What the Hell Is Kali?
I’m about to get controversial. There has been a rash of people using the term “kali,” which was popularized by Master Dan Inosanto. As far as I can tell, the Ilustrisimo group were the first and only people to use the term “kali,” and of course Master Inosanto is a part of that group.
Kali has become something of a fad, because I suppose it sounds hip and cutting edge, while terms like “arnis” and “eskrima” sound like old school stuff practiced by old codgers. Some have alleged that kali is the “mother art,” (which according to Inosanto originated with Muslims in the southern Philippines) and have implied that other arts are watered down, pale imitations of the “real kali.”
I should point out that the old masters, like GM Giron, GM Estalilla, GM Cabales, GM Presas, etc. did not use the term kali. My teacher, GM Estalilla, a highly literate man who was on a Filipino Bible translation team and who speaks several different Filipino languages, could only hazard a guess as to what the word “kali” might mean. Since GM Estalilla doesn’t use profanity, other, more blunt masters might ask, “What the hell is ‘kali’?” And we are talking about the who’s who of Filipino grandmasters.
Ned Nepangue rightly points out,
“Fact #9 The suggestion that kali is the root word of some words found in different Filipino languages and dialects is not based on linguistics, in fact a study on this claim is yet to be made.
Important pre-Hispanic household words like diwata, Bathala, datu, ulipon are still understood by many and this same is also true with words associated with the warriors, like bangkaw, baraw, tameng. So what is supposed to be the ancient name for the Filipino martial art? Kali? If it is kali then, why don’t we find this word in dictionaries of the different Filipino languages and dialects? In fact this particular word was just “re-introduced” years ago. Kali is never a traditional name for the native martial art. If one goes to a secluded place in Cebu for example and ask those eskrima old-timers there if they know what is kali, the will probably say they don’t know. And these people are supposed to know better.
The most compelling explanation I have heard of the origin of the Filipino martial arts is from the Cebu Eskrima Society. Find the book here. In short, they argue that eskrima originated with Spaniards in the Spanish colonial era of the Philippines. Due to persistent Muslim (Moro) raids, the Spaniards raised a Filipino expeditionary force and trained them in swordsmanship and hand-to-hand combat. Rather than being originated by Muslims, the Filipino martial arts originated in a group of Filipino warriors who raided Muslim areas of Mindanao and waged a bloody war of retaliation and deterrence.
Now there’s nothing wrong with calling your art “kali.” The Ilustrisimo people rightly have a high reputation among Filipino martial artists. You can call your art “hubu bubu” if you want to.
My problem is with those who want to suggest that those who don’t do “kali” aren’t practicing the real thing. My problem is with those who want to jump on the kali bandwagon not because they have historically called their art kali, but because they’re making crap up to cash in on the latest fad. My problem is with those who don’t know better, who are looking for a good kali school and dismiss anybody who uses the terms “arnis” or “eskrima.”