Recent research on the subject (“Cebuaba Eskrima: Beyond the myth by C. Macachor & N.Nepangue) proposed the argument that it was developed as a fighting system to protect communities from the Moro raids which began in the 16th century. The pirates attacked coastal settlements across the Philippines for the primary reason of taking slaves. The raids were instigated for both economic and social purposes. The Moro pirates sometimes raided to settle old scores and to enhance their reputation.
Some people believe that “Kali” describes the art descended from bladed weapons and “Arnis” and “Eskrima” describes stick-orientated arts. I tend to agree with others that “Kali” was a modern term used by famous Grand-Masters like Dan Inosanto in the late 70s / early 80s. Certainly, this was one of the main reasons why the famous GM Antonio ilustrisimo named his art “Kali Ilustrimo” (or “Kalis Ilustrisimo”) because the “Kali” label was well known. Prior to the time he began passing on his art he didn’t have cause to name it. Speaking of the late, great “Tatang” here is a demonstrating his art against sticks, blades and empty hands:
You have to consider that in the Philippines branded names are used to describe all products in the market. For example “Colgate” is used to describe all toothpaste and “Kleenex” all tissues. So now the word “Kali” is widespread to describe the art. It is usually only known in the Philippines as “Eskrima” or “Arnis” – probably due to the pioneering work of GM Remy Presas and his style “Modern Arnis” which is taught in high-school here. It has to be said that many don't know what it is. The signs on the main roads all advertise "Karate" or "TKD" classes. Boxing is most definitely in vogue though due to the amazing achievements of Manny "Pac-man" Pacquiao.
Not all “FMA” (to group the three terms together) are the same. The amount of weapons used depends on the individual system. Some systems just use sticks. They don’t do any knife / sword work at all. Some Balintawak Eskrima grouips are an example of this. Some systems do a lot of knife / sword work and use the stick in the same way. Kali Ilustrisimo is an example of this. Some systems are heavily involved in the sports sparring events (e.g “Modern Arnis”, “Doce Pares”) whilst others don’t spar for sport at all. Some systems have little to no empty hand game, others introduce the empty hand curriculum after the weapons curriculum and some concurrently.
Like many other martial arts, FMA has evolved and moved with the times. I believe it has gone from the extremely functional art of the coastal defenders to what we have today. You will see similarities in most FMA systems like triangular footwork and striking and bocking angles, etc, etc. Maybe these came directly from the older FMA styles like Ginunting and Llave Cadena? It’s hard to say with certainty.
Some styles today have been heavily influenced by the other arts their Grand-Master studied or traded skills with. So some styles have long stances like in Karate, spins like in Tae-Kwon-do and cross-steps like in Silat and Kung-fu. Some also have thrusts like European fencing. It would be naive to think that the Filipinos didn’t take a trick or two from the Spanish.
It is almost impossible to identify what is “Pure” or “Traditional” FMA. History is usually recorded by the victor, or the accepted educated people of the time like monks, poets and artisans. The Philippines was colonized for over 300 years by the Spanish who looked to quell any native unrest from the “indios”. Prior to their arrival a large portion of the Philippines were literate and used a language called Baybayin or Alibata. The Spanish used the language to colonize them. However, the Filipinos mainly wrote small notes and used things like leaves, rattan and tree bark so not a lot of literature survives.
Like many other cultures the Filipinos have a strong oral culture. Lovers would serenade each other all day long and there were also long songs to mark special occasions like harvests, weddings, burials etc, etc. For me this is interesting as it could be a reason why Filipinos are fond of sending so many text messages and so good at singing!
To wander back on topic the question of “Lineage” is not of relative importance to students of FMA at the moment as other arts. There are instructors out there who have primarily learnt from books or video. Others have “Bolted on” stick-fighting to their existing (usually Chinese or Japanese) systems. Many claim to have learnt a “Family System”. It is up to the student to distinguish the worth of both the art and the instructor to them. Of course, the instructor should make full disclosure and without it students should be wary.
Eskrima does have it’s veritable legends though. At the end of the 2nd world war General Macarthur outlawed the practice of “Death Matches”. These were basically a duel between Eskrimadors using hardwoods like “Kamagong” and “Bahi” and no padding. These sticks weigh about 1/2 kg / 1.2lbs each so you can imagine the consequences of swinging them at somebody’s head.
Those who are rumoured to have won many “Death Matches” include Floro Villabrille, Antonio Illustrisimo, Anciong Bacon and others. Quite a few Eskrimadors have been imprisioned after “winning” such events due to the death of their opponents. Philippine law was also changed to discourage these acts of “Duelling”.
Personally I find matters of lineage and terminology a curiosity, but not the be all and end all. Coming from a good “lineage” does not mean that you can fight. Nor does knowing all the terms for the movements. IMO this is all secondary to the art itself and as my instructor says “Can you carry the art?” You might know the names but can you apply it correctly?
Having said that there’s quite a few good resources on the net for FMA. Below are a couple to supplement this article. For everything else there is google ;)
Some great articles and interviews
Baybayin Website / translator
Thanks again for reading.