I have had the same question nagging me for seven years. This question first formed when I began my training in Yogyakarta, and each and every silat video I have watched since then has only made me more uncertain and more curious. At its core I have been wondering, “Why is it that Indonesians look like they are practicing silat, while many of us back in the U.S. look like we’re doing something else?“
My thoughts have conjured several hypotheses including body build, cultural heritage, age, environment. In a sense these all contribute, but only recently have I had the tools and vocabulary to know how to ask my teachers what I should be looking for.
Often times people ask practitioners (pesilat) of Inti Ombak Pencak Silat (IOPS), “What are your signature movements?” The response I most frequently share is that we do not have signature motion, instead we follow a set of kaedah (roughly translated as rules of engagement) that govern our motion. Primary among these kaedah is an adherence to the possibility of a knife attack. If you look closely at the jurus or applications of an Inti Ombak practitioner, you will see this dictates everything from the footwork, the choice of blocks and strikes, and even the gambits the pesilat is willing to take.
While the recognition of kaedah has begun to gel for me, and has granted me a whole new perspective on silat, I still found myself returning to my question about what makes silat look like silat. To me, it didn’t make sense that the kaedah would make our motion starkly different from all other types of silat, as our style is just as rooted in that ancestry and history as any other. It also didn’t seem that body type would make a difference as I’ve seen Indonesians of all shapes and sizes perform silat in a very silat looking way.
Finally when asking a question about a video I saw recently, my teacher said something enlightening. He said the pesilat have different kaedah from IOPS kaedah, but they have correct rhythm and power generation. Eureka! The answers have been there right in front of me for years. As someone with an engineering background, power generation is something that always made sense. But as someone who can’t play an instrument, the notion of rhythm had long escaped me. This was that intangible cultural factor I couldn’t quite verbalize. So even though kaedah governs motion, music and culture is the lens by which a teacher interprets the kaedah.
When I step back to reflect on the origins of silat, this makes sense. The music and dance govern the silat, but in a dimension separate from those dictated by kaedah. Rhythm is the breath of our motion, and it controls what type of power we use. While many of our drills address rhythm, it has always been implicit. Concepts like flow, power, and timing are easy to learn via osmosis at an early age, but for an adult learner this requires a more explicit awareness. Another complicating factor is the slight variations in rhythm. Indonesia is home to 6000 islands with nearly 300 ethnicities, each with their own take on music. Rhythm is difficult to change, and unless you are a silat savant your own rhythm will appear. Consider this video. The pesilat here comes from a style from East Java. The music however is from Sumatra. Notice how his training is fighting the external rhythm?
In retrospect, rhythm was not emphasized as much in my training because in IOPS, kaedah comes first, and rhythm builds from there. In short, rhythm can shift and change from person to person, but a loss of kaedah is a loss of the IOPS philosophy.
In an effort to cultivate some rhythm, I have asked Guru Daniel to share the music of his training, so that his students can better understand his motion. Again the picture is not so simple as he learned Madurese silat that had already migrated to East Java. He then later mixed it with the Central Javanese style of his grandfather’s lineage. And I imagine there have been further influences from his migration to the United States