International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Antonio
Graceffo's Martial Arts Odyssey is a voyage of discovery of national heritage
History and Culture Through Martial Arts
martial art is a cultural asset. I look at myself as a martial arts
anthropologist, and if we lose it, were losing one more aspect
of the culture," declares New York-born author and creator
of the web TV show Martial Arts Odyssey, Antonio Graceffo.
looks confident when appearing on camera packs a punch in delivering
his message. Graceffos achievements include a career in the
U.S. Military, investment banking on Wall Street, journalism, linguistics
(he is fluent in nine languages) and motivational speaking. Graceffo
also reached the semi-finals of the Toastmasters International World
Championships of Public Speaking, and served as an Emergency Medical
Technician (EMT) with an ambulance crew in Manila, Philippines.
An experienced travel writer who is the author of five books, Graceffo
has also entered Burma to document human rights abuses in the ongoing
genocide, and stepped into the frontlines with the Shan State Army to
teach hand-to-hand combat to the rebel soldiers. Graceffo is even a
target of the army of the ruling Burmese junta, who created a "Wanted"
poster of him and issued it to a number of rebel armies. In 41 years,
Graceffo has experienced more than most people would manage to in their
But the one activity that really makes Graceffo tick is combat fighting
and martial arts, and he has three decades of experience. For the man
known as the Brooklyn Monk, who once studied at the famous Shaolin Temple,
stepping inside boxing and wrestling rings or gymnasiums and using any
apparatus to learn and demonstrate various forms of fighting is equivalent
to entering the grounds of a royal castle. It seemed only a matter of
time before Graceffos dual passions of journalism and martial
arts would coalesce. This combination led to a documentary about Muay
Thai Sangha, and eventually in 2006 in the Philippines, the creation
of the web TV show, Martial Arts Odyssey..
Rather than solely teaching new methods of kicking, elbowing, punching
and grappling, Martial Arts Odyssey identifies how fighting and performing
styles connect with the history, culture and identity of the people
who founded and practice them. The show uncovers a component central
to the existence of a nation or tribe and elevates it to the same levels
of appreciation and status of other cultural practices such as poetry,
music and literature.
The original concept of the show was to take the knowledge and skills
that Graceffo had obtained throughout several years of living with a
number of martial arts masters and teachers. "I wanted it to be
about culture and language, and use that as a vehicle to show to people,"
Graceffo says. "But how can you do that in 10 minutes?"
For the past two years, Martial Arts Odyssey has devoted plenty of attention
towards the culture and history associated with the arts. Sadly, as
Graceffo has discovered through research and shooting the show, authoritarian
regimes have not taken to some forms of martial arts with as much enthusiasm.
Two martial arts, in particular, nearly succumbed to genocides, with
ruling authorities in Burma and Cambodia showing a healthy distaste
for anything defined as being counter-culture to the status quo.
While embedded with the Shan State Army in the Internally Displaced
Persons (IDP) camp in Tailang, Burma, Graceffo documented a series of
interviews with Shan refugees who suffered from rape, torture and war
trauma at the hands of the SPDC. He also met Kawn Wan, a former monk
in Shan State whose entire family had been murdered by the Burmese military.
"Kawn Wan is the one of the only remaining teachers of Shan Lai
Tai after all of his teachers were killed in the genocide," Graceffo
relates. "My films may be the only recorded footage of this art,
and if the people in Shan State cannot get out of Burma and end up being
murdered, the art will be lost forever."
The military base of the Shan State Army in Loi Tailang is the only
place where Shan people pushed off their land can freely practice their
distinct language and culture without being at risk of execution. Lai
Tai is a distinct feature of Shan culture. Graceffo describes the martial
art as being a literal translation of Shan fighting techniques. Migrating
with the Shan people from southern China nearly 2,000 years ago, it
is one of the oldest forms of Kung Fu. Unlike the more combative art
of kickboxing practiced by the Burmese, Thais and Khmers, Lai Tai is
more of a demonstrative form. The Shan people, he explains, "were
not war-like by nature, but are a peace loving people pushed by a repressive
regime, to the point that war is the only way out."
The other art of national pride that Martial Arts Odyssey re-discovered
was Bokator, thought to have become extinct under the Khmer Rouge regime
during the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. Graceffo researched and
found the only remaining teacher, Master San Kim Saen, who is now teaching
the next generation in Cambodias capital city, Phnom Penh. Once
deemed counter-revolutionary under the communist Pol Pot regime, a documentary
and several print and online articles written by or in consultation
with Graceffo might just help spark a revival with young and middle-aged
Cambodians, as well as foreigners, ensuring the future of a nearly lost
While the presentation of Lai Tai and Bokator represent the proudest
achievements of the show to date, featuring lesser known arts and raising
their profile presents an additional challenge. Kuntaw, the ancient
Filipino art of hand and foot fighting that uses weapons such as knives,
swords and short and long sticks, has a solid following in countries
such as the U.S., but there are concerns that it lurks in the shadows
of imported fighting arts in its home nation, the Philippines.
Graceffos Kuntaw instructor, Grandmaster Frank Ayococho, resides
in Manila. Previously, Ayococho taught martial arts, Arnis (Filipino
knife fighting), and first aid at the University of Manila School of
Arnis Professionals. He laments the fact that Filipino martial arts
are more famous outside of his native Philippines. "The Department
of Education has declared that only Taekwondo can be taught in academy
schools," he explains. "What about our ancient Filipino martial
arts? They forget about this." The Grandmaster remarks that a colonial
mentality has allowed imported martial arts, such as Taekwondo, to become
more popular than Kuntaw.
Elements of one martial art are often incorporated into other forms.
Grandmaster Ayococho notes that the art of Kali is becoming more influential
in Taekwondo, but doesn't believe that this will negatively affect the
number of people taking up Filipino martial arts at home or abroad.
"The popularity of Kali and Arnis in particular has weakened Taekwondo,
in the sense that we keep introducing Arnis classes to some high school
and college students nationwide."
The Grandmaster elaborates further that Kali and Arnis practitioners
are more easily identifiable based on their traditional uniforms. "Our
uniforms represent different tribes and culture of native Filipinos,"
he says. The ancient writing on the uniforms of another traditional
martial art, Yaw Yan, the "Dance of Death", is known as alibata.
Another unique aspect of Filipino martial arts is their creativity in
using weapons. Graceffo has spoken at length with three Filipino Masters
of Yaw Yan: Armando Sorteco, Frank Ayococho and Ernesto Gonzales. There
is a long-standing tradition going back to colonial times when the Filipinos
fashioned sticks into lethal fighting tools to defend against their
Spanish colonizers. Sorteco says that the creativity and resourcefulness
of Filipinos to fashion weapons from simple objects is popular with
foreigners travelling to the Philippines to learn arts such as Arnis
for self-defense. Traditional Filipino martial arts, it seems, are finally
becoming more appreciated for their cultural value in shaping pride
One of the key points stressed in Martial Arts Odyssey is that not all
arts are actually fighting arts. With regard to Kung-Fu students, Graceffo
explains, "They never claim to be fighters. Kung-fu is beautiful
and it demonstrates a deeper commitment to the art than fighting."
Variations of martial arts occur, exemplified in the cross-border movements
from China into Vietnam , resulting in modification of Kung-Fu into
a localized art, Thieu Lam. "It is interesting that the Vietnamese
have chosen to keep certain elements of kung-fu and abandon others,"
However, there are some variations or differences linked to identity
and national pride, leading to disputes. The Khmer art of Bokator is
regarded by Cambodia as being the forerunner to Muay Thai, yet there
is a sense of anger that it does not get nearly enough credit and spotlight
that its Thai counterpart has. This is a cause of resentment amongst
Khmers in Cambodia towards their neighbor to the west.
In travelling to Taiwan, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, and
Shan State in Burma, Martial Arts Odyssey also highlights the importance
of religious faith. One expression of faith is the donning of amulets,
believed to be fundamental to the effectiveness of martial arts and
the longevity of each practitioner. Ajarn Sok Chai, a resident in Surin
Province, Thailand, is martial art film star Tony Jaas first Muay
Boran teacher. He owns and wears amulets for protection, and practices
Brahamism. Ajarn Sok Chai has attained the high status of a holy man
who conducts rituals to assist the sick in his village. His home is
also adorned with shrines and murals depicting his devotion to animal
gods such as Ganesh, the Elephant God. Amulets are also popular in the
Philippines. Grandmaster Frank Ayococho relates that amulets and Latin
scriptures on clothes worn in battle by Muslim fighters in the southern
Philippine province of Mindanao lend them a feeling of invincibility.
The future looks bright for Martial Arts Odyssey. To date, the show
has focused on Asian countries, but plans are underway to take the show
elsewhere. Graceffo is tentaively planning to shoot in Australia some
time in 2009, and Central Asia, Africa and the Caribbean may follow.
He is even optimistic about filming segments back in his native Brooklyn.
Rather than constantly reminding himself about the life he used to experience
working on Wall Street, he uses the people "back home" as
a source of inspiration. Returning to his roots is never far from Graceffos
mind. "I think about the people that are still commuting on the
Jersey turnpike, putting in their 50-60 hours a week in their office.
This show might just be the only glimpse that theyre going to
have of Asia . Thats who I am doing the show for."
There is a second group of people that occupy Graceffos thoughts.
At the end of every episode, he issues a passionate reminder that while
keeping up training and weight work is essential, finding a moment to
say a prayer for the people of Burma as they face genocide, is even
more important. The lesson here reads that if greater publicity of martial
arts can be saved from extinction and flourish as a wonderful cultural
asset, perhaps one day greater awareness will also be afforded to people
living in danger of their lives. Martial Arts Odyssey is all about discovery
of strength within the body, heart and soul.
You can subscribe to Antonios channel on YouTube and follow his
trail around Asia by watching Martial Arts Odyssey for free. The address
Contact Antonio by emailing: Antonio@speakingadventure.com
Visit his website, Speaking Adventure, by typing: www.speakingadventure.com
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