Tom Bisio writes about training in Eskrima in the 70s and 80s with Filemon (Momoy) Canete, one of the late greats of Cebuano Eskrima. Filemon Canete was one of the founders of the famed Doce Pares Club, which taught and influenced several generations of eskrimadors in the Philippines and abroad. This is Part Two of a four-part article. See below for Spanish version.
Training with Filemon “Momoy” Canete (part 2)
by Tom Bisio
We practiced with Momoy 6 hours a day, 6 days a week. After a morning session we would break for several hours during the hottest part of the day and resume in the late afternoon. In a typical practice session we might practice the San Miguel Form (also called “Segidas”), an exercise with almost 600 strikes, nine or ten times, sometimes at full speed. Momoy would lead the movements by standing in front of us, calling out the sequences and delivering strikes at the appropriate moments, forcing us to respond with evasive movements and a series of counter strikes. Like a conductor he would control the speed and timing of our performance so that it would resemble actual combat.
Practice of the San Miguel Form would be followed by other forms, partner exercises, disarming, and combat judo. There was also practice with a variety of other weapons, such as the bullwhip, chain, and spear. Sometimes Momoy would pull out a pair of long, notched steel blades and we would practice block and parry routines with sparks flying as the blades clashed.
The San Miguel and the other forms, such as the Circle & Cross, Pardo Cebu and San Nicholas, were always in a constant state of revision. Momoy created forms especially for his foreign students. Upon my arrival, after several years’ absence, he would also announce new improvements in forms already learned. The San Miguel Form changed with each visit. The original sequence was considerably shorter than the one I teach today. Momoy seemed puzzled by my insistence on writing things down. Maybe this was because he knew he would change them anyway. As far as I could see he kept all the sequences, many of them long and repetitious, in his head using some schematic I could not begin to fathom.
Momoy’s was famous for his ability to devise forms and training exercises – he is credited with creating many of the forms taught by the Doce Pares Club. I always knew when Momoy was devising a new form because he would sit gazing off into space, clapping his hand rhythmically on his thigh. His students attributed his ability to “compose” forms to his talent for writing lyrics and music for the guitar. Several of the songs he wrote were performed on local radio programs. During my last visit to Cebu, in 1987, Andres Canete played a bolero that Momoy had written for the guitar, while Momoy’s wife Indayon sang beautifully of broken hearts and love lost.
Momoy had spent many years working with more unusual weapons, such as the bullwhip and the throwing knife. His brother Euologio told me that when Momoy worked as a bus driver he would bring his throwing knives along to practice with while waiting for passengers. We built a target for knife throwing and Momoy taught us the rudiments of the art with knives that he had designed himself. He had throws from every angle and distance, and though he had not practiced in years, his throws were accurate and stuck every time. After that, whenever we had a spare minute, we would spend it in front of the target.
The bullwhip was my nemesis. I had never worked with a weapon like this before. It took me several weeks before I could even get a decent crack out of it. In the meantime I lashed my legs until they were red with welts and nearly took my eye out several times. I persisted as I began to see that the whip had a lot to teach about power and timing. Eventually I could perform a variety of different strikes and graduated to snapping tin cans off a post in order to develop accuracy. I did better with the cadena, a long chain with a handle that had a small weight on the end, although to this day, flexible weapons such as the whip and the chain, are my least favorite to practice with.
Momoy showed us the painstaking art of weaving bullwhips. He spent many an afternoon patiently weaving and repairing the hemp ropes with his strong hands. During these intervals his Filipino students would often disappear to take a siesta. I liked to sit with him while he worked. Although the language barrier limited conversation, I enjoyed just sitting quietly with him, but I never really learned the knack of making bullwhips.
I do not know if I can convey in words the joy expressed in Momoy’s whole being when he picked up the stick and dagger and began to move. When I met him he was already 75 years old and had been practicing Eskrima for more than five decades, yet he never ceased to be excited and enthusiastic about the art. Just to see it done well would bring a smile to his face. When he demonstrated there was always a gleam in his eye and a lit cigarette dangling rakishly from his lips. His movements were smooth and fluid, filled with a kind of casual power. I remember thinking at first that his strikes did not look that powerful. As if reading my mind he hit me with a seemingly short, lazy strike. It was much more powerful than I could have imagined. After that I was a believer.
I found Momoy’s dedication to the art inspirational. In the early 80’s he became almost blind from cataracts. For two years he continued to practice and teach, his son Andres and Junior Mendoza leading him everywhere. After an operation restored his sight he quit smoking and wore glasses some of the time. The last time I saw him he was 83. Although his gait could be unsteady on the street, the moment he picked up a stick his movements were as smooth and steady as ever. I never ceased to be awed by this transformation.
The focus of Momoy’s art was on the stick and dagger. He felt that this was the real eskrima, because with the dagger there can be no mistakes. As he told me more than once, “even a wooden dagger can kill.” Momoy preferred the long blade and stick, 33 or more inches in length, and frowned on the shorter weapons employed by close-quarter specialists. From the basic strikes and counters to more complex exercises and palusot, the progression was systematic and thorough. Many of his training exercises bring to mind a chess match, in which one must think several moves ahead and take into account all possible reactions and counter-measures. His sense of distancing and timing were impeccable. From watching him I learned that you could move slower and still get there first.
Momoy was well known as a healer in the barrios of Cebu City. During practice, patients would come to the courtyard and sit on a bench by the wall, waiting patiently for treatments. Occasionally during these breaks, Momoy would treat them with “faith healing.” He said that his power came from God and was developed by concentrated prayer. As he healed an illness with his touch he recited palabres (words), or orascion, as they are known in Cebu. He told me of palabres to heal the sick, exorcise evil and even to rattle an opponent, as well as fascinating stories of invisible beings, demons and black magic. Once he told a story of a demon he had exorcised from a local church. The priests had tried to drive it out by saying mass. Momoy proceeded to do a very funny imitation of the unimpressed demon sitting through mass with his arms folded across his chest. I must have had a very serious expression on my face, because he and his wife immediately burst out laughing.
I saw him dislodge a fishbone from a woman’s throat with a light touch as he murmured palabres under his breath. He similarly treated my severely pulled back muscle. I didn’t feel much during the treatment, and was prepared to be polite and say I felt better. When he was finished, I stood up and felt a crack like a chiropractic adjustment. Immediately I felt better. the muscle was still sore, but the stabbing pain was gone.
Momoy tried to teach me his method of healing, but his faith in my abilities was stronger than my own. I felt that the nature of his power was based on a different view of reality, stemming directly from the culture and belief systems of which he was a part. In retrospect, I believe that what he did was very similar to Chinese Qi Gong healing methods.
His generosity revealed itself in other ways as well. When ten students from the United States and Canada accompanied me to train with him in 1987, we paid for our lessons with several thousand dollars. A few days later his daughter-in-law took me aside and asked me not to give him large sums of money all at once. Apparently he had given most of it away in less than a week to friends and neighbors, who, knowing he was temporarily flush, immediately asked for a loan. Although a poor man himself, he would give freely to people who needed food or other necessities, even at the expense of his own family.
If he was poor in goods, Momoy was rich in spirit. Unable to complete his formal education, he was in his own way a renaissance man – a genius in the field of martial arts, an accomplished musician and composer, and a gifted healer. When he died in 1995 I regretted my delays in returning to see him one more time. But I treasure the time I did spend with him and his unselfish sharing of a lifetime’s experience in Eskrima. I mourn his passing both as an eskrimador and as a man.
To read this article in Spanish: http://fightlosofia.com/