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East West Studios Seminar

Seminar - September 10th at East West Studios
By John Mellon

Sunday, 10th September at Steve Benitez’s acclaimed East West Studios was the venue for a rare seminar by Guru Shamim Haque, the head of the system for the U.K.

Guru Shamim had just returned from a successful seminar in Texas with attendees coming from several states.  Although Kalis Ilustrisimo has a reputation as the most feared blade system in the Philippines, it is a small system in terms of numbers of practitioners world-wide.  We’re very fortunate to have a teacher and exponent of the quality of Guru Shamim and his teaching assistants available to U.K. students.

Kalis Ilustrisimo Repeticion Orihinal (Original Version), to give the system it’s full name, is very much a true blade oriented art.  The second generation is headed by Grandmaster Tony Diego; he and the other senior teachers of the system have introduced the stick as a training tool, but the core of the system remains a variety of blades.  Although many Filipino systems claim to be able to simply exchange the stick for the blade, the reality is a good deal more complex.  As Guru Shamim explained at the seminar, many systems have evolved into true stick systems by their concentration on this training tool.  Nothing wrong with that, as Guru was quick to emphasise, particularly as an effective stick system is nonetheless devastating.  But in a society experiencing more and more knife crime, it is important to be aware of and train for the differences.  It isn’t that Ilustrisimo is superior, but it is different and it is uniquely blade focussed.

Not only are the mechanics subtly different, but footwork, timing, angulation all vary in crucial ways.  The differences are crucial because painful and debilitating as receiving a stick strike may be, a stroke from a sharp sword or dagger represents a much greater threat to life.  The founder, Tatang Ilustrisimo was trained in his own family’s system prior to running away from home and ending up in the southern Philippines, where he was adopted into a local Sultan’s family and trained in the famed – and feared – Moro (Moorish) fighting methods.  After some years he returned home, later relocating to Manila where he worked in the docks, an area famous for both its dangers and the skills of a number of prominent eskrimadors and arnisadors who worked there.

In the early part of this century it was a dangerous thing just to be identified as a practitioner of the traditional arts, and all the esteemed exponents of his generation had to endure many challenges.  Like several others, Tatang became a merchant seaman and fought on board ship and in many of the ports he visited.  He was one of the Filipino masters who acted as scouts and ‘walked point’ for the U.S. Marine jungle patrols in the Philippines during WW2.

During his lifetime Tatang Ilustrisimo was famous for the many ‘death-matches’ he fought; this may sound barbaric to those of our generation and culture, but those challenged had little choice in the matter.  Perhaps the best analogy for a Westerner to understand is the ‘old gunslinger’ stories from the Frontier period of the American West.  The best technology of the day, vital to the survival of everyone from the humblest farmer to the most experienced lawman, was the pistol.  Those who developed sufficient skill with the weapon were invariably sought out and challenged by younger exponents keen to prove themselves.  By challenging older, or more talented and experienced gunmen, an aspiring gunslinger stood to gain a huge leap in personal reputation -  if he won, that is!

A similar situation existed in most warrior cultures at some time or other, and because of the nature of the weaponry in the Filipino culture, the term ‘death-match’ can be misleading; more often than not the first contact might result in a nasty wound, and the retirement of the challenger.  That said, when other senior masters first mooted holding the tournament that led to the modern WEKAF competitions and organisation, they tried to persuade Tatang Ilustrisimo to take part.  His reply?  “Anyone who wants to take my reputation can do so with a blade in his hand”, and there the discussion ended.

The core of Ilustrisimo training revolves around the use of the sword, espada y daga (sword and dagger) and daga.  Ilustrisimo himself preferred the leaf-shaped blade known as the barong, but the pinute, a longer, single-edged blade tends to be the more common training blade in this generation, essentially for its greater range and weight, challenging the student’s blade handling skills and the footwork required for evasion.  Guru Shamim took us through a variety of drills and combinations in all three training areas, explaining the philosophy of Ilustrisimo training as he went.

Many Filipino systems (style has a different meaning in the Filipino martial culture) have a fairly set and orderly progression.  Ilustrisimo, like JKD, has a greater emphasis on individual development.  There are set drills, many of them developed by Tony Diego and his fellow first generation students in response to Tatang’s reluctant teaching.  It took Grandmaster Diego a long time and much effort to persuade Tatang to teach him, and when he did, he rarely seemed to respond the same way twice to the same attack.  When challenged on this, he simply replied that the attack had not been the same: the range, angle, timing had been subtly different, so he reacted with a different counter. 

Ilustrisimo is truly an adaptive system of principles, where every variable affects the choices and outcomes.  As explained in the seminar, the drills are simply training tools; if for any reason, you are not able to perform the next technique in the sequence, you simply adapt and respond.  What you would not do in Ilustrisimo is to make any additional adjustment in order to ‘fit’ the next classical response into the exercise.   Shamim characterises the system as essentially simple.

The four, eight and twelve count set drills and their variations show the art as a ‘counter-art’; or, as Guru Shamim once described it to me, it’s designed to be an ‘antidote’ art.  They are constructed of all the common angles of attack, and techniques from across the range of the major arnis and eskrima systems, with some specialist tactics from the family and Moro systems studied by Tatang.  The concentration is on blade oriented responses, as the system is constructed around the premise that anything the stick can do, the blade can, although not necessarily vice versa. 

Many Filipino arts have a boxing phase of training; indeed, any well educated martial arts historian will tell you that the Filipino art of Panantukan gave us the roots of the modern international style of boxing, but unusually this is not really explicitly trained in Ilustrisimo.  Shamim explained that the Ilustrisimo stylist, finding himself without an external weapon to wield, will use his hands and limbs as if they were blades.  When he demonstrated this aspect of the art it bore a strong resemblance to silat in style of motion, rather than Panantukan.  I know from experience that Guru Shamim is a very competent boxer, but when he is expressing Ilustrisimo empty hand technique, it is most definitely not boxing.

As someone who has trained across a large range of arts, beginning with  Sicilian Fencing in 1962 and Filipino arts first in 1977, I can honestly say that not only is Ilustrisimo a devastatingly effective system, but I have encountered few blade fighters with Guru Shamim’s talent.  It is always interesting to see the variety of students that he – and the system - attract.

One example is Mark Hart who attended the seminar.  Mark received bodyguard training from a company that both Shamim and I provided the physical training for.  The company was one of the preferred MOD suppliers for ‘resettlement leave’ i.e. the retraining for ‘civvy street’ that soon to be ex-military personnel received.  Private individuals and law enforcement agencies were also clients.  Mark ran several of the most professional door supervisor teams in London’s West End.  I trained Mark several years ago, and he went on to become a manager with the company and has since set up his own very successful international security company, Dynamic Alternatives, providing both personnel and training.  He was hugely impressed by Guru Shamim’s skills, and said of the seminar that it was “an inspiring and instructive day”.  Well known to the readers of the martial arts press, Prof. Leon Jay, the second generation head of the Small Circle Jujitsu system, sent his apologies, unable to attend only due to an ankle injury.  Prof. Leon taught on previous joint seminars organised by Shamim, such as the very successful Tsunami Relief seminar.

Pendekar Steven Benitez of Wali Songo Silat was the host of the seminar and Guru Shamim and the Ilustrisimo students would like to extend their thanks for his support.