MORE ABOUT ESCRIMA
THE FILIPINO MARTIAL ARTS
The art of the Philippines is as diverse as the islands themselves, encompassing over 7,000 of them within the archipelago with over 87 major languages spoken. The names vary widely (KALI-ESCRIMA-ARNIS-SILAT-KUNTAO-ESTOQUE-KALIRADMAN-PAGKALIKALI). As a general term, we use “KALI” representing the ancient art existing before the arrival of the Chinese in the T’ang Dynasty in the 9th century. The art was outlawed in the 16th century by the King of Spain out of fear that the art would be used against the Spanish regime occupying the Philippines at that time. Its efficiency in combat cost Magellan his life. Encompassing an entire spectrum of weaponry and also featuring sophisticated empty hand concepts, this highly efficient, deadly and combat-proven art enabled the southern Philippines to remain unconquered for almost 400 years. The weaponry and empty hand are taught together; the principles being common to both and interchangeable. Regardless of whether armed or unarmed, the student learns to relate to any situation using the same concepts of body angling, positioning, zoning, and flowing with the opponent. Depending upon speed, footwork and skill rather than brute strength, this fluid, practical method of self-defense is one of the most comprehensive martial arts systems known.
The Graceful, Deadly Martial Arts of the Philippines
By Guro Cass Magda
Filipino Martial Arts was one of the first Martial Arts in America. As early as the late 1600s, the Spanish Galleon gold route came from the Philippines. At that time a lot of Filipinos jumped ship in Mexico and Louisiana. You’ll things like the “shrimp dance” in Louisiana today, which is a cultural reminder of the Filipinos landing there in the early 1700s. “But it is the last martial art to surface in the U.S., because the Filipino people felt at that time that, because of the nature of this art, which involves sophisticated weaponry, and used only for self-defense, that it should be kept within the Filipino community. Since then we’ve been very lucky that it has recently surfaced in the early 70’s.
Today, you’ll see arts from the Northern, Central and Southern Philippines. These arts can look as different as night and day.
It is a weapons-based system that evolved uniquely because of the resistance to Spanish occupation of the Philippines for nearly 400 years. The weaponry shares similarities found throughout all of Southeast Asia, especially with Indonesia and Malaysia, but evolved differently.
Originally, the art embodied a balance of both weapons and empty hand fighting systems. Later it became known as a strictly weapons system. In some styles the empty hands were lost over time. Elements of Spanish swordsmanship were absorbed and modified to fit their needs for effective countering attacks and used reciprocally against the Spanish and European invaders.
Today, you can see some styles retained certain idiosyncrasies of movement that have made them classics.
Accordingly, the Filipino Martial Arts shaped itself into its own original uniqueness, which grew in notoriety amongst its feared opponents. It depends on positioning, speed and fluidity rather then strength.
It distinguished itself from certain characteristics found in the Indonesian and Malaysian styles, although sprung from the same Malay combative roots. For example, I have looked at the weapons system of Indonesia. They are not the same. They don’t have numbering systems. They don’t have a curriculum to learn the weapon. They derive their weapons use from the empty hand movements. But in Kali, they have a curriculum to learn the weapon, you learn the numbering system, then you learn the defenses against each number, then you learn the counter against the defenses. These are common basics that most Filipino systems possess.
Further, some systems have more evolved components such as counter-for-counter, practice methods so the practitioners don’t get hurt. And some system has close quarter with the weapon and some others have grappling with the weapon.
Today most people see Filipino Martial Arts as stick fighting only, even in the Philippines where the common name for it is “Arnis”. The empty hand portion and other categories are missing. This is what is practiced in the public schools systems. However, a few of my teachers stressed that Filipino Martial Arts is a complete system with a conceptual base that that interrelates all the principles from one category to the rest.
Blade fighting in the Philippines or just weaponry period is the most highly evolved as far as being practical. In this, I’m referring to “really” being able to fight not dance around and wave your weapon around. Other martial arts have forms that look pretty but the Filipino Martial Arts have the understanding of how the weapon structure of combat really works. Ones the principles of this structure are understood then anything can fit into this structure. Blade fighting is very sophisticated in the Philippines. Kali people who have this knowledge are very respected.
You see the Philippines were a blade culture. In ancient times everyone carried a blade, by the time you where 14 years old you could be wearing a sword. It meant that you were now respected as an adult in society of that time. You were capable of taking or preserving a life. You had a great responsibility as a preserver and protector of the society. You became the servant of the people of your tribe. The carrying of the blade does not have a negative association attached to it as it does here in the west.
There are a lot of different styles in the Filipino Martial Arts. As an “outsider”, it all looks the same. Then, as an “insider” it all looks different. Further, when you reach a certain level as an “insider” they all start to look the same again.
Weapons are Priority One
A young Filipino boy eagerly approaches the wooden gate that leads to a clearing in a cluttered backyard of wood, rubble and overgrown bushes. An old man, perhaps in his seventies, is sitting there on a bench.
“Good morning, sir,” says the boy. “Good morning, boy. Now why you come my place?” the old man asks in broken English. ” I want to learn boxing and empty hand fighting, sir,” the boy replies. “Sure, I teach you boxing good.” The old man smiles and hands the boy a rattan stick about two-and-a half Feet long. In his own hand he holds a tightly rolled newspaper. “No, no, no, Sir.” I don't want to learn stick fighting. I want to learn boxing, you know, Like Muhammad Ali,” the boy says, gesturing like a boxer. The old man nods, A wide grin creasing his face. “Sure, sure, you learn boxing good,” he says, Continuing ahead with the lesson. The old man holds his rolled newspaper firmly. “You no like old style, huh? Okay, move, attack me, boy, anything!”
The boy lunges at him, desperately trying to tag the old man as he weaves and evades the blows. Suddenly, Smack! The boy feels a stinging hit from the newspaper, first on his arm, then on his nose, then repeatedly all over his body.
Tears well up in the boy’s eyes. Finally, he throws his stick to the ground. “What about the hands?” he cries. “Okay, come on,” the old man says as he drops his newspaper. The boy jabs and swings wildly at the old man, who, using the same motions he did with his rolled newspaper, weaves and evades the strikes while raining blow after blow off the boy's face, chest and arms. Finally, the boy waves his hand. “Enough, enough.”
The old man is smiling. He bends down and picks up the rattan stick and newspaper. He hands the stick to the boy. “Okay,” he says, “Now you see, now you feel, now you learn boxing good.” The stick firmly in hand, the boy begins his education in the ‘empty hand’ phase of the Filipino martial of Kali and Escrima.
Such stories are not uncommon among Filipinos familiar with the arts of Kali and Escrima. In fact, some of the greatest Filipino professional boxers like Flash Elorde were highly skilled in these arts. Traditionally, learning the empty hand skills of these arts meant learning weaponry first, which included the dagger, and single stick or sword. But why teach weaponry first?
In martial arts, weaponry is learned last and is considered the advanced portion of the art. But the Filipinos have good reason for their seemingly peculiar type of progression. To understand it, we must first delve into the history of Kali/Escrima.
When we examine Filipino history, we discover they were always fighting invaders; the English, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish, and even rival tribes of their own people. Everyone carried weapons during these times, the sword and dagger being the most common. One’s life literally depended on one’s martial skill because a deadly confrontation was always an immediate possibility, any place, any time. Since everyone bore arms, weaponry was taught right away. Only when a weapon could not be reached would a Kali / Escrima practitioner use his empty hand skills.