Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Knowledge paid for in blood

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to train and hang out with the Pekiti Tirsia Kali instructors of the Philippine Force Recon Marines. Despite my family’s long history of military services going back to my grandfather’s Death March ordeal and guerilla fighting, I’m a civilian and there’s really little that I and a battle-hardened Marine have in common, except of course the common obsession with Pekiti Tirsia Kali and the Filipino Martial Arts.

As I got to know them, I heard war stories from the front lines, in the jungles of Mindanao and in other parts of this country that only the military dares to venture into. It took some time to get them to talk about their experiences; it’s usually kept among themselves and away from the easily shocked and offended civilians.

The stories I heard were familiar, and merely confirmed the details of the tales that I’ve picked up from the PTK Marine grapevine. But when you hear about the details, as told first hand from the person involved, it gives the story flesh and blood. An anecdote told from second hand sources becomes a story of a fight to the death between a Marine and a Muslim insurgent. Black and white becomes living color.

When you’re sitting across someone who has killed men with his knife and machete in battle and discusses what he’s done with the same quiet, matter-of-fact detachment as one has pouring a cup of coffee, it’s impossible to be jaded and uninterested. To these soldiers, the stories are not for bragging or even open discussion with outsiders. It’s plain and simple reality for them, devoid of the plastic bravado of the self made, training-available-on-DVD “knife fighters”.

The stories are of heroism and desperation, having to kill with knives and machetes in urban ambushes and jungle trails. There are no car bombs or IEDs here; death is at the hands of men, edged weapons and guns the tools of their trade. There is no push button war here, no precision bombing; killing is a personal matter, done in more hand-to-hand encounters than most other armies care to imagine.

The Internet is full of Martial Arts discussions and opinions. Grappling beats everything, striking is the best, this knife fighting style is superior and so forth. Students argue what works and what doesn’t. Even the Filipino Martial Arts are not spared the endless scrutiny. People teach their watered down interpretation and claim to be the last name in fighting. All that talk is totally meaningless to people who have dealt death at the sharp end of a knife in the jungles of Mindanao.

So if one needs affirmation and confirmation that the Filipino Martial Arts in general and Pekiti Tirsia Kali in particular works, simply ask the Force Recon Marines. They know the truth, revealed to them in blood.

New pics in my Flickr account.

I’ve decided to dump most of the images I have of the recent training camp with Tuhon Gaje at San Mateo, Rizal and those I took during the local shoot of “Fight Quest” (a Discovery Channel series on martial arts), to my Flickr account.

I just realized that I didn’t calibrate my monitor so I’ll be uploading newly corrected pics as soon as I can finish the color correction.

Yes, I have footage of the final match between the 2 hosts and the Marine Recon Marine Pekiti Tirsia Kali instructors but I promised to keep them from Youtube until the series airs.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Be careful what you wish for

When people find out that I train under Rommel Tortal, the Pekiti Tirsia Kali instructor for the Marines and Special Operations forces, and that Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje drops by regularly to teach us, the most common comment is “Wow, I would give my (body part) to train under your teachers”. Yup, it does sound like a PTK dream come true doesn’t it. You have one of the style’s leading teachers and PTK’s headmaster teaching you the ways of the ginunting, knife, stick and empty hand.

But having these two as teachers comes with a serious price. You have to realize that the expectations from you as a student will be incredibly high. As a member of the only civilian PTK group in the Philippines, those expectations are par for the course. You have to be as good as these two teachers expect you to be and boy will they squeeze it out of you.

Training under Guro Mel is already a supreme test of will and stamina. A class is about 3 hours long and the “warm up” alone – what an oxymoron – is a near death experience. To those who do PTK, try doing all the footwork you know – including squats and weaving – for half an hour straight. Yes, that means you don’t stop to change footwork, you just shift to what Mel says. Prepare to do 50 to 100 squats aka ducking. And that doesn't even include the hundreds of strikes you'll be doing in the class. It takes time to get used to the agony, believe me. The classes just get harder and harder; the last class was only preparation for what’s coming up soon.

When GT Gaje visits, the intensity just goes off the scale. He’ll start his first class when he visits with an over-the-top warm up that will leave you and everyone else sore for days, regardless of how fit you are. Words can’t describe how nasty these can be but if you’ve attended one of his seminars you know what I mean. It doesn’t matter if you do marathons or you served as a Navy Seal. You will do exercises and drills that your body has no way of preparing for. That’s one of GT Gaje’s gifts, finding training methods that teach skills and attributes and also tax the body and mind in new and vicious ways.

But surviving the classes rewards you with technical training that’s second to none. And that alone is worth the pain and effort. :)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The vicious Pasak

This nasty little toy goes by a variety of names in the Filipino Martial Arts. In Pekiti Tirsia Kali, it’s called a pasak. In other styles it’s called Olisi Palad or Dulo - Dulo. It’s popularly called a palm stick, and to Japanese martial artists it’s a koppo or a yawara. Whichever way you want to call it, its simplicity and size hides its brutal combat effectiveness.
The concept of using small non-edged instruments for attacking the human body is widespread in Asian martial arts. The Japanese consider the use of such weapons part of jujitsu, similar to the use of the iron fan. My understanding of the koppo comes from “Stickfighting” by Masaaki Hatsumi and Quintin Chamber. The use of the koppo illustrated in the text is more for joint manipulation, since the weapon shown is a foot long stick and is suitable for that application.
In the Filipino Martial Arts, the use of the pasak / olisi palad / dulo - dulo needs no explanation. Just using the weapon to strike vital points with the same speed, angle of attack and power as a stick strike can be devastating. In the hands of someone trained in FMA, the pasak can be driven quickly and accurately at vital points all over the body. For safety and legal reasons, I’m not going to illustrate what these points are and how best to attack them.
The Filipino version of this weapon is generally shorter, just large enough to protrude past a closed fist. I have yet to study joint manipulation techniques for this but it’s not that important to learn to use this weapon effectively.
Just a quick, snapping strike to a vital point will generate enough force, focused on a small area, to either kill or disable an attacker. The ease of application of this weapon for the Filipino martial artist can’t be emphasized enough. It’s a great direct byproduct of stick and knife training, requiring no change in body mechanics or muscle memory whatsoever.
Here’s an example of a traditional pasak, of kamagong (native hardwood). This one is straight, while other examples are slightly curved. Some pasak are even made from carabao (water buffalo) horn and are incredibly tough.
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Now here’s my daily “less-than-lethal” weapon. I had it crafted out of one of my warped kamagong sticks. The ends are carved to short points. I tied a finger cord with a barrel wrap (here’s how to tie the knot) so I can still retain the weapon even if I have to open my hand to grab the attacker. It’s small enough to fit into my pocket and doesn’t trigger metal detectors.
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The pasak is definitely worth considering as a serious weapon. But its true power and effectiveness can only be tapped by serious martial arts training. I'm sure an untrained individual can put can seriously hurt an attacker with this but with proper FMA skills you can get the job done more efficiently.


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Please don’t flame me if you get arrested with one of these where you live. It's your responsibility to be aware of your legal limitations.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Weapon Culture

In my study of Pekiti Tirsia Kali and FMA in general, a term I keep hearing is “knife culture”. The term was used numerous times in the police training video “Surviving Edged Weapons”, which I highly recommend to anyone training with edged weapons and martial artists in general.

I never really paid much attention to this term, maybe because in the back of my mind the idea that I live in a “knife culture” didn’t have to be stated. When I gave it some thought, it occurred to me that the term should be changed to “weapon culture”, which I believe best describes the Filipino fighting psyche.

Open a typical tabloid in this country and it will be filled with gory crime stories. Almost all of them involve a weapon of some sort. Knife attacks are so common here they hardly grab your attention when you happen to see the words “stabbed to death” on some of the headlines.

Burglaries gone horribly bad, a group of friends having one too many bottles of gin, a jealous husband suspicious of his best friend getting too close to his wife and other such tales will almost always involve a knife. The ease of which to go for a blade at the smallest provocation makes it quite possible for someone getting stabbed over something as trivial as staring too long at someone; a deadly brawl can be sparked by “what the hell are you looking at?” But of course such violence is very much dependent on where you are. The typical Yuppie in cosmopolitan Makati (the business district) will generally be more even-tempered than some of the denizens of Metro Manila’s slums.

But the risk of dying from a vicious stabbing is still very real in this society. A colleague of my wife was fatally stabbed 34 times by a burglar he surprised when he got home a little earlier than usual.

I’m not saying that Filipinos are all cold blooded killers. In fact we are known throughout the world as a nation of very friendly and accommodating people. It’s just that stabbing each other in anger, frustration or passion is almost a natural act. Unlike shooting someone, stabbing another human being means that you get up close to do the deed. The mindset that allows people to do that would be a great topic for sociological research.

Knife fans in the US talk about their cultural aversion to blades. In their society, guns are the preferred weapon of the protagonist, while the “villains” use knives, the dashing cowboy shooting his revolver at the Native American armed with a tomahawk.

But the “blade culture” does not stop at just knives. That term should be changed to “weapon culture”, the Filipino penchant of picking up anything to use as a weapon. The same tabloids often have stories of people getting hit by pipes and other blunt instruments. To pick up something in a fight, “pumulot”, is so common that I doubt that Filipinos realize it. A typical bar fight here will always involve chairs, bottles, pool cues, ashtrays and anything else that can be used as a weapon.

Filipinos love guns. There’s a thriving gun culture here as well and local movies always show the protagonist blasting away at villains with almost every imaginable firearm. There are thousands of unlicensed firearms in the country and this continues to become a problem for law enforcement and the military.

Thus, to call what we have a “blade culture” only reveals part of the Filipino fighting mentality.

To Filipinos, picking up a blade or any weapon is not about fighting fairly or not. It’s simply about surviving, nothing more. The idea of heroically fighting empty handed is somewhat alien. We apparently have a societal and cultural understanding that it’s acceptable to pick up anything and use it as a weapon. To a foreigner this may seem underhanded but to a Filipino it’s being “matalino” (smart) and “magulang” (shrewd). Filipinos regard cunning and shrewdness in battle something to strive for, a trait that often separates the living from the dead.

There’s a world of difference between cunning and treachery. Filipinos understand this and look down on the former as cowardice and deceit. Cunning and smart tactics on the other hand are nothing but necessities for survival.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Pekiti Tirsia Kali after 40

My body is starting to come to terms with my return to FMA training. Slowly, old muscle memories are being recalled. What surprised me is that I’ve retained so much of the core skills such as the footwork, basic strikes and drills. All these just clicked back into place the moment I took my first swing with the sticks. It’s amazing to see all of these reflexes still there, just waiting for me to use.

What I do have to get used to is my longer recovery time. Back then, a hard training session would barely make itself felt the next day. Now there’s lingering soreness and some dull aches here and there 2 days after the last session. Not good. Maybe some of it is also because my body is slowly waking up to the harsh reality of Pekiti Tirsia training. Of course I also chalk it up to plain old age. But I mustn’t let my age got to me that much; the last thing I need is to start convincing myself that I’m over the hill.

The familiar blistering on my palms are not as bad as when I first started Pekiti Tirsia and maybe it’s because I’m either not holding the stick in a death grip anymore or maybe we’re no longer doing the 500 strikes like we used to do back then. My shoulders are no longer feeling tight and my arms and wrists are starting to loosen up as well. Now, if only my gut will start shrinking..

I’ve also been adding some weekday session on my own, until our group can find a new venue for weekday classes. Nothing too bad, just a few hundred basics strikes with footwork. Until my brother gets good at contradas, I’ll have to practice solo for now.

Overall, it’s not been too bad. Just have to hang in there and wake up more of those dormant warrior skills.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The sad truth about FMA in the Philippines

I’m a member of several martial arts message boards and it’s heartwarming to see foreigners so interested in FMA. So many practice the martila art and a lot are obsessed with it, seeking out the nearest FMA teacher or traveling miles from home just to practice.

Unfortunately there’s a sad reality to FMA in the Philippines. Most foreigner FMA students think that traveling to the Philippines is the equivalent to going to the Shaolin Temple for kung fu, that there’s an FMA school at every street in Manila. But the truth is that FMA is not popular in the Philippines. Other martial arts are far more popular. Judging by the number of foreign FMA practioners at martial arts forums, they apparently appreciate FMA more than Filipino themselves.

It’s painful to hear and truly shocking to realize but it’s quite true. Mention “martial arts” in Manila and anywhere else in the country and people think you mean Tae Kwon Do, Karate, MMA (mixed martial arts), Jujitsu, Aikido, etc. Hardly anyone will assume that you mean FMA.

That’s how screwed FMA is in the country. The Filipino FMA community is truly a subculture, kept alive by a handful of great instructors and loyal students. But it certainly does not have the same popularity of other martial arts.

One can write a book on the dwindling support for FMA in the country. There are societal, cultural and certainly economic aspects which account for the exodus of FMA’s best teachers to other countries and its current status vis-à-vis other martial arts in the country.

But don’t get me wrong. FMA is not dead in the Philippines. It’ just not as common as one might think and finding the schools and clubs requires one to delve into the subculture and ask the right people. It’s far easier to find a Tae Kwon Do dojang (training hall) in Manila than a good arnis club. All you need is to open a telephone directory. Nevertheless FMA is alive and kicking, but it’s definitely below the radar.

Before I’m misunderstood, I’m certainly not bashing other martial arts for easing out FMA. That’s not the case at all. Nor am I bashing other martial arts to promote FMA. I have an extensive aikido background and I was already interested in FMA and studying an obscure form of it even when I was heavily into the Japanese style. I just couldn’t find the right teacher or club. Ironically I found my Pekiti Tirsia Kali teacher, Rommel, on the internet; I just happen to chat with some of his students and I soon found myself swimming in FMA heaven.

But how many Filipino students of other martial arts are like me, interested in learning their own country’s deadly systems? And if they are looking for FMA, do they know where to look? Personally I don’t think many young Filipinos are interested in FMA at all, or even any physical activity for that matter. Many are deep into serious internet gaming and video game addictions and won’t contemplate doing anything remotely physical. Those who want to study martial arts are or are urged to do so by their parents are going to be more exposed to what’s available closer to home or more conveniently available as an after-work activity, and that will be either be tae kwon do or anything else except FMA. After all it’s a free world and anyone should study what they find interesting. Those who do want FMA will not be able to find it as readily as the other styles.

FMA is taught in schools but this isn’t going to reverse the trend. Students will be exposed to it and probably in a negative manner, since it’s become a requirement. The last thing that will be on their minds is to study FMA more deeply, to go beyond the sticks and simple drills, to the very heart of the style. To the average student, FMA is all about just swinging sticks, which is just the tip of the iceberg with FMA. The average Filipino is probably quite ignorant of FMA’s lethal effectiveness, which is ironic considering its reputation in martial arts circles.

I feel very strongly that every Filipino who studies a foreign martial art must have some exposure to FMA. It’s tempting for me to state some practical reason for doing so, such as creating an economic climate that will keep the best teachers from emigrating.

But by far the best reason for studying FMA is to help revive the arts as part of our cultural heritage. You can move to any country and learn their language but deep inside you're still a Filipino and our ancestors were warriors. We were and still are a blade culture. Our grandfathers were cutting Japanese troops into fist-sized chunks in jungle ambushes. We are the reason why Marines are called leathernecks. Magellan and his men were slaughtered on our shores. The Colt . 45 pistol was invented to stop us. That’s a wonderful martial heritage that needs to be remembered and cherished.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Texas Kali video



A nice Pekiti Tirsia Kali demo by Leslie Buck and the folks at Texas Kali. Guaranteed to motivate any lazy Pekiti Tirsia Kali student!


Poisoned blades



Here's a great segment. Tuhon Gaje takes the host (forgot his name) to his bladesmith. I should drop by Bacolod one of these days and see this process for myself. Maybe make it a family trip to the provinces and take my wife and my daugther along. :)

I have to get one of those blades for my collection.

Pekiti Tirsia BBC Video



Someone finally uploaded part of the BBC documentary on FMA, featuring Pekiti Tirsia. I was at the police camp segment and I was looking for myself in the background, among the killer police recruits. Those guys were hard as nails and probably crack coconuts with their foreheads as a form of amusement. It was hot as hell that day and I remember looking into the prison next door. The police recruits said they got back at the convicts who jeer them or played their karaoke too loud by burning the tires and have the wind do the rest.

Next, Tuhon Gaje and Rommel do knife drills. Seems a little slow for me but then maybe it's better that way; if those two go full speed, you won't see most of the action.

The
oracion was really interesting. I've seen Tuhon Gaje's anting anting and it does look like a rock with eyes on them. Somewhat creepy but very fascinating.

I wish I can get the rest of this video. I'm sure there was a lot of amazing footage from Negros that didn't make the final edit. Would be great to see those.

Painkillers needed

The soreness from the practice session on Saturday is just starting to wear off. Instead of enumerating what parts of me hurt, it would be simpler to just list down what doesn't hurt. Rommel was being kind to me I guess, for not practicing for months. He could have done the old "Marine Corps Pekiti Tirsia" format but he was nicer this time around. Still had to swing the sticks in multiples of a hundred LOL.

I was surprised how much of it I still remember. My swing may be a little slower but it's still somewhat accurate. The tracking is still ok but I have to work on the wrist flexibility and of course the power.

It's refreshing to be back to studying FMA. I always wanted to get back and maybe I was a little apprehensive about how I'd cope with being so out of shape. But now that I got over that little mental hurdle, I do want to keep this up. My blood pressure is still a little high and getting in shape is no longer a choice, it's a priority.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Back to the sticks

Unless my office pulls another one of their dirty tricks and calls for weekend overtime, I'll be attending my first Pekiti Tirsia class in over a year. I've started to buy painkillers in anticipation of the agony that I will gladly attribute to sitting on my ass for months. Ever since my last ad agency stint, exercise has been a distant memory. But creeping hypertension and, shall we say "horizontal growth", is tell me I don't really have a choice anymore. Tired or not, terrible schedule be damned, I need to get some exercise!

Actually the term "Filipino Martial Arts" has a nice, "politically correct" ring to it. It's a handy little phrase that gracefully skirts all the vicious politics and pissing distance contests that curse FMA, beginning with whether it should be called escrima, arnis or kali. Actually, it doesn't really matter to the layperson and probably means even less when you're at the receiving end of a rattan stick. You're not going to get struck on the brow with a stick and staunch the gushing blood, wondering if that was an arnis, escrima or kali technique that is ruining your day. Thus that great generic brand name, FMA.

Discussing FMA opens up a whole Pandora's box of rants and insight for me. I'll save that for later. Lots of good stress-busting venting there, I don't want to waste it.