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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

Muay Thai Learning from Mexican Capoeira: The Glocalization of A Culturally Rich Fighting Art

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Sometimes a fighting art can learn from the histories of other fighting arts, when contemplating what it means for it to be spread to countries non-native to its production. Muay Thai has lessons to learn from the Internationalization of TKD through the Olympics, as it reaches for Olympic status itself, involving important questions on the commercialization of the sport, the codification of its nature, and its marketing through children pedagogy. Muay Thai, which itself was modernized in Thailand in the 1920s, has much to learn from the rationalizing exportation of Judo, throughout the world at the same time, likely part of that same wave to educate and rationalize through a fighting art, or things to learn from how Okinawan Karate proliferated through its introduction to affluent Japanese university students. We learn when we look at the paths, patterns and market forces that have shaped other fighting arts and sports.

Its for that reason that the fate of Capoeira, as it spread over the world into cultures that were not of its own birth, holds an informing mirror of analysis. One of the great struggles of Thailand's Muay Thai is over how to preserve its own authenticity, and the rich character of it's knowledge, without losing essentially what it is, as it becomes transplanted in cultures which are not its own. How much of "Thailand", how much of the micro-economies and sub-practices, which create the habitus of Muay Thai, need to come with the art and sport, for it to remain its own? Or, is Muay Thai best thought of as a set of mechanics & moves that can be extracted from the place of its birth, more or less whole, preserving its essential efficacy, letting the cultural trappings fall away as a kind of dross? Can - and should - Muay Thai be mined?

Drawing from the article: Mexican capoeira is not diasporic! – On glocalization, migration and the North-South divideAuthor: David Sebastian Contreras Islas << download it here. I've also attached my highlighted version of the article: Mexican capoeira is not diasporic! – On glocalization, migration and the North-South divide.pdf

The article's great. In its early history Capoeria provides compelling parallels to Thailand's Muay Thai, in that it too has had an schizophrenic authenticity tension, between provincial or at least marginal origins with low associations with crime or vice, and a more proper, more artful expression driven by social elites. Capoeira went through this 100 years ago, Thailand's Muay Thai still operates according to this tension, a tension which helps make up much of its identity in Thailand.



These evolutuions of acceptability in fighting arts are important tellings in the history of a fighting art, and because Thailand's Muay Thai never passed into an "academy" stage, but rather maintained its ideological tension between provincial "commoner" Muay Thai (the muay of the North, Isaan and the South), and cosmopolitan, royal-patronage Bangkok Muay Thai, a tension that has been wrestled out in actual full contact rings for more than the last century, fighting efficacy has proved more salient than in Capoeira. But, what Capoeira does draw forward is that a fighting art can pull with it, perhaps even necessarily pulls with it, its cultural milieu, the material origins of its creation, and that struggles over authenticity become important ones in the globalized marketplace. What is important is that these struggles over origin and authenticity exist all the way back into the roots of the fighting itself, and in some respects the fighting itself is about these roots. While Capoeria's authenticity battles to some degree are resolved by displayed skills in the ring (ruga) - the author argues that Mexican masters prove their authenticity by being able to hold their own against Brazilian masters - Muay Thai authenticity battles are across 1,000s of rings, a laboratory of efficacy and cultural relevance.

The widest import of the article is on the differences between Globalized diaspora - the way that Capoeira has spread to Western countries like the United Kingdom, through the diaspora of Brazilians themselves, a function of the economic connectivity between nations, and what he takes to be the Glocalized spread of Capoeria to less economically advantageous countries like Mexico. The tension here is between Brazilians who necessarily bring much of the culture of Brazil with them, as they teach Capoeira, much of its habitus, and cross-cultural examples such as Mexico, where no Brazilian masters have settled, but where Capoeira has grown through Mexican masters...who may, or may not make pilgrimages to Brazil itself, in bids for authenticity.

One cannot help but see some parallels between the desire for, or at least pressure for, Western Muay Thai teachers to found themselves on some Thailand experiences in order to authenticate their teachings. In Western marketplaces like America there can be intense struggle over these questions of authenticity, which gyms have coaching trees tracing back to Thailand, or even have ex-Thai fighters, and which gyms approach Muay Thai perhaps as a study and promulgation of efficacy itself. In a world where MMA also exerts a kind of democratizing force upon martial arts of all kinds, and where digital access to very rich Thai knowledge archives, like our Muay Thai Library project, this struggle over authenticity becomes quite complex.

Market vs Ring

One of the most import distinctions in the questions of authenticity and glocalization between Brazil's Capoeira and Thailand's Muay Thai, especially under the glocalization perspective, is that the "authenticity" of Thailand's Muay Thai, unlikely that of Capoeira, has a foundational dimension of assumed efficacy in the ring. Which is to say, the cultural signatures of authenticity that surround a fighting art, like that of Muay Thai, involve the notion that authentic means efficacious. And disputes of authenticity away from the home country, in Muay Thai, also have to be disputes over fighting efficacy. Yes, the author does say that Mexican masters of Capoeira have to prove their capacities vs other Brazilian masters, in the "game" of Capoeira, but because Thailand's Muay Thai (and many of its cultural trappings/habitus) come out of the laboratory of 1,000s of fighting ring events, like for instance the art of western boxing, there is an assumed real relationship between cultural realness and fighting capacity. An example of glocalization taken up in the article is how Hip Hop traveled the world but became localized, as the music of Hip Hop came to express local circumstances, and be sung in local languages. Germany developed a "German" Hip Hop. Mexico, a "Mexican" Hip Hop. The phenomena of Hip Hop is found all over the world, but it is glocalized by different people. Hip Hop on the other hand, does not have a straight forward efficacy dimension to its expressive art. Western glocalized Muay Thai expressions, especially those which depart of Thailand coaching trees, and cultural habitus, do make arguments towards their own efficacies, perhaps merging "Thai techniques" with combination training, or borrowings from other fighting arts, under the claim that they are making a potent fighting approach. But, these are largely marketing claims. Which is to say positioning oneself in a market milieu. In the rings of Thailand, under the aesethetics of Thai fighting, there is. broadly, only one "authentic" efficacy -- itself splintered across the country in innumerable in-culture approaches: Muay Thai developed under the cultural habitus of Thailand. Muay Thai is not Hip Hop...but, it does have character and qualities that it shares with Hip Hop, and Capoeira, as it expresses artfully the culture from which it came, carrying an ethos with it. You can read more on the habitus of Thailand's Muay Thai here: Trans-Freedoms Through Authentic Muay Thai Training in Thailand Understood Through Bourdieu's Habitus, Doxa and Hexis

Globalization and Glocalization

There is another distinction worth carrying forward when thinking about glocalization. In the article it is used generally to describe somewhat favorable artistic particularizations of a world-wide art, adopted by a community. The glocalization process is seen as one of enrichment. David Sebastian Contreras Islas describes how traditional song might be translated into a new native tongue, or even how native expressions may mimic the original intent of practices, but in new way. To take a small, yet layered example perhaps, in Muay Thai one finds gyms in the West practicing the Japanese Karate "Ous" in groups, as a sign of respect, in Muay Thai contexts, not really something that reflects Muay Thai practice at all, but rather mimes Western practices of "Martial Arts culture". This is to say, there is a necessary translation of arts into new culture, while still hoping to preserve the conditions and practices that worked to create it, to some degree. There is a kind of artistic tug-of-war which possibly produces enrichment but also degradation.

But, there is an older, and perhaps far more salient meaning to Glocalization, which brings to mind International brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald's. The term was created to describe the ways that globalizing brands can penetrate new, culturally diverse markets. Sometimes this meant changing the taglines of brands, or brand associations. Sometimes recipes of fast foods need to be altered to fight a local palate. In fact there are any number of ways that global brands have learned to particularize themselves to fit into local contexts...to penetrate the market. One of the benefits of the glocalization concept is to help see how globalizing forces - forces that many have argued work to homogenize, to monocrop - actually use practices of particularization to take foothold in local contexts. It looks and feels local, but there is a globalizing force, and organization and ethos of homogeneity, working behind those individual tailorings. Of course digital media has taken this well beyond the level of the community, where globalization becomes glocalized in highly individualized news feeds and product exposures, made not only for your sub-set, but for you. Celebrating glocalization, and its enrichment, can give us to miss the globalizing forces (and intents) behind those particularities.

So from my perspective the article on Caipoeira has at least two aspects of importance for Thailand's Muay Thai, as it spreads to countries and cultures around the world. The first is that it brings forward the very real and sometimes painful struggle for authenticity of a practice outside the homeland of its origin. This is something that plays out in a marketplace, carrying with it a burden of fighting efficacy, but...also, these new adaptations of the art have the potential for glocalized enrichment, cultural inventions of, or re-inventions of the art in a new land. The second aspect though points to the globalizing practices that involve the spread of the art and sport, which may hide behind glocalized individuation. These forces tend to push towards a homogenization and the erasure of the living signatures of the origin of Muay Thai. The uniqueness of the sport and art intentionally become sanded down to remove any friction between cultures. In the name of an ease of comprehension or consumption the richness and variation of origin can become effaced. We see these trends in globalizing brands of Thailand's Muay Thai in IFMA amateur and Olympic aims, or instance, or ONE Championship's commercial fighting, each of which has worked it its own way to smooth out the differences of Thailand's Muay Thai so that it can more frictionlessly slip into other cultures and their consumption - not to mention changes in practice within the Thailand itself, designed to appeal to Internationalized & tourist-oriented tastes. Turning Muay Thai into a kind of "kickboxing" (which it definitionally is not), modifying rules and scoring so as to no longer reflect Thai cultural strengths and qualities, so that it can be to some degree monocropped in a variety of climates and soils, brings with it danger...the danger of effacing the differences of origin so much that those differences erode in the country of origin itself, such that it may no longer be able to produce Muay Thai as it has been historically known. These homogenizing trends can lurk behind legitimate and sometimes enriching glocalized struggles for authenticity, as David Sebastian Contreras Islas describes.



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    • wait wait wait.... what the actual fuck?!?
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