Waterbending Master Al

“Hey guys come on in, welcome!” says Al as we pull up to his driveway.  He hugs us getting out of the car, notices the light drizzle and holds his palms out to the rain.  “Look at that!  Blessings falling from the sky.  AHAHAHAHA”


Gabriela, Tyler and I follow him into his home in St. Thomas nestled in a lush hillside that overlooks the ocean.  We step inside the sliding glass doors and enter the sweetly musky living room where incense has probably been burning all morning.  Smooth funk plays on vinyl and as I make my way through the wholly leopard, tiger or zebra-print décor I notice a Sade album resting beside a DVD called Tai Chi Master.  I feel like I’m on set for a tropical rendition of Black Dynamite.


“Yeah man, you know in another life I was heavily involved in the entertainment industry with hip hop artists and other cats like that.”


Grandmaster Al Buckingham is an ageless African American Detroiter with a dreadlocked Mohawk who spent most of his earth life experience running a Hi-Fi store on the University of Michigan Campus in Ann Arbor and in the music entertainment business at WJLB FM 98 as a Marketing Consultant for Clear Channel Communications in the Detroit Market.  Now, he is our Wu-style Tai Chi instructor  He began training diligently when he arrived on the island over 14 years and has since changed his lifestyle entirely.


“I was always interested in Tai Chi after seeing a performance at a university years ago,” he says.  “But it wasn’t until I arrived on island that I got involved.  On my first week in St. Thomas I was out on a run along the shore and saw this man running toward me and for some reason decided to stop and talk to him.  When he told me he practiced Tai Chi I mentioned that I’d always wanted to learn and he offered to teach me.  I had no idea at the time that he is Calvin Dallas, a world-renowned grandmaster.”


“Wait, so while running you just decided to stop and talk to this random person?” I ask.  “Why?”


“You know I’m not really sure,” Al replies.  “Guess it was just the chi guiding me to my path.  AHAHAHAHAHA”


He often bursts out in spontaneous bouts of full-belly laughter, which he refers to as his “Dalai Lama laugh.


“I don’t know where it comes from but sometimes there is just this energy that bubbles up inside me and needs to come out,” he explains.  “So I let it flow out.  AHAHAHAHAHA!”


And that is exactly what Al does.  He flows.  With the cool confidence of a Black Panther on patrol in 1974 Oakland and the warm kindness of a grandfather at a family picnic, Al flows fully in the present moment with a wonderfully infectious positivity.


“Tai Chi is all ‘bout that good energy, ‘bout being in the moment, enjoying the moment,” he says as he belts out a Dalai Lama laugh.  “This is how you let go of the ego.  The ego can only exist in the past although it tries to get into the future.  It can’t exist in the present.  The ego holds the pain of the past and influences the future by pulling that negative energy forward.  So to let go of that pain, we must let go of the ego.  Tai Chi helps us to do that by bringing into the present.”


We finish our mugs of “beauty tea” and follow Al out onto his porch with a gorgeous seaside view.  He always places Gabriela between Tyler and I and before each session turns to her and says, “I bow to the feminine energy in you.”


Then he faces forward, takes a deep breath in while raising his arms in a wide circle before pulling them slowly down his center.  His “eyes open, gaze soft,” Al begins a masterful display of the 100-move Tai Chi form we’ve been working on.


In the way he speaks, moves, feels, in the essence of who he is, Al embodies calm flow.  There is much to be learned from his water spirit.

BY: Tomás Quiñonez-Riegos

edit: 7/8/2015