On Irish Stick-fighting, Bruce Lee’s Musicality, and Chinese Lion Dances with Dr Colin McGuire.
I had the honour and pleasure of being interviewed about my research for the Martial Arts Studies Podcast. Professor Paul Bowman of Cardiff University is the host of the program, as well as the head of the Martial Arts Studies Research Network and co-editor of the peer-reviewed, open access journal Martial Arts Studies. We chatted about music and martial arts along several lines of inquiry that I have pursued: kung fu / lion dance percussion, Bruce Lee’s rhythm of combat, and the music of 19th century Irish shillelagh-fighting.
In the rest of this blog post, I’ll summarize some of the things we talked about and provide links, as well as fill in some gaps with things that I forgot to mention or wish I had said. Hindsight is 20/20! If you prefer, jump right to listening via this link to my episode or check out the video version embedded below:
A New Podcast on the Academic Study of Martial Arts
The genesis of the Martial Arts Studies Podcast came in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Paul had to move online for the lectures of a class he had been teaching, and so he also recorded some talks with guest speakers. These proved enjoyable, and he has continued interviewing scholars, experts, and practitioners to “accidentally” create a podcast.
Given my recent self-isolation to help flatten the pandemic’s curve, I was extra pleased by the opportunity to have a conversation with Paul. Furthermore, since finishing my Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship and Ireland Canada University Foundation Flaherty Scholarship (both at University College Cork, a.k.a. UCC), my research has taken a backseat to the pragmatic concerns of gainful employment, which has been outside academia. This interview was a welcome chance to revisit my work on music and martial arts by taking stock of what I’ve done and what I still hope to achieve.
The Origins of My Studying Music and Martial Arts Together
Paul’s first question was about how I got into researching music and martial arts. For me, martial arts came first. My parents put me into taekwondo classes at a young age, and I have continued learning and practising martial arts my whole life. Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of styles, including: taichi, judo, aikido, Brazilian jujitsu, kickboxing, freestyle wrestling, and Western fencing. Eventually, I got serious about Wing Chun kung fu (Sum Nung / Yuen Kay-san / Guangzhou family) and became a disciple of Master Henry Lo in Toronto.
I got into music through school band, and I eventually became a music major in post-secondary. After earning a MA in Electroacoustic Composition from York University and completing the Wing Chun system under Master Lo, my father asked me if there was some connection between music and martial arts. His query inspired me to further my studies by pursuing a PhD in Ethnomusicology (also from York) in order to investigate those connections.
Paul followed up by asking about my doctoral studies. The title of my dissertation was Music of the Martial Arts: Rhythm, Movement, and Meaning in a Chinese Canadian Kung Fu Club. It was based on six years of participant observation ethnography at Toronto’s Hong Luck Kung Fu Club.
I started my PhD fieldwork with the intention of studying the percussion music used to accompany Chinese martial arts and the lion dance, but I soon discovered that drumming is actually the last thing in the curriculum. The transmission process at Hong Luck begins with—and remains rooted in—kung fu training. Lion dance comes later, followed by the supporting instruments of the percussion ensemble (cymbals and gong). In the end, prospective drummers must take their embodied knowledge of the movement and rhythms in order to translate it into drumming. That is to say, there is no formal curriculum for learning to drum, although senior members do offer coaching as people try to figure it out. It took many years, and much patient generosity from my teachers, but I eventually became a drummer at Hong Luck.
Interestingly, many of my fieldwork consultants claimed their percussion rhythms were not really “music” per se. Having been through the process myself, I can now hear what they mean. Kung fu and lion dance percussion at Hong Long is sonic martial arts, which is a phenomenon common to other schools of Southern Chinese martial arts around the world. Hearing it this way reveals meanings that would not otherwise be apparent, and that experience continues to inform my research beyond kung fu.
Martial Sound: The Intersection of Music and Hand Combat
When I revised and augmented my doctoral dissertation during the postdoctoral research fellowship at UCC, I came up with a new concept that unifies my work and will hopefully prove useful to other researchers and martial arts practitioners alike. The book manuscript has been done for a while, and now I’m in the process of trying to find a publisher. It’s currently under review with a university press, however these things move at a glacial pace.
Martial sound is my theory that we can hear music as martial arts and listen to martial arts as musicking.
I mentioned martial sound briefly on the podcast, but we focused more on an application of the idea, rather than an explanation. My indefatigable host Paul is familiar with some of my martial sound work, because I presented a paper on it at a Martial Arts Studies conference in Cardiff and also published an article-length version of the talk in their journal. That article is titled “Timing in Bruce Lee’s Writings as Inspiration for Listening Musically to Hand Combat and Martial Arts Performance.”
On the podcast, I said that my work on Bruce Lee’s ideas about timing and rhythm in martial arts was mostly about organizing and translating his eclectic terminology, which is partially true. The work I did there rests on the idea of martial sound, and I probably should have made that more explicit. Oops! We also talked about the second part of that article, where I took Bruce’s ideas and my terminology to explain the value of performing kung fu demonstrations while remaining largely asynchronous to the beat of the accompanying percussion. That value is as a form of combat training, which goes against many people’s view that practising choreographed forms has no practical value for martial arts application.
By hearing martial arts as musicking, it allows us to discuss timing with precise terminology from music theory that makes rhythmic relationships more clear. Beyond the descriptive, there is interpretive power in being able to hear relationships of movement as sound, because those relationships are meaningful in terms of how they present cultural ideals about heroism, violence, strength, skill, bravery, etc.
To add to what we discussed on the podcast and what’s in the Bruce Lee article, I’d like to draw on an example from the as-yet unpublished book. The Hong Luck Kung Fu Club’s martial sound is integral to forging, maintaining, and negotiating a resistant community identity in Toronto’s Spadina/Dundas Chinatown. The group’s most public activity is lion dance parades through the neighbourhood for Chinese New Year and the club’s anniversary. At those times, the thunderous percussion fills the air and extends to the borders of Chinatown, which in a sense helps to (re)create the space as a Chinese place. This place is a community that has endured—despite long-term social and systemic racism against Chinese people.
The traditional ritual function of lion dance is to disperse negative energy during liminal moments, and the power to do so relies on martial sound. Vigorous drumming and lion dancing are synchronized with each other in a martial display of coordination to symbolically defend against negativity. Cultural insiders know that lion dancers and percussionists are kung fu practitioners. Beyond the ritual function, martial sound also broadcasts the message that trained fighters are afoot. While racial discrimination is perhaps not as bad as it was when Hong Luck was founded, resistance to racism remains important. This martial sound is a heroic display, showing steadfast presence, unified group strength, and a refusal to be less-than.
Irish Shillelaghs and the Music of 19th-Century Faction Fighting
My newest research merges historical ethnomusicology with practise-based fieldwork on music and Irish stick-fighting. The project is called Shillelagh Studies, and I have a separate website dedicated to it. Thanks to a Flaherty Scholarship, I was able to return to Ireland after my postdoc to visit libraries and archives, and I’ve also been consulting with practitioners and stick-makers.
The height of stick-fighting culture in Ireland was in the early 1800s, when rival factions would battle at public gatherings: market days, horse races, and “patterns” (festivals in honour of Catholic saints). The narrative of British colonialists about this practise was that drunken Irishmen would grab a stick and brawl with each other at any opportunity. While alcohol was often involved, there was more planning and preparation than it may have appeared, including martial arts training and careful crafting of fighting sticks.
Of particular interest to me is the way music was used before, during, and after faction fights, which should provide some insight into an oral folk culture that the written history has not recorded. My research listens to the music of Irish stick-fighting as an antidote to the colonialist narrative. I’m still in the early stages of collating, cross-referencing, and analyzing the archival material I found in Ireland.
Faction fighting faded away after the Great Hunger (a.k.a. Irish Potato Famine of 1845–1849), but some families in Ireland and the diaspora quietly maintained the fighting skills. I’ve had the pleasure of training with Glen Doyle, whose family preserved their style in Newfoundland. Since he began teaching outside the family, there has been a resurgence of interest in Irish stick fighting around the world.
Paul was asking about what sort of sources I’ve been finding, as well as the types of weapons used in faction fights. The main weapon was what we now call a “shillelagh,” which is a knobbed walking stick of blackthorn, oak, ash, holly, etc. Historically, there were a variety of stick sizes and shapes, but the walking stick size reined supreme for its ease of being carried without drawing too much attention. Paul was asking about deadlier weapons, and more vicious faction fights sometimes saw the use of stones, farm implements, knives, and (rarely) guns, but mostly it was about shillelagh play. I may have oversimplified when I answered his question, because I’m most interested in stick-fighting.
While living in Ireland, I joined the Cork branch of the Celtic Stickmakers Club and learned to make shillelaghs. If you watch the video of the podcast, you can see the shillelagh I made for Paul, which is a lovely bit of spalted hazel. I’ve include a few glamour shots of it below:
Music Without Martial Arts
Apparently Paul checked out some of the music that I’ve made when he was browsing my website before the interview, so we chatted about that briefly. Despite my DJ/producer stage name having a martial reference, the music doesn’t have much to do with martial arts.
I go by Ronin E-Ville, where “Ronin” is a masterless samurai warrior and E-Ville is a reference to my home town of Edmonton. Under that moniker, I DJ and produce a fairly eclectic range of music. My idea of being a musical ronin is that I have no master genre. Instead, I produce my own twist on styles like lofi hip hop, dubstep, breakbeats, house, techno, and IDM. Similarly, I’m an open format DJ, although I could happily play an hour of many different genres before switching to something else.
Future Plans for Martial Sound Research
To wrap up the interview Paul was wondering what is next for me. I talked a bit about a chapter that I was invited to write on research ethics in ethnomusicology for an edited volume, and how I’m slowly working on stick-fighting material for my Shillelagh Studies blog. I might try to write something for the RTÉ’s Brainstorm or maybe a journal article on shillelagh music and the Irish stick-fighting revival. I neglected to say that hopefully my martial sound book will be out in the next year or two, and I’ve got a journal article accepted in Intersections.
Realistically, music and martial arts is all a hobby at the moment, because I’m not working in academia, the music industry, or as a martial artist. And since I’m out of research funding, too, my productivity has gone way down. Nonetheless, this interview has reminded me of how interesting I find all of this, so I guess I’ll just keep plugging away at it when I get the chance. Thanks, Professor Bowman!