Kummooyeh is a Korean martial art that centers around swordsmanship. Wanting to know more, I paid a visit to one such school in Sydney.
I try to shrug off some of the raindrops as I walk up the stairs to the loft of a spacious building, just off the busy Parramatta Road here in Sydney. When I decided to save this visit for a ‘rainy day’, I had not intended for it to be taken literally! Maybe I should stop viewing the use of an umbrella as cheating.
A Taekwondo class is currently in session, so I take a seat while I wait for the Kummooyeh instructor to arrive. A few students eye me curiously while I wait. Am I a new student? Or a rival come to scope out the competition? There is no hostility though, no filthy looks. My old Capoeira instructor used to tell me that after a while you got an eye for spotting other committed martial artists. I’m starting to think she was right. Still, it’s always a good feeling to hang around other students – it’s one of the few times I feel like I belong somewhere.
While I wait, I go over what the Internet has told me about this martial art. Kummooyeh is often seen as the same as Kumdo, which in turn is the Korean equivalent of the Japanese martial art Kendo. Kumdo and Kendo means the same thing (‘Way of the Sword’) and is merely different labels on the same art. Kummooyeh, however, sees itself as different although I have yet to see exactly how.
During the 20th century, martial arts researchers turned to Korean history and studied manuscripts from when the country’s own martial systems were still in use (before firearms came to dominate). The main source is a Korean military text from 1795, Mu Yea Do Bo Tong Ji – meaning ‘Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts’ – which was written to instruct the Korean warrior in defending the motherland with a variety of instruments. And this is where there is a fundamental difference between the two styles – Kendo has maintained a pure focus on the linear 1-on-1 duel scenario, whereas Kummooyeh has embraced the more chaotic battlefield scene. The end result is that the Korean martial art features a lot more circular maneuvers, jumps and angled cuts.
I’m brought back to the present by the arrival of a middle-aged man with a friendly face. He introduces himself as Corrado Tarrantello, head instructor here in Sydney. After introducing himself and his fellow instructor Woo (turns out the Taekwondo teacher also instructs in Kummooyeh), he suggests we sit down in his office for my questions. I explain how I met Stephen Murdoch, one of his junior instructors at an All Styles competition and found his swordsmanship interesting, eventually bringing me here.
Although I have by now had a good look through their website, some questions still remain. Turns out that Kummooyeh translates to ‘Art of the Korean Sword‘, and was founded in 2010 with the vision to spread this art to the world. Kwang-jang-nim (Head Master) Hyun Kyoo Jang structured the curriculum and began to actively spread Kummooyeh across the world in 2014. In about a year’s time affiliated schools have sprung up in over 15 countries, making Kummooyeh one of the fastest growing martial arts.
When I ask for what makes Kummooyeh different from Kendo he explains that, apart from certain differences in details and techniques, this school’s curriculum also includes traditional Korean archery. The training also includes meditation techniques, sword forms, cutting techniques and sparring practise. Every aspect serves to further the Kummooyeh students’ skillset on their journey to becoming a master of the sword.
To practise these aspects, different instruments are used. Beginners start practising with the mokum, a wooden sword (more commonly known by its Japanese term, Bokken). The student then advances to practise with the kakum, a blunt steel sword for form practise. A heavier sword, jinkum, is used for cutting practise. For partner forms, a non-lethal training sword consisting of bound bamboo slats is used. Lastly, a foam padded sword is used (along with protective gear) for freestyle sparring.
Archery is practised with a composite reflex bow, similar to the ones used by Mongols. The curvature of the reflex bow creates a high degree of tension in spite of its smaller size, making it easier to handle (for example from horseback). There are no modern trappings on these bows; apart from the traditional thumb ring, only skill aids the student in hitting the target. Again, the battlefield origin comes into play – archery practise may include shooting while walking, or spinning out from against a wall before shooting the arrow.
For more information on Korean archery, check out the movie ‘War of the Arrows’
It’s obvious that Instructor Corrado has a strong passion for his art and could undoubtedly talk about it for hours, but unfortunately class is about to start. I resume my seat at the side of the dojang (practise hall) while the students line up. Including the instructors there are about twelve people present; not bad for a rainy Friday night. It seems this style has a place for everyone, as the students show a good mix across genders, ages, ethnicity and weight ranges. The dobok (uniform) consists of black pants, belt and traditionally cut jackets that are either black, white or red depending on rank.
An assistant instructor barks commands in Korean, followed by everyone bowing to Australian and Korean flags on the wall. I notice the lack of bowing to a photograph of the style founder, like I’ve seen in Aikido and Kung Fu. Perhaps it’s because the founder of the style is still alive. A warmup routine follows, each exercise accompanied by a count to ten (in Korean, of course) by different students. Instructor Corrado then leads the students through a series of breathing techniques, a sort of meditation in motion.
Class continues with short pattern drills, showing different ways of drawing and sheathing the blunt kakum sword. Some of the sheathing techniques are quite complicated, perhaps overly so. Later on when I raise this with one of the senior students, I am told these short but elaborate exercises are meant to prepare the student for the higher level of complexity that follows in the more advanced forms.
The class then divides into smaller groups, each focusing on different aspects of form practise. Instructor Corrado, wearing the red jacket that marks the lead instructor, walks the beginners through the basics with an accompanying commentary for each technique. That the highest ranking instructor spends most of his time with the greenest of novices says a lot about how this school not only appreciates every student, but also puts heavy importance on getting the basics right from the start.
In other parts of the room, assistant instructors (wearing white jackets) are going through different forms with the remaining students. One lady is preparing for an upcoming grading by drilling partner forms with one of the instructors, bamboo practice swords coming to a halt just short of the opponent’s head. Each finishing cut is accompanied by a kiap, a short yell that serves to channel one’s energy and augment the sword technique. Accuracy is critical – even the most minute of details are corrected where needed.
A senior student comes over to get some liniment from his bag and starts applying it to his sore knee. He’s wearing a black belt with a white stripe, and when I ask what it means he tells me that it shows that he’s undertaking the International Black Belt Program. It’s an intensive course for those who choose to make a dedicated effort to pass the Kummooyeh black belt grading. Some even travel to Korea to study full time in order to accelerate their learning, training for hours each day under the supervision of Kwang-jang-nim(Head Master) Hyun Kyoo Jang.
As the class comes to an end Instructor Corrado asks everyone to come to a kneeling position, before leading them through a quick glossary test on Korean terms. He then ducks into his office and comes out with a parcel, declaring that today, Instructor Woo will be given the coveted red jacket that marks him as Sabumnim, Lead Instructor. A lot of congratulating follows before the two instructors excuse themselves for a private conversation.
As I finish my notes, some curious students strike up conversation with me. By the sound of it, many of them have solid experience in other martial arts but in Kummooyeh they’ve found something special. One of them ascribes it to that special feeling when technique, soul and sword come together in harmony – “it’s like music to the heart”, he says.
Like music to the heart. I like that.