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Capoeira

by Crystal Silva, Etcetera editor, '03

‘Capoeira i jogo de vida, capoeira i poge matar.’—Capoeira is the game of life; capoeira also kills.”

Such is the philosophy of capoeira, a Brazilian martial art described as a “dance-fight game” that incorporates music. This rhythmic and beautiful art is now a growing worldwide phenomenon, with an estimated 1,020,000 players in the United States and throughout Western Europe. Scores of capoeira schools have surfaced in the United States, including three in Hawai‘i.

 
   

History
The origins of capoeira to this day are a source of controversy and debate. Many theories have emerged on capoeira’s early 17th century beginnings, and not much has been proven since few documents from that era still exist.

It is generally agreed that capoeira was originally practiced by African slaves brought to Brazil by Portuguese slave traders at the peak of Portugal’s dominance. Africans were boarded onto slave ships and sailed to Brazil in appalling conditions, only to arrive there and be sold into slavery. To explain what life was like for slaves, Nestor Capoeira, who took his name from the sport of which he writes in The Little Capoeira Book, in imaging the lives of these slaves: “ . . . After the first days of arduous work we are taken to rest in the common slave quarters. We get to know our companions in this calamity: an American guitar player, an English boxer, a Brazilian percussionist, a Chinese tai-chi practitioner, and an African swat player— among many others.

Time goes by, and during rare moments of leisure we begin to absorb each other’s culture.
Let us imagine that gradually, over several decades, a new form of cultural expression is born— a dance-fight, a game that is a mixture of boxing, tai-chi, samba, American music and the swat.”
This is one idea of how capoeira was born and the game’s origins: a synthesis of dances, fights, and musical instruments from different cultures, different lands.

Capoeira and other forms of African expression were at first allowed, even encouraged, to keep the morale of slaves up and to keep slaves from mutiny and other forms of revolt. However, starting about 1814, forms of African cultural expression including capoeira were heavily discouraged and in some places forbidden and punishable by severe beatings. Capoeira was then practiced in secret, and without lessons, and it slowly turned into a weapon rather than a method of self-defense. People in positions of power, either political or criminal, would use a capoeira expert who had turned to crime to strike down enemies and simultaneously further their power. Capoeira then received a reputation for criminal activity.

Capoeira retained this image until 1934 when Getulio Vargas, whom Nestor calls “the best-known Brazilian statesman of all time,” eliminated the law forbidding the practice of capoeira. Capoeiristas were then free to practice capoeira openly and academies were established.
The most famous of these academies was founded by Mestre Bimba, the creator of Capoeira Regional, a more systematic approach of the teaching of capoeira. This style goes against the traditional Capoeira Angola, which relies heavily on learning by example. Mestre Bimba is thus remembered and revered for creating Brazil’s “national fight.”

Music
Players of capoeira begin the dance-fight game by situating themselves inside the roda, literally, “wheel.” The players stand in a circle, and all share in the singing of chants.

The chants, like all fight moves and musical instrument names, are in Portuguese.

Participation in chanting is necessary, as the chants create the energy for the players in the roda, and they alone will make the game completely fulfilling.

There are three basic types of chants, or chulas. The ladainha is sung by one person before the start of the game, and then is answered with a chorus. Quadras are a four-verse song sung by the soloist and answered by the chorus, and a corrido is a song one to two verses also sung by a soloist and answered by a chorus.

Chants used in rodas today can be traditional, dating back to slavery, or written by various more recent capoeira masters. Songs can be based on morals and life teachings as well as religious beliefs.

Also in the roda are three major musical instruments: a berimbau, a wooden bow used to keep rhythm, an atabaque, a drum similar to a bongo drum, and a pandeiro, an instrument similar to a tambourine. It can also include a reco-reco or an ago-go, or cow bell, although these instruments are not crucial to the roda.

The berimbau is perhaps the most important instrument in capoeira. Up to three berimbaus are used in a traditional Angola roda, one high-tone, one mid-tone, and one bass. The berimbau is made of a wooden bow, approximately seven palm-lengths long and three-quarters to one inch in diameter wide. A small peg is carved on its widest end to attach a steel wire. The other extremity is covered over by a leather, most commonly the wire from the insides of an old car tire.

A hollow gourd is attached to the bow by two small perforations threaded through with string and cut open circularly where the fruit’s stem used to be. The gourd, or cabaca, serves as a percussive box to magnify the berimbau’s sound.

The berimbau’s sound is made when the player strikes the wire with a foot-long wooden stick. The stick, or baqueta, is held in the right hand with a small shaker filled with dried beans or pebbles, which enriches and adds “texture” to the berimbau’s sound, according to Nestor.

The Game
Capoeira can be played with as few as eight players or as many players as can be gathered in any given space. Players are situated in a roda, where they stand answering the solo chanter and clapping to the beat. The fighting can begin when the ladainha is sung. If one desires to fight, one will crouch down facing another player in front of the berimbaus, and au, or cartwheel, into the roda. Upon entering the circle, players start the core movement or capoeira, maneuvering their feet to form a triangle. This is called a ginga. From there, players can launch into a vast assortment of moves, offensive and defensive.

The most commonly used offensive kicks include a bencao, a forward thrust kick aimed, with the ball of the foot, towards the abdomen; an armada is a spinning heel kick aimed toward the head; and a quiexada is a kick to the opponent’s head that comes from the side.

Punches and other moves besides kicks are not used too frequently in the roda. One speculation of why only kicks are used is that kicks can injure from a distance, while to injure with punches, players must be very close to their opponents.

Individual games are played until another player in the roda jumps in, and begins playing with one of the members already in the circle. The other player then rejoins the roda. The game can go on for hours until the players (and musicians!) get tired out.

For more information on capoeira and capoeira lessons, contact Japa, the contact person of one of the capoeira schools in O‘ahu, of Centro Cultural Senzala de Capoeira at 735-5361.

 
   

 

 

2003, Kalamalama, the HPU Student Newspaper. All rights reserved.
 
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