It is truly a pleasure to be able to include Damon in this edition of NoPaper. He has a been a mentor to me in many ways without even realizing it and has wonderful insights to share which can be applied to all of our artistic and cultural practices.
Damon Abraham of Kapatiran Mandirigma talks back to 5 Questions from Njoli Brown at NoPaper
I first encountered the Southeast Asian martial arts between my Freshman and Sophomore years of college. I was home for the summer when a friend of mine was telling me all about this “Kali” art that he was studying. At the time, I had never even heard the term Kali or Arnis / Escrima for that matter. In any case, I had been interested in martial arts for as long as I could remember and had practiced a couple of different arts by this time. Like most American kids in my generation, inspired by Ralph Macchio I studied at a “Karate” school which was really Tae Kwon Do. Later I ended up taking some Hapkido. But I was certainly interested in something more. Anyway, through this friend I was introduced to an Indonesian martial artist named Paul Prijatna. His primary art was Kali, but growing up he had learned Pencak Silat from his uncle. I was impressed by Paul. He was very unlike the Westernized artists I had met so far and he embodied more of the internal and spiritual aspects of the art that I was looking for. We had many conversations about energy (i.e. chi), meditation, and the proper conduct for a martial artist. There was no ego or machismo that I’ve later come to associate with sport fighting etc. Paul only charged me $50 for several weeks of training and at our last meeting before I returned to school he pulled out my check and ripped it up. “I just wanted to make sure you were serious”, he said as he handed me the pieces of ripped paper. While my training with Paul was very short, he put me on the path towards FMA and Silat that I still follow today.
One thing that I believe to be a personal weakness is not knowing enough about the customs and cultural heritage of the styles that I study. I am not particularly well-versed in the language and histories of the Philippines and Indonesia, for example. However, I have visited both countries to study and learn. And although I have perhaps fallen short in some areas, I have tried to make a sincere effort to know about my teachers, their philosophies, why they move the way that they move, and especially their perspectives on the spiritual aspects of the arts.
For me personally, I feel the best way that I can reflect the art is through embodying it as a personal expression. Many people try to preserve an art by memorizing techniques and drills and chiseling them into stone, so to speak, as if they were some sort of dogma to follow. To me this makes the art seem dead. Kind of like Latin, an arguably complete language and yet it is immutable. It does not live because it is not spoken. The living art is in constant flux and each practitioner contributes their unique perspective and individualized expression. Hence, it is through the internalization
of the art that it really remains alive. And of course, the manner in which the art is transmitted is crucial here as well. It is my ambition, therefore, to be both a reflection of my teachers and an individualized expression. At the end of the day, none of us are a source of anything… we are merely channels of that thing. Training builds that channel within the student, and each student is different.
Lately, with respect to Pencak Silat and FMA, I’ve been contemplating a metaphor of a squirrel trying to climb two trees. It is, of course, impossible to climb both at the same time. In the beginning of our practice we tend to see each trunk independently as well as its differences from the other. And yet at the level of the branches, the trees come together and the practitioner can seamlessly traverse between them. So it becomes a question of how far apart are the trees and how great is their breadth in the understanding of the practitioner. My personal experience in the way that I’ve learned them, Pencak Silat and Arnis/Kali/Escrima are kind of like complimentary opposites. The movements and the core physical training, to me, do not seem to conflict. Likewise, many of the principles are common between them. Hence, I would say that these two trees are close together. However, there can be considerable variation in how the information is conceptualized by the teacher and imparted to the student. This can be true even amongst teachers within a single system. And I have found that when observing the gross movements between different styles, for example, while they may appear to be very similar, when actualizing the movement with the intent and mindset of the respective style they are very different. Hence, for me it has become less of a matter of “how does art A perform movement XYZ?” and more about “how do I move with this art?” I will say that each art has given me an augmented view of the other as I can take a somewhat out-of-the-box perspective by analyzing a technique etc from the vantage point of another style. I am sure this must be true of anyone who has learned more than one art. However, we must be cautious. It is one thing to be able to shift perspectives and it is another to try and interpret one art through the lens of another. I’ve seen many students who have slowed their progress through this fallacy. You’ll often hear people say things like “Oh yes, we have that in JKD too.” or “In my art we would do it like this.” As an example, 4 years ago I began learning Kalis Ilustrisimo under Kuya Raul Marquez. At that time, I was already a Lakan and senior student in two other styles of FMA (Kombatan Arnis and Kuntaw Kali Kruzada). And yet, in my first lesson I had to come to terms with the fact that I really didn’t know anything. Raul’s teaching method was completely unlike anything I had experienced.
Nothing was broken down into simple steps. There was no rote memorization but rather it was fistfuls of information that I had no hope to process… I just had to swallow as much as I could and try to keep up. The movements appeared familiar, and yet I couldn’t apply them in context. My timing was off, my footwork was backwards, and all of my instincts seemed wrong. After each lesson, I’d ride the subway for an hour from Queens back to Brooklyn and my head would literally ache. If you were to ask me, “what did you learn today?” I wouldn’t even be able to tell you and yet I could see myself improving. Hence, I was faced with a choice… I could accept returning to the status of a “beginner” or I could let my ego get the better of me. Fortunately I chose the former. By putting aside my pride and approaching the lessons with the beginner’s mentality, I feel I was not only able to learn the movements much faster, but to understand the underlying principles and philosophy at a deeper level. Ultimately, this experience proved beneficial to my progress in every style that I practice. I think that most arts run much deeper than we tend to recognize. Although it is not always overtly expressed, my teachers all seem to embody this appreciation. Despite their accomplishments and recognition, they are still students of their art. To me, that is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from them. If we view ourselves as a rank (black belt, lakan etc), we find ourselves repeatedly disappointed. We can never really live up to our own expectations of what that rank entails. However, when we recognize ourselves as beginners, we can only improve. This disposition has not only helped me progress as an artist, but ultimately has allowed me to reap more enjoyment from the arts.
Regarding their differences, perhaps the greatest contrast that I’ve noticed between the style of Silat that I study (Inti Ombak Pencak Silat – IOPS) and the styles of FMA that I practice (Kombatan, Kuntaw Kali Kruzada, and Kalis Ilustrisimo) is that the FMA is very martial focused whereas I would say that IOPS is more holistic. I mean this in the sense that IOPS is not only external (i.e. martial) but also emphasizes internal aspects (breathing / meditation) as well as spiritual. Case in point, the Lakutama organization, of which IOPS is a part, has branches dedicated entirely to spiritual and healing practices. I believe that these aspects are still embedded within the FMA, but perhaps due to colonialism are more buried under the surface. You don’t regularly come across FMA practitioners with a heavy emphasis on internal training, for example, unless they have learned other arts. Of course, that is a generalization. For instance, I know practitioners from Mindanao who are very spiritual and have a very holistic approach to their art. But generally speaking, as it is practiced I feel that IOPS has a more overt emphasis on the entirety of the person going beyond physical and martial applications. I’ve seen IOPS have a profound and lasting positive impact on more people (not only students) than any other art that I’ve encountered. Ironically, while I regret to have had less opportunity to study directly under Guru Daniel Prasetya as I have with my other teachers, I would say that he has had a greater influence over me at a personal level (beyond martial) than almost anyone I’ve ever known. I think that it is unfortunate that more arts don’t incorporate these aspects.
A personal challenge for me has been in the realization that life’s time constraints do not allow me to practice nearly as much as I feel like I should. This is exasperated when learning more than one style. And the ego can become particularly threatened when seeing oneself surpassed by your peers. Time spent “advancing” in one art is time sacrificed in another. But as I’ve matured as an artist, I’ve come to worry less and less about the recognition of certificates, rank, title, or the successes of my peers. I only strive to be a better artist today than I was yesterday. And when we are at the level of the tree’s branches, it is not about how many drills we know etc… simply, how well can we connect to the roots of the tree? Is the root of the style inside of you?
In the years that I’ve been studying Arnis, there has definitely been an upsurge in the popularity of the Filipino Arts. Several action movies have begun using FMA inspired choreography, new schools and styles are popping up everywhere, and there is a ton of videos, Facebook groups, websites, and equipment suppliers that have popped up. In general, I see this as a positive change but it certainly has its drawbacks as well. For instance, I’m happy to see people from all over the world making pilgrimages to the Philippines to pay homage and learn from the originators of the arts. Likewise, with how much Western culture tends to be idolized and idealized in parts of Asia, I think that for Filipinos to see Westerners visiting their homeland to learn their native arts hopefully gives a sense of cultural pride. It is a shame to think about how many Filipinos (and Indonesians) forego their native arts to pursue TKD or Karate etc due to either a lack of awareness or lack of respect for their indigenous art. On the other hand, the manner in which FMA tends to be embodied in the US is often less than optimal. There is a lot of ego and insecurity wrapped up in the arts and veiled behind catch phrases like “combat effective” or “battle tested”. Not to say that the arts are not incredibly effective, because they are. However, many practitioners seem to study the arts more for the protection of the ego than protection of the person. As to the competition between groups and styles, in terms of self-defense, our mindset should not be how does one style defeat another. I’m not training to fight another style. I’m training to defend my person and to defend others. Therefore, to me all of the saber rattling that goes with “style-pride” is wasted breath. It is also easy for us to get caught up in pitfalls involving recognition. This comes in the form of belts, certificates, logos on T-shirts, and even our posed pictures with the masters. The only proof of your practice comes in the expression of your art. Is it part of you? Any other artifice that represents that, to me, is BS. And it upsets me when I see people visit the masters, paying them a trifle then demanding a lesson and a photo opportunity. How many masters die poor while the styles of their own creation thrive abroad? Essentially, the real art is an intangible thing. It lives in us and is ever changing. But that is hard for us to accept and we cling to the token instead. That is also why we are more concerned with the number of techniques we carry in our suitcases rather than how well we understand the principles. I count myself extremely fortunate for the teachers I have had who have instilled this sense into me.
I think that the most exciting project for me has been my ongoing involvement with the Kapatiran Mandirigma organization which was set up to be a celebration of Indonesian and Filipino martial arts. We’ve sought to foster a community of sharing amongst styles and artists and have done our best to put a sense of family over politics. This group was created by my teacher, Grandmaster Shelley Millspaugh (Kombatan Arnis), who most certainly has been one of my greatest martial influences. Shelley believes that as artists we have so much to share and learn from one another, and so this organization serves as a vehicle for us to meet other groups, cross-train between styles, and congregate as a family at our annual camp in Estes Park. I have been extremely fortunate to have fallen under so many teachers with this mentality. Prior to the formation of Kapatiran Mandirigma, I moved to NYC and began learning from Datu Richie Acosta (Kuntaw Kali Kruzada). To this day I have yet to meet a practitioner with as much uncanny speed, power, and precision as him. But more importantly, I have yet to meet a more humble person. Soon after beginning my study of Kuntaw Kali, Shelley to visit NYC and teach a seminar. Datu also assisted me in hosting Guru Daniel on more than one occasion. Consequently, Datu became one of the first members we invited to the Kapatiran Mandirigma organization. I mention this merely because it gives me both a sense of pride about FMA and Silat in the US as well as hope for the future when I see so many artists with various backgrounds come together to foster an environment of mutual respect. This posture of openness not only serves to minimize conflict, but gives the students an invaluable opportunity to see their own art from many perspectives and to broaden their horizons. The best teachers are the ones who are forever students. They are the ones who do not view themselves as “the source” of the teaching, but merely a guidepost for the student. And since the inception of Kapatiran Mandirigma, I’ve seen my teachers grow as much as we have as students. And now the responsibility for hosting the 2015 Kapatiran Mandirigma camp has fallen to me and the other senior members of our organization. For me, this is an exciting opportunity to bring all of my teachers together in one place. We hold our camp annually in Estes Park around late June. The camp is essentially open to anyone, provided they have the right disposition and a willingness to learn.
Damon has studied martial arts since childhood but has been learning various styles of Silat and Arnis since 2000. His formal study began in 2002 when he met Grandmaster Shelley Millspaugh in Kansas City, MO. GM Shelley is a direct student of Great Grandmaster Ernesto Presas, the founder of Kombatan Arnis, as well as a student of Kuntaw Silat under Bapak Willem deThouars. Through GM Shelley’s encouragement, Damon has branched out and learned from several other instructors. In 2004 at a seminar in Arkansas, Damon met Guru Daniel Prasetya and shortly after began his study of Inti Ombak Pencak Silat. While he had some previous experience with Kuntaw Silat through GM Shelley, this was his first introduction into a formalized internal practice inclusive of breathing and meditation disciplines. In late 2005, Damon and his family moved to New York City where they lived for 8 years. Soon after he began learning Kuntaw Kali Kruzada from Datu Richie Acosta. At GM Shelley’s request, Damon also sought out Kuya Raul Marquez of Kalis Ilustrisimo and has been a student of KI since 2010. Other notable teachers and influences include Paul Prijatna who first introduced him to Southeast Asian martial arts, Guru Michael Leininger (Init Ombak Pencak Silat) who first introduced him to the internal side of the arts, Mas Sigit (Inti Ombak Pencak Silat) the spiritual leader of IOPS, Master Kurt Graham (Kombatan Arnis), Grandmaster Steve Todd (founder of 5 Way Method), Grandmaster Jeff Sprawls (founder of Maju Bela Diri Pentjak Silat), and Master Style Allah (Combate Eskrima Orehenal) who first introduced Damon to the art of the blade. In 2009, Damon joined the Kapatiran Mandirigma (KM) organization and is currently a senior member & master instructor of KM. He is proud to represent the KM organization which serves to support many artists and teachers from various backgrounds and styles. Damon currently resides in Denver, Colorado.
Titles and Ranks:
Kapatiran Mandirigma – Master Instructor
Kombatan Arnis – Lakan Tatlo (3rd Degree)
Modern Arnis / Kombat-an (MAK) – Full Instructor
Kadena Kruzada Eskrima – Instructor
Kuntaw Kali Kruzada – Associate Instructor
5 Way Method – (1st Degree)
Inti Ombak Pencak Silat – Guru Muda (4th Degree)
It’s neat to hear the journey if learning, integrating, and honoring different arts and practices. As an educator myself, this resonates: “The best teachers are the ones who are forever students.” Thanks for sharing.
Im paul prijatna’s little sister and i kind of proud reading this about my stinky brother 😀
Excellent article. I will be dealing with a few of these issues as well..