (Cattleherd), for example, is characterized by the rhythm and melodic pattern of the gozos, which are the responsorial chants in novena prayers. Among their big hits in their island province were “Mutya ning Virac” (Virac Muse) and “Disco sa Hunasan” (Disco on the Reef). In 1993, they recorded their first album, ISLA, Primerong Luwas (ISLA, First Venture Out).

The religious folk dramas in Bicol, which center on Catholic beliefs and liturgy, also contain musical elements. There are songs in the pastores, aurora, lagaylay, santakrusan, panjardin, panharong-harong, perdon, and pasyon. Similarly, songs were sung in churches in Spanish, Latin, and Bikol. Students also learned music from the Bikol priests in the Seminario-Concillar de Nueva Caceres in Naga, while parish priests trained singers and musicians for church functions in smaller towns.

The Bikol composers trained in religious music eventually wrote secular pieces as well. The multi-instrumentalist Potenciano V. Gregorio of Lib-og, Albay was first taught music by Father Jorge Barlin. Aside from religious music, Gregorio composed secular pieces like the famous “Sarung Banggi” (One Night), the Bikol trademark “Pusong Tagob nin Saguit” (Heart Full of Pain) now considered a folk song, and “Matios Mo Daw?” (Can You Resist?). Other church-trained musicians were Valentin Janer and Mariano Ripaco, who wrote the orchestral and vocal music of Asisclo Jimenez’s sarsuwela and Jose Figueroa’s sarsuwela An Matamiagñon na Agom (The Neglectful Wife). The Napays of Camalig, Albay composed the music of Justino Nuyda’s sarsuwela. Everardo Napay is best known for his dramas and songs.

In the contemporary repertoire, there are new folk songs that refer to local history and geography, sometimes caricaturing politicians like the barangay captain, the mayor, and election candidates. The themes are broader in protest than nationalistic songs. Whatever the content, serious or nonsensical, these songs generally have a simple structure and a free form. The lines vary from 6 to 12 or 15 syllables, with or without end rhymes. Popular songs can have as many as nine versions, with variation achieved by introducing new lyrics to a standard tune or a new tune to a popular set of lyrics. Bikol melody uses two-tone scales with a slow tempo, a simple chanting, and movement in ascending and descending order. The minor mode is used in serious songs, especially those on love. Almost always, happy songs like those for children are in the major mode.

Contemporary musical composers are Marcial Briones, a music arranger of Bikol folksongs; Raul Fabella, who is known for notation and arrangement of songs; Apolonia T. de Vera, who wrote kundiman like “Aire Bicolano” (Bicol Melody); Bonifacio N. Cristobal, whose short compositions were published in the Filipino Educator; and Meriem R. Palacio, who composed full scores like that of La Roca Encantada (The Enchanted Rock).

The development of instrumental music led to the organization of town bands and orchestras. In the prewar era, the Camarines Sur School Band was under the direction of Marcial Paronea. Composed of 100 teenage members, this mother band broke into splinter groups: the Little Symphony and the Dance Orchestra bands. Other bands were the Ocampo Band, Orchestras of Camarines Sur, and the P. Wee Band of Albay. The Combancheros, the Gerry Latumbo group, the Steve Cabigao Combo, Lino Aldecoa and Family Players, and the Armando Ordoñez Orchestra have been among Bicol’s most popular musical groups these past few decades.

The Bicol Music Circle has been responsible for enlivening the cultural scene. Among the nationally recognized performers are Nonito Arroyo, Monica Lorenzo Clemente, Carmen Felipe Cervantes, Ramon Felipe, and singer-actor Nora Aunor.

In Bicol, the dances are often associated with ritual. The tarok step was originally a movement that belonged to the ancient ritual atang. Quick marching steps were executed by the priest or priestess before the god of good, Gugurang, or by the women before the moon goddess, Haliya. A step that has come to be identified with Bicol, the tarok was also integrated into the ceremonial dance hinarupan of Vinzons, Camarines Norte; the thanksgiving festival dance boa-boahan of Nabua, Camarines Sur; the sinalampati of Albay; and even the opening and conclusion of a komedya scene and the introduction of the contradanza, which was the swordfight.

Pastores dancing and singing Christmas carols in Camalig, Albay
Pastores dancing and singing Christmas carols in Camalig, Albay, 1989 (CCP Collections)

The sinisiki, literally “feet,” of Albay is another typical dance movement. Formerly a “hop, step, close, step,” in time it became a “brush, step, close, step.” In some areas of Sorsogon, Masbate, and Catanduanes, sinisiki steps could be improvised. Long ago, immigrants from Samar brought the dance to Prieto Diaz, Sorsogon where it now features undirected foot movements as the two-part music quickens toward the end of the dance. In the tacon y punta danza of Oas, Albay, similar footwork concentrates on the heel and toe in 2/4 time. The free and natural swing of the arms characteristic of Bikol dance is featured in the sinalampati, which means “to dance like doves,” in which the arm can be placed on the waist. Another arm position, the hayon-hayon, requires the dancer to place one forearm in front and the other at the back in the jota camarines dance of Camarines Norte. To do the salok is to swing the arm downward, then upward front in a scooping action.

Authentic paraphernalia are used in ethnic Bikol dances. In the hinarupan, the herbolario (the main dancer) props up four big banana plant stalks in the center as an altar on which are placed 12 pieces of betel nut, 12 cigarette sticks, one bottle of gin, one cooked chicken, and 50 centavos. The boa-boahan, performed since the 13th century, recalls with gratitude the god Balahala’s intervention in a flood. The dancers, composed of the entire community, wear pieces of red, yellow, and green coconut shells strung together and headpieces of agas grass with chicken feathers and eight pili nut shells. Each dancer holds a boa, a meatless and waterless young coconut, on a pole or stick. Tree hollows used as gongs serve as musical instruments. The use of the chicken in such dances is symbolic. In Bikol folklore and song, the bird or chicken is a ritual animal that may be killed but without noise, picked up but not held, and allowed to fly but not to go free. The ritual betel nut is substituted by the pili nut in Bicol.

Mimesis is another object of Bikol occupation dances. The pabirik, meaning “to turn,” of Camarines Norte is a dance named after the turning motion of the gold panner’s container. Barefoot partners equipped with shallow pans and stones dance to two-part music, often the folksong “Ano Daw” (What Is It?). As mimetic as the pabirik is an older dance, the pinuhag, which comically recreates the stinging of a honey gatherer by a hiveful of bees.

Tumatarok performance in Minalabac, Camarines Sur
Tumatarok performance in Minalabac, Camarines Sur, circa 1990 (CCP Collections)

The dance component of Bikol religious ritual was retained in colonial times. On the feast of San Felipe and Santiago in May in Minalabac, Camarines Sur, men carry the saints’ images and estandartes or bamboo towers, while the children in costumes that change annually dance the tumatarok, literally “rice planters,” clicking their castanets and singing verses of praise to the twin patron saints and imploring their help for the officials and members of the community. In Canaman, Camarines Sur, the katapusan (climax) of the May santakrusan includes a hearty meal and the performance of the lagaylay, a long ceremony where a girl representing Santa Elena leads several girls, all dressed in white, in song and dance for the Holy Cross. Following the aurora or early novena said in April and May is a dance from Bongoran, Oas, Albay: the paseo de Bicol, which shows a young couple strolling or doing the paseo around the church. During the Christmas season, the pastores represent shepherds visiting the manger. The pastores are played by adults or children, male and female, usually numbering 12, and led by a capitana. Festively dressed with bands and wide-brimmed hats, they sing Christmas carols in Spanish and Bikol, executing different dances with arches, castanets, or tambourines. They are accompanied by string instruments and drums as they go from house to house, asking for alms.

Among the secular dances, the engaño, a graceful sway, and the waltz step are of Spanish origin. Boys and girls dance Albay’s inkoy-inkoy to three-part music, sagurang being its oldest Bikol version. The jota Bicolana is as lively as the Spanish jotas. Any number of mixed pairs dances to four-part music. The jota rojana of Nabua, Camarines Sur resembles the Ilonggo arrena. It is danced mostly in wedding and baptismal parties and is traditionally opened by the elders, who are later joined by the youth. Another social mixer, the lubilubi, is performed to four-part music by couples who sing “Lubi-lubi Rinkoranay,” a jovial recitation of the names of the months. The males and females sing alternately as the females open and close their fans and the males clap their coconut shells. Other Hispanic dances in Bicol are the española of Camarines Norte and the chotis, pandanggo rinconada, corateja, and minuetto yano of Camarines Sur. These dances combine folk and social steps and formations, including the mazurka, and can be used for ballroom affairs.

In Latin fashion, Bikol dances can be romantic. The people of the lumber village of Tablon, Oas, Albay choreographed a courtship dance to three-part music called saguin-saguin, kunwari, or hele-hele. Supposedly about a timber yard owner who falls for the daughter of his worker, this dance is basically a waltz with a habanera interlude, where she mimes “no” and then “yes.” The courtship dance curacha is also performed in Bicol although it is more popular in the Visayas. In Camarines Sur, esperanza is a dance honoring a girl. And in Camarines Norte, the bulakeña depicts a pleasant side of the Bikol marital relationship. A love story, the cariñosa is danced by males and females alternately kneeling and facing each other. Handkerchiefs are held perpendicularly between the dancers’ faces and inverted up and down. The dancers move back to back as though playing hide and seek. When dancing the surtido, the male throws his female partner a kiss to the delight of the audience.

Pantomina dance, Camalig, Albay
Pantomina dance, Camalig, Albay, 1989 (CCP Collections)

The pantomina or sinalampati is the most famous of the courtship dances. A wedding couple dances while being showered with coins or gifted with money placed on plates on the floor. The shy couple is given wine or tuba (coconut wine) to drink. Only part of this dance is choreographed; the rest is improvised. The dancers are costumed as in Tagalog and Visayan dances—in the kimona, balintawak, patadyong, maria clara, or terno for the females; and the camisa de chino, morona, or barong tagalog for the males. The occasion of the dance dictates the style of dress.

Indigenous theater, which was mimetic, may be found in early Bikol rituals and customs. During the atang, a ritual seeking divine protection from evil, the soraque was sung. Then the community cried, ran, and stomped in supplication until they fell in fatigue. Similarly, farmers performed the pakikimaherak when they begged their ancestors to rid their fields of pests and pleaded in low tones to the pests themselves. Burials were highlighted with incantations, songs, and dances as in the lungkasan (burial ceremony) of the Agta in Ragay, Camarines Sur, where the men prayed by dancing the lidong and the women mourned by singing the ulaw. In the pamamalaye or pasangko stage of courtship, the encounter between parties sought to settle the bride-price and dowry. Spokesmen called bahon or tagapagtaram were engaged by the taglalaki, the boy’s party, and the tagbabae, the girl’s party, for an elaborate “bargaining” conducted on a symbolic level and in highly metaphorical language.

The dramas associated with Catholic beliefs may be grouped according to the liturgical calendar. Christ’s nativity is the subject of the debate among elderly men known as the coloquio. In December, the panharong-harong or kagharong, literally “going from house to house,” reenacts the search by Joseph and Mary for an inn in Bethlehem. Costumed as Mary and Joseph, a rural couple sings verses of supplication accompanied by a guitar, from house to house.

In May the despuerta, aurora, and flores de Mayo are church activities held in honor of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The santakrusan, the nationwide popular May festival commemorating the discovery of the Holy Cross, features a procession of biblical personages, which is not as lavish in Bicol as elsewhere. The panjardin and kinorubong are shorter forms of the santakrusan. Also celebrating the Holy Cross are the dotoc and lagaylay. Verse recitations, songs, and a dialogue between chorus and soloist comprise the dotoc, a novena to the cross and a preparatory ritual to the lagaylay. Some barrios and towns reenact the search for the cross by marking the ground in several places.

In Canaman, Camarines Sur, the lagaylay is usually a 12 to 13-hour ceremony performed in May. From high school students, both male and female, fulfilling a graduation requirement or a panata (vow), the director selects the main performers months in advance. Although there is a preference for attractive single girls who sing well, qualified matrons can make up for the lack of young talents. Elena, the queen, leads all others in singing and dancing, and the highlight comes when she offers her crown to the Cross. The affair is elaborate and the participants have several changes of clothes. However, the intention remains simple and sincere: Flowers are offered to the cross as a prayer of petition, thanksgiving, or repentance. Violin music has been replaced by the organ. The Saba Sica and Juan Nuñez arrangements were used, until Carlos Salcedo Sr. introduced musical variations for the same lyrics. Although the old song and dance numbers have sometimes been modified and modernized, the dances and the lyrics remain unchanged. The most important dance is that which executes several letter formations, which climax in a cross image.

The perdon is a ritual sung and performed in all Bicol. A choral group singing “Perdon, Dios Mio, Perdon” (Forgive, My God, Forgive) during a midnight procession for nine successive Friday nights is a special prayer for an urgent need. It is traditionally performed in order to prevent the recurrence of an epidemic that once plagued the barrio during Spanish times.

Scene from the tanggal or sinakulo, Buhi, Camarines Sur
Scene from the tanggal or sinakulo, Buhi, Camarines Sur, 1991 (CCP Collections)

Bikol Catholics embrace and cherish the Lenten season, called kuaresma, kamahalan, or pagsakit. It commences on Ash Wednesday with pangorus (placing the sign of the cross with ashes on the forehead), and is observed by the singing of the pasyon, which narrates the passion and suffering of Christ. The next big religious event is Palm Sunday’s palaspas (palms), when the palms are blessed and Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem is reenacted. In the procession held at dawn, young girls in angelic white dresses walk around the town singing, in front of the priest. A mass follows the procession. The sinakulo or tanggal, a dramatization of Christ’s life and death, is staged. The musical drama, opisyo, is performed in some remote barrios. In some areas, kubol (small, thatched huts) in barrio street corners enthrone the Stations of the Cross, where people may stop to pray and meditate.

The village of Tambo in Buhi, Camarines Sur is well known for its interpretation of the tanggal, a three-day passion play sponsored by the townfolk. While the adults chant the Bikol pasyon and other episodes from the Creation of the World to the Search for the Holy Cross, the younger participants dramatize the events being narrated on stage and on the streets of the town. Dressed in costumes resembling those worn by the sacred images of Lent, rural folk chant the dialogue and enact the scenes of the pasyon using special effects for the creation of the world, the Resurrection of Christ, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, and the Coronation of the Virgin Mary in heaven. Here the devil and Judas provide comic relief to the long dramatic episodes.

On Good Friday, the siete palabras (seven words) represents Christ’s agony on the cross during the last three hours of his life. In Santa Elena, Buhi, Camarines Sur, laymen speak on Christ’s last words before a wooden image of the crucified Christ. After Christ “dies” at three o’clock, men playing Joseph and Nicodemus remove the image from the cross and lay it on a bed, where a woman playing Mary weeps over the dead Christ.

After the procession of Good Friday, another procession called soledad dramatizes the search of the Mater Dolorosa (the grieving Mary) for the corpse of her son. In Baao, Camarines Sur, the image of the sorrowful Mother is paraded around the town together with the images of Peter, John, Magdalene, and other saints on their respective floats or carros. The procession, accompanied by young musicans called estudiantina, stops before several houses, where Mary is “comforted” with songs performed by young ladies.

Easter Sunday salubong with children playing angels, Baao, Camarines Sur
Easter Sunday salubong with children playing angels, Baao, Camarines Sur, 2011 (Rommel Bulalacao)

On Easter Sunday, Mary and Jesus meet in the playlet called saklot, alleluya, salubong, pagsabat, or pagtonton. This begins with two dawn processions, one composed of males accompanying the image of the Risen Christ, and the other of females accompanying the Mater Dolorosa. The two processions meet at the castillo, a tower constructed for this occasion, where little girls playing angels are lowered and lifted with pulleys. The climax comes when the principal angel descends from the castillo and removes the black veil of the Virgin to signify the end of her mourning.

All throughout Lent, the devoted undergo the penitencia (penance) to fulfill their panata or vow to Christ. The tapatan, another Holy Week activity, involves a competition between two groups that tests their mastery of the Bible and the pasyon.

The komedya, a play in verse about princes and princesses in European Medieval kingdoms, began to be staged in Bicol by the early 1700s. By the 19th century, it was a popular fiesta fare, being performed from three days and nights to one month on open-air, two-level stages, to the accompaniment of a native band. As in most other Christianized regions, the komedya in Bikol featured convoluted plots set in fantastic kingdoms, colorful European-inspired costumes, marches, and choreographed battles, usually between the Christians of Europe and the Moros of Turquia and Persia.

A very old komedya is Comedia famosa de conde Juan Damalillo en un gracioso condado de Barcelona (Famous Comedia of Don Juan Damalillo in the Gracious Countship of Barcelona), written and produced by Guillermo Manlangit in Catanduanes in 1860. This five-act play with 6,126 lines is set in Hungary (Realubit 1983, 219). King Teodosio holds a tournament in search of a husband fit for his daughter, Fidelina. Damalillo wins over the Moro prince Gallarte, who then declares war on the Hungarians. The Moros gain the upper hand and are about to execute Fidelina when Damalillo rescues her. The Hungarians begin to defeat the Moros and are about to massacre them when the Italian prince Floserfino, who is in love with the Moro princess Gallardina, stops them. Damalillo agrees to desist providing that the Moros submit to baptism. The Moros are baptized, and the two couples are wed.

Other Bikol komedya are focused on the fictional lives of Don Alejandro and Don Luis, Principe Grimaldo, Principe Igmedio and Princesa Gloriana, the Doce Pares de Francia, the Principe Felismeño, Don Juan Teñoso, Don Gonzalo de Cordova, and Pastora Jacubina. Writers of the komedya include Leon Camba of Tabaco, Albay; Juan Guan of Sorsogon; Mamerto Coreces, Jorge Ordas, and Canuto Adea of Camarines Norte; Domingo Salazar of Naga; and Vicente Ramirez, Nicolas Arrieta, Policarpio Latumbo, Juan Miraflor, and Leon Borela. Notable is Sabas Armenta, who wrote Comedia ni Hadeng Grimaldo sa Reinong Irlanda (Comedia of King Grimaldo of the Kingdom of Ireland), which criticizes the abuse of authority and the system of favoritism, and praises the Moros, who are not as quarrelsome as the Christians.

The sarsuwela, a play in prose with songs, was first introduced in 1892 in Bicol by Spanish zarzuela troupes from Manila, like that of Alejandro Cubero and Jose Carvajal. By the beginning of the 20th century and up to the outbreak of World War II, playwrights created sarsuwela in Bikol. These were often performed on stage using a telon (backdrop) to signify the setting of particular scenes and all manner of lighting, from gas lamps to electric bulbs. A small orchestra accompanied the songs and dances. Usually presented at fiestas, the sarsuwela was sponsored by the town and performed by professional groups like the Compania Zarzuela Bicolana headed by Justino Nuyda.

An early sarsuwela is An Maimbud na Aqui (The Gentle Child), written by Nicolasa Ponte Perfecto in 1920. The story criticizes social vices and praises the wisdom of the young. Miang and Ote are gambling addicts. They arrange to marry off their daughter Cande to the Chinese merchant Kiawa. However, Cande loves Braulio, and so Kiawa breaks the engagement. The parents bicker, and Cande interrupts them, pleading for rationality and their sense of parental responsibility (Realubit 1983, 228). Perfecto also wrote An Marhay na Sorogon (The Good Servant) and An Pag Oring Mahamis (Sweet Maltreatment).

In Legazpi, among the noted sarsuwelista of the pre-World War II era, besides Nicolasa Ponte Perfecto, were Eusebio Tallada, who produced two plays, An Mag-Irinang Binarayaan (The Abandoned Mother and Children) and Maguibo Mo Man Daw (Do You Think You Can Do It); and Eusebio Tiño, to whom Pinapagtios sa Pirit (Forced to Suffer), the story of the girl Didang, symbolizing the Philippines, is forced to marry a man she does not like, is attributed.

In Camalig, the best known sarsuwelista is Justino Nuyda, who wrote original plays like Tabon-Tabon (To Come), about a philandering husband who is cured of his “malady”; An Pag Ca Moot sa Pirac (Love of Money), about Flora who tests the sincerity of her three suitors; An Daragang Baragohon (The Fickle-Minded Girl), about a girl obsessed by money; An Lalaquing Osbawon (The Braggart), about a man who boasts of the women he “conquers”; An Panahon Bulawan (Time Is Gold), about a gambling wife; Ma Isog sa Ma Talao, Ma Talao sa Ma Isog (The Brave to the Coward, the Coward to the Brave), and An Caogmahon Tumang sa Pirac (Happiness Is Against Money), about Facundo who plays around with many girls; and Teniente Amado (Lieutenant Amado),about a Filipino officer in the Spanish army during the revolution against Spain.

In Sorsogon, four sarsuwelista are well known: Asisclo Jimenez, Jose Figueroa, Valerio Zuñiga, and Bonifacio Baeza. Asisclo Jimenez’s 26 plays are on religious practices, the follies of love, the superficiality of the komedya, the silliness of certain social customs, and nationalism. Satires on religion are An Diwang Pagtubod na Sukbali (Two Wrong Beliefs) and An Fiscal Mayor sa Simbahan (The Chief Fiscal of the Parish Church). Love situations between husbands and wives, and ladies and their suitors, are dramatized in Apat na Cami (Now We Are Four), An Nagkasurudiaan (Liars Exposed), An Sarayaw sa Salon (Dance in the Cabaret), An Naubusan Kuta (There Would Have Been None at All), and An Pangako nin Daraga (The Promise of a Young Woman). Plays that criticize the komedya are An Paalingan ni Lucas (The Leisures of Lucas) and Burugkos sa Kabikoan (United in Crooked Ways). Gambling is attacked in An Lupit sa Payo (The Scar on the Head). Jimenez’s only full-length play, Pagkamoot sa Banuang Tinoboan (Love for the Native Land), is nationalistic, being about a man, Alfredo, who goes to fight with the revolutionaries against Spain, and his wife Conchita, who is pestered by the guardia civil (local police) but who ingeniously arranges for the massacre of all the Spaniards upon Alfredo’s homecoming.

Other Sorsogon sarsuwelista are Jose Figueroa of Juban, who wrote Longanan an Sadiri (Take Care of Your Own), which centers on the problems of miscegenation, and An Matamiagnon na Agom (The Lazy Wife), which exposes the evils of the card game pangguingue; Valerio Zuñiga, who wrote Angelina, about a woman who loses her sweetheart Manuel to the revolution; and Bonifacio Baeza, who wrote 10 sarsuwela, among which are An Pagmawot nin Cayamanan (The Desire for Wealth), Luha nin Sarong Ina (Tears of a Mother), and Mapognao na Capaladan (Unhappy Fate). Other sarsuwelista are Benito Olmigo and Simeon Gio of Masbate, and Gregorio Loyon and Arcangel de la Rosa of Catanduanes.

Music for the Bikol sarsuwela was composed by musicians like Mariano Ripaco, Valentin Javier, Daniel Juanesca, and Juanito Napay, the last being the director of the Napay Orchestra, which accompanied Nuyda’s sarsuwela.

The drama, or play in prose without music, also had its practitioners in Justino Nuyda, who wrote Anti Cristo (Anti Christ), which dramatizes the confrontation between a brave young girl, Felizberta, and an old, lecherous friar, Fray Agustin, who tries to rape Felizberta but is instead killed by her; Antonio Salazar, who wrote Tonog na Gikan sa Langit (Voice from Heaven); Mariano Nicomedes, who wrote drama on the poor, like Gusto Ako Maging Ayam (I Want to Be a Dog); Valerio Zuñiga, who wrote plays on youth, like An Sacuyang Caaquian (Our Children); Bonifacio Baeza, who did social satires and protests, as in An Gobernadorcillo (The Mayor), An Paalingan ni Beday (The Leisures of Beday), and Si Doctora Atang (Doctor Atang); and Catalina Rubio, who wrote Drama, a play about the tragic death of Margarita, who comes from the lower class and becomes the victim of the colonial and elitist relatives and friends of her husband Arturo.

Modern plays were done by school-based groups such as The Cathedral Players, organized in 1949 by James Reuter SJ at the Ateneo de Naga; the Holy Rosary Academy Dramatic Club; the Caceres Players Guild; and The University of Nueva Caceres Plastique Playhouse.

Many plays presented by theater groups from the 1950s to the present are translations and adaptations of both foreign plays and Filipino plays in English and Tagalog. Notable, however, are the original plays in Bikol, which pursued two main themes: the mythological, as seen in Handiong by Orfelina O. Tuy and Fe V. Ico; Iyan Kitang Bikol (This Is the Way We Bikol Are) by Victor R. Cruz; and the romantic and social, as typified by Everardo Napay’s Mga Burak sa Hardin nin Pagcamoot (Flowers in the Garden of Love) and An Patintero (The Tuba Vendor).

Community or people’s theater flourished during the martial law years. Reynaldo Jamoralin, Ella Jamoralin, Dan Razo, Jo Bisuña, and Jazmin Llana formed theater groups not just as artists protesting the Marcos dictatorship but as cultural workers and community organizers. Jazmin Llana of Baao helped establish the Kaboronyogan-Bikol Cultural Network, a Baao-based regional alliance of Bikol artists and writers who were also active in the rallies and other mass activities spurred by the Aquino assassination. Reynaldo and Ella Jamoralin, both former regional officers of the Kabataang Makabayan, were founding members of the Sorsogon Community Theater Guild (SCTG), established in 1984; the Community-Based Theater Group (CBTG), 1985; and the Sorsogon Arts Council (SAC), 1988. Dan Razo organized Tropang Malaya in 1983, which performed during political gatherings.

These theater organizers were scriptwriters as well. In 1975, Ella Gajo-Jamoralin, while teaching at Sorsogon National High School (SNHS), wrote and directed Etudes, a monologue on the country’s sociopolitical situation of that period. She wrote Titser ng Bayan (The People’s Teacher), 1987, about the miserable situation of public school teachers. Llana wrote Pasyon ni Juan de la Cruz (Passion of Juan de la Cruz), 1984, a poem play, which was staged during the Lenten season at the town plazas. The Jamoralin couple cowrote Pasiya ng Bayan (People’s Verdict), 1986, which presents the people’s decision on the 1986 snap elections, and a skit, Nasaan si Gringo? (Where Is Gringo?), 1987, which satirizes the Narvasa Investigation’s search for Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan.

In 1994, Reynaldo Jamoralin, a great grandson of Sorsogon sarsuwelista Asisclo Jimenez, revived Jimenez’s Pagkamoot sa Banuang Tinoboan (Love for the Native Land), for which he received production and tour grants from the CCP.

Jo Bisuña wrote and produced three plays in the 1990s: Amo Di a Baao, Pisarina Kita (This Is Baao, Where to Now?), 1992; An Krus ni Juan de la Cruz: Banwaan an Mapagian (The Cross of Juan de la Cruz: The Country Lightens the Burden), 1992-5; and Kulturang Ipinaglaban: Sagisag ng Kalayaan (A Culture Championed: Symbol of Freedom), a play in Filipino staged for a contest in Ateneo de Naga in 1994. Her play Kamugtakan kan Banwaan: Kalbaryo kan Kasaraditan (The Nation’s Plight: The Calvary of the Poor) was restaged in 1992. Jazmin Llana cowrote and codirected a play on a Bikol general, Simeon A. Ola, 1995, which was restaged in 1996 for the CCP Ikalawang Tagpo National Theater Festival. Dan Razo co-directed and acted in this play.

In 2000 to 2001, H. Francisco Peñones Jr., in collaboration with Reynaldo Jamoralin, staged Kantada ni Daragang Magayon, Mandirigma, a Bikol translation and adaptation of Merlinda Bobis’s Cantata of Daragang Magayon, Warrior Woman, which had been directed by Jazmin Llana. In 2000, she directed Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). From 2000 to 2010, she directed Legazpi City’s annual street theater festival Ranga (Cherish) and Rokyaw, Manga Istoryang Bikolnon (Celebrate, Bikol Stories). In Sorsogon City, Ella Gajo-Jamoralin continued to mount plays with her students at the The Lewis College: Iliad sa Bikol (Iliad in Bikol), 2008; Si Romeo at Si Julieta (Romeo and Juliet), 2011, translated collectively by her students and adapted into the 19th-century Philippines; Cagharong (The Search for an Inn), 2011; and Azucena Grajo Uranza’s Versions of the Dawn, 2012.

Scene from Si Bulusan nan si Agingay, staged at UP Abelardo Hall
Scene from Si Bulusan nan si Agingay, staged at UP Abelardo Hall, 2015 (Photo courtesy of Sorsogon Arts Council)

Dan Razo directed and cowrote Ribonsinay, 2003. He directed Agingay in 2006, a re-interpretation of Si Bulusan nan Si Agingay (Bulusan and Agingay). He directed and choreographed a reinterpretation of Kahadean ni Reyna Gayon (The Kingdom of Queen Gayon), Gayon, which was staged in 2011 to 2013. And finally in 2013, he directed Gibal-ong, a street dance-drama on the first mass in Luzon, in Sitio Gibalongin of Barangay Siuton, Magallanes, Sorsogon.

In Catanduanes, the theater group Hablon-Dawani began as a college-based theater company in 1977 and then, in the early 1980s, was a representative voice for such martial law themes as family planning. However, in the aftermath of the assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino in 1983, it became part of the country’s protest theater. It mounted an expressionistic play written and directed by Ramon Felipe A. Sarmiento titled Katandungan Aming Bayan! (Catanduan Our People), which was critical of the local political dynasty. The following year, Hablon mounted the musical, Abaka! (Abaca!), with libretto and direction by Efren Sorra, and music by David Templonuevo. Depicting the contradictions of the region’s abaca industry, it performed in a number of towns in Catanduanes and in the cities of Legazpi and Naga. When the Marcos Regime ended, Hablon evolved into a community-based theater of social protest. A summer acting workshop conducted by theater and film actor Spanky Manikan in the province in 1987 gave the theater company further impetus in this direction. Its staging of Mapait sa Bao (Bitter in the Coconut Shell), by Jose Dalisay Jr., as the workshop’s culminating activity, inspired the head of the Mass Media Office of the Diocese of Virac Father Edmund Vargas to organize community-based theater groups. A series of workshops were conducted for 11 rural high schools in the province, after which a provincewide competition was held in the staging of an original play written by David Templonuevo, Piot na Lawod (Narrow Sea), 1989, which dramatizes the struggles of a fisherman to provide for his children’s schooling. The groups formed an umbrella organization called BANHI Theatre Network, which trained such theater workers as Eden Villaflor of Bagamanoc town, Gloria Pereyra of Bato, Evelia Malihan of Virac, and Nida Tapel of San Miguel. Their productions, generally done in the dula-tula (poem-play) style, became staples of community affairs such as fiestas, school functions, and parish evangelization campaigns.

In 2004, the Center for Catandungan Heritage Inc. (CCHI) was formed by Estrella Sarmiento-Placides, David Templonuevo, Annie Gianan, and Nelita Masagca. The center has broadened its goals beyond the development of theater arts to advocate the preservation of the province’s cultural heritage. Every summer it has held workshops in drama, dance, and music. Among its major achievements are the establishment of the Catanduanes Museum, the mounting of photo exhibits of material heritage sites and objects, the annual culture and history quiz bee during the provincial foundation day in October, and the Gawad Kultura in recognition of local cultural heroes.

Media Arts

The history of radio broadcasting in the Bicol region began in 1958 when Radyo Balagon, a cable radio station, came on the air under the Bicol Wire Broadcasting System (BWBS). BWBS evolved into the People’s Broadcasting Network (PBN) Inc., and grew into a commercial broadcasting network serving three AM stations, two FM stations, and two television stations. In 2011, one of the PBN’s AM stations, DZGB-AM, was awarded “Best Provincial AM Station Nationwide” by the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP) Golden Dove Awards.

Bicol and its culture have been a favorite backdrop and subject matter for non-Bikol filmmakers. Kailangan Kita (I Need You), 2002, directed by Rory Quintos, tells of a Filipino American chef’s forbidden love for the sister of his bride-to-be. The story unfolds amidst scenes depicting the Bikol culture, particularly its cuisine, rural conflicts, and locales. Shayne Sarte-Clemente’s cinematography presents remarkable shots of Mayon volcano.

Scene from Lav Diaz’s Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Engkanto
Scene from Lav Diaz’s Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Engkanto, 2007 (Photo courtesy of Lav Diaz)

Lav Diaz’s nine-hour film, Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Spirits), 2007, is a docudrama, that is, a film merging documentary and fiction. It dramatizes poet Benjamin Agusan’s homecoming to Barrio Padang, Legazpi City, after seven years in Russia. Agusan is in search of his loved ones in the wake of two natural catastrophes that hit the region in 2006: Typhoon Durian, also known as Reming, and the eruption of Mayon Volcano. As a docudrama, the film weaves real-life interviews and footage of survivors within the narrative. Agusan’s poetic sensibility merges with the dystopic landscape just as spectres from his past flit in and out of the present to depict a world destroyed not only by nature but by corruption and necropolitics. At the Venice Film Festival in 2007, it won the Golden Lion Special Mention at the Orrizonti Documentary section.

Other films by non-Bikol that depict Bicol include Armando Lao’s debut film, Biyaheng Lupa (Soliloquy), 2009, which uses a stream-of-consciousness cinematography to narrate the life of each passenger in a bus from Manila to Legazpi City; Gil Portes’s Two Funerals, 2010, a satirical road movie about a mother traveling from Tuguegarao, Cagayan, to Matnog, Sorsogon to recover her daughter’s corpse that has been accidentally interchanged with another; and Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s last film, Ikaw ang Pag-ibig (You Are Love), 2011, which affirms a rebellious woman’s faith in Our Lady of Peñafrancia, the Bicol region’s patroness.

On the other hand, Bikol media artists who have gained national popularity exemplify the symbiosis between Bicol and the nation. Catanduanes-born Dindo Fernando, 1940-1987, also known as Jose Tacorda Chua Surban, was initially a matinee idol as part of Sampaguita Pictures’s Star ’66. He went on to become the principal actor for a number of serious dramas such as Langis at Tubig (Oil and Water), 1980, and Gaano Kadalas ang Minsan (How Often Is Once), 1982. His versatility allowed him to play extremely varied roles: that of a closeted gay in Mahinhin vs. Mahinhin (Dainty versus Dainty), 1981, directed by Danny Zialcita; Major Leo Alicante in the 1980s long-running TV soap opera Flor de Luna; and the leading man in Mario O’Hara’s directorial debut film, Mortal, 1975, starring Lolita Rodriguez. The film won much critical acclaim, becoming one of the films responsible for the “Second Golden Age” of Philippine cinema.

In the 1977 Metro Manila Film Festival, a relatively unknown Mauro Gia Samonte of San Andres, Catanduanes won Best Screenplay for the multi-awarded Burlesk Queen, directed by Celso Ad Castillo and starring Vilma Santos. However, amid much controversy and then-First Lady Imelda Marcos’s intervention, the trophies were recalled.

Television director Gil Tejada of Bato, Catanduanes began his career as a television director in 1995 with the family drama series Villa Quintana and went on to direct two soap operas, Anna Karenina, 1996, and Mga Mata ni Angelita (Angelita’s Eyes), 2007. He directed the lavish fantasy series, also known as “fantaserye,” Etheria, 2005, and Encantadia, 2006. Additionally, he directed some episodes of My Husband’s Lover, 2013, and Magpakailan Man (Always and Forever), 2014.

Other distinguished Bikol media artists include actor-director Eddie Garcia, screenwriter Ricardo Lee, and transmedia artist Nora Aunor. With a significant body of works in radio, television, theater, and cinema, Iriga-born Nora Aunor has received high praise from local and international award-giving bodies.

Ramon Felipe Sarmiento of Virac, Catanduanes, wrote the screenplay for the independent films, also known as “indies,” Independencia (Independence) and Manila, both directed by Raya Martin and shown at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival in France. Independencia, shot entirely in a soundstage and done in black and white, is about a mother and son who become desaparecidos during the American occupation. Manila is a composite reworking of two Filipino film classics on the blight of urban Manila: Ishmael Bernal’s Manila after Dark and Lino Brocka’s Jaguar. However, the beginnings of Bikol cinema itself can be traced to Manuel Conde, also known as Manuel Urbano, of Daet, Camarines Norte, with his Juan Tamad series. The character, a fool and a trickster, is based on Juan Osong, a common figure in a tale about a boy who always surprises with his creative solutions to life’s many ordinary quandaries.

Filmmakers pioneering in the use of the Bikol languages are Joselito Altarejos and Alvin Yapan. Altarejos’s Pink Halo-Halo, 2010, is a coming-of-age story set in the filmmaker’s own hometown in Masbate and with dialogs in Tigaonon, the language of Ticao Island. Natoy is a soldier’s son who inadvertently sees his father on the brink of death on television news. He and his mother watch helplessly as his mortally wounded father in war-torn Mindanao awaits rescue. Fictionist Alvin Yapan’s first film was Rolyo (Film Roll), 2007, which is about Judith, a barrio lass in Bicol who longs to go to the movies in the city. But her parents can only afford a trumpet made from film negatives. Rolyo was the Philippines’s official entry to the Short Film category of the Paris Cinema International Film Festival.

artwork poster naked man like Adam in Eden with snake
Poster of Alvin Yapan’s Debosyon, 2013 (Photo courtesy of Alvin Yapan)

Yapan’s subsequent films center on the conflict between indigenous lore and the Catholic faith. Gayuma (Pilgrim Lovers), 2011, dramatizes the effect and power of the Santo Niño and a love potion on a sacristan and a rich girl. The film is in the language of Bikol Pili-Naga. Debosyon (Devotion), 2013, is about the romance between a Bikol devotee of the Lady of Peñafrancia and an enigmatic lady of the forest who, as it turns out, is Oryoll, the snake woman of the Bikol epic Ibalong. The Bikol character is torn between his faith in the Lady of Peñafrancia and his love for Oryoll. Throughout the film, the dialogue is in Rinconada-Iriga and Naga-Bikol.

Poet Kristian Sendon Cordero is the writer-director of the historical film Angustia, 2013, which is also in Rinconada-Iriga and Naga-Bikol. It is about a creole secular priest whose aim is to study local plants and evangelize the native population. He falls in love with an Agta woman, but their love story turns into a crime of passion that underlines the irreconcilability of the local and foreign, of love and lust, calm and anguish.

Written by Maria Lilia F. Realubit, and Monica P. Consing (1994) / Updated by Paz Verdades M. Santos, Peñafrancia Raniela Barbaza, Ramon F. Sarmiento, and Danilo Gerona, with additional notes from Rafael Banzuela Jr., J. F. C. Hernandez, Tito Valiente, and Rosario Cruz-Lucero (2018)


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Barbaza, Peñafrancia Raniela E. 2010. “An Orosipon kan Bikolnon: Interrupting the Nation.” Kritika Kultura 14: 142-162.

———. 2014. “Wika at Identidad: Wikang Bikolnon bilang Lunan ng Bikolnon, 1890-1956.” Daluyan, 73-98.

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This article is from the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art Digital Edition.

Title: Bikol

Author/s: Maria Lilia F. Realubit, and Monica P. Consing (1994) / Updated by Paz Verdades M. Santos, Peñafrancia Raniela Barbaza, Ramon F. Sarmiento, and Danilo Gerona, with additional notes from Rafael Banzuela Jr., J. F. C. Hernandez, Tito Valiente, and Rosario Cruz-Lucero (2018)

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