Kata: a musical analogy.

by Ryan Gregory, June 28th, 2012

As I write this, the 2012 Olympic games are less than a month away. If history is any guide, we can expect the team from the USA to bring home an impressive collection of gold medals. Heck, Michael Phelps alone might get half a dozen or more again this time. In any case, it’s a safe bet that we’ll be hearing the national anthem of the United States quite a bit this summer.

That national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, has an interesting history. It began as a poem written during the War of 1812 by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the bombardment (but survival) of Fort McHenry on September 13, 1814 from his vantage point as a detainee aboard a British naval ship. Later, Key’s poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” was set to the tune of “The Anacreontic Song“, which was the official song of an 18th-century British gentlemen’s club for amateur musicians known as The Anacreontic Society. The combination of Key’s poem (written in 1814) and the tune of The Anacreontic Song (written in the 1760s) did not become the national anthem of the United States in 1931 — almost 120 years after the lyrics were penned and about 165 years after the tune was written. There are four verses in the poem/full song, but usually only the first is sung.

There are a few lessons to take from this example. One, the historical origins of even a very widely performed song can be complex. Many of the people who perform the national anthem may not know much about its origin or the context in which its lyrics were written. Two, the language may be somewhat archaic or convoluted and not easily understood by modern listeners, especially without historical context (“O say can you see by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming, Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?”). Three, although the core of the lyrics and the tune are well known, there are innumerable variations, interpretations, and adaptations of the song. Different orchestral arrangements, rock/country/soul versions, different tempos, different series of notes within each line, and so on. Some are faster, some are slower. Some are minimalistic, some are vocally elaborate.

I believe that each of these points is also true of kata. In some cases, we know when, why, and by whom a kata was created. Take, for example, the Goju-ryu kata Gekisai Ichi (also called Gekisai Dai Ichi). It was created by the founder of Goju-ryu, Chojun Miyagi, in 1940 primarily as an exercise for school children and as a means of popularizing karate among the public. Nevertheless, even this basic kata can now be seen performed in a variety of ways among students of different schools of Goju-ryu. The first punch can be either a middle punch or a high punch. The kiai may be on the kick and shuto, or on the reverse punch. The double punch may be slow or fast. There may be some additional moves in some versions that are absent from others. And the time taken to complete the kata can vary two-fold, depending on the style and practitioner. And this is for a kata whose history is well known and whose sequence of moves is relatively simple. Just imagine the potential for variation in kata that are interpretations of adaptations of versions of traditional forms whose historical origins have been lost.

Kata, like songs, are cultural products that can and do evolve and diverge while still maintaining their core characteristics. Even within traditional Okinawan schools of Goju-ryu, with direct links to Chojun Miyagi through his personal students, I have seen significant differences in the way even the basic kata are taught. As such, there simply cannot be one “correct” way of performing the kata. This is why it bothers me to no end when I see smug comments on YouTube pointing out supposed “mistakes” in other people’s rendition of a particular kata. Sometimes there are indeed mistakes, but more often they are differences in interpretation or variations in the way the kata has been taught. What matters is working toward perfecting the execution of the kata within the context of your particular school’s interpretation.

I don’t think we should consider this stylistic diversity to be a bad thing. If people like Chojun Miyagi and other masters did not alter, invent, or interpret kata, there’d be no distinct Okinawan martial art of karate to begin with. Personally, I find it interesting to see the ways in which different branches of a style teach the same kata, what parts they emphasize, what the surface-level bunkai seems to be, and whether they focus on speed and power or detail and technique. That’s the thing about a great song or kata — it is amenable to a lot of variation and personal expression without compromising its distinctiveness.

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