By Douglas Shimizu 

As you head down the stairs, the hypnotic clack-clack rhythm of the rattan sticks gets louder. Once your eyes adjust from the dark stairwell into the basement studio, you can make out several pairs of fighters swinging and thrusting their 30 inch sticks at each other.

Stab, counter-punch, parry, swing at the legs. The smell of burning wood from the friction of banging sticks fills the crowded room as the Kali students practice the dukup y punyo flow drill. Their circular footwork is known as “the dance of death”.

Maelstrom Martial Arts is located downstairs from the Ache Brasil capoeira studio at 341 East Broadway near Main Street in Vancouver.

Head instructor, Loki Jorgenson, has been teaching the Kali Pekiti-Tirsia form of Filipino martial arts since 1994 and started Maelstrom in 2001. Now there are about 30 regular members taking various classes, not only in Kali, but Pencak Silat from Indonesia or Krabi Krabong of Thailand.

At first glance, you might think of Kali as simply stick fighting, but Kali is much more than that. The stick can be a weapon on its own, but is also a stand in for a bladed weapon, such as a sword or machete.

The potential curriculum range covers single stick, double stick, stick and knife simultaneously, double knife, knife and empty hand. Classes are roughly divided into Basics, Fundamentals, and Applications.

Beginners generally start in the Saturday Basics class taught by Edwin Tam. Although most techniques are accessible even to beginners, some moves need to be absorbed first.

“The body mechanics need to be mastered before the more advanced techniques. The footwork is a huge part of Pekiti, so, there’s usually a large emphasis on mobility, maneuverability” Tam says.

The triangle plays a great part in the logic of the Pekiti-Tirsia system of Kali and often the sticks will be placed on the ground as a visual aid for the students to step around the triangle, even imaging a small sapling in the middle to avoid stepping through.

New students, Taran and Anna Rallings, are getting used to the drills after a couple months. “Having a way to visualize and having it laid out as clearly as it has so far has been super helpful for me in understanding how to approach footwork and movement”, says Taran.

Although the footwork is the first step in learning Kali, for many, the attraction is learning a system that can be adapted to multiple weapons.

The Rallings were walking along Broadway in front of the capoeira studio when an ad in the window for Maelstrom, with an exotic Karambit knife, caught their eye. Taran remembers, “I’m not sure I had a clear idea of what I was expecting exactly. Just because it was so different and I had no exposure to it.”

He did have previous experience with European swords at Academie Duello downtown. “Doing weapons stuff clicked with me better, so that was a big part of it.” Even Tam recalls his first attraction to Kali similarly.

“I guess the idea of Kali interested me. I guess the whole weapons aspect. You get to kind of use weapons a lot earlier in Filipino martial arts as opposed to most other martial arts.”

The reason Kali is so weapons oriented is in its combat origins. First developed by Filipino villagers to fight neighboring villages, techniques became refined and tested against foreign invaders from Spanish conquistadors to American Marines to Japanese soldiers.

The specific system of Kali taught at Maelstrom is Pekiti-Tirsia, developed by the ancestors of current Grand Master, Leo Gaje, Jr. The bloody history of Kali continues even today, as it has become the official close quarters combat system of the Philippines Armed Forces.

Their Recon Marines train in the Pekiti-Tirsia system and there are tales of them literally “dis-arming” enemies in battle.

Even if you aren’t training for jungle warfare or even the zombie apocalypse, as the Rallings joked, Kali is a very practical martial art and its self-defense applications are stressed in class.

Tam explains, “I think it keeps it more relevant if you explain why you might be doing something. Otherwise it just becomes like dancing.

The move is done a certain way just because of aesthetic considerations, but there’s no practical rationale behind it. There’s supposed to be some application that drives it.”

The adaptability of Kali to an improvised weapon was most memorably demonstrated by Matt Damon fighting off an assassin with a bic pen in “The Bourne Identity”.

The Bourne film trilogy has been Kali’s biggest moment in the western spotlight so far. Still, unless you saw the special features on a DVD or were curious enough to do a Google search, you might not know the fights were Kali based.

Besides the utility of Kali against zombies and spies, there is the art aspect of the martial art. Anna feels Kali allows one to be creative.

“It’s physically creative, using different space and angles. It provides you with a sense of competence, and an awareness of your body, an ability to move. The athleticism is really rewarding in and of itself.”

A common learning tool is the flow drill where partners will take turns being attacker and defender creating a cyclical dance-like movement.

Anna continues, “What I like about martial arts is you can get into the flow and become aware of your body position and all that apart from the practicality.

You can get quite deep into flow drills and all sorts of techniques where you learn how to move your body and how to react to someone else.”

A typical flow drill begins with one partner initiating an attack, for example, an overheard blow. The defender can block this with his left arm above his head, parry it to his right with his right arm, then, with his now free left arm, jam the offender’s arm into his body.

Now the defender becomes the attacker and initiates the same sequence with his right arm. This is the sagang labo drill.

Tam agrees that the flow drills, while challenging, are also enjoyable. “I think for many people, the two-man drills are fun.

You get to practice flow drills with someone there. It keeps it real. Your mind can’t drift off when doing two-man drills with somebody, especially with weapons in your hands.”

Tam adds that the classes give people “a chance to use weapons in a safe environment”. The emphasis on safety teaches respect for the blade, even the plastic or rubber varieties used in class.

Anyone interested in trying Kali can drop by Maelstrom for a free initial lesson. In addition, a great opportunity for exposure happened this Saturday, August 27th at the Southeast Asian Cultural Arts Festival at Central Park in Burnaby.

Over a dozen local martial arts clubs gave classes open to all attendees. A special guest visiting from Montreal was Philip Gelinas, the North American head of the Pekiti-Tirsia system, and Jorgenson and Tam’s original teacher.

Besides being a highly ranked teacher, Gelinas made his name as a fighter, winning an international Kali championship and being a founding member of the Dog Brothers, who are referred to as “psychopaths with sticks” on their website.

Further information about classes or the festival is available at the website.

The Rallings, are hooked. Anna believes, “Even if you have a background in doing other stuff, it challenges your brain in other ways.”

Taran plans to add weekday classes to further immerse himself into the art. Of the martial arts he’s experienced thus far, “This is what I’ve enjoyed the most out of everything I’ve done.”