Agal-agal Festival is annual cultural and seaweed festival in the province of Tawi-Tawi, Philippines every September 27. A week-long event, it was conceptualized as a means to promote harmony among its people, a tourism activity to attracts visitors to see its natural wonders and beautiful spots, to give a toast to the abundant seaweed production, and cultural diversity among its people that include the unique cultures of the Badjao, Jama Mapun, Sama, and Tausug.
Alongside the festival, it also celebrates the Kamahardikaan sin Tawi-Tawi, the province’s founding anniversary celebration, and the colorful indigenous boat festival called Lepa Festival.
History of Agal-Agal Festival
Agal-Agal Festival comes from the word agal-agal, a word in Sulu archipelago to refer to seaweed. Launched in 2001 when Rash Matba was the governor, it celebrates the abundance and production of seaweeds, the importance of its farming and industry in the local economy of the province, and how it has become a way of life for its people. However, the festival was put on hold in 2020 and 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tawi-Tawi is the largest producer of seaweeds and their by-products in the country, and it is regarded as the Seaweed Capital of the Philippines. It supplies 40% in the global market, and it represents 80% of the people’s livelihood. (Other seaweed producing provinces are Batangas, Cebu, and Palawan.) It is thought that such seafood were first farmed by Sama Dilaut, also commonly called Badjao people, and they were traded in as early as the 1700s. Seaweeds are the source of carrageenan, a raw material that is used to thicken, bind, or emulsify other food products. Besides, they are an important food resource that is consumed by Filipinos.
According to a study conducted by Richard V. Dumilag in 2019, its public markets sold the following: three varieties of caulerpa which is locally known as latoh or gamay in Tausug, three species of agal-agal (Eucheuma denticulatum, Kappaphycus alvarezii, and Kappaphycus striatus), and gulaman (Solieria robusta). One seaweed farm can be found in Belatan Island.
History of Tawi-Tawi
Agal-Agal Festival also coincides with Kamahardikaan sin Tawi-Tawi, the commemoration of founding of the province.
Tawi-Tawi consists of over 300 islands. It is part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao which is also composed of Basilan (except Isabela City), Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao (Maguindanao del Norte, Maguindanao del Sur), and Sulu. It is considered the southernmost province in the Philippines and surrounded by Sulu Sea (north), Sabah Sea (west, separating it from Malaysia), and North Kalimantan Sea (south that separates it from Indonesia).
Historically belonging to the Sulu archipelago, it is considered one of the bridges linking neighboring countries in the south, and this significantly shaped its history. It is one of the conduits where Islam was introduced and it is the site of the first mosque in the country that was erected by Sheik Karim ul-Makhdum in 1380. It later came under the Sultanate of Sulu that was founded in the 14th century. It remained relatively untouched from foreign rule throughout the three hundred years of Spanish colonization. A stronghold was put up by the Spaniards there in the latter half of the 19th century, but it was abandoned upon the onset of the Philippine revolution.
Tawi-Tawi became an independent province by virtue of Presidential Decree 302 that was signed on September 27, 1973. It separated from Sulu which it belonged for most of its history, and the decree also set Bongao as its capital.
Agal-Agal Festival Activities
Agal-Agal Festival is a week-long celebration. Activities may start as early as September 23, and culminating activities occur on September 27. There are many activities including trade fair, fun run, colorful fluvial parade, entertainment and cultural shows, street dance, grand parade, and dance showdown.
Igal Ma Lan
Igal Ma Lan is the street dancing that showcases the different cultures of many ethno-linguistic groups found in the province such as Sama, Sama Dilaut, Jama Mapun and Tausug. The event is a proud display of elaborate, colorful costumes, accessories, cultural dance, and folk music. It is a gathering of the different contingents representing the local government units of the province. They present graceful performances of the local dances such as lunsay, pangalay/igal, langka silat, and langka kuntaw to the tune of traditional musical instruments such as kulintang, agung, and gandang.
Kamahardikaan sin Tawi-Tawi
Kamahardikaan sin Tawi-Tawi is the founding day celebration. It coincides with the Agal-Agal Festival, and it falls on September 27. Major activities often happen on this day including parade, street dance, and cultural showdown.
Launched in 2019, Lepa Festival is one of the fest’s highlights. Its name is derived from lepa, the name of wooden boats built by Sama-Dilaut people, also known as Badjao. They are also found in other parts of Southeast Asia particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is believed Austronesian ancestors lived and traveled in their boats since the last ice age, adapting to an environment consisting mainly of maritime and fluvial systems. From their primitive watercraft came new, more complex boats resulting in their wide variety and which allowed them to travel extensively, such that when European powers came into this part of the world the islands had already been inhabited by them.
Samal-Dilaut people are often referred to as sea gypsies or sea nomads due to their seaborne lifestyle. They are also called boat-dwellers for they live in their houseboats and their sustenance is largely dependent on marine resources. It is observed that they have since settled in communities located in the coastal areas and in houses built on stilts, and boat-making has become less ubiquitous.
A lepa is a dugout houseboat, the biggest of which can measure up to fifteen meters long, over two meters wide, and about 1.5 meters in height. Its keel is a dugout whose central area is flat and curves upwards to the prow and stern. Its difference from other boats is the absence of outriggers. It is decorated with okil which are designs that can be found on its prow, a low roof is installed made of nipa mat over the central part of the hull as a covered living space, and steering can be powered by paddle or pole. It houses a nuclear family and is used as a dwelling, a form of transport, and a means of livelihood where they can move to waters with rich fishing grounds.
In Agal-Agal Festival, spectators can witness the fluvial parade in Bongao port where participating lepa sail about. The boats are decorated with buntings, flags, painted hulls, ornamented bowsprits, and colorful fabrics in their waving sails. Participants wear traditional attire, and they perform onboard folk dances to the accompaniment of native musical instruments.
Search for Budjang Tawi-Tawi
Search for Budjang Tawi-Tawi is the prestigious beauty pageant for females. The word budjang comes from Sinama language that means single woman. It is one of the mainstays and highlights of the Kamahardikaan sin Tawi-Tawi. Candidates represent the localities of the province, and they compete in different events such as traditional attires (of the people of Sama, Badjao, Sablay, and Batai to name a few), talent, production number, tourism video, and question and answer.
How to reach Tawi-Tawi
The province has one airport, the Sanga-Sanga Airport in Bongao. There may not be direct flights there, so you can book one that is bound for Zamboanga International Airport and then take a flight to Bongao. Regular ferry schedules are also available from Zamboanga City port to Tawi-Tawi.
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