What Makes an Art a “Filipino” Art?

This is a question that seems to reappear every once in a while… but can an art be truly or purely a “Filipino” art?

This is like calling an ethnicity or race a “truly American” race; you really can’t define some things in the culture as being purely Filipino. Everyone knows that the Filipino culture and history has been infused so much with foreign cultures and influence, we really cannot denote something “pure” or originally Filipino. There are many things that are uniquely Filipino, but more than often, they are just combinations of other cultures that spell F-I-L-I-P-I-N-O. Like Filipino food, a combination of Malay, middle eastern (yes, middle eastern), Chinese, and Spanish tastes. Together, those flavors are distinctly Filipino–like the combination of sour and peppery or salty and sweet–but their origin came from some place else.

Have you ever heard a native Indonesian “sfeek inglis”? Day sound barry motts like a peenoy win day sfik inglis. Becows ob dare ak-scent. Eats barry close to ours.

But the Filipin0 martial arts have some things that really spell Filipino well. Like the absence of forms in our arts. Or the tendency to want to show off or best the next guy. The emphasis on the application of the art, rather than the demonstration of it. Or the preference to keep things simple… but then we have many things that are very flashy!  As uniquely Filipino as our arts may be, there are some things that we own that actually came from some place else. For example, check out how Filipino karateka perform kata. I can always look at a kata from a distance, and tell if the performer is Filipino trained or not. I really can’t describe it; but you can tell if you know your Filipinos. Regardless of whether he is demoing a Japanese, Korean or Okinawan form, there is a certain look.

Filipino styles often have Karate, Judo/Jujitsu, Aikido or Tae Kwon Do blended in. And they don’t always tell you that they’ve added foreign elements to the styles. I’ve seen so much of it, I am skeptical when someone tells me that they have not added anything in, or that they’ve learned the art “from their Lolo”. I learned from my Lolo, and his art is very simple, as is most grandpa arts I have seen. So when these Lolo arts (LOL) have “pormas” that look like Shotokan kata… 😉

So to answer the question I think there are several things that would make an art “Filipino”:

  • if the art was compiled or developed in the Philippines
  • if the art built its reputation in the Philippines
  • if the art contains FMA
  • if the art was created by a Filipino and used some Arnis/Eskrima techniques
  • if the art is using FMA philosophy
  • if the art was created by a non-Filipino, but the developer calls it “Filipino MA”

Wait, did I just say “created by a non-Filipino, but the developer calls it ‘Filipino MA’?”

Yes, I did.

If some guy wants to give credit to the Philippines, then I say, more power to you. Just don’t give it a fake history and don’t “steal” ideas from another teacher. That means a Filipino who has never been to the Philippines can create an FMA. That also means a White guy who’s dating a Filipina and has never been to the Philippines (and doesn’t eat balut) can create an FMA from seminars/video tape learning. The only thing that matters, is does your art work, and if you are called to the carpet–will you show up or make excuses? This is a free world, and who are we to say what is or isn’t Filipino? Hell, most of don’t even know our history that well to even judge. I mean, how many people really believed that there was a Filipino Muslim art called Kali that was the Mother of the FMAs? I know I was one of them!

I don’t have energy for arguing origin or names. But I will argue telling the truth all day long. There is a difference. In the Philippines, we have unique Filipino Kung Fu styles which have no Arnis, just like we have Filipino Aikido. But some guy here in the US can’t call his new Arnis/Eskrima/Jujitsu blend “Filipino” because he doesn’t speak Tagalog? Really, some of us should get a grip and get a life.

In a future article, I’d like to discuss some of these non-Filipino foreign arts. In the next decade, I’d like to import an art to the “Fphilippeens” (lol) that is not an FMA, but will be when I get there. I’m pretty excited about it too. But in the meantime…

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Prepare a Successor

Today, I had a nice surprise, as my baby brother (who is 25 years old) stopped by to visit while I was working out. I had helped to raised him since he was 6 because my mother was sick, and when he was 12 he came to live with me full time. Out of all of my students, he had trained with me the most, and I controlled every aspect of his life during that time. For those who knew me when I first came to Sacramento in 1999, they will recall that as a 13 year old boy, he could whip most adults at the Black Belt level.

He is now married with a baby, but still trains in his garage despite having a successful telecommunications business. I am somewhat disappointed that he did not choose teaching for a living, but he likes expensive clothes (I buy my clothes in thrift stores) and eats in fancy restaurants (I cook every day despite having a wife who is an excellent cook) so a teacher’s life does not sound attractive to him. Still, I am proud of him and his accomplishments.

Anyway, we talked about my history as a teacher, as I have been teaching for as long as he can remember. He and my younger sister were the ones responsible for getting me into the 21st century… My brother created my first website, and opened and maintained my first email account in 1999, and for at least the first year “thekuntawman” existed, he was the kuntawman. Both of them, plus my younger brother who is 38, are all college-educated, while I chose the life my grandfather led. They are very Americanized and have western tastes; I eat Balut and have a 20 lb bag of cow intestines in the freezer of my school’s fridge (only because my wife won’t let me clean them at home). But don’t be fooled. My siblings come to my house several times a year and beg for me to make them Lumpia, Pakbit, Ukoy, and Dinaguan–which they secretly love more than hamburgers.

My brother and I have had our struggles, as I once tried to force Kuntaw and Eskrima down his throat as a teenager. I did not allow him to have a girlfriend or date, and he fought at every tournament I received a flier for. He trained at least 2 – 3 hours a day after school, and trained at least 4 to 6 hours on weekends. As a muscular 5′ 8″ 16 year old, he was my sparring partner and training dummy. But as soon as he had the money, he moved out and it took years before he began training again.

We have been discussing him starting an Eskrima and Tapado group for me in San Francisco, and I think I have him convinced.

One of the questions he had for me was, why didn’t I consider another profession, why did I try to make him teach instead of allow him to follow his own path, and if I will do the same to my boys. This was helpful, because no one has ever asked me.

My grandfather had long regretted not having a successor to his art and his (mostly failing) school. By the time my brother and I had come along, he had been teaching for 40 years and had no one to point to that could teach his art if he were to die the next day. He repeated this many times throughout my youth, and as a result–whether by divine intervention or by brainwashing–I became that student for him. I trained every day, 7 days a week, and my entire youth training and competing, rarely enjoying things kids in DC enjoyed, like music, video games and girls. At 18 years old, when most boys my age went away to college, I moved back to the Philippines and trained as a full-time job, paid for with saved tournament winnings and part-time work. During that time, I planned, in writing, how I would open my school without getting an SBA loan. When I returned, I completed my training with my grandfather and immediately went to work, implementing my plan. By the time I was 22, I had my school in Silver Spring, MD, and a local reputation to go along with it. I named my school “Gatdula’s Fighting Cobras”, as this was the name my grandfather had chosen for the school he never had. I put all the things he wanted for his place, but never had, like hand-made equipment and a collection of striking equipment. I also used things that he used, like tree trunks and sand bags and buckets of sand and pebbles. Although I had several masters, I followed his lead and did exactly what he wanted me to do because it was what he did.

My grandfather died on March 20th, 1992, the day I opened my shop at 905 Bonifant Street. But he died knowing that his dream was being carried forward. Many masters teach their entire lives, and never have the school they’d wanted, the perfect student, and the style to be taught just as they had prescribed it to be. As a dutiful grandson, I am proud to carry on this tradition and I only hope to ring true his advice to me about a martial arts master’s mission:

A martial arts teacher is lucky to have had one perfect student to pass all of his knowledge to, in the way that he planned to teach it.

We will always have students. We will always make money. We will always have those who train hard and perform well. But we are never guaranteed to have a student who will carry on the art and traditions exactly the way we want it done. No teacher wants to see his art die as he taught it. I have learned, that in the nearly two decades I have taught, that we and our dream will always have to compete with the student’s goals and dreams. They will rarely align themselves with what we want for our students. I have had students stay with me 8 years, and none have been able to commit and train the way I have wanted them to, except the ones I raise (and we see how well that turned out). I have two more boys, and if that doesn’t work out, I may have to take their firstborn sons. But we will see what becomes of Mustafa Gatdula’s Kuntaw and Eskrima.

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