Thursday, June 17, 2010

We Were All Karate Kids: Part II: My Mr Miyagi's

In 1967, I lived in Ft Benning, Georgia where my father was an Airborne Ranger recently returned from Vietnam. I had been a victim of bullies, who demanded I conform to a pack mentality that excluded the love of books when I lived in the projects. I needed a magic bullet, Muhammad Ali boxing skills, something.

After months of watching martial arts in old movies from Mr Moto, Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock to the TV show, Secret Agent Man, I was hooked.  I was introduced to the practice of martial arts through the  books of Bruce Tegner and then, a masterwork by Mas Oyama called "This is Karate."  Some friends of mine and I would use Oyama's book as an instructional manual between nomadic special forces guys who gave us pointers. We perfected breaking skills and tensho kata. We sparred badly and had plenty of bloody noses and loosened teeth.

I put in practice on the base and with numerous people with "self-defense" training but my real practice began with my meeting with 16 year old Gregory Jaco in Chicago in the winter of 1967  when my father returned to Vietnam and my family to the suburbs of Chicago.

 This was my first  Mr Miyagi, a guy barely 2 years older than me. Tough, knowledgeable, charming, my mom would always ask about him years after meeting him. He was older than his actual age, a leader, a comedian, when he wanted to be, with a soft high voice.

He had come to my house through two local Maywood, IL friends,  It was the coldest day of the winter. Along with the diminutive Robert Tobias, who would periodically disapppear to study with Count Dante, we went out into the Chicago wind and worked out, Oyama style, barefoot in the snow. The steam rose from our bodies from the exertions. We actually sweated in sub-zero weather. Rob was the first person to show me the "Dance of Death." He could execute all of the movements in less than 20 secs, he was aiming for 15.

Jaco was an instructor before he became a black belt. He taught children in the Robert Taylor Homes for years. We were Explorer Scouts together. Some folks thought that was funny. But not for long. Jaco had the "Godhand." People would look down at his thick frame and walk away.

Jaco did not charge money, you paid for his classes with blood, sweat, respect and dedication. His school gave the most exciting breaking demonstrations, brick breaking, wood, bottles. The women in the class did everything the men did. He would use a samurai swords to cut through apples held in student's necks. He would throw Shuriken (ninja stars) at living targets including ME. Fear was my companion around Jaco, but I mastered it. He never hit me but I had to stand still. My fear would hurt me, not Jaco.

In the Robert Taylor Homes he trained up a crew called the Black Dragon Slayers. But they went rogue. Having driven out drugs dealers with their fearlessness and fight skills, some of them took the places of the defeated dealers. Jaco disowned them he started a new school, The Tornado School of Martial Arts.

Jaco was always bugging people to help his students get uniforms, and we helped, even when we stopped working out with him. Jaco had a wild streak and a good heart. One of his son's and students, Wasulu Jaco, is also known as Lupe Fiasco, yeah, THAT Lupe Fiasco.

I did not see him that often after we became adults. But we always ran into each other somewhere, or I would hear of his adventures and he of mine. The tall baritone voiced Marshall is a painter and Clarence became a Chicago Policeman. The brilliant and itenerant Rob caught a case in the early 90s and is in the Illinois Penal system.

While Jaco joined the Army after high school and become part of the Green Beret Martial Arts Demonstration Team, I left the country to explore the liberation movements based in Dar Es Salaam. I was hanging out on a beach on the Indian Ocean in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania with Goju-Ryu master Shihan Namtambu Camara Bomani auditing his classes, struggling through their 5 mile runs every other day.

Funny how I found yet another teacher/brother of the same kindness and compassion continents away. He was way less wild than Jaco and very grounded. The perfect balance I needed at the time, being 22 and a bit freaked out by my journey though ten years of fighting for social justice in the good old USA. The revolution was winding down in the US, brothers had gone from Black Berets to 3 piece suits. Some of us answered the call of the international and went to West Africa, Many of us to Dar with the intent to led assistance t the fight against colonialism. A foolish few went to Jonas Savimbi in Angola. I am grateful for the people who taught me to think critically and at 22 to know better than to fall for bullshit.

Natambu Bomani Kamara
Trained in Okinawa, Bomani was responsible for introducing Jundokan Gojuryu to Tanzania and Africa. He established the first ever Goju Ryu karate school in Dar es Salaam in 1973 and he founded the Tanzania Okinawa Gojuryu Karate Association. Bomani got married in Dar Es Salaam and lived like a Tanzanian, cooking on a small charcoal stove in a small ground level apartment. His students were Tanzanian, South African, from Umkonto Wa Sizwe and Mozambican members of Frelimo. Karate was all he did, and he had a class of 75-100 people whenever I was there, it seemed. Our Friday night social set was the kung fu movies at a theater by the docks.

He adopted me as a little brother and we would talk late into the night. Bomani was another teacher who "pulled my coat" to the snake oil salesmen and expatriate poverty pimps transplanted in the area.  I always got the last bus and had to walk 3 or 4 kilometers home on dark roads with the distant sounds of Congolese guitar coming from the numerous "dukas" along the way. Warned against the wahoonies (thugs) and mwezi's (thieves), I traveled with my nun-chakus bought at the Borkowski's martial arts store on 66th and Halsted in Chicago. When I last I saw Bomani In Dar Es Salaam he was sweating out malaria at home and I was very worried about him. He pulled through and I heard from him by letter when I got to London. That was in 1975.

Students of Nantambu Bomani (Top Row, 2nd from right), 1972
I had not seen Bomani in 33 years. We reconnected over the internet 2 years ago, after Jaco died. I decided to look for him and found him. It was like we had seen each other a few weeks ago. We picked up, I got all the news and we made arrangements to meet when he returned from Ghana. Bomani passed the Summer of 2009 in Ghana and is buried there. I found out recently when I called him at his home in Seattle  a few months back. His son gave me the news.

Jaco died in 2007, I sought him out when I started shooting my film 5 years ago. I was looking for Robert Tobias. Jaco had been ill with diabetes and had come out of a coma a year before. He had since obtained a new wife half his age. Nothing kept him down. When I saw him last he was making plans for another school. An amazing group of people came together to honor his memory. We sat in a Church on the South Side of Chicago, with a minister, a muslim Imam, drummers, Saabar dancing and breaking demonstrations in his memory.


He was not rich, he was never a feature article in Black Belt magazine, he was never a big tournament fighter. To him, a point was knocking a guy out. He was sensei to thousands. And hundreds came to honor him. I found a quote from the Tao de Ching for Jaco and Bomani. This fits their spirits nicely.


"A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.

A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.

Thus the Master is available to all people
and doesn't reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations
and doesn't waste anything.

This is called embodying the light.

What is a good man but a bad man's teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man's job?
If you don't understand this, you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret."

-- lao tzu

Jaco and Bomani, like all good teachers understood this intuitively. It take special people to teach effectively. It takes care, love and compassion. The best teachers are extremely self aware. They become brothers and sisters to us and ,in many cases, surrogate fathers and mothers as well. This was Hamza Gregory Jaco and Nantambu Camara Bomani. HArd disciplinarians, soft hearts. Iron Hands tending gardens of youth, strengthening our roots, fertilizing our minds and energizing our spirits.

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