Elite Kali in New York: An Interview with Guro Francis Estrada

Francis Estrada is a visual artist who works as a Museum Educator at MoMA, a freelance educator of Filipino art and culture, and a Filipino martial arts (Pekiti Tirsia Kali) instructor. He is ranked as a Guro at the Pekiti Tirsia Kalie Elite group based out of Brooklyn, NY and studies directly under Tuhon Rommel Tortal. 

http://ptkbrooklyn.com/Pekiti_Tirsia_Kali_Elite-_Brooklyn/Home.html

Nj: So I’d really like to start this off by just asking how you came to the martial arts? How did it become part of your life, or was it always?

GF: It’s really interesting because I’ve always been interested in any form, any system. I’ve always loved watching it. In the Philippines arnis was actually part of our physical education curriculum.

Nj: Wait, so did you grow up in the Philippines?

GF: Yes

Nj: Whereabouts?

GF: I grew up in Marikina, in Manila.

Nj: Ah, yeah, I know Marikina! Well, especially the athletic complex, because that’s where GM Vic Sanchez teaches Lightening Scientific.

GF: Yeah, exactly. So, I was living over there and I went to school in that same area. A private Catholic school, and part of the PE there was to do calisthenics. So the arnis we did, we didn’t really look at it as a martial art, more as a practice in body mechanics and as a form of exercise.

Nj: …and this was all through elementary school?

GF: Yeah, through elementary school and on, even though we never thought about how to implement it. We never talked about the philosophy. It was just taught as a way of keeping us “fit.” But from there, I mean, after I moved to the U.S., it was much like a lot of people. You see all these different movies and just fall in love with the movement.

I remember working in this little independent movie theater in California, that’s where my family moved to when we came to the states, and every Monday and Tuesday they had “Hong Kong Cinema.” So, I’d volunteer to work those nights and, of course, sneak in to watch some films.

But specifically with kali, I started with a group called the Wing Chun Kali System. At that time I’d been doing a lot of art projects based on Philippine history.

Nj: So, wait, let me get the time line straight. Were you in university by this point?

GF: Oh, no, I was already out of university by this time. But, true enough, let’s go back to university first. I studied Fine Arts at San Jose State University and my focus was on painting and drawing. In my art I did and still do often draw from themes of Filipino or Filipino-American history and a lot of this was leading to that question of “what does it mean to be Filipino?” and “what is that Filipino identity?” So much of the culture has been touched and tinted by Spanish influence among others (colonizing powers). But I came to realize that some of the martial arts were among the few instances of intact Filipino culture still existing. In fact some of the old systems had even been hidden in dance during the time when these fighting styles were prohibited.

So, I got really interested in how I could draw or paint or create a piece of fine art that would represent these ideas on how the martial arts were hidden and would express the true nature of the movements. Eventually, I finished college but still found myself working with a lot of the same subject matter. I looked around for a (kali/escrima/arnis) group to get involved with, some in California, some in New York, but I didn’t feel like I really clicked with them. Maybe I was young, maybe the other practitioners were young but I remember feeling like there was a lot of testosterone and a lot of ego.

Luckily, after some time I found this Wing Chun Kali System school where (Guro, PTK) Nate was a part of along with (Lakan Guro, PTK) Mike and (Lakan Guro, PTK) Pat Gagnon. and that was out here in New York. With that things started to come back, the idea of angles and so on. Even in the artwork I was doing I was being influenced. I started making videos about the movement and that kind of thing.

Over time I started to understand that what we were doing a system which was a compilation of different systems, this application from one and this other application from another. The things that really interested me most, I realized, were the concepts that came from Pekiti Tirsia Kali.

So, I guess around 2009 or 2010, I decided to take a half year off of work, a sabbatical. I told them I’d take some unpaid vacation time and made the decision to spend some dedicated time studying PTK.

Nj: So what was it specifically about PTK that interested you so much and caused you to choose it as something you wanted to pursue?

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GF: Well, at WCK our kali was based on PTK. We practiced the 64 attacks and concepts that came from that system. So, I figured, if our basis is this system, along with wing chun, silat, and I knew that my interest was particularly in Filipino martial arts, I should try to focus specifically on the kali elements.

Nj: Ah, okay. So this 6 month practice sabbatical, did you do this in the Philippines?

GF: Actually I started out in India. Because, worked into this trip, was my wife having received a fellowship to work on some archives for her PhD work. I knew I could find (Mandala) Kanishka Sharma who had worked directly under Grandtuhon (Leo T. Gaje) and Tuhon Rommel. So while in India I trained with him every day. I’d travel the four hours in New Delhi on the trains and rickshaws to practice with him and he was the one who really prepped me for my time in the Philippines with GT and Tuhon Rommel. It definitely felt like I had this big chunk of private training with all of them. I guess a lot of this was in 2010 and it was all really big for me. Kanishka and I were in the Philippines together right before that year’s convention as well. So we’d train together with Grandtuhon in the early morning and then he’d send me on to go train with Tuhon Rommel who, at that time, was training the guys from the Russian PTK crew. I’d jump in for that training and ended up being invited along to participate in some of their jungle/survival training.

Nj: So you were getting the whole deal and from a whole bunch of different perspectives.

GF: Exactly. And then, after the Russians had left, he made a lot of time to work with me individually.

Nj: Wow, that just sounds really fantastic. Now, on another point, do you feel like you have a distinct connectivity to PTK or to kali in general, because of your Filipino heritage?

GF: Yeah, I guess so. It’s strange because, in some ways, it becomes a sort of ambassadorship. You know, one of the things I do outside of the martial arts is teaching about Filipino art and culture, working with different non-profit and community organizations. But, in truth, part of this arts education includes the martial arts.

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Nj: Now my other question, and this is a question that is often posed to me, has to do with the idea of practicing very reality based martial arts and living in a society, speaking particularly of the U.S., wherein there is such a dichotomy between the the proliferation of knives and guns out in the world, especially recognizing that we live here in NYC, and a social ideology and legal system that disallows the law abiding citizen from the possession and/or use of these items. So, how do you reconcile those things, realizing that you’re training an art does not in any way shy away from the possibility of violence?

GF: I mean, that’s the beauty of it and the art of it and the understanding of it. For example, when we start training with knives one of the first things we do is review the laws and rules are in New York City, in New York State, in the U.S., knowing what are some of the repercussions if you do end up using some of the applications that we teach. So we have to develop an understanding of the consciousness and consequences of using what we’ve learned. Part of the idea behind teaching the ways in which a weapon works, particularly edged weapons, is because we have to understand this before we can think about how to counter it, how to engage or disengage with it. But yes, it is really interesting to think about how many things we do that in the regular scope of things we wouldn’t be “allowed” to do. That’s when the philosophy comes into play. You have to know that there is a philosophy behind the system. What are you doing? At which level of engagement are you? Is the attack a matter of bodily harm? Of grave bodily harm? Or is it a threat that you can walk away from? A lot of what we’re about is building that confidence that, when we reach the various levels of engagement, we know what to do.

Nj: Can you talk a little more about this philosophical side? What do you think are some of the core tenets?

GF: My feeling about the philosophy is that it’s more about the awareness. We used to talk a lot to people before they’d start training with us, trying to make sure they understood this wasn’t a system for them to go out and start attacking people, but to get some body awareness, to understand how your mind and body work. What are your tendencies? Are you an aggressor? Are you someone who finds ways to avoid trouble? Whatever the case, you have to develop the confidence to interact on any of these levels otherwise, as I’ve seen, people often find themselves getting into situations they can’t handle.

Nj: One of the things that really stands out to me is the fact that I’ve heard GT, Tuhon Mel and even Tuhon Nonoy make a clear distinction about about this being a fighting art as opposed to a martial art. This was really interesting because it felt like it was affirming the idea that practicality had not been sacrificed for the sake of ideology as has been the case with countless other art forms.

GF: That’s really interesting to me because it brings me back to my time growing up in the Philippines and training arnis in school in a format that was more like sport.

In the early 70s was that era when they were trying to define the culture of Filipino martial arts on the popular scene. More groups started opening and for safety’s sake, you did see some adjustments happening. For example, stick to stick contact was a compromise from a lot of the standard hand targeting which had been more common before. But this technique started being used as a way to practice angles and was found to be a little more safe and practical, especially when teaching. Still, this was an incorporation that was meant to be understood as a training device to allow people to see the different forms and methods.

Nj: Can you talk a little about the use of the term kali as opposed to escrima or arnis in the Pekiti Tirsia system?

GF: From my understanding, when Grandtuhon first came here to New York he actually had an arnis federation because that was the word that was the most familiar to Americans from the period when the U.S. was a colonizing power in the Philippines. After the Spanish colonial era, arnis de mano and escrima were still the words being used to describe all the Philippine martial systems.

Anyway, I think once people saw that the world was becoming more familiar with the art, they figured they could stop referring to it by the Spanish names. So, in this time you started to hear the reference to kalis, which is an indigenous word which refers to the weapon itself.

Nj: Kalis with an “s?”

GF: Yes, and this is where it’s said the word kali comes from. And, I think, the general feeling came up that if you were teaching an indigenous art than you should use a name associated with its place of birth.

Nj: Is part of the reason why some of these other names come into play related to the fat that some of these older practitioners did, in fact, recall a relationship between their martial art and the influences of outside cultures. For example, espada e daga and its reference to the Spanish style of fencing with both the sword and dagger.

GF: It’s true and interesting how language gets used throughout the Philippines, particularly the integration of the Spanish words. But you can see that more and more the use of Tagalog is becoming common ( ie Hubad Lubad, Sinawali, etc.).

Nj: And this kind of signals more of an association with Filipino culture and heritage. Kind of on this heritage and lineage track, I know that GT is also pretty particular about the movement and technique of his students/disciples being specifically from the line of Pekiti Tirsia and not referencing other lines of kali/arnis/escrima. But he does give a nod to and utilize the concepts of silat. Is there a reason why you can imagine he has this kind of special regard for silat?

GF: I don’t want to speak for him but I might imagine that, well, before the Spanish had taken over the Philippines and pulled all of these individual islands into one amalgamous country, you had the Sri Vijaya Empire which extended all the way through SE Asia and included the Philippine islands. So, I could imagine with the placement of Bacolod (Leo T Gaje, Jr.’s place of birth), it’s in the midst of what would have been that empire, and is a place where the datus (chiefs) from Indonesia would have been a part of the cultural evolution in the region, as opposed to farther north where you had a more of that Spanish and even Chinese contact and influence. So you can imagine that over the centuries, as the influence of many outside colonizers started to wane, that Indonesian influence might still be an integral part of the way things were done.

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Nj: Now, bringing us back to New York, after you left Wing Chun Kali you decided to train PTK. So when you came back, after your trip, it made since that you would start a PTK group here in New York. But what about (Guro) Nate and (Lakan Guro) Mike? How did you guys get inspired to put this thing together?

GF: Actually, when I returned I went back to training at WCK because that was the only group I’d been connected to.

Nj: But (Tuhon) Eddie Hunt was out here.

GF: Yeah, Eddie Hunt was out here but I didn’t know him.

Nj: And they hadn’t mentioned him while you were in the Philippines?

GF: They mentioned him. I was definitely told to go and train with him but, at the time, his classes didn’t work with my schedule, my art studio schedule.

Nj: So, purely on a logistical…

GF: Yes, on a logistical thing. But, you know, even though I was back training at WCK I was still in touch with Tuhon Rommel. Meanwhile, Nate had an opportunity to go to a seminar with him out in Northern California. So, in 2010 or 2011, when he (Rommel) came to New York he trained with both of us and, seeing that we had good mechanics and had been training for a while, he suggested that we start a training group, not necessarily a school but just a group of enthusiasts. We talked to our WCK teacher and, initially, got the okay to start this thing up and continue to train with him. But, after some time, that was rescinded and I was really into training the PTK. So we all had the talk and decided to do our own thing under the guidance of Tuhon Rommel and to see where it would go.

Nj: At that point did you ever have the feeling you’d want to put things together with Eddie Hunt. Or did you have a conversation to say, “hey, we’re doing this other PTK thing here in the city but seperately. Is there something we can do together that accommodates everyone’s schedules and lets us work on this as a collaboration?”

GF: Oh, for sure! As soon as we decided to go this route, we reached out to him, because at that point he was the highest ranking member in New York City. We hadn’t met Tuhon AK yet, but we knew that in the vicinity it would be Eddie Hunt. We let him know that we were starting this thing on behalf of Tuhon Rommel and wanted to work out with him when we could, and we actually had a cross training session. But it was hard because we didn’t have set days yet and they were training out of NY Ju Jutsu, which has it’s own schedule and policies on visitors, etc. We stayed in contact though and, for a while, Mike was still going by when he could to take classes.

Nj: I guess I asked because I’ve noticed the kind of connection we have with Tuhon AK’s group from White Plains and Jeanette’s group in New Jersey, and have wondered about the distance it seems from the group that’s most geographically close.

GF: Yeah, I mean it is really nice to have more people to train with and, once (Mandala) Arvee moved out here it even gave us this nice connection to his old group in Texas. Whenever we have guest instructors out here we invite everyone and host workshops as “open” sessions.

Nj: So what are your visions or goals for what you would like to see come out of all this? I mean, fairly quickly, in just 3 years or so, you’ve got sometimes 15 or so people at class. You’ve had some really nice growth.

francis gt and t rommelGF: Yeah, you know, like I said, I really see myself as an ambassador of Filipino culture and if this is something I can offer that teaches, not only the fighting system, but also the culture, then great. Not to sound like a hippie but really, my goal is to get people training and learning from each other. We just happen to be fortunate in having great groups around so people can train in other places as well and we have GT and Tuhon Rommel who we can check in with if we have any questions.

Nj: Yeah, it’s definitely great having that kind of contact.

GF: Technology is a great thing. I can only imagine how much more difficult it was to be in touch when GT first left the U.S. And went back to the Philippines. But I can just shoot an email to him if I have a question about the philosophy or history or whatever.

Nj: Do you have feeling like there’s some reconciling or some meditation that you have to do on – and this is just based on my impression of you based on our conversations and interactions – balancing a nature that is oriented toward peace and peaceful resolution with your training an art that is oriented toward resolving conflict with such immediate violent efficacy.

GF: It’s important to learn the “go-buttons.” The pacifist in me might just walk away and the system teaches me how I can inflict harm if I have to or how I can position myself so that I can keep someone from inflicting harm on me. It’s a psychological practice, figuring out the things that set you off, and I find that I have a lot less aggression when I practice this. I know it seems counterintuitive that we would be working with blades and edges and that this would make us feel more at peace. But I think it’s about understanding what will happen multiple steps forward, where this will lead to.

Nj: Alright, for my last question, and it’s multiple parts, seeing kali show up in so many films nowadays, do you have one that you’d say is your favorite or that you think is most true to the art?

GF: That’s tough ’cause you know, when you see it in moviess, even a lot of the good ones like “Book of Eli” or the “Bourne” series, you had a practitioner who was very good, Jeff Imada, acting as fight coordinator, but who would also have to exaggerate movement for the sake of film. A lot of things done in their true style wouldn’t make sense on the big screen. At the same time, presenting this showey style of fighting has been one way of propagating interest in the Filipino martial arts. Something flamboyant and exciting. An interesting thing though is that, these days, they’ve been finding a compromise and remedy for this by using camera angles and more advanced technology. They can shoot things in a way that transmit the speed of the actions.

As far as something that can reach the general public, you have things like this recent tv show “Arrow” where they show training sequences and that kind of thing, sinawali, etc., and you recognize actual techniques as demonstrated through a training montage.

In fighting sequences I’d have to say “The Hunted” with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro. The Sayoc Kali System is the one they used and I think they did a good job of showing how we work with the knife. It really demonstrates what happens when you go against a knife fighter, not just a knifer, but someone who knows about knives. The “Book of Eli” has a few great sequences where they show the blade being used against multiple opponents. The “Bourne” series does a nice job of showing the use of improvised weapons and this is such a big part of kali fighting.

But really, what I think the Philippines needs is something more like what Tony Jaa did for Thai martial arts, for Muay Thai, even though his background wasn’t really Muay Thai hahaha.

Nj: Hahaha. Right, but it created that interest.

GF: But now they need someone from the Philippines, but not like those old movies from the 70s. I remember those films from when I was a kid. They were bad, hahaha.

Nj: Yeah, like “Sticks of Death!” They brought all those masters together for that movie! But the thing was, they weren’t film fighters. They were real fighters, hahaha.

GF: I remember seeing this documentary about the Shaolin Temple and they talked about the Wushu schools down at the foot of the steps who’d do demonstrations every day. People would come from all over just to see this jumping movements, these acrobatic movements, but this was all so different from what was actually going on inside the temple.

I don’t know if it needs to be an epic or what, but the Filipino martial arts needs that thing that is beautiful and exciting and expresses the culture and the art, maybe even along the lines of Jet Li’s “Fearless.”

Nj: Maybe… maybe it’s nice for us to just have it for a while before it gets completely popularized.

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2 responses to “Elite Kali in New York: An Interview with Guro Francis Estrada

  1. Pingback: Feature of the Month |·

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