Monday, June 14, 2010


Some say capoeiria has its roots in the n’golo, the zebra dance of the Macupe of Southern Angola, a tribal ritual in which a young man could win a bride without paying the dowry if he could demonstrate great skill in fighting with his feet.

Others say that Brazilian slaves, recently imported from Africa, who were forbidden to possess firearms, knives, or clubs, invented capoeira as a way to fight with the sole weapon left to them: their bodies.

Still others claim capoeira never had a martial side, that it emerged as a sport, or recreational activity. And that it took place around the slave cabins when the day’s work was done.
The truth of the matter is we don’t know how capoeira got started.
We don’t even know, with any degree of certainty where the name capoeira came from.
What we do know is that this mixture of martial art, dance, music and ritual is native to Brazil, and that it was developed there among slaves brought from Africa.
There are three basic movements in capoeira, four defensive movements, eight basic kicks, fifteen takedowns, twenty-one other kicks and movements. If a given player uses any one of them, his/her antagonist uses another to respond. Mastering the give-and-take of capoeira takes years of practice.
In the Portuguese language, capoeira isn’t “fought”, or “danced”, it’s “played” (jogado).
Two players begin play by taking up a position in the center of a group (roda) formed by other players, spectators and musicians. As play progresses,  other players step in to challenge one of the two. The unchallenged one, the one judged to be the loser, drops out.
Rodas don’t occur in silence. They happen to the sound of hands clapping, chants (chulas) and musical instruments.
The chulas tend to be somewhat melancholy. Here’s how one of them begins:

No céu entre quem merece,
Na terra vale é quem tem

You enter heaven on your merits.
Here on earth, what you own is all that counts.

The instruments generally include at least one drum (atabaque), a tambourine (pandeiro) and birimbaus of three different sizes. 
Birimbaus are single-stringed musical bows with a gourd at one end to amplify the sound. The strings are steel wires, generally taken from the sidewalls of automobile tires.

It’s the birimbau that commands the movements in capoeira.
To best appreciate a roda, you have to see one, which you can best do by visiting Rio de Janeiro, or Salvador, in Bahia. Hang around in the streets of the old city, or go down to the beach, and you’ll stumble across them all the time.
But I know that many of you will never visit Brazil, and there are really no decent videos I know of that transmit the energy you’ll encounter at a genuine roda.  So here’s the next best thing, a roda shot at a batizado (baptism) in which students are moving up in rank by demonstrating their ability in the presence of their master.

And, finally, have a look at this:

Leighton - Sunday

1 comment:

  1. Capoeira classes have caught on a fair bit here, in London at least, imported presumably by expat Brazilians. A guy I knew taught a class - come to think of it, he wasn't Brazilian, he was very much English - and tried to get me to come along. After a rather desperate time at a pilates class, I declined. Looks fun, though.