Behind the streets in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro children sing and play to an African infused drum beat. Forever immortalised in Fernando Meirelles’s film, City of God, a stylish but extremely critical look at violence and crime in the slums, the favellas are reality for a large portion of Brazil’s population. Like in so many other societies the blackest and poorest are pushed to the extremities of life, left to fend for themselves. This is a place where a subculture of music, martial arts and dance can nurture and grow: enter capoeira.
In Brazil, the acrobatics and music were once used by Angolan slaves to disguise combat training while their oppressive masters thought they were just dancing. Five hundred years on capoeira has remained a past time mostly for the poor and black peoples of Brazil until recently that is, say the last 30 years, where it is now indulged by the whiter middle classes.
Far from being mainstream but potentially extremely marketable, Capoeira is Brazil’s answer to all those East Asian ass kicking/spiritually guiding martial arts as endorsed by the Karate Kid, Bruce Lee, Crouching Tiger, Mortal Combat and the like.
Little is known about this incredibly spirited acrobatic dance perhaps because it does not appeal to our western tastes for instant enlightenment. It is not immediately recognisable as one thing or another, game or fight, dance or sport and it cannot be understood simply as one ideology or religion or philosophy, but it is quite obviously a cult and perhaps just too ‘ethnic’ for most palattes. Players of capoeira, for example often describe their mestre’s as great thinkers and the game itself, in terms of a metaphor for life and most popularly, as a ‘conversation’ between two individuals, one where you need to listen to survive and learn.
Two quite distinct styles have emerged with very separate ideologies but what binds them together is Mestre Bimba. Bimba is taken to be the father of modern capoeira and has always been passionately committed to capoeira’s musical traditions; the playing of the berimbau (capoeira instrument), bandero (tambourine) and atabaque (big drum).
With his guidance and deep understanding of the traditions, Bimba has helped capoeira evolve into its current duality.
Also integral to the practice of capoeira is the oral tradition. The songs are just as, if not more important than, the actual dancing because it creates the atmosphere, or, as they say in capoeira, the energy. Without this energy of song coming from the singers and instruments the game could not exist. They are simple and naive songs but often tell tales of oppression and joy and sometimes they simply express the players’ love for the game. And like the exaggerated and mythologised Big Fish story, capoeirista will always have one or two to impart upon his fellow capoeirista, be it a tale of a great game once played or a story contributing to it’s lively history.
We can already see capoeira’s influences on contemporary culture in break dancing where many of the moves are directly inspired by capoeira ones (or vice versa) and of course, like capoeira and it’s traditional songs, break dancing would not exist if it weren’t for the unbreakable bond it has with hip hop music, a style of music also forged out of a reckless and hapless urban landscape
Capoeira is spreading as an emerging international fitness trend. Capoeira schools can be found all over the world. Scotland, England, France, and Amsterdam among many many others can all boast groups of their own which are both healthy in size and talent. And that’s just Europe. Look on the internet, type in capoeira and you will find a plethora of capoeira groups as far a field as Malaysia, all crying out for some kind of recognition and integration with other better known schools.
Capoeira is all encompassing but not (yet) consuming as it seeks to include and intervene. Even on the shores of a Moroccan beach you can find a small but significant roda (the circle in which you play). Even there a group of men join each other everyday at sunset to exchange capoeira tales and skills which they may have picked up once from a passing Scottish or maybe Israeli, the foreigner subsequently becoming their master.
They know very little but it is enough to have a game, play and have fun. With the odd back flip and to the beat of a drum, a cartwheel and a kick are woven together in the continuous seamless movement of two agile bodies flipping and spinning in the sand.
Coming full circle, capoeira is now being used as a tool for social integration and inclusion. Trainers are recognising capoeira’s potential to intervene and help mend fractured communities especially those marginalised ones. Capoeira may be a cool lifestyle trend to some of us but to the majority oppressed, it remains, as it was originally conveived, a fight for freedom.