Once an insular and populist festival, Bacolod’s MassKara has been taking a shot at being a celebration of national interest, amplified by the presence of Manila’s social set.
Since his term in 2022, Bacolod Mayor Alfredo Abelardo “Albee” Benitez initiated the scaling up of MassKara in order to generate tourism revenues after COVID-19.
“As we emerged from the pandemic, I said, let’s do away with the (surgical) masks. Mag-maskara na lang (Wear the costume masks instead). Let everyone celebrate and enjoy the festivities,” he said.
Unlike other provincial fiestas such as Dinagyang in Iloilo and Sinulog in Cebu, which are religious in origin, MassKara recalls the nadir in the late 20th century history of Negros, the sugar bowl of the Philippines. The province not only suffered from the plunge in sugar prices and world demand and famine. In the summer of 1980, the Bacolod-bound, 1,000-passenger ship, MV Don Juan, rammed into an oil tanker, trapping the well-to-do passengers in their cabins. The ship sank in less than 20 minutes, leaving the entire Negros Occidental in grief. The victims included affluent Bacolodnons such as relatives of then Bacolod Mayor Jose Montalvo.
Artist Ely Santiago suggested a Mardi Gras type of fête with locals wearing elaborate masks to hide their grief—hence, the portmanteau MassKara, representing the mass for the tragedy and cara, the Spanish word for face. Montalvo provided the seed funding to hold a festival of smiles instead. MassKara has since been held in October 1980 to coincide with Bacolod’s Charter Day.
MassKara was traditionally a few days of revelry in colorful costumes and masks, drinking, feasting, pocket events and shows at Bacolod’s plaza and Lacson Street.
Benitez tapped Negrense producer and talent strategist Jose Felix “Joji” Dingcong as chair of the MassKara Festival, which ran for three weeks. The local Department of Tourism reported that the celebration posted P2.8 billion revenues from receipts alone and attracted 200,000 arrivals (from plane and ship passengers), the province’s highest record in 2022.
“Tourism is a big part of economic development, and we would like to sustain it. Since we don’t have beaches like Boracay, we are capitalizing on the people and the food,” said Benitez.
This year, a tighter 16-day celebration consisted of three events. A sports festival climaxing with a Philippine Basketball Association exhibition game. The food crawl at Megaworld’s high-end township, Upper East, highlighted Negrense heritage cuisine. The last week climaxed with a MassKarade Ball and competitions of electric floats and street dancing from the barangays, with Manila’s chichi crowd as the judges. Dingcong explained, “Bacolod is in a province. We have to up its game—bring in the Manila crowd if we want national attention. The media is still Manila-centric, so there is more coverage with personalities from there.”
Unlike in previous years wherein unscrupulous entrepreneurs used the MassKara Festival as a means to solicit money, all events must be vetted by the Bacolod Yuhom Foundation and the Office of the Mayor.
“There has to be clarity and direction. Not anyone can just put up their events. The rights to set up an exhibition or event during the fiesta must be secured from these offices,” said Dingcong.
He underscored that instead of depending on government coffers, corporate sponsorship comprised 85 percent of the MassKara budget. The big-time companies paraded their logo-ed floats in the Electric Parade and were acknowledged during the MassKara climax with the street dance contest.
Nine stages for shows were set up in different parts of the city to decentralize the festival from the plaza and declog traffic. “All these areas benefited, especially the hotels and restaurants,” said Dingcong.
Pointing out the extensive logistics, Dingcong said 1,500 police officers from the Visayas marshaled Bacolod during the festival. Street cleaners and garbage collectors tidied up the festival grounds so that the streets were clear in the morning. The final weekend opened with the MassKarade Ball at Sugarland Hotel, which is known for good food. Upon their arrival, Manila guests were provided with their own vans and local escorts for their entire stay. The Manila guests were dressed in their finery and enjoyed a buffet of local cuisine.
“We didn’t want MassKara to look provincial. The Guidicellis and Fernans from Cebu came. The Manila crowd went with their own set,” said Dingcong. He cited that Cagayan Economic Zone Authority CEO Katrina Ponce Enrile came with her group. Rep. Mikee Romero and his philanthropist wife Sheila flew in on their Air Asia Philippines. Alliance Global CEO Kevin Tan came with such friends as club owner GP Reyes.
Since the previous administration, the Yansons, billionaires who own the country’s largest bus transit, have been hosting casual lunches for the Philippine presidents at Hacienda Bubog, a former sugar plantation turned events venue.
Last Oct. 21 and Oct. 22, the MassKara committee feted Manila guests at this venue with local food served by Marili Gonzaga, whose family, the Bascons, has been catering Bacolod. The hosts, Leo Ray Yanson, his sister Ginette Yanson-Dumancas and his mother Olivia, greeted visitors at the entrance.
A frequent guest, first lady Liza Marcos graced those occasions after visiting the Araneta ancestral home in Silay with National Museum director Jeremy Barns, Kalipay Negrense Foundation and the Upper East House showroom in Megaworld’s township.
On Sunday, Leo Ray invited 100 leaders of volunteer groups, led by Vice Gov. Jeffrey Ferrer, who helped during the now President’s campaign in Negros Occidental. The first lady personally thanked them and also met up with her older sisters, Susan Ledesma, Therese “Tere” Araneta and Yvonne Araneta-Naputi, and her cousin Gin Gin Locsin.
Manila’s social set mixed with Bacolod elite such as Monaco-based financial consultant Eduardo Lacson and Margrey Sy of Stonehill, the hotel where VIPs stay.
Socialite/influencer Small Laude, who appeared in a mall and corporate events, showed up for Sunday lunch.
Benitez said the city is targeting the completion of a 12,000-capacity arena for the next MassKara and other events. Likewise, a new museum with a big auditorium is in the works.
After a brief respite, Dingcong is gearing up for the first planning session for MassKara 2024 in December.