The Cañao Tradition of the Ibalois

The gangsa and the solibao played together would usually resound to the next village, signifying a festivity. Amid the floating music of these instruments, you’d hear someone belt out a chant, which would be responded to by a chorus of outcries from the people. This would go on for minutes until, at such time, the people dancing and beating on the gangsas and solibaos get tired. Amazingly, another round would follow a little later, indicating that the people have energized and are up to dancing once again.

It was my first time to witness the cañao of the Ibalois of Kabayan, Benguet, that time. Looking at the dancers, moving to the beat of the gangsas and solibaos, I unconsciously tried to mimic their steps while enjoying the show. At some point, I felt like I wanted to cut in line, dance, and chant with the people. Amazed and entranced by the beauty of circling dancers in red and blue, I could only watch them with awe and revel on a culture that has stood the test of time and has survived up to this day.

This was not my first time to travel in the Cordilleras, though. I have seen the culture of the Igorots in different provinces and although bit by bit, I am learning to distinguish one culture from the other. The time I observed a cañao in 2008 was, then, my first time to visit Kabayan, Benguet, the home of the Philippines’ fire mummies and Mount Pulag, the highest peak in Luzon.

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Kabayan is located on the eastern part of Benguet province along the Agno River. Not counting the hours we were stranded, it took 3 hours to get there by jeepney.  There are three indigenous groups residing in this town – the Ibalois, Kalanguyas, and Kankana-eys, who may differ in language but have similar traditional beliefs and rituals.

In general, the Igorots of the Cordilleras have similar traditional practices and belief systems. Sometimes, the distinct differences would only be found in the procedures or processes. Nevertheless, the belief in supreme beings and the unseen is strong.

For the Benguet people, they believe that spirits can be fatal and can be good to man. They are, thus, classified in two: the benevolent and the malevolent. However, they say that humans can charm and manipulate spirits to their advantage. Because of this, the people offer and perform rituals either to win the favor of the spirits or appease those who were angered. Apparently, rituals are not only a process but also a gift to the spirits for good fortune, curing an illness, and ensuring prosperity in the family. To those who amassed good fortune, a ritual for thanksgiving is also done. This is called cañao.

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The rice wine, known as tapuy, is one of the essential offerings during a ritual. Based on historic accounts, the Ibalois’ staple food were root crops, while, rice is cultivated for tapuy and is usually served for special occasions only.

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The native priests perform the rituals. Apart from this, they are the consultant and interpreter. They are known to be capable of communicating with the spirits and are able to discern good or bad omens from rituals.

The term cañao is used to denote several native feasts of the Igorots. Based on the book, “Ancestors of the People” by Wasing Sacla, these thanksgiving rituals are regarded as fulfillment of aspiration, which require the offering of animals, rice wine, known as tapuy, and other material gifts. Other kinds of cañao would only require a few animals to butcher as sacrifice without any festivity while the others would entail inviting the whole community for a merrymaking that could last for a week. During this event, the people not only feast on the offered sacrificial animals but also sing and dance until they drop.

In Ibaloi culture, the Pechit or Pesshet is known to be the biggest and most lavish cañao celebrated. Originally, this was only done by the rich families, who can afford to share their wealth to the community. 10 or more pigs are usually butchered for this event.

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There were at least 10 sacrificial pigs for the cañao. A prayer was uttered by the native priest and afterwards, the pigs were stabbed simultaneously by wooden spikes.

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The most popular dance of the Ibalois is called Bendiyan, wherein a huge circle of dancers is formed as part of a ritual of thanksgiving for bountiful harvests.

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After the ceremony, the sacrificial pigs were cooked and were served to everyone. In this picture, the pig is burned to make the removal of its hair faster and easier.

The cañao I witnessed at Kabayan was the Pechit. The whole community was in festive mode and there were at least 10 native pigs slaughtered. There were prayers, dancing and singing, and there were also huge servings of watwat, which are chunks of boiled meat and seasoned only with salt.

My stay in Kabayan, sadly, did not last a whole day. The time was not enough to explore everything in the town, including the famous fire mummies, but the sight and sounds were enough to enthrall and feed my curiosity on the culture of the Igorots. I wish to visit the town again and get to know more about them.

The Igorots of the Cordilleras in the Philippines have a rich culture that is centuries old. Although not all traditional rituals recorded in history are practiced up to this day, the Igorots still hold on to the belief of supreme beings and spirits that guide their way of living and their future, making their culture unique and one of a kind among all the other ethno-linguistic groups in the country.

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The courtship dance, known as the Tayaw, has unique versions in the different provinces of the Cordilleras.

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The Ibaloi women who not only become mothers but also strong-willed individuals who toil with their husbands and children

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The face of the new generation who will live with their rich culture and later pass on to their children

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