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.

Bontoc Igorot. No Kali Here.

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.”


15 Responses to “What the Hell Is Kali?”

  1. The Ilustrisimo group was not the first to use ‘kali.’ Yambao’s book was the first to mention it, but Villabrille’s group was the first to actually use it for their art.


  2. Thanks for sharing, Tim.

    I was going by the Kali Ilustrisimo book in which they explain that the Ilustrisimo clan had used kali to designate their style.

    Are you familiar with the Yumbao or Galang’s book? What is your take on the word “kali”?

  3. […] Cook has an article on his blog, entitled “What the hell is Kali?”  He is challenging the claim by many who use the name “Kali” for their FMA that Kali […]

  4. I have read Galang’s book, but not Yambao’s. My take on the word ‘kali’ otherwise mimics yours in general. I don’t agree with Ned Nepangue’s hypothesis about the origin of FMA, though.


  5. I’m glad to find such a recent post on this topic. I’ve seen the same things you and cook are talking about. From my knowledge Girons and Cabales arts came from regions of Spanish occupation but I still can’t find a Moro (Filipino Muslim ) fighting system use the Kali. I’ve read an illustrisimo book where the current grand master refutes Kali and it should be corrected kalis illustrisimo reflecting the blade (kalis) . As for the Indonesia and Malaysia argument, everyone calls it [pencak] silat over there. And silat is also weapon based that do address long weapons at
    certain level of training. so I advise people not to assume one empty hand and the other is weapon. Also look for the general meaning of silat, escrima,and arnis. They all reference “fighting” in some way, simple as that. Kali always gets this romanticized story to validate it.

  6. Eskrima-Practice Says:

    I´m glad to find this kind of topic.
    I have been practice Eskrima since 7 years, i know that is not much but i continue working on it. I´m Spanish and i have a question about the Kali theory, Why a Philipino martial art use a lot of Spanish terms? Doce pares, Larga mano, Sumbrada (cames from sombrada), Numerada (from numero, number in english, all cames for it terms in latin), garote (cames from Garrote that means big stick), Espada y daga, Sombra DeGaso and so on…..
    I addition Eskrima is suppose to came from esgrima a word use to refer the art of swords, that born in central Europe around the XV or XVI centuries.
    Well by the way i don´t care, i like Eskrima, Kali, or budu budu if you prefer.. je je and will continue practicing it.

    • Hermano,

      There are those who say that the Filipino martial arts originated in the Philippines. But you ask a very good question: Why are there so many Spanish terms in eskrima/arnis/kali?

      Thai boxing uses terms like “jab” “uppercut” and “hook.” Those, of course are English words, not Thai. The Thai use English words because those techniques originated in the West, not in Thailand.

      The most convincing theory I have read is that the Filipino martial arts originated when a group of Spaniards trained a military force of Filipinos in preparation to raid the Moro pirates who were attacking the Visayas (the central islands of the Philippines).

      Ya sabes que las Filipinas eran una colonia de los espanoles. Los espanoles sabian pelear con espada, y muchos de los frailes tambien sabian usar una espada. Y ellos les ensenaban a los filipinos. Por eso la terminologia es espanola.

      Thanks for reading my blog and commenting.

  7. From what i learn from my Teacher in eskrima, Kali comes from the cebuano words Kamot (hands) and lihok (move)

  8. Ronukohv,

    I’m not a Cebuano language expert, but I do know that all of the old masters in Cebu City of the Doce Pares and Balintawak schools referred to their arts as “eskrima.” Anciong Bacon did not use the word “kali.”

    The Cebu Eskrima Society has researched the Filipino martial arts and has interviewed the oldest living people, those who knew of Moro raids and the Spanish efforts to repel them, and none of them are familiar with the word “kali.”

    When Yuli Romo, one of the foremost practitioners of the Illustrisimo method was asked about the origin and use of the word “kali,” he said it’s just a nane, and you could call it “kalibangan” (Cebuano for “diarrhea”) for all he cares.

    My teacher, GM Estalilla theorized that the word might come from “pagkalikali”

    Kali does sound like words in many Filipino languages, but Filipinos really don’t recognize it as a word.

    So my point is not to put down people who use “kali,” but to show that “kali” is anything but a universal term, let alone a term for the “real deal” in the FMA.

    • Yeah I also got confused about that so i asked my teacher whats up with the kali term and he said that when the old masters wants to endorse and spread the filipino arts abroad they made up the kali term so it will sound more cooler and will attract more people to study the art. I dont know if its true or not but I kind of agree. Back then the filipino arts was really dying so the masters must have done this as a strategy to attract more people

  9. Kali is just another word to refer to Filipino weapon art. I used to be anti-kali because of the morbid viewpoint and rabid aggressiveness of the typical kali group. But the FMAers (Filipinos in particular) who espouse the use of escrima, arnis and estocada because they believe that the art and methods of FMA originated from the Spanish invaders and colonizers make me sick even more. Right now, I can call my FMA kali, arnis escrima, estocada anytime at will. They are all similar terms referring to the same thing and I can use any term or name to refer to the Filipino weapon arts and it will be as valid as any other term or name.

    • Mananandata,

      My objection is not to the term “kali,” per se, but to those who try to set themselves up as better than arnis and eskrima practitioners.

      I’d be careful about “Spanish invaders and colonizers.” I do believe that the reality is that the FMA originated with Spanish arts. I know some have tried to deny or erase the Spanish influence on the Philippines. There was a movement to replace Spanish loan words in Tagalog like “silya” with “salampuit,” for example, or “eroplano” with “salipawpaw.” Reality is that Filipino is a mix of Spanish, Tagalog, English, and other terms.

      You can’t turn back time. Accepting history as what it is. you have to give credit to Filipinos for taking a Spanish art (by the way, “escrima,” “arnis,” and “estocada” are all Spanish terms) and evolving it. The Filipinos did the same with Spanish cuisine (adobo), Chinese cuisine (pansit and lumpia) and American jeeps (jeepneys), making something uniquely Filipino. Don’t let a hatred of American colonizers prevent you from recognizing the ingenuity of Filipinos who were able to take leaf springs and convert them into balisong knives.

      Thanks for posting.

      • While I think that what is considered FMA originated with the Spanish colonization, I think that to say it originated with Spanish arts is ignoring the role that the native arts (pre-Spanish) played in it’s development. I think it’s more accurate to say that FMA originated with a blend of native arts and Spanish arts.

        Also, Filipino adobo is completely different from Spanish adobo. The Filipinos didn’t get their adobo from the Spanish, the Spanish just called that cooking method ‘adobo’ when they saw it.

  10. There’s a relatively “new” book from various Filipino experts attempting to disprove the authenticity of the term “kali”, does anyone here know the name/author of said book? Might be an interesting read with regards to this issue, though I find it moot in the grand scheme of things. Anybody that can provide the info, it’d be greatly appreciated as it escapes me at the moment.

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