Aklasan Fest, the only Filipino punk festival in the U.S., celebrates its return
While the San Francisco Bay area was focused on the larger Outside Lands festival, where mainstream punk band Green Day took the main stage earlier this month, 3 miles south, in the city's South of Market neighborhood, a smaller minority of predominantly POC and queer folks gathered at Bindlestiff Studios to enjoy the seventh annual Aklasan Fest. The punk scene as we know it is usually a space dominated by cis white men, but in true punk fashion, Aklasan Fest prioritized the often unheard and unseen voices of punk, creating an inclusive space that was not only educating attendees about Filpino oppression but also highlighting the struggles of marginalized identities through the lens of Filipinos and Filipino Americans.
Rupert Estanisalo, who founded the event in 2014, says Aklasan Fest is "the only Filipino punk festival or event like this." He says he wanted to "create a space just for Filipino punks that looked like me and cared about the issues I cared about that are anti-imperialist, activist and pro-people of color." In Tagalog, Aklasan means "Rise Up," and after a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus, it returned, featuring 15 bands from across the country.
As a Filipino-American photographer, Aklasan is important because it creates a space for us to gather, as a community, to express ourselves and tell our stories artistically. Being the only Filipino punk show in the nation in itself is special. The festival is carving its path and place in the punk scene, surrounded by a robust and tight-knit community who cares about the music and the people.
In the dark setting of Bindlestiff, you find yourself surrounded by straight-edge, immigrant, tatted, vegan, working class, Filipino and Filipino-American hardcore punks as well as fans who range in ages, races and genders, moshing to music in both Tagalog and English. Romeo Reyes-Pagdilao, the lead singer of Silakbo, says, "You got bands like us (Silakbo) or our friends like Material Support and Moxiebeat. They got songs talking about our experiences, being Filipino, working people, and growing up in the bell of the beast, the United States."
Material Support performed "Cost of Living," written to highlight how difficult it is for working-class people to afford basic housing or food for their families in America. One of the most memorable moments of the festival was when Jackie Mariano, Material Support's lead singer, gutturally sang out "racialized mass graves" to punctuate the end of the song. "When we wrote it," Mariano says, "I was thinking of the concept of how we're forced to navigate the world by class and race. My dad, who died in 2016, is buried in a nice Catholic cemetery in Queens (NY) in a conservative, white, middle-class neighborhood, and with that being our only 'real estate,' I still felt like we were out of place, didn't belong there. What a different juxtaposition for my Filipino immigrant dad to be laid to rest in a nice place, versus many other people who die in war, occupation and are dumped in mass graves. When COVID happened, it's like the concept of racialized mass graves was made real on Potter's Field — people constantly forgotten because they were marginalized in life and in death."
Like Material Support, most of the bands featured at the festival highlighted the social and economic issues faced by thousands of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans here in the United States and in the Philippines. About the song "World of Death," Reyes-Pagdilo tells me: "It's about the world around me and how it can seem very bleak — from climate change (to) living in San Francisco, (the city) with the highest homeless population (where) drug abuse is really rampant — meanwhile, we don't make enough to eat and (we) work ourselves to the bone."
Aklasan Fest is like no other, but it's also become a place of community for many of those who played and attended. AJ Santos, of Material Support and a Filipino immigrant, says the festival is "one of the most important punk fests in the entire world ... because it's one of the festivals that feels like a genuine community — because most of the punk fests that I have been in don't have the feeling of community." Aklasan has created a space that centers the voices of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans to agitate, organize and mobilize their community to fight for genuine freedom in the Philippines.
As someone new to punk music and who's only been to a few shows, I felt connected to the people there through their music and how they showed up for each other. As in any gathering of Filipinos, you're greeted by everyone, taken care of and walk away well fed. At the festival, people in the crowd were handing out water, socializing in between sets and picking up people who'd fallen down during the mosh pit. Bands let other bands borrow their instruments and then stuck around to watch the others play their sets in a show of support. At times, it felt more like I was spending time with family than at a festival.
Closing out the night's lineup, after the last notes from Material Support, Rupert led the crowd in a chant of "Makibaka! Huwag matakot!," which translates to "Fight! Do not be afraid!", reminding fans that this festival is bigger than just the beats, screams and guitar riffs: More importantly, it's about community and our fight for freedom.
Justin Katigbak is a Filipino-American documentary photographer and videographer. See more of Justin Katigbak's work on his website, justinkatigbak.com, or on Instagram, at @justin.katigbak.