Averting extinction and being true to tradition

Every African combat art is a critical reflection of the dynamic mosaic that comprises our history and culture. Sadly, many of our combat arts have passed into oblivion and others teeter on the brink of doing so. However, in Trinidad and Martinique determined efforts were made to institutionalize and propagate Kalinda and Danmyé respectively. There is much that can be learned from this.

One of the things that is critically important in the work that I and others are doing is that we sustain these fighting traditions. This means taking the time to learn these arts and to teach them to others. This is the only means whereby they can survive. For my part I practice about a half a dozen African arts. Some of these arts I am actively learning, some I teach publicly, others I teach privately. Each one is a piece in larger puzzle that is the African warrior tradition. Each one connects me to a lineage of practitioners through which these knowledges have been transmitted. For some I can name this lineage going back six generations. In every instance, I see myself as an inheritor of this knowledge and recognize the obligation that such an inheritance represents–that is the perpetuation of the lineage going forward.

I recognize that every African martial artist will not commit themselves to this work, many having situated themselves in the domain of Asian combat traditions. Others will embrace the African arts, but not necessarily the propagation of a lineage. To each his own. However, for those of us concerned about the survival of African culture, a different set of commitments is required. Herein, fidelity in the transmission of these arts does necessitate commitments to the legacy of the traditions that we have inherited.

How to study the African combat arts?

There are a few paths into the world of the African combat arts.

First, identify what resources that you have access to now. There are traditional African combat arts within many of our communities–some of these are, in fact, endangered. This is true both on the continent and in the Diaspora. These forms of combat may be boxing arts, wrestling arts, weapons arts, and so on. Often they can be found among older men, so inquiring among one’s familial and communal elders is a great starting point. However, they may not think of what they know as “martial art”. The term itself evokes images of Asian combat arts like Karate or Kung Fu. However, they may be more responsive to queries pertaining to “ways of fighting”, “ways of punching or wrestling”, et cetera. Also, in some traditions, secrecy remains a key protocol, and this may also be something which may impact your exploration.

Second, learn Capoeira. It is by far the most accessible African combat tradition. Of course, if you are like me you have two concerns–learning the art from an African/Black instructor and learning it as a combat art. Both of these are challenges as many Capoeira groups are dominated by non-African teachers and students. Also, many schools focus on the jogo–the game, but not the luta–the fight. Sadly, many teachers are not qualified to transmit the art in this manner.

Fortunately there are some good learning resources and teachers out there. My teacher, Mestre Preto Velho is knowledgeable of the combat dimension of Capoeira in addition to other African and African Diasporan combat arts. He was recently featured in the San Diego Union Tribune (https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/lifestyle/people/story/2020-03-06/someone-san-diego-should-know-dennis-newsome) and his school’s website is http://www.malandros-touro.com.

Additionally, Bro. Da’Mon Stith has become one of the leading exponents of these arts. You can visit his website here: http://www.silentsword.org/. Also, his YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/austinwarriorarts) is a wealth of information. He’s also extremely approachable and would love to field questions from folks interested in understanding the combat science of the art.

Third, read books and articles on the subject. There are a few relevant texts.

Desch-Obi, T. J. 2008. Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art Traditions in the Atlantic World. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

This book is a very good exploration of the interconnections between Africa and the Americas as it relates to the combat arts.

Powe, Edward L. 2011. Black Martial Arts VIII: The ABC & “Bay-ah-Bah” of Capoeira de Angola. Madison, WI: Dan Aiki Publications.

This is an excellent historical and technical overview of Capoeira Angola (the traditional Capoeira of Bahia, Brazil). In addition to this book, Edward Powe has published several very important books on the African combat arts. Visit his site to see more https://www.danaikipublications.org/.

The Blac Foundation has an archive of articles on this subject. You can access them here: http://blacfoundation.org/black-martial-arts/

Fourth, explore 52 Blocks. This art has grown in prominence and various folks have posted information about online including Professor Mo (https://gumroad.com/hitemhard and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYCSk4KsLIs&t=2732s), Lyte Burley (http://lyteburly.com/ and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1GF0w0yztRAZUgc3Wlcz-Q), and so on.

Fifth, visit teachers abroad. There are teachers of machete arts in Columbia and Haiti, stick-fighting in Trinidad, South Africa, and Egypt, wrestling in Senegal, Sudan, and Nigeria, empty-hand striking in South Africa, Martinique, Cuba, and Nigeria, and so on.

Sixth, study African methods of warfare. Below are some relevant texts.

Barcia Paz, Manuel. 2016. West African warfare in Bahia and Cuba: soldier slaves in the Atlantic world, 1807-1844. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Carruthers, Jacob H. 1985. The Irritated Genie: An Essay on the Haitian Revolution. Chicago: The Kemetic Institute.

Price, Richard. 1996. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Seventh, stay focused. Studying our combat traditions is considerably more difficult than studying the combat traditions of Asia, but it is a rewarding sacrifice, for in studying the African arts, you are both helping to preserve our culture, while also demonstrating its relevance to our people in the present.

Three paths, one destination

To my thinking there are three paths to the African warrior tradition. The first path is characterized by both the practice of the African combat arts, as well as the internalization of the highest ethics and discipline of the culture. Herein, one is not simply employing technical principles, but also seeks to reflect African cultural ideals in various ways.

The second path is where one incorporates select principles and techniques of the African combat arts into whatever warrior discipline one practices. This may entail using one or more kicks from Capoeira, or several blocks from 52 Blocks. Here one also draws on the philosophical principles of these arts and of African culture more generally.

The third path consists of the incorporation of the philosophy of the African warrior tradition into one’s practice of non-African martial arts. For years when I did Kung Fu, before I started learning Capoeira, various African proverbs informed my thinking about what it meant to be a martial artist. Whether it was the Odu which states, “It is at home that the war is lost before even reaching the battlefield” or another that states “The constant soldier is never unready, even once”, these statements greatly informed my thinking about these arts and the type of consciousness that must accompany their practice. They gave me a way of conceiving what warriorhood meant in the African milieu and how such principles are vital to the present context.

Hence, even absent the African fighting arts, the African warrior tradition remains a vital area of personal and community development that ultimately should inform our work.

Those seeking further insight into the aforementioned topic should consider the following texts:

Carruthers, Jacob H. 1985. The Irritated Genie: An Essay on the Haitian Revolution. Chicago: The Kemetic Institute.

Desch-Obi, T. J. 2008. Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art Traditions in the Atlantic World. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Green, Thomas A. 2003. “Freeing the Afrikan Mind: The Role of Martial Arts in Contemporary African American Cultural Nationalism.” In Martial Arts in the Modern World: Transition, Change and Adaptation, edited by Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth, 229-248. New York: Praeger.

Green, Thomas A. 2003. “Surviving the Middle Passage: Traditional African Martial Arts in the Americas.” In Martial Arts in the Modern World: Transition, Change and Adaptation, edited by Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth, 129-148. New York: Praeger.

Green, Thomas A. 2004. “African Roots in the Martial Arts: An Interview with Kilindi Iyi.”  In Yo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives (Nov 2004).

Karenga, Maulana. 1999. Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.

Maasi, Shaha Mfundishi. 2008. Essential Warrior: Living Beyond Doubt and Fear. Baltimore, MD: MD&H Publications, LLC.

Maasi, Shaha Mfundishi, and Nganga Tolo-Naa. “The Liberation of Consciousness Through African-Descended Martial Culture in the Americas: The Truth About Kupigana-Ngumi.” accessed December 10, 2015. http://www.kupiganangumi.com/kupiganangumi/History.html.

Powe, Edward L. 2011. Black Martial Arts VIII: The ABC & “Bay-ah-Bah” of Capoeira de Angola. Madison, WI: Dan Aiki Publications.

Price, Richard. 1996. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sanaa ya mapigano (the art of fighting)

Sometimes when I flow into the energy of the moment, when I do what feels natural–that which organically arises in that confluence of time and space–style disappears, systems blur, art is born.