Visitors making their way to Baishaki Mela – the Bangladeshi New Year – were met with a strange sight at London’s Liverpool Street station last weekend. On a warm and sunny Sunday morning, more than 20 people were forming a circle and singing in accompaniment to a range of string instruments and drums while two participants threw kicks at and cartwheeled away from each other within. This was capoeira, East End-style.
But it wasn’t a one-off roda, or session. It was part of an annual three-day event which was being supported by three London-based capoeira groups and involved mestres (teachers) Marrom and Brandão being flown in from Brazil to lead the classes.
The roda outside Liverpool Street station was the event’s public face, an opportunity for Londoners and visitors from further afield to see and experience capoeira up close and at first hand.
Indeed, some of those enjoying coffee at the nearby café must have wondered what was happening as people arrived in ones and twos, several carrying long wooden poles and pandeiros (tambourines).
Hands were shaken and kisses exchanged between them while three others peeled off to prepare the main instruments. They got to work, bending the wooden poles over and fixing a tight steel string between the ends.
At the base they each slipped on a hollowed-out gourd with string and plucked the string to check if the sound was right.
Picking up the other parts necessary to make the instrument work, including baqueta (a wooden stick used to strike the string), the dobrão (shaped like a coin which changes the sound when placed on the string) and the caxixi (a small wooden shaker), the three were now ready to play the berimbau.
To signify the moment the leading musician began hitting out a regular deep sound.
Having caught everyone’s attention he began banging out steady notes, two treble notes and a bass, followed by another treble. The rhythm was now set and slowly the two other berimbaus joined in, each playing a slight variation. Then those holding the pandeiros entered the proceedings, joining in with the same tempo.
Outside the roda the bustle of London life continued, as buses pulled up, disgorging and consuming passengers; but within the only sound was that of the bateria (orchestra) as they continued their steady beat. The participants looked at each other or down at the floor; it was the quiet before the storm.
Suddenly a full-bodied cry from deep within the lead berimbau player pierced the air. He was calling the roda to order, signifying it was about to start.
But symbolically, there was more to his exclamation. It also represented a cry of defiance, reaching back to a time before capoeira was able to be freely performed in public, when its slave practitioners in Brazil ran the risk of exploitation and repression by master and slave alike.
Slowly and reverently the lead began singing the start of a ladainha, a song in which he and participants took sang back and forth greetings to each other and their mestres along with the attributes of capoeira.
As the ladainha came to end there was a pause before the lead took up another song, this time about the type of game he wanted to see played: “Jogo bonito que eu quero ver” (“I want to see a beautiful game”). The 20-strong crowd returned the demand by singing the chorus, collectively louder than the initial singer.
By now two players were at the feet of the lead musician, both dressed in trousers and wearing T-shirts decorated in the symbols representing their respective groups. Taking their cue and responding to the mass request, one bent over into a queda de rins, a movement in which the player leans on his arms to his side, his elbow digging into his kidneys while raising his legs.
The other player began a slow aú (cartwheel), out into the space provided by the roda, balancing on his head as he did so. Using the rhythm of the music and song, the two slowly began to move around each other, one player dropping his hands to the floor and twisting around his left leg, letting his right pass over his opponent’s ducking head in a rabo de arraia, or stingray kick.
Both progressed in a similar fashion, keep their hands and head close to the ground before slowly rising up into a standing position. Mirroring each other they pulled their left leg behind their right before sliding it to the left, shifting their body across and dragging their right leg back. This was the ginga, the basic move of capoeira, the one most commonly associated with its dance-like features.
Now the music was beginning to speed up and the players responded. One balanced himself on his left leg and threw a meia lua de frente – a half moon kick – with his right, to force his opponent back. But instead of doing so, he moved forward, stepping inside and swiping his balancing foot from under him.
The kicker crashed to the ground, provoking howls of laughter from the participants and leaving him looking suitably embarrassed. But before he could respond a little old man moved in, taking his place.
It was Brandão, one of the guest mestres. He was slower than the majority of younger participants, but appearances were deceptive. Managing a shallow aú, he belied his 75 years of age by turning and coming at his dumb-struck opponent with flailing arms. But instead of crashing into each other, he skipped around him and planted his elbow into the small of his younger adversary’s back. Cue more laughter.
Brandão’s willingness to be involved and evident enthusiasm for capoeira fired up the other participants, both in the roda and in the classes which took place over the weekend.
As Marrom, another of the guest mestres who has been visiting Europe over the past 10 years to spread his teaching and experience, capoeira isn’t just for the young – although it often seems that way.
Just by observing the way in which Brandão took part, both in leading the singing, banging the pandeiro and playing with the students, could see that.
Marrom, whose principal academia is based in Rio’s Leme district, made a point of bringing the thoughtful side of capoeira to the classes. “Capoeira isn’t about God or philosophy, or anything like that,” he said. “But it is about thinking what you can do.”
He demonstrated this approach by eschewing the common approach to teaching, by making the students attempt a rehearsed move and counter-move in favour of one which encouraged creativity.
Placing himself in a negativa (a defensive dodge) under a student’s rabo de arraia, he turned to the rest of the class in the stuffy gym at Haggerston Girls’ School.
“What are my options?” he asked. “What can I do? What can you do?” Breaking into pairs the students all attempted to think out different ways of turning the defensive movement into one of attack.
Marrom’s class offered a contrast with the mode of teaching presented by one of the host mestres, Marcello Angola. His was an intensive workout, but one which encouraged movement, flexibility and above all, fluidity.
Resident in London for a year, Marcello emphasised the importance of a low centre of gravity in capoeira, forcing the assembled students to bend low to protect oneself before springing up and into attack.
For some of the students who were not regulars at his own training school in Hackney, the experience was an exhausting one. But again, it was one which highlighted the value of the workshop.
“You must develop your own ginga,” intoned Marrom. “You mustn’t be mechanical. You must have you your own personal style.” But he recognised that training with different mestres would mean adopting features distinctive to that particular mestre and school.
It shouldn’t be seen as a ‘wrong’ way of doing capoeira, but a different way. Indeed, it is diversity which makes capoeira distinctive as an activity. It defies definition or explanation.
Is it a dance? Possibly, but that overlooks its physical and the fighting quality inherent within it. Is it a martial art? Again, that is hard to determine since players (usually) do not intentionally try and beat each other up within the roda.
As Brandão commented during the course of the workshop, “fighting only causes confusion.” For someone who learned and played his capoeira in the street rather than in the refined and safer environment of the academy as most of today’s students do, the statement was tinged with significance.
Even if capoeira isn’t exactly fighting or dancing, it does bring the two attributes together under a more general artistic label. This was best exemplified by the approach taken by the two other host mestres in their singing and playing.
Joãozinho, who hails from Manaus but teaches in west London, responded to the dreadlocked Marrom’s taunting about his baldness in the roda through song.
Improvising in verse, he alleged to have a medicine whose qualities were so potent that soon he would have hair as thick and long as that which hung around Marrom’s waist.
Meanwhile, Fantasma (the capoeira moniker for Simon Atkinson), whose Dalston-based group has sponsored Marrom’s visit for several years, showed the cannier side of the game, tripping up both mestre and student alike.
As well as the host mestres, there were others involved in teaching capoeira and representatives from several schools. One, Gigante, entered the roda against Fantasma, resting his head on the floor while aiming and reaching his long legs against his opponents’ face.
The game between these two exemplified another feature of capoeira: its penchant for names and playfulness. While Gigante and Fantasma might be called ‘Giant’ and ‘Ghost’ for their physical attributes – one being extremely tall, the other pale in comparison to the darker complexion of his colleagues – one student was notable by his absence from the session.
Já Foi (‘He’s Already Gone’) received his nom-de-guerre from Marrom at a previous meeting on account of his regular early departure after class. Not for him the impromptu roda which broke out on a dark and chilly Saturday night after both mestres and participants had been turfed out of the training venue after 10 pm.
Indeed, the willingness to carry on playing capoeira beyond the official end of the class highlights its capacity to take over one’s life. One student was dumbfounded by the extent to which the visiting and host mestres continued to discuss capoeira at all hours outside of class, while another was impressed with the camaraderie of the post-event party which took place just off Bethnal Green Road.
The celebrations for the Bangladeshi New Year were dying down, but in contrast they were only just beginning for some of the more enthusiastic capoeiristas.
As the limes were crushed and cachaça (Brazilian sugar cane rum) poured to make the eponymous caipirinha drink, a guitar was produced and the pandeiros which had received constant use for three days were once again brought.
But this time it wasn’t the slow rhythm of the roda which was calling the assembled gathering together. No, this time it was its more upbeat cousin, also associated with Brazil’s slave past and now a symbol of celebration, which took centre-stage: the samba.
The University of Essex’s Matthias Röhrig Assunção will be launching his new book, “Capoeira: A history of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art,” and giving a talk on the abolition of slavery in Brazil at Canning House, Belgrave Square, London at 6:30 pm, on Wednesday, 18 May. The launch will include a capoeira demonstration including by some of the participants from the workshop above.
Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in London. A postgraduate student at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London, he has written widely on Brazil both for Brazzil and on his blog, Para Inglês Ver, which can be read at http://guyburton.blogspot.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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