Rock and Roll Karate
Fifty years ago this month (February 1964) the Beatles descended like a freight train on the U.S., first at Shea Stadium, then the Ed Sullivan Show. It was a transformational point in the American tune, the tsunami of civilization bending the bamboo of our consciousness in new, exciting directions – spirit voices that chimed a revolution in music.
I was a Freshman at a small, snowy, red brick college in Northwestern Pennsylvania – and a very novice guitar man escaping to somewhere they couldn’t find me. I was one of the few guitar players on the entire campus. I had a name as such in my little town during the pre-Woodstock generation and when someone was needed for a guitar picking event, my dorm room door often received a knock. If I sat playing on the dormitory steps late in the evening, a crowd would gather and listen to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, or something equally hackneyed. I played it so much that, to this day, I can’t stand the song. But I still thank Pete Seeger, who coincidentally died this February, for writing it – mostly because it helped me get dates.
That was another day. I would be willing to bet that today, at that school, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a guitar player and most would play much better than I. Guitar players have become so common that the world takes them for granted. You might say that rock and roll is here to stay.
Since the time of the season of the Beatles, and Dylan, and the Stones, guitar player numbers have become serious to the extent that excellent players are legion and most of them do a lot more than just rock around the clock. Musicians are attracted to the wonder of music and, the more they touch, the more they expand. I have a CD of Paul McCartney, seemingly forever young, singing 40’s classics accompanied by an orchestra.
This all springs gently on my mind because 50 years ago I also started studying karate at the same snowy school, a young, newly free bird born at the right time and looking for adventure. At that time, dojos were filled with young men just like me and the occasional brave young woman who happened to wonder in.
Seems like yesterday.
All our lives we studied karate “styles” – versions of karate initiated in the 30’s by Okinawan and Japanese innovators and taught to us by American GI’s or their students. A person who stayed with karate was about as rare as a guitar player, but those of us who did also remained mostly allegiant to our first dojo, unless the teacher happened to be a complete loser or had committed some transgression, like stealing our money and skipping town. As time passed we came to defend those particular styles like a piece of our heart – like crusaders defended religion. But style is as fleeting as a moonshadow.
As things turned out, I was a bit of a desperado, a nowhere man, so to speak and floated through four different styles over fifty years seeking, in vain, the perfect teacher. Somehow I never learned to love the one I was with.
But during those years I saw some exceptional karate and exceptional kata. It always seemed, however, limited – limited to one person’s take, one view of the Okinawan martial arts and there were so many views to choose from.
A crossroads was inevitable.
People staked their ground and built their lives around the truth of one style or another. It seemed to offer them a reason to believe in something. It’s difficult to break away when your black belt was presented by one organization or another and you have sung the glories of your style for a lifetime. We become calcified in our movement and approach and never let in the rainbow of wonders that karate can offer if we could just step beyond the boundaries of our own mind.
People are strange. It wasn’t many years ago that someone suggested to me that, if a person wore a certain style patch at a tournament, they shouldn’t be allowed to perform a kata from another system. I never listened to what the man said, but I quit wearing patches just in case some judge saw it that way, too. There was so much karate to learn, I couldn’t contain it. I realized early on that I only had one life and I wasn’t about to spend it bored. It was a wild world and I had no desire to take it easy.
Over the years, much of this has evolved in new directions and the world has taken a second look. Orthodoxy is in free fall, already gone for many. What strikes me however, as I attend the occasional tournament or surf youtube on a Sunday morning, is how many people perform such a wide variety of karate so well, embracing the sea of kata that exists and taking it all to the limit. Just like guitars players, karate players are abundant and are drawn to all the variations of the music of karate. Katas that were once the exclusive realm of adult men who pledged allegiance to one system or another are now performed by twelve-year-old girls and boys to whom we look to carry it all on. Something in the way they move speaks to the ages. It’s all good and I’m a believer.
Such is the changing face of the world, and the maturing face of karate. The lesson we learn is to take the time to teach our children well. I’m not the only person, and not the first by far, who came to realize that the art we pursued was “karate”, not Shotokan karate or Shorin karate or Goju karate. Style centrism is a long time gone. Nowadays Shotokan based teachers include Suparinpe in their syllabus; Wado schools incorporate Shi-To Ryu katas in their curriculum; and Goju students come to me to learn Unsu.
Shi-To Ryu itself has become so all-encompassing that almost every kata in existence has been absorbed into one version of it or another. I believe, in fact, that it was Shi-To’s founder, Kenwa Mabuni’s intention to preserve all of Okinawan kata as karate history as much as style. He could get some satisfaction from the fact that his vision is ultimately coming true.
This new morning finally feels like home and to everything there is a season. The dojo for which I teach, for example, has an archive of katas that span ninety five percent of the entire spectrum of Okinawan karate and pre-teen students perform them like veterans. For me, it’s paradise – a marvelous and rewarding experience to see kids and adults, on their personal paths to victory, learning and enjoying all the kata that Okinawa has to offer without worrying about offending a senior or a teacher or a system or some “master” somewhere who insists on keeping it all in a box. And we don’t think twice about it.
Fifty years ago Beatlemania swept the country, guitar-mania swept a generation and karate-mania swept me into the world.
And so it goes, a rapidly disappearing dream – an unchained heart – and tomorrow is a long time, plenty for it all to evolve. I still play this old guitar and I still practice kata daily. Stopping is the last thing on my mind and I lift a glass for the good times. In the end I can say that, for me, it’s been marvelous fun – and truly a long and winding road.
(If you can name all the rock and folk songs as well as their writers or performers that were mentioned or alluded to in this article, we will give you a high five in the next newsletter.)