Capoeira is an art-form which can be described in many ways. It encompasses Afro-Brazilian culture, art, music, language, and movement into one cohesive whole. The result is at once beautiful yet dangerous, smooth yet powerful.
At its purest level, Capoeira simply becomes a conversation between two bodies in motion, and at this level it truly becomes a sight to behold. The music controls the focus of the game, and from the music the movements of Capoeira flow. The berimbau leads the “roda” (circle) and dictates the type of “jogo” (game) that the two “capoeiristas” (people who play capoeira) must play. They, and everyone else playing in the roda must essentially follow the rhythm of the berimbau.
The ‘jogo’ is played inside the roda with the instruments positioned at the top. The musicians and instruments are the focal point of the roda and all play begins from the area in front of the musicians.
There are two predominant styles of Capoeira. The originating style, Capoeira Angola, remains closer to the roots of the original style, and is a slower game with more emphasis on technique and strategy, rather than blinding speed and acrobatics. Capoeira Regional originated in the 1930’s, with a focus on the fighting aspects of Capoeira, and utilizes a faster beat, flashy high kicks, and incredible acrobatics.
History – Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art developed in the 1500s by African and Indigenous slaves in Brazil as a form of self-defence from their oppressors. It is marked by its agile and tricky movements that may be executed anywhere from an upside-down position, to a gravity defying kick. It has a strong acrobatic component in some styles and is always played with music.
The word Capoeira can have many meanings. It is believed to be linked to the tall grass, capoeira, in forests where the slaves would hide and attack their slave masters when they escaped. The term is also believed to be linked with a breed of fighting rooster. Many believe that Break dancing originated from Capoeira. In the 1970’s, many Brazilians immigrated to the US, mostly New York, where they would practice Capoeira in the streets and it was able to influence this new dance form. There are two main styles of Capoeira, along with many other less distinct ones. One is called Angola, which is characterized by tricky, low play with particular attention to the rituals and tradition of Capoeira. This style is often described as slow, however, may be just as fast as the next style, but with different rituals. The other style is Regional, known for its fluid acrobatic, high-flying kicks and powerful attacks. Speed and agility are common traits of this style. Both styles of Capoeira are marked by counter-attacks and feints, and use lots of ground movements along with elbows, hands, kicks, head butts, sweep and other take-downs.
History – During the 1500s, Portugal shipped slaves into South America from Western Africa. Brazil was the largest contributor to slave migration with 42% of all slaves shipped across the Atlantic. The following peoples were the most commonly sold into Brazil: The Sudanese group, composed largely of Yoruba and Dahomean people, the Islamised Guinea-Sudanese group of Malesian and Hausa people and the Bantu group (among them Kongos, Kimbundas and Kasanjes) from Angola, Congo and Mozambique. There are engravings and writings that describe a now-lost fighting dance in Cuba that reminds us of Capoeira with two Bantu men moving to the yuka drums. It is called the baile del man.
Batuque and Maculele are other fight-dances closely connected to Capoeira. These people brought their cultural traditions and religion with them to the New World. The homogenization of the African people under the oppression of slavery was the catalyst for Capoeira. Capoeira was developed by the slaves of Brazil as a way to resist their oppressors, secretly practice their art, transmit their culture, and lift their spirits. Some historians believe that the indigenous peoples of Brazil also played an important role in the development of Capoeira.
After slavery was abolished, the slaves moved to the cities of Brazil, and with no employment to be found, many joined or formed criminal gangs. They continued to practice Capoeira, and it became associated with anti-government or criminal activities. As a result, Capoeira was outlawed in Brazil in 1892. The punishment for practicing Capoeira was extreme, and the police were vicious in their attempt to stamp out the art. Capoeira continued to be practiced, but it moved further underground. Rodas were often held in areas with plenty of escape routes, and a special rhythm called Cavalaria was added to the music to warn players that the police were coming. To avoid being persecuted, Capoeira practitioners (Capoeiristas) also gave themselves an apelido or nicknames, often more than one. This made it much harder for the police to discover their true identities. This tradition continues to this day. When a person is baptized into Capoeira at the batizado ceremony, they may be given their apelido.
In 1937, Mestre Bimba was invited to demonstrate his art in front of the president. After this performance, he was given permission to open the first Capoeira school in Brazil. Since that time, Capoeira has been officially recognized as a national sport, and has spread around the world. Mestre Bimba’s systematization and teaching of capoeira made a tremendous contribution to the capoeira community.
In 1942, Mestre Pastinha opened the first Capoeira Angola school, the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola, located in Bahia. He had his students wear black pants and yellow t-shirts, the same color of the “Ypiranga Futebol Clube,” his favorite soccer team. Most Angola schools since then follow in this tradition, having their students wear yellow capoeira t-shirts. Together, Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha are generally seen as the fathers of modern Capoeira Regional and Capoeira Angola respectively.
Music – Music is integral to Capoeira. It sets the tempo and style of game that is to be played within the Roda. The music is comprised of instruments and song. The tempos differ from very slow to very fast. Many of the songs are sung in a call and response format (quadras and corridos) while others are in the form of a narrative (chula or ladainha).
Capoeiristas sing about a wide variety of subjects. Some songs are about history or stories of famous capoeiristas. Other songs attempt to inspire players to play better. Some songs are about what is going on within the roda, or a personal challenge from one Capoeirista to another. Sometimes the songs are about life, or lost love. Others are lighthearted or even silly things, sung just for fun. Capoeiristas change their playing style significantly as the songs or rhythm from the Berimbau commands. In this manner, it is truly the music that drives capoeira.
There are three basic kinds of songs in Capoeira. A ladainha (litany) is a narrative solo usually sung at the beginning of a roda, often by the Mestre (a teacher). These ladainhas will often be famous songs previously written by a Mestre, or they may be improvised on the spot. A ladainha is usually followed by a chula, following a call and response pattern that usually thanks God and one’s teacher, among other things. Each call is usually repeated word-for-word by the responders. The chula is often omitted in Regional games. Finally, corridos are songs that are sung while a game is being played, again following the call and response pattern. The responses to each call do not simply repeat what was said, however, but change depending on the song.
The instruments are played in a row called the bateria. The first three instruments are Berimbaus, which look like an archer’s bow using a steel string and a gourd for resonation. Legend has it that, in the old times, knives or other sharp objects were attached to the top of the berimbau for protection and in case a large fight broke out. These three Berimbaus are the Gunga (also called the Berraboi), Medio, & Viola (or violinha), and lead the rhythm. Other instruments in the bateria are: Pandeiro (tambourines), a Reco-Reco (rasp), Agogo (double gong bell), and the Atabaque (conga-like drum). It is important to remember that not all groups use all the instruments at all times and different groups may use different combinations of them (Example: 1 Berimbau and 2 pandeiros).
The Roda – The “Roda” is the circle of people within which Capoeira is played. People who make up the roda’s circular shape clap and sing along to the music being played for the two Capoeiristas engaged in a Capoeira match or rather a “Jogo” (game). Depending on some Capoeira schools, an individual clapping and singing in the Roda can jump in to engage one of the two players and begin another game.
The rhythm being played on the berimbau sets the pace of the game being played in the roda. Slow music limits the game to slow yet complex ground moves and handstands. Slow games are often seen as finesse games, less impressive for the casual viewer. Faster music allows for more circular momentum and gravity-defying movements in the roda. It is also easier to see the fighting aspect of Capoeira in these faster games as they tend to be more obvious. Philosophy plays a large part in Capoeira and teachers strive to teach Respeito (Respect), Responsabilidade (Responsibility), Segurania (Safety/Security), Confiania (Self-Confidence), Malicia (Cleverness/Street-smarts), and Liberdade (Liberty/Freedom).
The Game – Capoeira doesn’t focus on destroying the person you play against, rather on demonstrating more skill. Capoeiristas often prefer to show the movement without completing it, enforcing their superiority in the roda. If your opponent cannot dodge your slowest attack, there is no reason to use your fastest. Each attack that comes in gives you a chance to practice an avoidance technique.
The Ginga – The “Ginga” is the fundamental movement in Capoeira. Both Capoeira Angola and Capoeira Regional have their own “ginga”. Both are accomplished by having both feet shoulders distance apart and then moving one foot backwards and then back to the base. Then this is done with the other foot and repeated. This is done to move around the roda quickly and to trick the other player.
Volta ao Mundo – “Volta ao Mundo” is a short break taken by both players. Though each school is different, an example would be walking inside the roda doing one or two gentle laps and going back to the game. The “Volta ao Mundo” is commonly used to force the other player to cool down after a heated exchange or by a player when he/she needs a break. It is important to note that volta do mundo is practiced differently by different schools. Some hold hands, some do not, some walk, some run.
Capoeira Angola rodas feature a ritual called the “Chamada”. In a Chamada, one player assumes a ritual pose, for example, with one hand in the air. Normally, the other player should approach and join the pose (in this example, touching their hand to the first player’s hand). The players then walk back and forth until the first player separates and offers a slow attack, and the Jogo resumes. However, the whole chamada is fraught with tension, since it is acceptable for either player (although most often the player that called the chamada) to strike out in a sudden attack, at any speed. If the other player is caught, it’s because they weren’t being careful enough. The goal of the chamada is to test a player’s ability to cooperate, to appear friendly, without exposing himself to a sneaky attack. Many ritualized chamadas exist, including one resembling the “volta ao mundo”. Chamadas serve to show how well a player can handle the tricks of the world (“o mundo enganador” is a common call in the Ladainhas).
Capoeira primarily attacks with kicks and sweeps. Capoeira also uses acrobatic and athletic movements to maneuver around the opponent. Cartwheels, handstands, head- and hand-spins, sitting movements, turns, jumps, flips, and large dodges are all very common in capoeira. If the leader of the roda finds it is time to stop the players, he will shout “Ie!”, strike his berimbau string repeatedly on the same note or lower his Berimbau between the two players. The players should then shake hands and finish the game.
Styles and Groups of Capoeira – There are many different kinds of capoeira. The two largest types are Angola and Regional. Although groups of one style do exist, most groups tend to mix the two styles to some degree. Capoeira Angola groups from the Northeast will tend to identify only as Capoeira Angola and will mimic Regional for performances. Angola is considered to be the true root style of Capoeira, often characterized by slower, sneakier movements played closer to the ground. Capoeira Angola, in actuality, is played in a great range of speeds, ranging from fast, highly acrobatic movements and frenetic high tempo music to much slower, methodical movements to low tempo, hypnotic music.
The father of modern Capoeira Angola is considered to be Mestre Pastinha who lived in Salvador, Bahia. Today, most of the Capoeira Angola media that is accessible comes from Mestres in Pastinha’s lineage, but this isn’t to say that he was the only one or that he was the originator. Many others helped in the preservation and propagation of Capoeira Angola, including Mestre Caicara, Mestre Bobo, Mestre Noronho, Besouro Manganga, etc. The Angola style, while emphasizing the traditions and history of Capoeira remains a contemporaneous art in the vibrant street scene of Salvador, Bahia. There is a diversity of styles and players, all of the traditional form, playing or performing in a great range of speeds and testing each other in various academies and in the street. Regional is a newer and more martially-oriented game.
Regional was developed by Mestre Bimba to make capoeira more mainstream and accessible to the public, and less associated with the criminal elements of Brazil. While Capoeristas can sometimes play Angola-like, slow games, the Regional style is most often composed of fast, acrobatic, and athletic play. This type of game is characterized by high jumps, acrobatics, and spinning kicks, while maintaining the trickiness and ground-work characteristic of Capoeira Angola. Today, there are many fusion styles, which mix the Angola and Regional traditions. Some refer to this as Capoeira atual, or Capoeira contemporanea.
Whether playing Angola or Regional, groups often have different styles of wildly different movements. In general, older groups/styles often have a greater emphasis on the traditions of Capoeira, while newer groups concentrate chiefly on sports-like technique. If you join a Capoeira group, you may eventually have a chance to take place in a batizado, a baptism into the art of Capoeira. At this point, you will normally be given a ‘corda’, a cord belt, as well as your ‘apelido’ or Capoeira nickname. Batizados are great celebrations of Capoeira, and normally a number of groups and masters from nearby or far away areas are invited to the celebration. These ceremonies are a great chance to see a variety of different Capoeira styles, to watch mestres play, and to see some of the best of the game. these celebrations are open to the public, and they are a great chance for outsiders to learn about the art. [source: Wikipedia]
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