Restoring the Past: The Afro-Boricua Art of Kokobale

Members of the Cepeda family engaged in a “juego”

The island of Puerto Rico is an island of many rhythms. Whether it’s the salsa that cascades from the open windows of pastel-colored houses or the cars that pass with their trunks open and speakers reverberating the heavy bass of dembow, the streets are alive with music. But there is another rhythm, an older rhythm, one birthed in rebellion and practiced in secret. It is the rhythm of kokobale, the Puerto Rican art of machete and stick fencing.

Among the African diaspora of the Caribbean, machete fencing has a rich history. Martial arts like the Haitian Tire Machet or the Cuban Juego de Mani, all share origins in the slave trade, traditions brought over by warriors made prisoners and adapted to tools of the cane fields. Kokobale is undoubtedly a part of this tradition. Yet, it’s more amorphous, its genesis harder to pin down, obscured by time and secrecy. Carlos Padilla is trying to change that.

Founder of Proyecto Kokobale, he offers a comprehensive explanation of its origin. And it is an origin intrinsically linked to the national music of Puerto Rico, bomba.

“Kokobale was born from a necessity of the enslaved to free themselves. In PR, slaves were given leisure time for fear of rebellion. Ironically, [during] this leisure time, bomba drum circles were allowed and it was during these encounters that the rebellions were planned. It was here that that kokobale as we know it today was born, with the bambula as a rhythmic base [allowing] techniques to be practiced that could be applied to real life.”

In Padilla’s opinion, the incorporation of dance, similar to other martial arts of the African diaspora, served as a disguise, a way for the enslaved to practice their techniques in secret. He is also quick to point out that the practice of martial arts to music is something common in African culture.

It is simply that, in the Caribbean, this aspect evolved to serve a more clandestine purpose.

Restoring an Art from Oral History

This secretive nature, however, has contributed to the loss of the practice in modern times. Today, there are only two dedicated kokobale practitioners openly taking on students

But despite the martial arts aspect fading, kokobale lived on through music. It was in this way that Padilla was first introduced to it.

“Bomba songs are a medium of transmission of our oral histories. Don Rafael Cepeda is important in the preservation of the memory of kokobale thanks to his song, ‘Si Tu No Sabes Cocobale’… [T]his planted the seed of curiosity in me. Years later I would discover that, the same way that there [exist] versions of bomba on different islands…there also exist in the Caribbean different versions of kokobale [known by] different names.

Given this fact, it occurred to Padilla that a restoration of the martial art was possible, one that didn’t come out of nowhere but instead was informed by Puerto Rico’s sister islands and their similar traditions. It was then that a whole new world was opened to him.

He set out on a quest for knowledge of the afro-diasporic arts, learning from different practitioners around the Carribbean. Among them was master Rondel Benjamin, who educated him in the history and practice of calinda, a Trinidadian version of stick fighting.

Calinda is actually practiced throughout the Caribbean, with islands like Guadaloupe, Martinique, and Grenada having their own traditions. A few techniques can even be found in Puerto Rico.

Each martial art was like a link in the chain of Caribbean history. And each link brought him a little closer to finding kokobale. But it wasn’t until he reached out to Tato Conrad, an Afro-Puerto Rican historian and owner of the Museo Taller African in San Juan, that he got his first major lead.

Conrad told him that there was only one person who still trained Kokobale: master Miguel Quijano.

Armed with this knowledge, Padilla sought out the master, who no longer resided on the island. But that didn’t matter. Training under Quijano was the first step in the path to bringing kokobale back to Puerto Rico and reintegrating it into island’s tradition of bomba.

This idea is what Proyecto Kokobale was founded on.

Bomba and the African Contribution

To understand why and how a reintegration of the complete martial art is important, we must first look at the elements that make up the bomba tradition in Puerto Rico. And that starts by examining “el batey.”

To put it simply, a batey is a gathering of musicians and dancers, a tradition that harkens back to the very same drum circles that birthed resistance and rebellion. Therefore, it is not hyperbole to call bomba music the music of resistance.

The first thing you notice is the drums. You might not see them, as bodies begin to swell in streets, plazas, and alleyways, but you’ll hear them. Originally made from rum casks, their squat wooden frames resound with a deeper bass, rhythms seeming to echo out of the past. These are “barriles,” and they beat a warlike cadence that beckons those surrounding to dance.

The next thing you’ll notice is the song. A short and simple refrain, that relies heavily on repetition. It is almost chant-like in the way it is sung and in how it simultaneously feeds off and gives energy to the crowd. This simplicity however, belies a versatility. Bomba can cover a wide range of topics and has historically been used to give voice to issues the community faces. There is power in the messages that are relayed, the power to move the people, the power to animate them. Singers bellow, mouths agape, hitting notes that oscillate between nameless pain and steadfast defiance.

Finally, there is the dance itself. While most of the barriles play out one of the five main rhythms, there is a single drum, tuned to a higher pitch, the drummer’s eyes alert, expectant as they move over the crowd. Finally, the first body emerges. They bow to the drummer and the battle begins.

Contrary to most other forms of music, in bomba, while the rest of the drums play accompaniment, it is the dancer who dictates the main rhythm. It is up to the drummer to interpret those movements and turn them into music. Every part of the dancer’s body becomes an extension of the instrument, every movement serving a purpose. Feet stomp away rapidly at the ground, shoulders rotate and shimmy, hands clasp skirts and scarves, whirling the fabric through the air, a dance of the seven veils.There are no wasted movements. Everything is music.

Similarly, there are no wasted movements in kokobale. Every feint, every strike is timed rhythmically to the beat of the barril, to the tap, tap, tap of wooden sticks.

The same way bomba is considered across the island to be the music of resistance, kokobale is the fist of that resistance.

Hybridization and the New School

In an exhibition, Padilla and his student dance around two palos crossed in an X-shape between them. They take turns feinting to see who will grab a stick first. It is almost akin to a game. Indeed, exhibitions like these, which kokobaleros use to train movement and reactions, are referred to as juegos or “games.”

They are also accompanied by music, the same kind one would find at a batey. To separate kokobale from the music which birthed it would be to dishonor the past.

But if Padilla has one eye on the past, honoring the principles of the art form , he has another on the future and developing it further.

“My juego of kokobale is based upon mayolé, bajan stick-licking, Calinda, and some others. Nevertheless, I’ve learned many techniques from Quijano…I’m a student of these arts and my style is syncretist, but with much respect.”

Immigration and The Old Masters

The hybrid aspect of Padilla’s practice was as much informed by necessity and scarcity of information as it was by his expertise in different styles of martial arts. There simply weren’t many written resources on kokobale available, and the old masters had all but disappeared into obscurity. All but Quijano.

And when he shares the story of how the art came to him, it is less the story of a martial art, and more the story of Afro-Puerto Ricans.

Birthed in the drum circles of the cane fields, kokobale was passed down in secret from generation to generation. But when these fields were abandoned with the advent of industrialization during Operation Bootstrap, the art began to decline.

With the agricultural economy dismantled in favor of manufacturing, families that had tended the land for generations, who’d secreted the teachings of their ancestors in the quiet between the mountain and the midnight sky, suddenly found themselves adrift in an unfamiliar world.

A decline in available jobs saw many Puerto Ricans leave the island, some volunteering for military service, others serving as cheap labor on plantations in Michigan and Hawaii.

This is how the art slowly passed from secrecy into obscurity. Its practice, its study, was intrinsically linked to the fortune of the old masters. And as they became estranged from their island’s native shores, so too did the martial art.

Quijano knows this well. Born to an Irish mother and an Afro-Puerto Rican father, he grew up around what remained of the old masters. many of were his family or family friends. And he saw how the hardships of immigrant life affected them.

“You know, they come [to the U.S], they gotta learn a new language, they’re faced with the cold, they don’t know their way around. A lot of them lacked confidence. So they didn’t have time to teach their kids, they were working their asses [off] ten, twelve hours a day making less than minimum wage.”

In Quijano’s case however, his father always made sure to involve him in the traditions, in music; in bomba; in kokobale. At first, a young Quijano was reluctant to learn. But when he began to express an interest in Asian martial arts, his father instead took the opportunity to show him the techniques their family had safeguarded for generations. And so his father was his first teacher.

But far from the last.

“When we lived in [Puerto Rico], I used to shine shoes. I would travel all around shining shoes. And all my dad’s friends, all these old timers, they’re now like in their 80’s and 90’s, they all practiced kokobale. Carlos Arguinzoni-Gil, Chico Estevez, Jose Reyes, all these guys showed me all the curriculum.”

That curriculum, according to Quijano, was something each master had a piece of but no one had the whole picture.

“A lot of these guys had one, or two techniques, but they were very skilled. Some of them had techniques for speed, some of them had techniques for footwork, a lot of guys were really good at dancing…or they had good techniques for feints. So from each teacher that I learned from, I learned something [different].

More importantly, he took notes. Given the manner in which kokobale has traditionally been passed down, it’s possible that Quijano’s handwritten notes are the closest thing to a manuscript that exists for the martial art. And as such they serve as a blueprint for its preservation going forward, a holistic embodiment of the teachings of the old masters.

More Than Just Stick Fighting

Any student who comes to Quijano wanting to learn Kokobale must be prepared to learn all of it. There are simply no shortcuts.

For this reason, the master is very selective about who he teaches. He doesn’t charge. He simply asks that students be worthy.

“[F]or the longest time, I didn’t want to teach nobody because I didn’t think people were worthy of this. I just said I’m going to take it to the grave with me…They want all the stick fighting information but they don’t want to learn how to play drums, they don’t want to learn how to dance. They don’t care about the history, the lineage.”

To Quijano, that lineage embodies more than just techniques for stick fighting. The beginner’s course he offers takes six months to complete and serves as an introduction to the culture and spirit of kokobale. In fact, much of the history recited by Quijano and Padilla is covered in the six month course.

Quijano also covers aspects that range from the five bomba rhythms to the various religions such as palo and santeria that formed the basis for the African belief system on the island. He even touches on the lesser known, unarmed combat techniques present in kokobale, techniques he first witnessed his uncles employ in friendly games, games he describes as something akin to “slap tag.”

The love he has for the art is evident in the way he speaks about it. He doesn’t simply give answers, he tells stories. An explanation of why sticks are used in place of machetes when practicing techniques turns into an anecdote about how his uncle once gave an opponent 100 stitches with a light cut to the face.

In this respect one can see the influence the palo religion still exerts over kokobale.

Brought over from the kongo by enslaved Africans to Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands, palo monte is a form of ancestor worship. In a way, so too is Quijano’s juego of kokobale, his teachers and family members living on through his teachings.

A master of both kokobale and its sister art juego de maní, he stresses that he teaches these arts the way they are supposed to be taught, without mixing or blending. This is the way they were taught to him.

“I don’t care about me, what I care about is honoring my teachers and that these arts continue to live. I want it to carry on the right way.”

The Importance of Preservation

Given Quijano’s focus on preservation, and Padilla’s focus on integration, it might seem like their two respective approaches are incompatible.

But in fact, it’s actually the contrary. Even though their respective juegos embody differing perspectives, the master and his pupil speak frequently. And each is quick to admit that they don’t have a monopoly on the art form. Ultimately, their goal is the same: to see the kokobale preserved with its fundamentals intact. In this regard Quijano believes the future is bright.

“Carlos is doing tremendous work. He’s always doing his best to bring light to kokobale in Puerto Rico.”

In fact, when he finishes his apprenticeship and gains his certification, Padilla will be the only other certified teacher of the art besides Quijano.

“I’d like for this to serve as a link to bring us closer to our Caribbean brothers. It’s also important to me to return this art to PR’s black community to whom it is owed. That’s one of our main goals,” says Padilla.

Historically, African contributions to Puerto Rican culture and collective identity have been downplayed and marginalized, as have connections to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.

Part of this disconnect between Puerto Rico and the greater African-diaspora has to do, not only with its annexation by the U.S, but with the blanqueamiento the island underwent during the 1800’s. This was done out of fear of the growing African population and the need to reinforce a standard of whiteness.

Given this policy of whitening, the work that Quijano and Padilla are doing isn’t simply about preserving the art and its techniques: it’s about preserving Puerto Rico’s connection to its African roots; about “creating bridges and toppling imaginary barriers,” as Padilla states.

But beyond, toppling imaginary barriers, kokobale can be a tool for toppling real ones that Puerto Ricans face everyday.

“Bomba and kokobale are the oldest [Puerto Rican] forms of resistance against injustice, prejudice and racism…[W]e live in political and economic systems that engineer new forms of oppression. [B]omba and kokobale are essential in motivating us towards resistance and the fight.”

The Future of the Art Form

Judging by his schedule, Quijano has good reason to believe the future is bright. Over the next couple of months he’ll be teaching “all over the place.” He has new classes starting in May as well as an apprenticeship program starting that same month.

Yet his personal success is secondary. Everything he does, he does to honor his teachers and his island.

Because kokobale is more than stick fighting, more than machete fencing. It is more than music and dance. It is more than resistance. It is the living African history of Puerto Rico, the spirits of the old masters, their stories, their hardships. It is the past come alive. But it is also the future; a future in which the African roots of the island might stay planted in the era of oppression, but the culture blossoms and regains its rightful place among the people.

Acknowledgements

Finally, we take a moment to honor the old masters of kokobale and juego de mani who’s commitments to the arts have made its preservation possible for the next generation.

In regards to juego de mani, we honor Juan de Dios, Carlos Aldama, and Alberto Pedro.

In regards to kokobale, we honor Jose Reyes, Julio Enrique Santos, Jimmy Santos, Joey Ramos, Carlos Arguinzoni-Gil, Chico Estevez, Eddar Lopez, Knox Hurst, Augi Dones, Modesto Cepeda and the Cepeda family.

Much respect and much love.

Miguel is based out of Puerto Rico. When not on an adventure you can find him typing away. https://miguelanthonymachado.wixsite.com/wordsbymiguel

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