Kali the martial art is nothing new, particularly among contact sport aficionados. The discipline is so well-known that it has seen screen time on blockbusters such as “Bourne Identity” and “John Wick.” What makes this particular group of practitioners unique, however, is their cultural, almost anthropological, approach to the discipline.
We are at a franchise gym in the deep north of Quezon City. Outside, the streets are just about getting settled, after the rush hour bustle. But inside the group fitness area, the kali practitioners are only starting to get warmed up. On the floor is an array of weapons representing the country’s blade demographic, from the kampilan and the kris to the itak and the tabak.
“It’s a system for life,” says Michael Bugnosen, a history teacher and Cordilleran kali practitioner who has made numerous appearances on multiple media to promote the discipline. Up north where Bugnosen comes from, pre-colonial children as young as two years old were taught to use kali for gathering wood, butchering chicken, chopping vegetables. When the children got older, they used it to hunt. At the onset of maturity, they used it to protect the community.
The group raising awareness of the historical side to kali, and indeed Filipino martial arts as a whole, call themselves Tactical Beard. “It’s really a passion project,” design firm head and entrepreneur Reau Gutierrez, says. He tells us Tactical Beard is composed of impact weapons enthusiasts, kali practitioners, krav maga experts, even a smith/head axe scholar. They have researchers who do the paper crunching, and PR pros handle the marketing end.
Through online media, the group documents kali and its attendant culture, particularly the roots. Craftsmanship, too. And of course defense, which is the practical application. “We believe that understanding the context behind these disciplines can lead to a better understanding of ourselves.” Gutierrez continues. As for instance, the group discusses how the weapons in their collection reflect culture transfer: a blade’s design can fauna both common and uncommon to the local context, such as fish, elephants, cacatoas, and even nagas, and is thus proof of pre-colonial exchange.
The bad news to all this is, local interest in kali is nearly moribund. “If no one is going to push it, it’s going to die,” Bugnosen says. Bhava Mitra, a Tactical Beard member and vocalist of the tribal-electronic band Kadangyan, adds that this speaks to a larger disconnect with our roots. “We have to fix that,” Bugnosen says.
Which brings us to the good news. Interest in the art is high outside of the country. There’s the aforementioned Hollywood exotification. And many overseas martial arts schools, particularly MMA, are integrating kali into their training. To the members of Tactical Beard, bringing this level of interest back home is a matter of resonance with a newer audience. “I’m glad this group found each other,” Gutierrez says. “We’re not looking just to preserve kali, but to evolve it.” And the proof of this particular concept is right inside the room with us. Shay Rakotch, an Israeli national and krav maga expert, attests to the potential of intercultural exchange inherent in kali. “Krav maga and kali are complimentary,” he says. One can combine the directness of the Israeli discipline with the flowing nature of the kali art and barely have any seams to show for the effort.
The group’s most regular training gig is with the military. But they also do special sessions upon request. The barrier to entry is low. Trainees practice in everyday clothes, for instance. All fitness levels as well as body types are welcome. Movements are adjusted depending on the trainee. “The socket of my arm is different from the socket of your arm. So you have to be trained differently,” says Bugnosen. “Also, what we focus on is concept, as much as technique,” Gutierrrez adds.
To further hurry kali along to its contemporary phase, Tactical Beard is developing a workshop tailored for young people, as well as a fitness component, like Zumba x aerobics except with blade and firearm techniques.
So how does one prepare to enter the discipline, then? It is Shay who speaks up first. “No need to prepare! They can come in, and we start slow.” He narrates his own learning experience, which was gradual, and through which he was provided all the tools to progress, from visualization to even meditation.
For the members of Tactical Beard, the ideal kali practitioner is one who is disciplined, patient, and humble. “It’s a passage. Sharpening the sword, sharpening the self,” Mitra says. “It is also development. How will you use kali to help yourself, and your community? And lastly, it’s a path of spirituality, that separates us from animals. It helps you feel good, and do good.” Indeed, in the vision of these practitioners, at once enthusiasts of combat sports and scholars of culture and history, gaining a deeper understanding of one’s roots is the best way to evolve.