Monday, April 30, 2012

Journey in African Martial Arts pt. 1

I recently had the distinct pleasure of teaching a very well-received seminar on a little-known West African martial art that I practice.  Many of the students in attendance asked me so many questions afterwards, and a lot of them have followed up with emails after the fact.  Because of time constraints, I unfortunately did not get a chance to chat with everyone as much as I would have liked - and I apologize.  So in the next few posts (I'll keep it as short and to the point as I can!) I'd like to answer some of those questions that were asked either in person or via email.  I hope you find some value in it! - JD

I had no idea there was such a thing as African martial arts?

Well…live and learn! Africa is a large and diverse continent with a deep history and rich cultural legacy that spans many centuries.  Any culture that has had to survive in a dangerous environment developed martial arts. Particularly in West Africa, do some research on the Oyo Empire just for a start and then consider whether or not those soldiers had some type of martial arts training.

On a more elementary level, any time you just get a group of “guys” together – there is going to be some type of combat!

What you will not find if you are researching indigenous African martial arts traditions are formal schools, organized “systems”, uniforms, direct lineages or even written records – all the things that people associate with the martial arts of Asia.  Just like Indonesia and the Philippines, historically we are referring to a local, and largely oral tradition.  Western-style scholarship has not examined the indigenous and/or diasporic expressions of African martial arts the way the martial arts of Southeast Asia have been studied in this century.

Which African martial arts have you studied, Guro Davidson?

I have specifically studied, researched, and trained in several styles from the Kongo, but my specialty is Yoruba martial arts.

How did you get started?

I followed my Head via my ears to Cuba and then Africa.  My segue was actually music. Right about the time I began studying Kali and Silat in the late 1980’s, my direction as a musician was evolving, and I was drawn into the profoundly groovy world of Afro-Latin percussion.  There were a lot of Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians in Detroit at the time.  One of my fellow Kali students was an accomplished conga-player and protégé of the legendary Baba Juma Santos (May He Rest in Peace) and that’s when and where my informal training really began.

Salsa and Merengue were really popular at the local dance clubs in those days.  If you were a percussionist and you wanted to pay your rent and eat from time to time, that’s what you played as your bread and butter. In private however, the guys that I hung around and jammed with were also very frequently called to accompany various local ceremonies relating to the Afro-Cuban religious traditions.  The same way you have an organist at a Christian church, you typically have a battery of drums for these particular ceremonies if the host can afford it. 

In an odd way, it was through this “liturgical” style of percussion that I became aware of how closely linked this music was to the martial arts.

Can you explain that?

Two of the major African influences in Cuban percussion are Kongo (Central Africa) and Yoruba (West Africa).  This is true of their popular music, but it really goes back to the Spiritual side.  And from that, you have kind of a yin-and-yang paradigm.  The Yoruba drum rhythms, chants, and songs are considered to be ‘cooling’, balancing, and social.  In contrast, the Kongo-influenced patterns of dance, drumming, and chanting are very ‘hot’ and extremely aggressive.  There are unmistakably clear and direct references to warfare in the physical and metaphysical arenas.  It’s very militant! It is not really surprising since a lot of the African slaves in Cuba that escaped into the jungles and formed bands of armed resistance were Kongolese.

Anyway, there were many chants/songs that refer to taking the head of an opponent or oppressor, and the accompanying dance movements were themselves nothing different than martial arts.  It reminds me of the lore of Kali where fighting techniques were supposedly choreographed into the traditional dances and dramas of the Filipinos during colonialism.  

The folks that I played with were very highly accomplished in this form.

Were they also martial artists?

Yes and no. 

A few of them actually did some formal training in Karate or whatever.  Most of them had been in the Army in Cuba before they came over here so they had that experience.  But remember – we’re talking about musicians.  These were not 9-5 people. These were folks that plied their craft after the sun went down.  More often than not, they were in some way involved with the often dangerous sub-culture of what I call the ‘underside’ of the community.  Being that this was Detroit in the late 80’s/early 90’s you can probably use your imagination to figure out what I mean.

As good as the music was, I also regularly saw some rather spectacular displays of violence from that crowd.  In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to hear that someone you jammed with last weekend “wasn’t around anymore” for one reason or another.  So no, they were not martial artists in the sense that they formally trained in a dojo or anything like that – but they were no strangers to violence and had a lot more streetfighting experience than 90% of the black-belts out there.

Again, just relating it to Philippines, if you listen to my teacher 'Tito' Jun Saludo’s stories of the Barako Batangueno culture, it’s very similar.  It’s interesting to me that in many parts of the world shamans, musicians, gangsters, and martial artists tend to occupy the same strata of society.  

To be continued...            

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