There's an odd, slightly unpleasant smell passing through a conference room inside the Los Angeles Hilton. We are told that it's the wood. When two sticks rub together, you can build a fire. When two thin, wooden poles go at it in battle, you get the smell of a singe without the flames. Over the course of a two-hour training session in epic stick battling, the smell reappears every time combat gets heated.
On Saturday afternoon, in the midst of Asian pop culture convention Pacific Media Expo, we're learning KaTa Tapado. It's a relatively obscure martial art style from the Philippines. If you want to learn it, and you're in the United States, you'll probably have to seek out Emilio Labarcon at Yaw-Yan Ardigma Sacramento. Today, though, he's in Los Angeles sharing skills with a crowd that swells during the course of the workshop.
Tattooed and bearded, Labarcon wields his stick as opponents block and strike. He began learning KaTa Tapado in 1990 in a mountainous area of Negros, an island in the Philippines. A year later, he moved to Alaska, where he worked processing a variety of fish, but made trips home to continue his training. By 1994, Labarcon was certified to teach. Now he teaches in Northern California, but his studies have not ended. “This is my journey for master instructorship,” he says.
At Pacific Media Expo, martial arts, specifically those emanating from the Philippines, are a big draw. Saturday is dedicated to education, with workshops geared towards beginners. According to Steve del Castillo, who runs the convention's martial arts programming block, it's a chance for people to discover Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) and maybe find an instructor who teaches near them.
Two decades ago, when del Castillo had just returned from his time in the army and was looking for someone to teach him FMA, he had to drive an hour and a half for training. These days, FMA is gaining popularity, particularly in Southern California. “We're pretty much the hub of Filipino Martial Arts,” he says.
FMA is a catch-all term for a variety of fighting styles that originate in the Philippines. Eskrima, or Arnis, is a more commonly known variety of martial arts that involves shorter sticks. Michael Rubi Mckenzie, who owns Yaw-Yan Ardigma Sacramento, explains the development of martial arts as a means of protecting villages from invaders. Now, learning FMA is about more than self-defense. It is a beautiful, disciplined art form. “Everything is more than one strike so we flow from one technique to the next,” says Mckenzie. “I won't say that FIlipino Martial Arts has a monopoly on that, but that's the one thing about Filipino Martial Arts is that it's very fluid going from technique to technique.”
In KaTa Tapado, the sticks are long — ideally, they should stand from the floor to the fighter's sternum — and are heavier than they look. Training involves learning a series of strikes, which progress in forcefulness. Today, we're learning two strikes, Centro Uno and Centro Dos. The goal is to strike and disarm an opponent. The challenge is to maintain some semblance of grace while doing this. Since the sticks are large, you have to grip with both hands. However, it is not like swinging a baseball bat. You keep your left hand one inch from the bottom of the stick, the right hand one inch above that, and let it drop behind your shoulder before making a move. The strikes that we learn are sharp, downward motions aimed towards the center of the opponents stick. When the fighters with a little more experience go at it, sticks sometimes break.
It's an intense workout. After a half hour, I could feel the blisters start to form on my hands. A day later, I could still feel aching exhaustion in lazy muscles. It's also a rewarding experience. There's a sense of pride that comes with learning how to swing a stick that is more than half your height.
Mckenzie recalls hearing stories about martial arts when his relatives visited from the Philippines. “I was always interested,” he says, “but, in my town, I had no options.”
It wasn't until Mckenzie was 30 that he began training in FMA. In 2006, he got the go-ahead to open his own school. “I wanted other people to have the opportunity learn the Filipino Martial Arts,” he says. Now, he says that he's seeing more FMA schools open and that's good.
On Sunday, Pacific Media Expo hosted the “Way of the Stick and Blade” tournament. While there were no KaTa Tapado competitions (there was a demonstration from Labarcon and Mckenzie), a large and diverse crowd of competitors and fans turned up to show their appreciation for Eskrima.
With short sticks that are padded for this competition, helmet-wearing martial artists engaged in fights in which they were judged on both offensive and defensive moves using a points system. Some of the battles were close. In a final round, Christopher Smith of Walnut beat Raymond Vallido of San Diego by a single point.
Both Smith and Vallido developed an interest in FMA while in college and have continued their studies over the past few years. Smith trains at Mount San Antonio College. Vallido commutes from San Diego to Perris, in Riverside County, to train at Filipino Martial Arts School.
For Vallido, FMA is a way of exploring and sharing his own cultural roots. “In college, I had done some Filipino cultural dancing and I wanted to continue learning more about Filipino heritage,” he says.
Sharing that knowledge with others is also important. FMA still hasn't reached the level of visibility that other forms of martial arts have in the U.S., but if the students and instructors at Pacific Media have their way, that will change soon. “We're still spreading the word,” says Vallido, “all over the world.”
Liz Ohanesian on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: