MassKara Festival in The Philippines

2012 marks the 33rd year of Bacolod City’s MassKara Festival, one of the Philippines’ most popular and colorful celebrations. Perhaps the country’s happiest festival, it is quite ironic that its’ origins can be traced back to a time of tragedy and economic depression. With the number of visitors increasing throughout the years, it is clear that Masskara is truly a triumph over tragedy.

Characterized by participants wearing colorful masks, Masskara is coined from the words Mass which means “multitude” or “many,” and Kara, the Spanish term for “face,” hence MassKara means “a multiple of smiling faces”. The three-week festival culminates on the third week of October (This year, Oct. 20-21) which sees a highlight of activities such as the MassKara Queen beauty pageant, Electric Masskara parade, the street-dancing competition that snakes throughout the city all the way to the public plaza, and a weekend of late night partying along Lacson street, the city’s main thoroughfare.

If partying over the weekend is not enough, visitors to the festival can also enjoy the best of what Bacolod has to offer. Notable side trips outside the city are: the Mambukal resort, home to several waterfalls, a hot spring and thousands of bats; The Ruins, a turn-of-the-century residence of sugar baron Don Mariano Lacson in Talisay; and Balay Negrense, a 19th century house-turned-museum in Silay.  Of course, a trip to Bacolod would not be complete without trying the famous and authentic chicken inasal (grilled chicken marinated in local herbs), as well as, various sweets such as the piaya and napoleones, after all “sugary sweet” is Bacolod’s dialect, being the country’s sugar capital and all.


I have photographed the MassKara Festival twice in the past and is one of my favorite events to document as it is the perfect opportunity to play with colors and movement.

Unlike other Philippine festivals, this one offers the photographer more flexibility – rather than just sitting in the a designated “photographers area”, during the MassKara festival, you can freely parade along with the participants, provided you have a photographer’s ID of course.

There usually is a photo contest administered by the Camera Club of Negros open to all professional and amateur photographers. The registration fee of P500 is inclusive of the photographer’s ID. There is no real pressure if you want to submit your photos to the contest. I have some friends who don’t really join the contest, however they pay the registration fee just to get hold of an ID. (for more information, registration, and guidelines about the photo contest, please check out Byahilo and The Camera Club of Negros websites)

If you are a photographer for a publication or a blogger, you can get a MEDIA ID from the local tourism office for free. What is the difference between the photographer’s ID and the Media ID? For one, the former is used ONLY for photo contest purposes (during the entire route of streetdance competition and the Public Plaza). The Media ID, on the other hand, grants you access to other events like the beauty contest, closing ceremonies or whatever rocks your boat. Of course, this ID is only available to legitimate media people and travel bloggers.

Photographers are given two opportunities to shoot the streetdance competitions. The first is during the Schools Category, while the Barangay Category takes place the day after (please see schedule below). The participants converge at the corner of Libertad and Araneta streets an hour or two before parading all the way down to the Public Plaza. It always pays to be early for the event to be able to take good portraits shots. This street corner is actually where I get, what I think are, my best shots of the festival.

While shooting your portraits, do remember that behind those smiling masks are kids that are tired, so it really doesn’t make sense to take portraits of frowns underneath those smiles, unless contrast and contradiction is what you are going for. It is best to interact with them and direct them to give you their happiest of smiles.

Along the way to Public Plaza are several street corners (probably judging stages, that i’m not sure of) where the participants perform their entire routine. Skip the first performance and observe their movements first before clicking away like crazy. On the next street corner, that’s when you start to shoot the dance movements you’ve picked. If you missed the shot, you can always move on to the next corner. Walking with the groups can also provide you with the opportunity to put your panning skills to good use. The fast-paced dances and the colorful costumes make for some interesting interpretations of the event.

In my experience, the barangay category is more interesting than the schools category, hence you can opt to skip the first day or you can use it to get a feel of the event specially if it is your first time.  You can also get a little practice out of it, ready for the next day.

What I usually do during the festival is to pick a group that I find most interesting – the ones with the better costumes or those with the best dance routine – and stick with them until I get the shot that I want. From there, I freely join the other troupes. With so many things going on and how fast the actions are taking place, sometimes documenting the parade seems like a cardio workout. It is best to have along with you a reasonably-sized camera lens. There’s no real need for those big long lenses attached to a monopod since the sun is high up anyway and you can approach the parade up-close (or at least your zoom will be enough). It is a festival and not a safari, after all.

The schedule of events you shouldn’t miss:

Oct 19 (Friday/ 6PM// Tourism Strip) – Electric MassKara Day 1

Oct 20 (Saturday/ 3PM// From Libertad Araneta to Bacolod Public Plaza) – Streetdance – Schools Category

Oct 20 (Saturday/ 6PM// Tourism Strip) – Electric MassKara Day 2

Oct 21 (Saturday/ 3PM// From Libertad Araneta to Bacolod Public Plaza) – Streetdance – Barangay Category

TO GET THERE: Bacolod City is 50 minutes by plane from Manila, and 30 minutes from Cebu. Please check Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, and Air Philippines for daily flight schedules.

The first part of this blog is taken from my own article about the MassKara Festival that appeared in EXL: The Voice of Expat Living in Bangkok, Oct 19, 2011.

Also check out the other MassKara Festival related material I did for AsiaNews (Vol 6. No. 2/ Jan 8-Feb 10, 2011) and The Bangkok Post (September 12, 2011).