Here are some thoughts about Sonny now, while they’re still fresh, kind of like a signpost to mark where we are at his passing. In ten years, I hope we can look back and see how his influence has spread in the FMA community.
Yesterday I called Sonny a giant, though few actually met him. He was a very private man, and for years rarely took his art outside of his home, preferring to let those whom he trusted come to him. Thus his legacy will someday be better known through those who propagate his teachings rather than directly by his hand.
Some of those are folks who trained with Bruce and James Yimm Lee, such as Jesse Glover in Seattle and Gary Cagaanan in Oakland. Others are younger notables in the martial arts such as Kelly Worden in Tacoma and Alfred Plath in Germany. Most, however, are a new generation of martial artists just coming of age now, entering their prime years blessed with the deep knowledge of a master teacher.
Sonny was a bridge across generations in the arts. Growing up in the Philippines, he experienced first-hand the art in its native setting. He was a witness to history, crossing paths with some of the greats most of us only know from reading about them, but perhaps the greatest aspect of his legacy was his knowledge gained from the streets. Sonny knew more about what he called “the dark side” of the arts than just about anyone I’ve known, but to his credit he lived a life in the light, focusing on laughter and the beauty in the art. Before he emerged in the martial community, he was, like Bruce Lee, a champion cha-cha dancer, and he brought those skills into the Corto Cadena style he created.
Sonny’s genius was that he took disparate elements of the Filipino arts and re-integrated them into a comprehensive whole. More than just that, however, he synthesized those elements to create something uniquely his. His earliest influences seemed to be Balintawok, which was prominent where he grew up in Cebu. Some of his early formal training was with Cacoy Canete and later with Raymond Tobosa in Hawaii (as I recall). In California he rubbed shoulders with legends like Angel Cabales. He took something from each but wasn’t limited to merely imitating. He examined each element of his art critically, ensuring it had value towards his goal.
When I first met him back in 1986, through a seminar at Joe Olivarez’ U.S. Karate in Hayward, Sonny was unveiling perhaps the first of his unique innovations, the centerline roll for double sticks, based on Wing Chun’s circular punching. Unlike most double stick, which is taught by learning numerous patterns and pairing them up, this was genius in its simplicity. By merely mastering this single technique, one could match up against any strike using either hand in a continuous barrage. Still, as easy as it looks and sounds, few could do it with the speed and precision Sonny applied to his art, and his understanding of leverage generated power that belied his slight physique.
I spent perhaps the most time with Sonny in the early 1990’s, after Angel Cabales passed away. He and Angel met only infrequently but had a warm relationship, sharing roots in the same locales and slipping back into the old dialects of their youths. As the younger man, Sonny affectionately called Angel “Doh,” uncle. Angel used to say many people stole his ideas, though many wouldn’t acknowledge it. Sonny was upfront, giving me his famous line that “if you’re going to steal, do it from the best.” His affinity for Angel’s material is not surprising, given the Cebuano roots of both their arts.
Around this time Sonny was working on his sikaran, the low kicking art developed to work in conjunction with weapons, as opposed to the high flashy kicks common to many popular modern arts. Sonny would test his ideas out on me and I’d share my variations on these themes from my years in Kenpo. Even then, however, it was apparent that Sonny was working from a very different source, drawing inspiration for his low body movement and turned-out stepping from Moro-Moro sayaw. With great natural flexibility and dancer's fluidity, Sonny had an ability to come from unusual angles. It was in the sikaran that I began to see the functionality of his pendulum movement, which allowed him to strike while seemingly out of range.
It was this confluence of the Moro and Cebuano arts that marked the emergence of the next phase of Sonny’s body of work, and that was his knowledge of the blade. As with all other aspects of his work, this was something nurtured from careful analysis. The blade is enmeshed with Filipino culture, and so having been raised there, Sonny had insights that lent themselves to appreciation of edged weapons without the romanticism with which less experienced folk often hold them.
Sonny’s creative genius went beyond just movement, extending also to the artifacts he created in conjunction with his art. Anyone who ever visited him had to be impressed by the array of weaponry adorning the walls of his home, all crafted by his hand. From elaborately carved rattan sticks to beautifully designed traditional weapons in wood and metal, Sonny was a master artisan. He was also prolific, and eventually every bit of his home was filled with his work, making it a veritable museum of Filipino martial culture. In every corner one could find unusual devices, like his impenetrable armor vest for “breaking in” students on the knife, the racks of fiberglass training fencing foils, or his swinging pendulum and various sparring targets.
This was a man who lived life fully. I’ve always had a hard time imagining how he fit so much into the moments of each day. I marvel at how it seemed that every visit to his home revealed a new facet of his personality, such as his passion for playing and writing music on the keyboard and recording it on his four-track. I was amazed by his rebuilt acoustic guitar with the tuning head moved into the body, which I’d never seen in 35 years as a player.
It is my everlasting regret that I didn’t spend more time with Sonny. Part of it was reluctance to take advantage of his generosity. There wasn’t a time I visited that he didn’t want to show me what he was working on. I realized that he shared much more with me than I could offer back, but when I suggested I start taking lessons as his student, he smiled and said we were contemporaries. In that he was overly generous, and in my embarassment I stopped coming by so often. Still, I found other ways to try to repay him, such as helping market his innovative padded training sticks or helping hook up prospective students.
Some of those are my seniors in Serrada, such as masters Wade Williams and Carlito Bonjoc, and many others are faces and names I am only now starting to put together. It is through the imprint of Sonny’s movement and knowledge that I see his art living on, and hopefully through them I will finally take the time for more of those lessons I missed along the way. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, for there were so many facets and phases along the arc of Sonny’s career that many of us only got what was currently his passion, and so it is important that we share.
Those who came later were fortunate to reap the benefit of all that had gone on before. Sonny wasn’t merely a caretaker but a builder, and those who absorbed even a part of his spirit have come away with something uniquely different. His is not a cookie cutter style of stick fighting, but something that transformed people to the core of their being, and just as Sonny was a generous soul, so I see this shining from the faces of those who were attracted to him.
We are fortunate that Sonny left such a huge legacy in the form of his recordings. There was always videotape rolling, whether recording students’ lessons or playing them back on the tv. Sonny was someone with great affinity for modern technology and he used it more than anyone else I know. Perhaps someday some of his vast library of recordings can be made available for study. It is an invaluable resource, and one that should be both preserved and shared for posterity.
In the meantime, the art is a living thing, passed from hand to hand, and so it is up to this next generation to move forward in their own personal development and as teachers. What I see in them is kindred to Sonny, a humbleness of spirit combined with skill, intelligence and determination.
I recall the words of Gilbert Tenio following the funeral for his old contemporary Angel Cabales, that the art was not meant to compete with each other, but to ensure mutual survival. It is a bond of brotherhood, and the words of this manong were meant to guide us to appreciate what we share in common. The love we have for our teachers, and above that our passion for what we do, is something greater than differences of opinion or ego. This is something Sonny understood, and he always saw the best in people. As long as this principle is at the forefront, the art will flourish and be strong, keeping the chain alive.