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Brazzil - Culture - February 2004

Brazil's Capoeira: Alive and Kicking in London

Some come into capoeira class, convinced they are about to learn
a Brazilian version of karate or judo. They expect capoeira to only
be athletic. When they are asked to sit down, play an instrument
and sing, they decide that it's not for them. What self-respecting
martial arts performer would be caught dead singing?

Guy Burton

My limbs ache. Well, they would after awhile without doing much exercise. But I didn't expect them to hurt as much as they do.

It's my fault though. This week I returned to my capoeira class in London after several months away. I had to make savings for awhile. But now I'm able to go back. And it felt good. But my body is paying for it now.

There was also a surprise too. Dorado was over from Bordeaux, on his way to Finland for a meet. So our usual teacher, Fantasma (Ghost), invited him to take the class. Dorado, whose real name is Bernardo Tinoco, comes from the same group of capoeiristas (players of capoeira) as Fantasma: not only do they both play a particular form of capoeira, Angola; both were taught by Marrom in Rio.

I've been coming to Fantasma's classes for nearly two years. Fantasma is a nickname for Simon Atkinson, one of the few English people to teach capoeira in London. He got his name out in Rio on account of his very white skin; so white that to the Brazilians he trained with he looked like an apparition.

Fantasma has been playing capoeira for more than 12 years. Capoeira then wasn't big here in England. But that seems to be slowly changing. In the two years I've been learning the game public awareness has grown. "You know the link they have on the BBC between programmes?" I say when people ask me what capoeira is. "You know those two men in red T-shirts on top of a building? They're doing cartwheels and slow-motion kicks? Well, that's what I do."

A look of recognition then crosses their face. "Oh, it's like martial arts, isn't it?" they say, brightly.

Well no, not quite.

It's hard to describe capoeira—which is probably what makes it the phenomenon it is. It is a sport, but can also be a fight, a game or a dance, as one practitioner, Nestor Capoeira, described. It's this ambiguity which makes it so enigmatic. And which seems to confuse many who come to it for the first time here in London.

For many foreign observers, capoeira has two distinctive qualities which emphasise the way in which it falls between these different stools: malandragem and music.

Malandragem, or hustling, is one of the central components of capoeira. A good capoeirista will know how to disguise his moves and lure his opponent into a false sense of security before striking. If capoeira is a game, this is done in a good-natured way, highlighting the flaws and inadequacies of one's abilities; but done in a fight, the result would be lethal.

For many foreign students, a lot pick up the idea of malandragem. But it's not something which comes to them overnight. And I still struggle to master it. Indeed, to properly disguise your moves you really need to be able to execute them fluidly—I see years of training await me!

The other quality which makes capoeira so unique is its musical roots. Moves between players are done to the accompaniment of strange-sounding instruments, drums and singing. And for many foreign students, this can be an extremely frustrating aspect of the game, particularly if they don't speak or understand Portuguese.

Similarly though, there is another type of person which is put off by the music. Some come into the class, convinced they are about to learn a Brazilian version of karate or judo. They expect capoeira to only be athletic. But when they are asked to sit down in the roda (circle), play an instrument and sing, they decide that it's not for them. What self-respecting martial arts performer would be caught dead singing? Why, they might even be mistaken for Hare Krishnas, as a group of us were at a festival in Shoreditch last summer.

Music and malandragem: it's these two aspects of capoeira which I'm sure are so hard to initially understand by first-time students abroad. This is surely so if they have never been to Brazil before, or have little experience of things Brazilian; it can be hard to get outside the Anglo-Saxon mentality and embrace a culture which is intertwined with music and festivity.

But there are reasons for capoeira's distinctive nature and qualities. They are historical and if the teacher is a good one he or she will regularly explain to their students what it is.

A Little History

Capoeira's roots derive from Brazil's shameful past as a purveyor of slaves. Blacks were captured throughout Africa and shipped over the Atlantic to the then Portuguese colony between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Separated from their families and homes, these slaves brought with them their own cultures and traditions, which varied from tribe to tribe.

In their new Brazilian home the slaves began to assimilate their various experiences, bringing together martial displays, music and instruments. And over time and through an organic process various aspects of these phenomena were blended together, evolving into what we today known as capoeira.

Ideas and concepts from the recently arrived African population were thrown together with those from older slaves. This was done to the point that it is almost impossible to establish who invented what in capoeira, including where it originally came from. Just as asking two economists for an answer will yield three replies, so too will asking two students of capoeira give you more than two explanations!

Whatever the origins of capoeira, what is clear is that during the nineteenth century it was developing a distinctive form and setting with a roda of observers and resting participants, along with a minimal orchestra of berimbau (a string-type instrument which looks like a bow with a gourd attached) and pandeiros (tambourine). Slaves would play it in the street, at the end of the working day or in the markets.

But the blacks were not able to practice capoeira freely. Suspicion and distrust by the authorities was particularly heightened by the creation of the quilombos—self-contained communities made up of runaway slaves—several of which withstood years of government and army pressure to destroy them. As a result, they clamped down on any expression of black activity which might threaten slavery—and capoeira suffered.

After the ending of slavery in 1888, official opposition to capoeira didn't disappear overnight. But slowly oppression against its practitioners was eased, with the then dictator Getúlio Vargas ending the persecution in 1934 and officially recognising it as a Brazilian sport. From that point on, it grew in popularity, first in Salvador, before finding middle-class adherents in Rio and São Paulo in the 1960s and 1970s. It was from there that the game launched itself overseas, towards North America and Europe.

Many Britons assume there is one type of capoeira. They think it's all about swirling kicks and massive cartwheels as they have seen on the TV. It's flamboyant and dramatic—in keeping with the Brazilian stereotype. But that's not the case. The genre many abroad assume to be capoeira is the regional form; it's also the one which seems to receive most coverage.

It is the style most closely associated with Mestre (Master) Bimba, who set up an academia (school) in Bahia in the 1930s to teach capoeira. He became famous for introducing a series of lessons to teach the moves and sequences through which they could be employed.

But there's another form of capoeira—the type which Fantasma, Marrom and Dourado teach: that of Angola. It is also the style which one of the most famous capoeiristas, Mestre Pastinha, adhered to. And according to the anthropologist Leticia Vidor de Sousa Reis, it differs from capoeira regional by being practised at a slower pace, with the emphasis on defending and avoiding being attacked.

Instead of players trying to hit the others, players of capoeira Angola don't let their bodies touch. Instead they try to maintain their position while looking for an opening through which they can unbalance their opponent. Furthermore, the teaching of Angola was traditionally done by observation, the student absorbing the sights of other players in the roda before him.

There's also a difference in the nature of the music used in each too. While singing—both the lead and the chorus—and music remains an integral part of each capoeira form, including the use of the rhythm to either speed up or slow down the action, the actual rhythms may well vary between the two. Similarly, capoeira Angola begins with what is called a ladainha, a call to the gods, participants and observers to bear witness to what is about to occur.

Just as there is lively debate about the origins of capoeira, so too is there much debate about the merits and criticisms between adherents of each form. Indeed, this can have knock-on effects, including in as faraway a place as London.

When I decided to start capoeira, I didn't know anything about the distinctions between regional and Angola. I went to the closest academia near to my flat, here in east London. The fact it was an Angola class meant little to me at the time. My brothers, though, were disappointed to see I wasn't doing extravagant handstands and high kicks when they asked for a demonstration!

Capoeira is subject to trend and soon the class was thinned, by the usual martial art-seeking suspects. Soon there were too few to carry on and the teacher advised us to start training with his brother, Fantasma, whose class was a little further away in an old school building near Hoxton.

I soon learned that one or two of my fellow students were visiting another academia which taught regional. Fantasma gently chided them for doing this, not least because they would be mixing up the two forms—and as beginners, getting them confused in the process.

With more than six academias in London, there is quite a bit of competition to attract students. And occasionally this competition spills over into rivalry, depending on the personal relationships between the different teachers. Occasionally fall-outs can happen within groups too.

Our group has one capoeirista who can be difficult; mainly it's because he's frustrated that the rest of us don't pick things up as quickly as him. When I returned to class this week I noticed he wasn't there. I asked a fellow student if he knew where he was: "I don't know," he said. "You know it's always political. Best not to get involved."

And yet there can be real camaraderie. From time to time mestres come over from Bahia, and Rio, to give classes to British and foreign students, who may never have been to Brazil. Last May, Mestres Russo (Russian, on account of his red hair) and Peixe (so called for being as slippery as a fish) gave a series of classes to several academias before being taken down to Greenwich one afternoon where we played in front of a crowd.

Similarly, good relations stand between Fantasma and Polaco, an Anglo-Brazilian who lives and teaches in Reading and who organises the capoeira at the world music festival, Womad, each summer. Consequently we have an open invitation to attend his classes and he occasionally comes down to London to take part.

"Capoeira can become a way of life," Fantasma said to us at the end of a class last year. "It can take over your life. In fact it can become your life. You make friends and enemies in the roda, fall in and out of love."

To date, capoeira hasn't yet taken over my life. But going back means it will once again become part of my life. And once you get into a rhythm it's very easy to get addicted to it. In fact after only two sessions this week, I'm raring to go again. But so far I haven't fallen in love while in the roda yet. To do so would be dangerous, not least because I might end up with her foot in my mouth!

Guy Burton has been attending capoeira classes in London since 2002. His ambition is to one day be able to do a handstand for longer than a second. He can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com

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