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Martial Arts and Drumming

In 1975 I decided to pack my bags IN Chicago, and head for the west coast so that I could learn Jeet Kune Do, Filipino Escrima, and the wide variety of martial arts training that I was unable to find here in the midwest from 1962-1974 (NOTE-I was fortunate enough to learn some basics of Muay Thai, Krabi-Krabong, and Burmese Banshay from asian immigrants whom I tutored in english from 1967-70, so I learned firsthand that my previous 13 years of boxing, karate, and taekwondo training was far from the ultimate when it came to "sophisticated" fighting arts).

I enrolled as a beginning student at the Filipino Kali Academy in Torrance, California. My teacher was Richard Bustillo. Although my sojourn to California, and the Kali Academy, was cut short by an offer of a teaching position at the University of Illinois, I gained a wealth of training knowledge, many new martial arts friends, and a perspective on martial arts training that has been etched into my heart and soul to this very day.

The Filipino Kali Academy was a "perfect" training facility (actually two large garage or storage areas-one side for JKD classes/ one side for "modified wing-chun" classes). The JKD side was well stocked with all sorts of bags, protective training gear, escrima gear/weapons, and everything anyone would need to "evolve" as a contemporary "Ronin (Japanese for "Masterless Warrior"). The Kali Academy was the template for what is today known as the IMB ACADEMY (headed by my Kali Academy guro, the inimitable Richard Bustillo).

Over the past three decades my pupils here in the midwest have often asked me if there is any one image that I remains in my mind of my California Kali Academy training experience. I have always told them that the one image that stands out is of a set of black conga drums that were set up in the corner of each training area. Those drums were used by the guros (instructors) to create the correct "rhythms" and pacing for warmups, stretching, empty-hands and kicking drills, and empty hands and weapons sparring. The drumbeats were used in the same way that Thai musicians "push and pull" the "flow" of Muay Thai boxing matches in Thailand. (In the mid-sixties I had observed a good number of exciting live Muay Thai boxing matches at Lumpini Stadium and Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailandm and I had the opportunity to visit two Thai training camps to observe firsthand how their ring warriors actually prepared, but it was my experience at the Kali Academy several years later thatstimulated me to to contemplate the enormous potential of "playng with rhythmic pulse" in the context of non-Muay Thai martial arts training settings). At the Kali Academy, I was so intrigued by the concept of integrating "drum pulse" into every aspect of my training, that I ended up making a good number of "training pulse" audio-tapes (incorporating Cuban rhumba, "World" music (primarily exerpts of music by Ralph Towner's group Oregon), and even a bit of Thai "Heart Talk" music) for several of my training mates and a JKD instructor with whom I had some enlightening discussions with after some Saturday "open to all" training sessions at the Academy.

Today a class without a conga drum, a quinto drum, bongos, or dijembe drum creating a background "pulse" is not a class that enhances learning and student involvement totally (in my humble opinion. Yet, keep in mind that I am not implying that drums should be roaring from the beginning of a class learning session until the finish; often the drums are only used during the warmup period to set a overall "training tone." The instructor knows how to add the spice (the salsa, as it were) to the group pulse in just the right amount, at just the right time, in order to heighten the experience for all involved.

Those of you who have the opportunity to visit and train at Richard Bustillo's IMB Academy in Torrance, California can get a "straight-up" taste of what I'm talking about.

Couple that enduring "image" with my deep love of Afro-Cuban, Salsa, and percussion based music of many varieties, and you can understand why I "require" all of my private pupils to own percussion instruments, learn how to become proficient in their use musically, and to participate in my school's Bamboo Bridge Drum Circles on a regular basis.

2005 ADDENDUM: Bamboo Bridge no longer exists, but it's spirit lives on in what I call Ronin Rhythms . RONIN RHYTHMS is a comprehensive way of teaching martial arts which includes a unique focus on the rhythmic and percussive elements of sound, movement, and spirituality as a means towards enhanced martial arts experiences and learning scenarios.

I always hold a picture in my mind of a civil war era drummer boy who would play "signal" rudiments clearly and fluently while being surrounded by human carnage, flying bullets, shell shots, unimaginable human cries of pain and death, and blood splattering both his drum and person. Total focus in the midst of total chaos. The drummer boy focused on the "signal rudiments" to cancel out the other realities surrounding him.

I have found that warrior drummers in African tribes were taught to do the "sonic combat" (the ominous drumming that the British heard during the so-called Zulu uprising was meant to strike fear into the hearts and minds of the Brits, and to accurately signal precise Zulu warrior group movements and deployments at critical moments in battle...signals that the Brits could never descipher. In both cases the drumming was effective to the maximum, and resulted in the British sustaining some humiliating defeats to what they considered a technically inferior and unsophisticated opponent). Even today that warrior / drummer critical link can be seen (and heard) in public exhibitions of "authentic" traditional African cultural dancing. The drumming is the "heartbeat" of the "classical" African warrior and his actions. This is why even the most experienced martial artist / fighter can be totally befuddled and literally "shocked into non-reaction" by the unusual physical movements that a well-trained African dancer / drummer / warrior can display at the drop of a hat. As a latino conga drummer / warrior I know once put it, "the well trained African warrior is always in clave , so he moves with the rhythm of the universe."

This is not to say that merely being a great drummer or dancer can automatically equate to one's being a formidable fighter. Not at all! But, I have found that native male Africans who seriously studied both traditional drumming and traditional dance are capable of pulling off some literally incredible and totally devastating "self-defense" and fighting movements that are strokes of physical movement genius. I am talking here about "reactions" with and without weapons that would take an equal genius to counter or even react to. Having faced that "reality" a few times while doing a bit of impromptu "martial play" with native born African dancers /drummers, I can testify to the fact that their "rhythmic improvisations" are as deadly and as difficult to deal with as anything a Chinese kung fu expert could ever lay on the line. With that knowledge in my mind I have worked diligently over the years at developing a "rhythmic martial arts equivalent" to teach to others within this culture. The key was linking the African dance / drum elements to the Afro-Cuban traditional dance / drum elements (and the contemporary outgrowths of those elements as seen in latin expressions such as Plena, Bomba, Merengue, Salsa and Timba). The rhythms of the Bata drum in Santeria and Voodoo are key elements as well. And I can never de-emphasize the drumming and martial movement elements of Thai martial arts. From all those influences believe that I have developed something that can be seen, heard, and felt by the aspiring martial artist who wants to take their combative and self defense arts to the ultimate levels within a relatively short period of time, while simultaneously developing visual, auditory, and other sensory capabilities that are extremely useful in functional human daily life than mere punching, kicking, and grappling.

There is something I hear in the drumming of a skilled warrior / drummer that I don't hear in even the greatest musicians. Just like there is something I can see (and feel) when watching a skilled warrior / dancer in movement that I seldom observe in even professional dancers. What I see and hear is a spiritual element that goes far beyond the beat of a drum, the tapping of a foot, or a flow between steps. It is something called a "heartbeat," or, as I like to call it, a RONIN RHYTHM.

Herb April - 07/27/05

Every man's foremost task in the actualization of his unique, unprecedented, and never-recurring potentialities, and not the repetition of something that another has already achieved"

Martin Buber





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