History and Method
In Haiti, the traditional art of machete fencing goes by many names, among them Tire Machèt (“Pulling Machetes”). Tire Machèt has roots in the Haitian Revolution, when the revolutionaries were often forced to fight with fewer guns than soldiers. Its combination of African stick-fighting techniques and European fencing proved highly effective both in battle and as a means of individual self-defense. Since that time, a multitude of styles and training methods have proliferated. Though many of these practices remain shrouded in secrecy, Haitian master fencer Alfred Avril extended an invitation to foreigners serious about learning this martial art to come to Haiti to train with him. Over the course of our ten-year collaboration, we have had the opportunity to learn and to introduce many others to his practice.
Master Fencer Alfred Avril
In general, Tire Machèt is practiced in relative secrecy. Family traditions are a closely guarded possession to be passed down through the generations, and only trusted members of the community are permitted to participate in (or even observe) training sessions. Students from farther afield must demonstrate great loyalty to their fencing "professor" in order to gain admittance.
Alfred Avril, whose homestead lies on the wooded slopes of Cap Rouge, just outside the city of Jacmel, was the repository of one such family fencing tradition. At first glance a mild-mannered subsistence farmer, he was a master martial artist who had trained in Tire Machèt since childhood, initially under the tutelage of his father. Over the course of his life, he continued the tradition as a respected "professor" of Tire Machèt in his own right, training his sons, grandsons, nieces, nephews, and other members of his tight-knit community in the esoteric art of machete combat.
In 2004, Haitian Machete Fencing Project founders Reginald Turnier and Mike Rogers met Professor Avril through friendship with one of his sons, and because of this connection were invited to begin training. Over the years, we built a relationship of trust with the Professor and his community such that we were permitted to train with much greater openness, and to bring our own guests to the fencing circle. He encouraged us to make videos of the training in order to introduce the world to this little-know martial art. Over the past two years, we have collaborated with the production company Third Horizon to create a short documentary film about the Professor and his art, which has been shown at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Professor Avril often expressed to us his hope that our project will increase the prestige of Haitian machete fencing as an art form, both at home and abroad, and give the younger generation a reason to retain this piece of their cultural heritage into the future.
On December 1st 2014, Professor Avril succumbed to a fever and died. The following summer, after a period of mourning, the HMFP staff spent several weeks training in private with Professor Avril's sons Roland, Jean-Paul and Fredo, and came up with a cooperative plan for continuing our annual training programs, beginning in Summer 2016. Roland Avril, the Professor's most technically advanced son, will lead the training, in collaboration with his two brothers and with HMFP program coordinator Mike Rogers. Together, we will continue the work of preserving and promoting the Avril family's traditional method of training.
History of Tire Machèt
In Haiti, before the Revolution of 1791-1804 (when it was called Saint-Domingue), slaves of African ancestry struggled to keep alive their traditional practices of stick combat by holding clandestine competitions called Kalenda. At the same time, many of the free people of color sought social advancement through service in the French military, where they were introduced to European techniques of saber fencing. Notably, the Haitian fencer Jean-Louis Michel was among the most accomplished European-style fencers of the Napoleonic era. During the revolution, machete fencing played an important part in combat, since the insurgents were often unable to provide guns and ammunition for all of their soldiers. Gradually, the African and European elements began to merge into a single, synthetic martial arts tradition. Over the course of Haitian history, Tire Machèt has served mostly as a means of individual self-defense amongst farmers who work day in, day out with a machete in their hand to this day.
Though in some ways Tire Machèt resembles historical methods of European saber fencing, it bears a clear family resemblance to other roots-African martial arts like Capoeira and the forms of stick fighting currently practiced in Africa. The survival of such roots-African traditions in Haiti is a great source of its cultural wealth. Perhaps surprisingly, many of these traditions are today stronger in Haiti than anywhere in Africa because of the degree to which, during the nineteenth century, when most of Africa itself was being overrun by colonial powers, Haiti suffered the most complete international isolation imaginable. The fact that slaves had succeeded in overthrowing their masters and setting up their own government was anathema to the racist ideology of the slave-holding societies all around them, and these societies responded by cutting off almost all contact with Haiti (other than trading on the most disastrous terms) for more than 100 years. This isolation, though devastating economically, also provided protection for African traditions – from music and dance to religion and painting – to thrive.
On the other hand, the European influences on Haiti’s culture and martial tradition are undeniable. On on the eve of the revolution, there were about 30,000 free blacks and people of mixed ancestry living in Saint-Domingue, which was at the time France’s wealthiest colony, and although they were discriminated against, some had (and many aspired to) a very European way of life. Many of Haiti’s revolutionary leaders were trained in the French military tradition, and part of their prestige was their well known mastery of its style of swordsmanship. Over time, the African and European martial traditions merged, as military training and the martial-arts practices of rural peasants (with their stronger link to the African traditions) began to influence one another and ultimately combine into the art form as it is practiced today.
To learn more about the history of Tire Machèt and other martial arts of the African diaspora, see the excellent work of T.J. Desch-Obi. You can read sections of his book Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art Traditions in the Atlantic World here. To learn more about the Haitian Revolution, see especially Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois, excerpts of which are available here.
Some Frequently Asked Questions
Isn’t it inappropriate to come to a poor country to learn a “violent” skill?
From the point of view of most Haitians, Tire Machèt represents a piece of the cultural tradition to be celebrated. There is a clear separation in people's minds between the political violence that has too often occurred in Haiti’s history and machete fencing practiced as a martial art. Far more than the benefit of providing a few tourist dollars at a crucial time, we believe that bringing serious-minded foreigners to learn this piece of Haiti's cultural tradition contributes to a greater good. In the scramble to address the dire needs of its people, the positive things that Haiti has to share with the world are too often ignored. We believe that a false perception of Haiti as a country lacking in "cultural capital" is part of what keeps it impoverished, and that any path toward alleviating Haiti’s material poverty must include highlighting its cultural richness. As martial artists, the task of introducing the world to Tire Machèt is our contribution to this larger effort.
In your videos, why does one person do the striking while the other only blocks?
Probably the most noteworthy thing about Professor Avril's method of training is that there is very little emphasis on striking techniques. Instead, training consists of working to stay protected and aggressively directed while the teacher or another student throws strikes. When we take a turn doing the striking, we get minimal instruction from the Professor, though the receiving student will often slip in a counterstrike if they feel that the feeding student is leaving himself flagrantly open. The real work is the blocking, and the goal is not just to deflect the blows but to learn to parry, pivot and advance toward a strategically superior position. The functional payoff of this method is that it ingrains the instinct to fluidly block an attacker's blows while moving to a position from which – momentarily – you are able to strike without receiving a counterstrike.
What is the reason for the cross-stepping footwork?
Our technique of stepping across the center line is all about keeping the body behind the blade. This goes along with the preference for keeping the sword vertical (whether right side up or upside down): we are literally "fencing" ourselves off from the attack. The game consists in trying to get past the opponent's "fence" while keeping them outside your own. These concepts of "inside" and "outside" are really the key to Professor Avril's method. In our videos, you'll notice that not only are we trying to move our bodies behind the blade when we block, but also attempting to pivot to an inside position from which we would be able to strike without receiving a counterstrike. Sometimes you'll see that we are working to get inside enough that we are able to "block" against the feeder's forearm rather than their blade, or cross our blade near enough to their neck or back to get the point across. One of the things that distinguishes this method of training is the way in which the striking component develops organically, almost accidentally, from within the framework of blocking, pivoting and advancing.
Why do you train with one hand behind your back?
The reason for the hand behind the back is to train the student to keep the torso arched backward to protect the chest, and to keep the off hand out of the way when it's not needed. For close-in blocking, we sometimes bring the off hand up to our neck so it's available for a binding maneuver, or press it against the wrist of our sword arm to support a following sweep. The feeder's movements may be much more relaxed, because they are focused on training the blocker to defend every angle of attack, and perhaps surprise them with a quick strike. This is the reason you'll see Professor Avril doing non-strategic things like turning his back. Even though reaching the opponent's back is the ultimate goal of the blocker's strategy, the Professor is showing that we're still not completely safe there from a desperate attacker, and we'd better be prepared to field these strikes.
What would I learn on my first day of training?
The basic defensive positions you would learn on your first day of training, are 1) machete or stick pointed straight up with the right foot back to block a blow coming to your right side, 2) the same position with your left foot back to block a blow to your left side, 3) to block a low strike to the knee, shin or foot, sink down with the legs, keeping the appropriate leg back (left for left, right for right), and the blade upright, 4) to block an overhead strike, hold the machete or stick horizontally above the head while lunging toward the attacker. In all of these blocking positions, we are instructed to keep our sword arm coiled as much as possible. We almost never block with the arm extended, and when we do it is always followed up to a position in which the arm is bent. This is to make it easier to pivot out of the way of a blow and toward the opponent's less defensible side (that is, to give the circle we have to trace a smaller radius), and to ensure that we have a reserve capacity for extension if the opponent gives us an opportunity to strike. Eventually, you will learn specific situations in which it is possible to block with the tip downward and the blade pressed tightly to the shoulder, as a way of following the opponent’s blade to an "inside" position beyond their guard.