Sunday, June 29, 2008

Reflections on the ESKCOA Tournament

Yesterday I attended the Eskrima Coalition tournament out in Stockton. I was there as a vendor, setting up a table for the first time at such an event.

For me there was a sense of amazement at being there, such as I haven’t felt in some time, because the culture of the Filipino martial arts is so strong in that place. I wonder if the younger generation has any awareness of the tradition that is being passed on to them? Probably not; as the saying goes, youth is wasted on the young. Whether they realize it or not, however, they are being mentored in ways beyond just the physical aspects of the art.

Here in this room were people whom I’ve known mostly through the media, in books and videos, guys who didn’t just train with the old manongs but who grew up in their shadows and were raised by them. What really brought the depth of this home to me, though, wasn’t just the presence of the big names, but discovering that the guy sitting next to me was someone who had trained in the art a decade or more before I ever found the door! In most places here in the West, FMA’s imprint is only as deep as the experience of one’s teacher, but at a gathering such as this in Stockton, the “home of FMA in America”, one feels the weight and presence of generations and the ghosts of many escrimadors who have created such a legacy.

There were three people there, however, whom I had never met, who put their stamp on the day for me. The first was Dentoy Revillar, creator of SLD, a system named in honor of his three teachers by using initial for their method of the art: Angel Cabales (Serrada); Leo Giron (Largo Mano); and Gilbert Tenio (De Cuerdas). Dentoy is one of Angel’s earliest students, captured on film with him in the famous footage from demo at the Long Beach Internationals over 30 years ago.

Though somehow I didn’t introduce myself to him, perhaps a bit in awe, he made an impression because of the speech he gave to the assembled contestants and spectators before the competition began, a talk combining practicality and wisdom of experience, exhorting the players to discover their boundaries in the competition so as to further their training beyond, and to the spectators, urging them to respect the experience of the officiating, and to imagine themselves from that perspective to understand the imperfections and limitations inherent in judging a sport. I could only nod in agreement as he hit these points, recognizing how well his words encapsulated both the highs and lows of competition, but presented with a positive and inspiring authority.

The second person on my list was Art Miraflor, whose association goes by the name “Knights of Eskrima”. Like many of the older practitioners in Stockton, he garnered experience through several of the old manongs who brought forth the art. He and I talked for perhaps half an hour or so, a conversation that ranged from his blend of Serrada and De Fondo to the evolution of point fighting eskrima rules to common experiences we’ve both had as pioneers in the evolution of modern gear for the sport and training. At its roots, the FMA is grounded in people who have worked with their hands, and Art was the first of several whom I met yesterday who have made a living in industrial environments. Though I’ve covered similar ground relative to the products I make, it was a lot of fun hearing how his experimentations in materials mirror mine. I especially got a kick out of his description of FMA competition as one of the most modern sports, because it has improvised by borrowing gear from so many other sources. I look forward to seeing how his next generation of padded sticks works out, as there is always room to improve on these.

The third person on my list is Brady Brazil, whose name is closely associated with Rene Latosa. Though Brady has a fierce reputation, I found him an entertaining and thoughtful conversationalist, willing to both listen and share his unique history as a Filipino growing up in the Bay Area, exposed not only to FMA but to the elders of Chinatown as well. Brady is an historian, particularly regarding martial history, and he had a vendor table that drew me with its antique swords. He generously allowed me to take pictures of a couple that particularly drew me, such as the old-style Chinese butterfly sword, which is much leaner and more agile than the broad ones typical now, and I ended up purchasing a talibong from him (which I've now copied for training), a wicked-looking S-curved short sword. This is the first acquisition I’ve made in a few years, reflecting how picky I am and how few truly interesting pieces I come across, or at least that I can afford!

Interestingly, this piece is 23 inches long, shorter than the newer ones I’ve seen in pictures. This reinforces my impression of many older weapons, that they were designed primarily for close-quarter combat. Though it isn’t a light piece, it has a nice balance to it. Evidently whoever brought it back from the Philippines dulled the edge and had it chromed and polished, making it more of a showpiece for practice and an artifact for display. Nevertheless, it has the feel of a real tool, unlike many fantasy knock-offs that flood the pages of so-called weapon catalogs. This is one I intend to copy for my growing collection of training swords, and I look forward to discovering the qualities of this design.

As for the tournament itself, it was well-attended by participants and spectators, and the presence of over half a dozen vendor tables attested, as Art Miraflor pointed out, to the growing viability of FMA as a cultural sport. Besides Brady Brazil’s antiques, there were at least three tables selling T-shirts, and one other vendor who makes sticks and knives.

I don’t know how well anyone else did, but my assistants and I didn’t notice a lot of money changing hands most of the day. This wasn’t unanticipated, especially in this current economy, and as a friend pointed out many years ago on a visit there, Stockton has the air of a place where money is hard earned. Still, I was pleased with the attention my own products received. Though for most of the day I joked that I’d sold one stick, things got brisk as I was packing up (especially my rebar keychains) so the trip certainly paid for gas, dinner for the crew and such.

More importantly, from the perspective of what I’m doing these days, I was gratified with the attention and feedback I got for my swords, validating my feeling that these are a unique and valuable addition to the training weapons available for the art, as well as being aesthetically pleasing. The barongs in particular seem to strike a chord with many senior instructors. Vincent Cabales left with one, and I’ve just completed a slightly larger pair for Remy Presas Jr. Carlito Bonjoc’s suggestion many months ago was an inspiration to design these, and he seemed quite pleased with the results.

The other pieces that caught a lot of eyes were the knives I modified from one designed by Sonny Umpad. These had the unexpected result of a warm conversation with an old student of his who now lives in Sacramento.

As much as I enjoy the results of my labor, the greater pleasure is seeing them put to good use and knowing they help further the legacy of the arts.

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