THE HISTORY OF BALINTAWAK ESKRIMA
By Sam Buot, Sr.
In a polyglot archipelago like the Philippines, eskrima was known as pagkalikali, panandata, didya, kabaroan, kaliradman and sinawali and arnis or arnis de mano in Luzon. It was also known as eskrima, olisi, garote or baston in the Visayas and kali, kalirongan, kuntao or silat in Mindanao. Pre-Spanish Philippines also called it gilas. The author uses Cebuano terms for forms and techniques. The Philippines has 87 languages and dialects, 16 of which are major languages. Words and terms vary from province to province. This is explained by the fact that there are 7107 islands spread over the archipelago further broken up by the mountains and natural boundaries. Centuries back, tribes and kingdoms, sometimes warring, further isolated them from each other. There was no national identity until the islands was consolidated by the Spanish invaders. Thus, development of a national language did not happen until the last fifty or so years.
The art is indigenous to the Philippines, developed and practiced for centuries, although until lately, has hardly been known outside the country. It probably started when early Filipinos discovered rattan (a long, tough vine, cut into convenient lengths), could be used as a good striking weapon. Sometimes, Philippine hardwood, bahi’ was used, after it was cured and carved into a heavy, hard and sturdy weapon. Eskrima was very popular with the Maharlika or royal blood. It was also practiced by the common folk. It was a game, sport, physical exercise and an art of self-defense.
Besides sticks, bows and arrows, the early Filipinos were experts in bladed weapons. This was especially true in Southern Philippines, which has influence from Indonesia and more remotely from Thailand and Malaysia. The Muslims in Southern Philippines have a remarkable history of victories against foreign invaders, including Spaniards, Americans and Japanese. It is said that the .45 caliber pistol was invented to stop the juramentados It was known that the Muslim juramentados were unstoppable with lesser caliber weapons. Bladed weapons include the sundang, baraw, pinuti’, bangkaw, palmenko, daga, kris, laring, kalis, barong, gunong, kampilan, gayang, pita, punyal, itak, banjal, bangkon, lahot and panabas. Of course, the Batanguenos are world famous for their fan knife or balisong, which is an entire art in itself.
Cebuanos borrowed the word eskrima from the French word escrime, meaning fencing and from the Spanish word esgrima, meaning swordplay or fencing. This was probably an attempt by 17th and 18th century Filipinos to sound sophisticated by borrowing words from the colonizing European (Spanish) invaders. It was also possible that the Spaniards gave it its name.
When Spain colonized the Philippines, kali or eskrima was already the standard fighting art of the Philippines. Rajah Lapulapu, ruler of Mactan was a kali expert according to Pigafetta, Magellan’s historian and chronicler. According to legend, Lapulapu used eskrima to route the invading Spaniards eventually killing Ferdinand Magellan. This was the first recorded Filipino repulse of foreign invaders. When the Spaniards returned to overcome the Filipinos with their superior firepower, eskrima became a prohibited art in 1596 and 1764. It was totally banned by Don Simon Aredo y Salazar since it was discovered that masters of the art led revolting Filipinos. It was also said that Filipinos were abandoning their farms to practice eskrima.
Besides, the practice often led to injury and death. The art went underground and was taught by Filipinos - often from father to son. It also crept into religious ceremonial dances (sinawali) and in Moro-Moro plays, depicting the conflict between Christians and pagans. The sinawali dances concealed moves of offense and defense as in katas so that moves could not be forgotten. Filipino national hero Jose Rizal, and other martyrs and patriots such as General Gregorio Del Pilar, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Andres Bonifacio, Fr. Gregorio Aglipay, Antonio Luna were practitioners of the art. Poet Laureate Francisco Baltazar also known as "Balagtas" made frequent mention of arnis in his immortal romance Florante at Laura. (Source of some historical data, 1st International Arnis Congress Magazine).
World attention to Asian martial arts evolved when little Japanese men would throw or disarm larger Caucasian foes. This interest in other Asian arts led to the discovery of eskrima. Often thought, and often with good reason as purely stick fencing and often caricatured in martial arts movies. It usually depicted the villain frenziedly swinging and twirling the stick, only to be quickly disarmed and subdued by the high-kicking hero. There is nothing farther from the truth in Balintawak eskrima. Other styles have helped fan this ornate and fancy stick twirling.
Eskrima while still arcane and esoteric, is a very sophisticated, highly refined and ancient art dating to prehistoric Philippines. Only recently has it caught the attention of martial artists. The Philippines is relatively obscure in world politics, culture and business. Besides, there was a dearth of information about experts in the art. The practice of the art was hardly organized. Lately however, eskrima has nosed its way to gain world attention. Sophomoric practitioners have crawled out of the woodwork and have anointed themselves as “grandmasters”. During the lifetime of the Grandmaster, no one had the audacity and temerity to claim such title. Some have even made grandiose claims of beating up the masters in alleged matches.
Eskrima has not been developed as a sport since it is deadly and meant to inflict serious injury and harm. It therefore has hardly been promoted as a sport until it will be eventually made safer for students of the art. By then it will have lost its true essence. Foul blows in other sports is taught, developed and mastered into a science. Strikes, thrusts with the stick, hands and feet to nerve centers and vital points are meant to cause serious injury - more obviously like strikes to the head, knee breaks, elbow breaks and thrust to the eyes, throat and groin. Eskrima involves the use of weapons, e.g., knife fighting, more particularly, the baraw or punyal, sundang or itak, balisong and pinute’ and of course the stick for which it is better known. It includes bare hand combat strikes on hitting points with the use of hands, feet, knees, elbows, head butts and further includes grappling, holds and controls on pressure points for submission holds (pamislit). Stick fighting is the vehicle used to develop flexibility, speed, reflex action, coordination, form, balance and power. The stick is used as an extension of the arm and may be substituted for a knife, bladed weapon or club. It is believed that familiarity with confronting weapons reduces fear and panic in actual combat. Bare hand combat becomes even less threatening. There are no limits on where and what to hit except in friendly workouts where injury to a workout partner is avoided.
Eskrima, as a Filipino fighting system does not claim to have all the answers. However, it does have moves and techniques that is unique to the art as well as moves similar to other fighting arts. A keen observer will notice moves similar to the art of western boxing, kungfu,and wing chun in hand coordination, holds, trapping and more. It involves the use of the opponent's strength as in judo, jujitsu and aikido. It includes bare hand combat as in shoot fighting, knife fighting, and disarming techniques as in combat judo. Eskrima involves grappling (dumog) and wrestling (layug) finger, wrist, elbow and knee locks as in jiu jitsu. It involves choking and strangling (tu-ok or lo-ok). The art also involves kicking (pamatid or sikaran) as in karate Thai boxing and tae kwon do. However, little emphasis is placed on high and flashy kicks but rather stress is placed on short, snap kicks to the shin, thigh, knee and groin area for direct, quick pain and effective injury. When the situation permits, round house kicks or swing kicks to the thighs and knees to the groin and body are applied. Sweeping, tripping and dynamics of balancing (panumba) are also a great part of the art. Mid-high frontal kicks have been used lately by students trained in other kicking arts. It is used only if there is safety in delivery and not subject to dangerous counter-attacks. Eskrima however does teach counters to all forms of blows and attacks of all popular Asian fighting arts. Eskrima does not emphasize contortions or acrobatics, although stretching, warming up and cardiovascular conditioning, power punches and delivery of blows plus muscle and strength development certainly make good sense. Recent students trained in other kicking arts have incorporated their art into eskrima. The Balintawak style is not an ostentatious style. The deeper secrets are hardly displayed nor will it be likely seen in print. Even if displayed, the moves are subtle, inconspicuous and innocuous that it will go unnoticed by even sophisticated and trained martial artists. Even hands-on teaching to trained martial artists requires repeated and detailed instruction and demonstration of the finer points of the moves. Demonstrations of the Balintawak style is sometimes dull, as Bach and Mozart are dull to unsophisticated musicians. That is the reason that some Balintawak seminars are laced and embroidered with flashy stick twirling by the young masters. The showy "hollywoodized" and cinematic styles are ridiculed by knowledgeable purists of the Balintawak style as signature moves of rival clubs. It however, never fails to draw the attention of the half-baked and uninformed.
All martial arts have their strengths and weaknesses. Very often, its strength becomes its weakness. The hard arts with power delivery of punches and kicks often lead to rigidity and inflexibility in changes of direction. In contrast, the fluid and softer arts may not have the same power of the hard arts. It is embarrassing to purists that some eskrima styles unabashedly copy other fighting arts and even use terms such as eskrido to denote the combination of eskrima and judo. The term is unnecessary, since unrecorded history, fights progressed into holds, locks, grappling, wrestling, punching, kicking and throws when disarmed or unarmed. Undoubtedly, there is influence of other arts through infusion and osmosis by students with various backgrounds and training. Admittedly, it is a welcome part of growth. China built the Great Walls of China to keep out the “barbarians." By shutting out the cultures of the world, it stagnated in its growth and development. It must be emphasized that eskrima is not a rehash or imitation of other Asian arts. It is an art all its own.
Eskrima has been a very secretive art. It was often clandestinely taught from father to son or from a master to a trusted and loyal lifetime student. Until modern times, seldom were there large classes as it is predominant today in highly commercialized martial arts schools. It often takes years of detailed, hands on and individualized instructions. Some of the reasons for this are the detailed nuances of the moves as well as the intense club rivalries. Secrets of the techniques were kept so close to the chest. It took a lifetime before the deepest secrets were revealed by the master to his most loyal lifetime student. Even with the most unselfish master, personal virtuosity is a perishable commodity that tended to die with the master when not imparted or set to writing. That is the main reason for this attempt to preserve the style and secrets of Balintawak. So much, too much has been lost. This feeble attempt is a frail effort to salvage and rescue the genius of Cebu’s great Grandmaster Anciong Bacon and those who came after him. Needless to say that what ever is imparted here is a superficial glimpse of the reservoir of untapped and unrecorded knowledge that has been forever lost.
For more info about Grandmaster Sam Buot, please visit www.buot.net