Magical Malasimbo

(Originally posted in 2014, on Create & Wander)

Just behind a comical sign that reads “Please don’t feed the natives” is a man buried neck deep in the ground. His head, which he rotates slowly, is at the center of a spiderweb of colorful strings. He will remain this way, with his colorful cloth headress and white-painted face, for six hours. It’s the type of commitment to art, self-expression, and creativity that embodies the Malasimbo Music & Arts Festival.

Where the Uncommon is the Norm

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There always seems to be something that will push the imagination. Was it over the top? Absolutely. The task was downright ludicrous. But this was a space for individuals to express themselves fully, free of judgement and perceiveably without any confines. Amidst the glowing light fixtures, art installations are spread all around the grounds. Natural, interactive, awe-inspiring, visual candy, humorous – the descriptions of the array of work vary as much as the genres of music on show.

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What started out with five people has turned into a hundred-strong line dance in the terraces, and it’s growing quickly. Osunlade’s version of house music blasts over the sound system. It’s well past midnight, and over an hour into his set, but the audience is only getting more engaged. Filipinos, Europeans, Americans, and other individuals from all walks of life are dancing in unison, led by two Australian dancers who performed in the previous set along with afro-reggae band Kooii. It’s a sight that typifies Malasimbo’s ability to jump genres without alienating its extremely diverse crowd. It seemed almost unreal that just a few hours prior to this organism of dancing humans forming, everyone was still, fervently cheering Jose Gonzalez’s every mellow folk rendition.

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In a world where there is a common tendency to gravitate towards what’s trendy, Malasimbo throws the concept of conformity and what is acceptable out the window. There are seemingly no efforts to target a specific demographic, or to satisfy a particular musical taste. From a business standpoint, it goes directly against the recipe of success preached by universitites and successful individuals. Yet, despite a departure from the accepted steps that would guarantee a hit, thousands have traveled to Puerto Galera from all over the world to take in the unique experience.

What cannot be understated is the organizers unwavering resolve to ensure every artist and performer is given full artistic freedom. And while not every art piece, or musical performance resonates equally with each festivalgoer, the environment of self-expression manages to attract a formidable, loyal, and growing following. My dancing at the end of this expanding, gyrating, smiling, and cheering organism was proof of it.

A Musical Lesson in Nature’s Gift

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After two consecutive years taking the same boat ride from Batangas port to Puerto Galera, and riding the short shuttle ride to the festival grounds, I’m still awestruck as I disembark from the jeepney atop Mount Malasimbo. The mix of green and blue that greets me as I overlook the edge of Oriental Mindoro never gets old. The same humbling feeling of how insignificant we all are in the grand scheme of the world’s design is a welcome sensation.

Descending onto the foothills of the mountain, the familiar feeling of anticipation and excitement creeps in as the music starts to be audible amongst the new art fixtures. Several dozen steps down and it becomes visible. The stage, in the middle of a wondrous grass-terraced amphitheater welcomes our arrival. Interspersed with coconut trees bathed in hues of green, purple, and blue, it’s a tropical paradise – one I’d been longing for since we left last year. To say nature has been kind to this place is a massive understatement.

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After a quick hunt for food, which resulted in some classic Filipino tapsilog and a cold beerwe unraveled our banig a few meters away from the stage. Jordan Rakei, a barefooted young man from Brisbane, Australia was about to dazzle the crowd with some soul music for the next hour – only we didn’t know it yet. As was the case for most of the acts in Malasimbo over the years, there wasn’t much prior knowledge to dictate excitement levels before a performance. Aside from maybe Grammy award winner, Joss Stone, who had enjoyed plenty of mainstream exposure before she headlined last year, every musical act is received virtually with a clean slate. Even musical legends like Latin Soul orignator Joe Bataan, and Reggae icon Jimmy Cliff, were appreciated not based on reputation, but on the quality of their music – which was exquisite. The level playing field allowed for new acts and overlooked veterans to play in front of a crowd free of bias or preference. The result is a musical education, an introduction of a plethora of new sounds and names to place in the memory bank.

Rakei’s first international festival appearance is met with a rapture of appreciation. Both he and the crowd have been changed, no matter how minimally, forever. Neo Soul pioneer Omar, who was granted membership in the Order of the British Empire for his musical contributions, follows him. Grammy award winner Robert Glasper headlined Saturday night’s festivities shortly after jazz funk legend Roy Ayers had taken the stage. Most of these names and their staggering resumes were unknown before this evening. High quality tunes have the tendency to fall between the cracks in this generation of heavily marketed pop music. We were being given the privilege to witness, in a concentrated dose, just what we had been deprived of.

Another Round

With last night’s tunes, visuals, conversations and smiles still fresh in the mind, Sunday night’s festivities couldn’t come quick enough. For the first time since Tabitha and I started making the yearly Malasimbo journey, we missed out on Friday night, and were eager to compensate on our final evening. The trip up the mountain wasn’t for another six hours, though, giving us plenty of time to soak in Puerto Galera in the meantime.malasimbo2014post-13

Last year we had explored some of the bay’s many nooks and crannies with an enjoyable boat tour – getting an appreciation of why Puerto Galera is on the list of 40 Most Beautiful Bays in the World. Although none of our traveling party had any diving expertise, we still had an opportunity to sample the area’s extremely diverse marine life with a snorkeling session. With those activities crossed off the list, and without any desire to partake in the usual jetski, banana boat, and kayak offerings, off to the beach we went to take in some sun.

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Sipping on fresh coconuts in between a game of Frisbee with friends and new acquaintances, it seemed rather outrageous that this in itself wasn’t to be the highlight of my day. Pristine white sand and the clear blue sea stretched out before me – a paradise just an hour boat ride away from Batangas Port that I was taking for granted. We meet some local women unwinding with some beers in the shade of a low tree. I’m tempted to join them, but staying long wasn’t an option. Before long we were back in the jeepney station, waiting to depart for Mount Malasimbo with the mission to catch the place bathed in sun for a change – oblivious that the night’s events would surpass last evening’s already astronomically set bar.

We Are All One

Mesmerized as Jose Gonzalez hypnotizes an entranced collective of indivduals from all around the world, the artificial boundaries and distinctions that separate and define people seemed all so silly and unecessary. In case the sentiment wasn’t being shared by everyone, the Swedish folk singer-songwriter drove the message home in his much yearned for encore with a rendition of “Imagine” by John Lennon.

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It’s not a common sight for an individual armed with only a guitar to capture, so completely, thousands of people with such different backgrounds and cultures. But this wasn’t just any performance. It wasn’t just any festival, or any venue. This was Malasimbo – a truly magical experience.