malasimbo feature


An unexpected festival in the Philippines

Published January 10th, 2016

It's two in the morning, or maybe it's three, and I am conducting a Filipino dub orchestra. The group is called Junior Kilat and it's fair to say they aren't responding effusively to my direction.

Indeed it could be suggested that they aren't paying any attention to me at all. When I try to catch the eye of singer Errol "Budoy" Marabiles, he pretends there's something very interesting happening in the middle distance. But never mind – I persevere.

Before heading to the Philippines, I had never imagined I would take to live dub with such enthusiasm. Perhaps it had something to do with the local brew, the cheap-as-chips – but far more potent – Tanduay Rhum. Or maybe it was the surroundings, the palm-filled hills of Puerto Galera.

By a tranquil, azure bay on the north side of Mindoro island, 120 kilometres south of Manila, it earned its name in the 16th century as a port in a storm for Spanish galleons.

Today it's a Unesco-designated reserve, and instead of colonial merchants, young travellers from around Asia, and further afield, are washing up on its shores.

A motley crew of British hacks and DJs, we're on the island for the Malasimbo Festival, and none of us is quite sure what to expect.

We arrive on a Friday afternoon after a dusty drive from Manila and a crowded catamaran crossing to Mindoro. After a few restorative San Miguels, we're whisked into the hills towards Mount Malasimbo.

It's a steep climb and a rocky road, not the ideal terrain for a jeepney (the local transport, an unfortunate combination of retired military vehicle and cattle truck).

But after a few stalls and a couple of worrying moments of slippage we arrive at the entrance to the festival site, 250 metres above sea level. Complimentary Tanduays in hand, we head down a fairy light-lined path.

Turning the corner into the festival, my mouth forms an involuntary "wow". To the left of us an emerald slope rolls down into a broad clearing lined with palm trees.

Lights installed among the fronds cast kaleidoscopic rays across the tree line and pieces of sculpture scattered beneath. The festival's single stage stands in the middle of the clearing where a band of percussionists are hammering out a series of complex, syncopated rhythms. We charge down the hill.

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In 12 months attendance has more than doubled. The festival's aim is simple: rather than flying in acts from around the globe, Malasimbo concentrates on showcasing Filipino music (headliner Joe Bataan is a US citizen but of Filipino extraction, so he kind of counts).

That means all strands of Filipino music, from soul to jazz, hip-hop to beat music, psych rock and as many permutations of dub reggae as you can imagine.

Not everything is of the highest quality, but there is a real sense of celebration to every performance and to be exposed to such a range of new music in one place is a rare occurrence – it feels a privilege to be there.

That Friday night we stay on until the DJs among us, Dave Harvey and Steve Nickolls of Bristol-based Futureboogie, have played their mix of cutting-edge house and electro to a crowd which, by this hour, is anything but cutting-edge.

We scramble for the last jeepney home and by the time the sun has come up we have descended the hill and are dozing by the pool of our hotel (there's no camping at Malasimbo, which might detract from the authentic festival experience, but does have its consolations).

And the #MalasimboMagic just keeps on going... And going.. We've got DJ KENTARO live on decks now!

A photo posted by Malasimbo Festival (@malasimbofestival) on

A few hours later we're up again for day two, helped by atosilog, the Filipino fry-up. Garlicky rice and fried eggs are served with tocino, thick slices of bacon marinated in anise wine and sugar. It's sweet, it's sour, it's full of fat and, with a side order of Jazz Chutney, it's the perfect way to start this particular day.

From the hotel we head to the boat. Boat parties are what the Brits have brought to Malasimbo. The idea is that dancing all night on land is not enough; you need to dance all afternoon and throw yourself in the sea, too.

So, anchored out in the bay, looking a bit like a floating climbing frame, is our venue, the Liki Tiki. Futureboogie, as fresh as the morning dew, are on the decks again and I offer moral support by imbibing more rum and hurling myself off the top deck.

Nick Colgan, our host for the trip, is watching the crowd. A broad, bald Brummie who spent 25 years as tour manager for UB40, he now presides over a series of festivals that have helped make Croatia a clubbing destination.

For his Garden Festival he took a scenic stretch of coast with friendly weather and created a different kind of festival, built around daytime boat parties. He's hoping to do the same in the Philippines.

Just jump. Last day of #Mala5imbo! Make it count! RG: @roastd_chestnut

A photo posted by Malasimbo Festival (@malasimbofestival) on

On this trip he veers between avuncular and hard-nosed, keeping an eye on everything from our wellbeing to the sound systems to the state of the jeepneys' suspension.

But while on the Liki Tiki, however, he could be forgiven for checking out the clientele and allowing a few bells to ring in his head. For on the boat are not just trendy young Filipinos but kids from all over east Asia – from Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore.

These are kids who are used to clubbing but less familiar with being able to do it in wide-open spaces. They are well aware of the European festival habit and are keen to have one of their own – perhaps without the muddy fields, but that's not too difficult to achieve in this part of the world.

That said, when we head back up the hill that Saturday night a tropical shower becomes a persistent downpour – not that it stops the crowd, or the increasingly redoubtable Futureboogie boys.

The next morning, the skies are blue once more and I'm standing at the prow of a catamaran heading away from Mindoro. I've got muddy shoes, a mangled wristband and a mysterious bruise on my buttock. And I'm happy.

Take part in the party at Malasimbo Festival with one of Student Flights' exclusive Black Market airfares.

This article was written by Paul Macinnes from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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