Starting today, I will be featuring a local martial artist on the blog every month. This month, I interviewed Justin Umel (aka: Kuya Justin), who teaches Kali Concepts in Bangor.
JU: Kali is a Filipino martial art that goes by several different names. Kali is probably the most recognized name in the West, but it is also known as Escrima and Arnis. It involves the use of weapons: anything from swords and knives to sticks and scarves can be used — in Kali, anything is a weapon, no matter how benign it may appear. The techniques are the same, no matter what the weapon is. Students start by using sticks, then move on to an axe or a sword.
Wow, that sounds intense.
It is, but it’s also very basic. The movements are fundamental, so anyone can use them.
How long have you been practicing Kali and how did you get started?
I’ve been practicing informally all my life, but have been training formally for about a year — learning more about it and gaining more skills. It’s a way for me to explore my Filipino heritage. My father was my first teacher; he started teaching me as soon as I could swing a stick. It’s part of my culture, so I grew up with it. I started working with a group in Salem, MA last year and was told that my skill set was large enough and good enough that they would support me if I wanted to start a group up here.
So, do people need a certain level of fitness or a certain level of martial arts experience to do Kali, or is this something everyone can do?
Anyone can do it. The concepts of the movements are simple enough for a novice to understand, and the basics can be learned in just a couple of classes. Kali is a great way for people to learn to defend themselves quickly. It’s simple, which is why it’s popular, but it looks fancy. The basics become second nature fairly quickly. It was originally used to teach family and fellow tribe members how to defend themselves. If we’re in the same tribe, and our tribe is going to war tomorrow, I’d teach you Kali so that you would be prepared for that. Even kids can learn Kali — really as soon as they can swing a stick, they can start learning. I don’t teach kids right now because we’re using weapons. I might add some kids’ classes once I learn how to teach kids, but for now, all my students need to be over 18.
Students come in, there’s a brief stretching period to warm up the upper body: shoulders, elbows, wrists, etc. Then we work in some basic footwork to warm up the lower body. There’s lots of footwork involved in Kali, both offensively and defensively. After we warm up, we work on the fundamentals of striking and blocking. After that, we do some paired drills so students can practice the basic movements together. That’s all in the first half hour of class. Beginners start by training with a single stick in the first half hour, then move on to double sticks in the second half hour. We work on forms to integrate different striking and blocking techniques. There’s a stack of tires in the back of the room, and at the end of class, we beat up those tires to learn striking technique and control. For the last 20 minutes of class, we come together to talk about what worked and what didn’t work, what we did well and what we still need to practice. Everyone is different, so we all gravitate toward different techniques. The stuff we go over is not style specific — you can find these movements in every Kali school — they are truly fundamentals.
How do your students address you?
The word we use for the teacher is Kuya. it’s a Tagalog word that means “brother’ or “big brother”.
As a teacher, what do you hope your students to take away from your classes?
I hope they come away with a broader understanding of their own body movement; their strengths, weaknesses, and areas they need to work on. I hope they feel more confident about themselves. Mostly, I hope they go away with a more active imagination, thinking about the possibilities.
If you could tell people one thing about Kali, what would it be?
It’s a martial art that absolutely anybody can do, bar none. One of the better known cultural stories is about a Filipino princess who was an amazing martial artist, and she was blind. As long as you can pick up a stick or a knife, you can do Kali.
Where can people go to learn more about your classes or about Kali in general?
The Internet is a great place to learn about Kali. You can search for Kali, Escrima, Arnis, or Filipino Martial Arts and find lots of information. If you’re looking to get in touch with me, you can go to Kali Concepts on Facebook or you can call me at (207)944-7116. My classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:00 – 7:30 PM at the Kishintaikan Dojo. I also offer private lessons.