Helobung Festival: a celebration of culture by those who truly should


A long parade of people all wearing traditional Tboli garbs filled the streets. It’s not a usual sight in Lake Sebu in this modern time even if the town is inhabited predominantly by Tboli peoples, but every second week of November the sleepy upland town of Lake Sebu becomes more alive with all things Tboli – it’s the culmination day of Helobung Festival!



We arrived just in time for the parade and we had to rush down amidst the road blockades set up to give way to the festival activities. There were no gargantuan floats, no national celebrities invited to attract more visitors but you can feel that regular town fiesta feel in the air.




Helobung Festival is held to celebrate the Tboli culture. It is also celebrated to commemorate the founding of the scenic town settled more than 700 meters above sea level in the mountains of South Cotabato in Mindanao. It is said to be the liveliest time of the year in the town.

The festival allows its streets to be adorned with geometric ethnic designs with striking red and deep black colors, hues that represent the indigenous Tboli culture. Red represents the bravery and love and black is for the soil, the source of life.





 We walked down to the town plaza to join in the celebration. It was quite a long walk taking us as long as the route taken by the parading participants. But the length of the walk was a delight for the one with camera in hand. We arrived at the plaza ahead of the culmination program. The crowded ground was filled with spectators and the performers were in Tboli costumes if not of Tnalak inspired dresses, another delight for the photo buff aiming to capture people in festive mood.


The one week celebration showcases the life, history and stories of the Tboli peoples through the activities and competitions among local contestants.

There's bangka (dugout canoe) racing to showcase the traditional means of transportation Tbolis use to travel from islets of Lake Sebu to the main land.






In between dances, seket kuda, which literally means a horse fight, gathers roars from the crowd. Seket kuda is known as the sport of the Tboli datus where two stallions are made to fight against each other over a mare. Yes, it’s something sexual. No, it doesn’t look fun for me.
The fights, which attract close to the fighting pen mostly men, breaks the ice in the daylong revelry. No death of the stallions is required for the win. Nonetheless, it still upholds violence towards animals; hence, it’s not one of my favorite.




The festival also gives the Tboli the chance to present their culinary pride. Tboli foods and menus are mostly from root crop staples but the most interesting are the ones made with our amphibian friends: the stewed frogs and the char grilled frogs. The traditional foods are showcased in cottages assigned for the 19 barangays and everyone is invited to partake for no cost. Yes, free lunch for moi and company!









The spirit of the celebration is best expressed in the traditional chanting and community dancing. Traditional stories of love, conquest, revenge and community celebrations are themes of the chants and dances. The best thing about it is that the ones performing Tboli chants and dances are Tboli peoples themselves. No imported performers from other places. Contest performances were not as perfect or as refined as in other known festivals in the country. But it’s consistent to the core of the festival which is to celebrate the culture and not to highlight competition. Imperfect but everything seems authentic.




We left Lake Sebu that day with camera memory cards full and understanding of the Tboli culture fuller.

At least there’s one festival in the country that doesn’t feel canned and packaged to turn streets into tourists’ mosh pits. Helobung Festival is indeed different. It is a celebration of culture and is celebrated by those who truly should. I hope it will remain that way. []


6 comments:

  1. Cooooool photographs, Kuya! Idol gid. Especially the 3rd photo. Parang atlas of beauty. hihi
    I don't agree with the horse fighting sa mga festivals tho, i wish they would stop doing that...

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Joenah! Try to attend the Festival next year. Regards. :)

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  2. The Tinalak and everything,Great shots! This will be added to my bucket list-.

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    Replies
    1. thanks, dude! happy travels! see you around in Mindanao.

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  3. The woven designs of their skirts, headdresses, and sablays are truly impressive. Would love to have a taste of those frogs.

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    Replies
    1. Then you should visit Lake Sebu or see you there next Helobung Festival. ;)

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