Importing the Other:
An Exploration of Foreign Traditions Within the Katuah Capoeira Angola Community
This paper explores the Katuah Capoeira Angola community in Asheville, N.C., a community based around an Afro-Brazilian art form. Through its respect for traditions, its resistance to categorization and its practitioners’ intentions, this community acts as counter hegemonic sub-culture. The art of capoeira, as used by this community, is a tool to resist the dominant hegemonic culture. The abstract idea of “capoeira traditions” acts as an ideological alternative to that of the hegemonic culture in which smaller acts of resistance can take place.
This paper is written with two purposes: to contribute to the field of anthropology and to contribute to the capoeira community. In my research, I found little information about capoeira as it is practiced in the United States. And I saw this as an opportunity to share something relatively new to the U.S. with others.
I chose this topic largely because of my personal involvement capoeira. The capoeira community is an important part of my personal life and an important part of many others’ lives. The adoption or incorporation of other cultures’ traditions has also been and continues to play an important role within U.S. society. Many of our most cherished “American” aspects of our culture are borrowed from other cultures ~ including borrowed activities, architecture, food, and music. Clearly this adoptive phenomenon is an important part of U.S. culture. The adoption of the Afro-Brazilian art of capoeira is also an example of this process.
This paper serves as an example of global appropriations of a local culture. Ian Ang writes, “local cultures everywhere tend to reproduce themselves precisely, to a large extent, through the appropriation of global flows of mass-mediated forms and technologies”(Garner, 2000: 421). This study counters the argument that there is a “deep imbalance of those flows and the ‘cultural imperialism’ that is implicated in the process” (Garner, 2000: 420). But at the same time this study avoids the assumption of the “happy pluralist rhetoric of “free flow of information” and “democratic participation” (Garner, 2000: 420). Rather, this paper offers a specific case of this flow of information from a “third world” to the “first world.” This flow of information can make significant impacts on the “first world.” In this case capoeira offers its practitioners an alternative ideology and a time and space to free themselves from hegemony’s reaches. And with this expansion of the art to new countries, the traditions are left intact: “capoeira has its own mysterious ways of growing and expanding without losing its roots” (Capoeira, 2002: 225). And this paper will describe some of those “mysterious ways.”
This paper also shows capoeira as a tool that is able to be used to resist hegemony ~ that this tool is being used in a similar way as it has been in its past. Hegemony can be described as “a form of rule in which the ruled consent to the exorcise of power” (Garner, 2000: 269). Rather than forceful rule which may involve military power, intimidation or fear, hegemony creates common sense which naturalizes the ruling class’ powers. “In a capitalist society, journalists, the media in general, and professors create the sense that capitalism is efficient, egalitarian, natural, etc.” (Garner, 2000: 270).
Hegemony ideally creates a reality in which “people are induced to think about the world in only one way, so that no alternative thoughts are possible. “When people can no longer think outside the framework of hegemonic culture, their allegiance to rule is complete” (Garner, 2000: 270). This paper will show that capoeira offers an alterative way for the Katuah Capoeira Angola community to think about the world through traditions; thereby offering this community a chance to “think outside the framework of the hegemonic culture,” and giving this community an alternative ideology under which acts of resistance to hegemony can take place.
In his book “Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game,” Nestor Capoeira writes, “We have read about the worries of different writers throughout more than one hundred years. Capoeira “was dying,” “was losing its roots,” “was not as it had been”” (Capoeira, 2002: 229). I intend to address these concerns in this paper. I will argue that the capoeira within this U.S. community is not “dying,” and is not “losing its roots.” Capoeira within this community is undoubtedly different from the capoeira practiced within Brazil, but through the emphasis on traditions this community is able to preserve capoeira’s roots of resistance to and defiance of dominant ideologies.
I will also address Nestor Capoeira’s idea of capoeira “as a “mystical entity”, [that] knows its own ways” (2002, p. 229). I agree that capoeira is a “mystical entity” in the realm of the “great.” And in this way, it is an abstraction that requires translation for the “small” realm of individual capoeiristas. This paper reveals some ways in which this translation occurs. I will take a symbolic interactionist approach in order to give meaning to these somewhat amorphous abstract ideas. This paper will explore the ways in which “great” abstract concepts, namely tradition and hegemony, are used by members of the Katuah Capoeira Angola community “to place these things in some sort of comprehensible, meaningful frame”(Geertz ,1974: 199).
Finally, this paper gives a voice to members of the Katuah Capoeira Angola (KCA) community. It gives a way for individuals within this community to explain their interest in the art of capoeira and their perceptions of the art. It will show how the idea of “capoeira,” an art of Afro-Brazilian origin, is translated into a small group of people within the United States.
I have been involved with this community for about two years prior to writing this paper. Because of my prior involvement with this community, I have great respect for the art of capoeira and have befriended many people within The KCA community. I see and interact with many of the participants three or more times a week. I interact with these people during class but I also interact with them outside of class. Because of the small nature of this group (a population of between 6-8 people), this community is very close knit. All of us in this community have built up a strong level of trust and comradeship. Because of my intimate connection with this community, I hold not only a responsibility to the “academic community” but perhaps an even stronger responsibility to the capoeira community. This being said, I credit the work that follows not only to myself; the members of the Katuah Capoeira Angola community deserve as much, if not more credit for this work than do I. These community members offered the information within this paper through laborious interviews and discussions. They thought long and hard about very difficult and abstract issues. These people provided the information that I organized and analyzed. I have taken numerous measures to ensure that my findings reflected their thoughts and ideas through discussions, asking them to read rough drafts, and encouraging any insight on the topic. This paper is a conglomeration of many people’s hard work; and while I may be cited as the author of this paper, the paper would have been impossible to write without the participation of the members of the Katuah Capoeira Angola community.
Lastly, I would like to add that while I mention “capoeira” throughout the paper, I do not intent to portray that this paper represents the broader capoeira community. All of my writing is based on a small population of individuals who interpret this abstract idea of “capoeira” and give this idea meaning within their own lives. I do not profess to be a “capoeira expert,” rather I am admitantly ignorant on this subject when compared to many of the masters of this art. I am however fairly experienced in the particular community that I am writing about, and therefore this community is the subject of my paper.
My research consisted of many observations and interviews. Some of my observations were recorded formally on paper and referred to when writing this paper. Other observations, however, were less formally documented. These observations largely came from my memories throughout the past two years of my involvement. After recalling these observations as accurately as possible, I would ask a fellow community member if these observations were accurate and change them accordingly. This type of observation is particularly useful to my documentation of “stories told about mestres.” Because these stories do not exist anywhere but individuals’ minds, they are constantly changing. During my research I would also ask individuals casually, “do you remember when…” and the response may not accurately document a specific occurrence, but the response accurately documents a story about the occurrence. These stories give meaning to events, and this meaning is what I was after.
I interviewed all members of the Katuah Capoeira class who were present at the beginning of my research. The interviews were recorded and transcribed. One new member joined the class after my research had begun and was never interviewed, although his input was welcome, and he reviewed a copy of this paper before it was finished. Most if not all of my interviewees seemed honest and genuine in their responses, but it would be ignorant to say that the participants were not affected by my position within their community. This being said, I believe that my involvement in the KCA community was important if not essential for this paper and that my position within the community offered me a unique insight. Participants felt comfortable talking to me and held a certain amount of trust with me, and therefore responded honestly and seemed to be comfortable during the interviews. My interview questions were very abstract and demanded a high level of critical thinking. In a way, some of these questions encouraged the participants to act as anthropologists themselves by thinking about concepts such as “traditions,” “community,” and “culture.” I asked my participants to both define these concepts and to explain their interpretation of these concepts’ meaning. I asked these questions knowing that in many ways capoeira seems to be a meta art ~ constantly reflecting itself through play and discussion.
“The origins of capoeira ~ whether African or Brazilian ~ are cause for controversy to this day; different and opposing theories have been created to explain how it all began”(Capoeira, 1995: 3).
Within this section, I am briefly explaining the history of capoeira. I have used three references: “The Little Book of Capoeira” (Nestor Capoeira), “”Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game” (Nestor Capoeira), and “Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form” (Bira Almeida). I have chosen these three books because the KCA community is familiar with them. These three books play an important role in defining capoeira’s history to this community. Instead of describing the “unbiased” history, what follows will describe the history that is generally accepted within this community.
Because of lack of documentation, the beginning stages of this art form (prior to the 1700’s) present us with a mystery. While we know that capoeira was practiced primarily among the slave population at this time, the exact birthplace of this art remains unknown. Some scholars theorize that capoeira existed in Africa and was brought to Brazil, while others see capoeira as created within Brazil. Most likely, the answer to this “mystery” lies somewhere between these two extreme views. Mestre Acordeon writes:
To affirm that Capoeira is a Brazilian native art form without African influence is absurd. To pretend that capoeira came from Africa already formed and used as a self-defense by run away slaves against their captors is to jump to improbable conclusions (Almeida, 1986: 20).
The capoeira before the 18th century may have differed greatly from the capoeira played today. Nestor Capoeira notes that early descriptions of capoeira lack the “acrobatic jumps, the ground movements, the leg blows, and the musical instrument called the berimbau…”(Capoeira, 1995: 7). But while the capoeira of this time may have differed from the current practice of the art, it is still considered to be capoeira by many people. The older version of capoeira may have lacked movements and instruments that are today seen as essential to capoeira, but these descriptions succeed in capturing “the physical profiles and behavior of some of the famous capoeiristas, and the general atmosphere of the art” (Almeida, 1986: 23).
The earliest written documents describing capoeira are in the 18th century. During 1814 capoeira “suffered repression and [was] prohibited in some places by the slave masters and overseers”(Capoeira, 1995: 5). This attempt to repress capoeira was an attempt to destroy the slaves’ tie to Africa; an attempt that eventually led to the criminalization of the art. Nestor Capoeira outlines some possible reasons why capoeira was suppressed:
1) It gave Africans a sense of nationality.
2) It developed self-confidence in individual capoeira practitioners.
3) It created small, cohesive groups.
4) It created dangerous agile fighters.
5) Sometimes the slaves would injure themselves during the capoeira game, which was not desirable from an economic point of view.
(Capoeira, 1995: 6)
Perhaps another reason for the art’s suppression not mentioned above could be the abnormality of the activity, and that this abnormality presented a challenge to the slave owners’ ideal of normal behavior.
Slavery was abolished in Brazil by the “Golden Law” passed in 1888; this abolishment did not however end racism. Consequentially, many blacks made their own place in society through criminal acts: “The capoeirista, with his fighting skills, self-confidence, and individuality, quickly descends into criminality [after the Golden Law was passed] ~ and capoeira along with him” (Capoeira, 1995: 10). In Rio de Janeiro, these criminal capoeiristas used clubs, daggers, and knives along with capoeira movements. Capoeira at this time was associated with criminal activity and was finally outlawed in 1892 (Capoeira, 1995: 10).
Not all capoeiristas chose this deviant path. In Bahia, capoeira remained largely non-violent, but out of necessity was practiced in secret. (Capoeira, 1995: 10) Capoeira during this time was practiced primarily among the lower classes in Brazil with few exceptions. “While the upper classes of colonial Brazil turned towards literature, politics and fashion from Europe, the poorer rungs of the population had their capoeira” (Almeida, 1986: 27).
By the early 1900, the capoeirista was considered to be a criminal. Capoeira was suffocated out of many of the cities and Bahia was the last place where capoeira would survive. And it was in Bahia where Mestre Bimba would revolutionize the art of capoeira. (Capoeira, 1995: 12)
Capoeira was legalized in 1930, and during this time Mestre Bimba opened the first capoeira academy. Bimba “taught to the upper classes of Salvador” (Capoeira, 1995: 13). He revolutionized the process of teaching by creating “a new teaching method based on eight sequences of predetermined moves…”(Capoeira, 1995: 14). Bimba’s teachings catered to the upper classes because of his new teaching style and his implementation of a belted system. This lower class art, which was in danger of extinction at the time, was suddenly embraced by the upper classes.
The style of capoeira developed by this man was named “Capoeira Regional.” He modified the capoeira that he was taught to develop this style, and in doing so he “essentially sacrificed much of the ritual and “game” aspects, as well as the slower rhythms, in favor of greater aggressiveness and fighting spirit” (Capoeira, 1995: 14).
Mestre Pastinha developed a capoeira school in 1941. Unlike Bimba, he attempted to preserve the more traditional style of capoeira by focusing on rituals, traditions and the playfulness of the game. In contrast to Mestre Bimba’s type of capoeira, Pastinha named the capoeira taught in his school “Capoeira Angola,” honoring the African influence on this art. His academy was “famous as a gathering point for artists and intellectuals who wanted to see the traditional Capoeira Angola” (Capoeira, 1995: 15).
Nestor Capoeira explains that by the 1960s and 1970s, “although a few traditional Angola mestres kept on teaching, they were completely eclipsed by the new style that had its origins in Bimba’s Capoeira Regional”(Capoeira, 1995: 19). But by 1985, Capoeira Angola seemed to be revived. And at about this time, Capoeira began spreading to countries outside of Brazil. A few Angola and Regional mestres began pioneering into the U. S. and other countries with continuing success. And today, Nestor Capoeira, a prominent capoeira teacher and academic, predicts that “probably in the first decade of the new millennium, we will see local, non- Brazilian mestres and groups [in the U. S. and elsewhere]” (Capoeira, 2002: 228).
Katuah Capoeira Angola classes usually happen two to three times a week. Classes tend to be structured differently each time, but there are roughly two types of classes: beginners’ class and advanced class. After the beginners’ class, there is usually a roda held. The classes are made up of males and females, with ages ranging from about eighteen to forty-five. All participants in this class including the teacher are “white” except for one person who can be considered “Native American.” The class has a core group of about eight people who attend class at least once a week, this group is made up of three females and five males. Some other students may come once a month and some may attend class for weeks only to never be seen again.
The classes are held at “The Future of Traditions” studio located at the River District in Asheville, NC. This studio holds many different activities throughout the week, among them are: belly dance, flamenco, African drumming, and Tia Chi. Each class is taught at a different time, for a different price by a different instructor. The common space may be one of the few ways in which these classes actually connect; otherwise they do not seem to be connected as a community.
The teacher of this class is named Draven. He has been involved with capoeira for more than 10 years. Draven explains that the main purpose of the class is to “prepare you to go off and train with a mestre.” But he also says that the purpose of class it to “train for the roda…so you have some moves that you can play with.”
The class usually begins ten to fifteen minutes later than the scheduled time, and it usually starts as some capoeira music is played through the stereo. The first thing that is usually done is the warm up. This warm up is not instructed verbally, but Draven performs movements and others follow. After warm ups, the class may line up behind Draven in two lines. Draven will then begin performing movements and everyone is expected to follow. Much of Draven’s teaching during this part of class is done through body language, and it is not uncommon for the class speech to be nearly silent for this part of class.
Next, Draven may lecture for a minute about the importance of doing a move correctly or offer a story about a mestre. Lectures usually include stories of Draven’s experiences, personal insights on movements, discussion of ways in which capoeira relates to every day life, or jokes about one of the above topics. That lecture may lead into movements in pairs, when people in class pair off practice the instructed set of movements together. After this part of class is done, the class may be over.
Before everyone leaves the class, all members of the class sit together in a circle and ask questions about movements, history, or capoeira in general. Draven and others may use this time to make announcements about upcoming events or classes. This time may also offer a time for some to reflect on the class and give criticism or positive feedback to Draven and others. After everyone has spoken, the class is dismissed.
The three part structure described above is in no way the structure for all or even most classes. Each class has a different structure because of the seemingly spontaneous nature of Draven’s teaching. The lack of a modular structure to class may also be due to the fact that students also affect how the class is conducted by offering suggestions, or it may reflect the improvisational nature of the art itself.
Rodas occur at the last Sunday of each month at KCA classes. There may be rodas on other days as well, but the roda at the end of the month is the only roda that is constant. The roda may take place inside the class space, or if the weather permits, it may be held outside at a nearby park.
The term “roda” is a Portuguese word adopted by this community to describe the circle in which the game of capoeira is played. This word is generally used the same throughout the broader capoeira community as well. The roda is generally made up of three parts: the bateria (the musicians), the group of people who sit on the perimeter of the roda, and the two players. All three of these groups work together and interact to create the roda.
The bateria is made up of two to eight people. During a roda at the KCA studio, the bateria sits at the head of the roda and usually sits on a large wooden bench. The band is made up of a combination of 1 to 3 berimbaus, 1 or 2 pondeiro (tambourine), 1 atabaque (large African drum), one ago-go (cow bell), and one reco-reco. The bateria plays an essential function in the roda of both instructor and narrator to the two players. The bateria also is in charge of leading songs during the game.
The group of people who sit in on the perimeter of the roda define the area in which the game is to take place. They also offer response lines to songs that are led by a member of the bateria. These people also act as an audience that may yell when an exciting movement is performed.
The two players in the center of the roda sing along to the music sometimes, but more often they focus primarily on their movements. The two players dodge kicks and throw kicks in an improvised manner. This play is seen as “fun” by most of the KCA community. It is often accompanied by yells of excitement and laughter.
It is also important to note that these three groups are constantly rotating. After playing in the center, a player will either take over an instrument from a member of the bateria or sit in the circle. The rotation of the students ensures that all people will have a chance to participate in all aspects of the roda.
When a roda is formed, the musicians usually sit down first. Next, people begin to sit in the circle. The berimbau is the first instrument to begin playing and one by one all other instruments follow in a specific order. The two players then enter the roda in a specific way and kneel in front of the head berimbau player and wait for that person to sing the ladainha (the opening song). After shaking hands beneath the berdimbau, the two players enter the roda and begin to play. The “play” involves many different movements such as headstands, handstands, and crouching. This play can also be seen as a sparring match between the two players. Most strikes are performed with the feet or head, and instead of blocking, capoeiristas aim to get out of the way of the attack. But these seemingly aggressive movements are, at many times, accompanied with smiles by the two players.
The game generally ends in one of two ways: the two players may voluntarily kneel below the berimbau signaling the end of the game, or the head berimbau may play a specific rhythm to call the two players back. After coming back to the berimbau, the two players may shake hands and hug, then they will exit the roda to let others in. In general, the music does not stop between games. It usually lasts for the duration of the event. Once the music is over however the movements must stop and all games are over.
It is important to note that unlike the structure of classes, rodas held by the KCA community are very structured and consistent. A roda must operate in a specific way, and there are few rules of the roda’s structure that can be broken at any time. The roda can be seen as one end result of class training. It is a time that students can display what they have learned; it is also an important time to learn by observing the moves of others. The roda is a place of interaction: a place for bonding with, joking with and sometimes offending others. The roda is a place where all individuals must work together by following the meticulous rules associated with the roda. It provides a safe space for capoeiristas to express themselves through movement, music and jeers.
The structure of the roda is a symbol that connects this community to the capoeira traditions. This structure formula is dictated by Capoeira Angola mestres and is shared by most Capoeira Angola schools throughout the country and elsewhere. This structure connects the community at once to capoeira traditions and the capoeira community world- wide.
There are many rituals involved with the roda. These rituals are an important way in which traditions are practiced in class. One of the most obvious ritualistic aspects of the roda is practiced in the beginning of a game. While entering the roda, a player may touch the ground as if gathering pieces of the floor. This movement may or may not be done depending on the individual, and each person may have his or her own movement. As the two players kneel below the berimbau, they may cross themselves in a fashion similar to the catholic ritualized crossing or another individualized motion. Depending on the individual this could be a genuine prayer to a greater power, a mocking of the ritual, or simply a beginner mimicking an advanced player. This ritual is not required or even expected from people. Some explain that these rituals are times to “gather axe”(luck, energy or power) or protection before the game. For others it is a way of thanking the greater power or spirits. There does not seem to be one universal meaning to this ritual, but it is a time allotted for individualistic behavior and expression.
The ladainha is a required ritual. The ladainha is at once a prayer, a lesson and a song. Draven explains that, “when someone is singing a ladainha you have to listen,” and “[when someone is singing a ladainha], he is trying to tell you something.” He also explains that it is sung before every game because, “[when you are singing a ladainha] you are opening the roda…you are bringing the energy together…” But perhaps the most important function of this ritual is its respect for tradition and its acknowledgement of the tradition that has kept capoeira alive for hundreds of years.
This song often has to do with God and his great powers. The ladainha used to open the majority of the rodas in this community is:
E! Maior e Deus! God is great
E! Maior e Deus! God is great
Pequeno sou eu Little I am
Oque tenho foi Deus quem me deu What I have God gave me
Na roda da capoeira In the capoeira roda
Grande e pequeno sou eu Both great and small I am
The message of this song is as important as its ritual. It emphasizes the fact that humans are small and mortal, while God is immortal and great. The end of the song however, shows a solution, a bridge between the two ~ capoeira. Capoeira is shown in this song as the mediator between two worlds. While humans live in the world of the “small” and God lives in the world of the “great,” the two worlds can converge in the capoeira roda.
As this song illustrates, rituals during the roda serve the function of giving humans access to the great world. These rituals mediate between the two worlds, allowing a dialogue between the “great” and the “small.” In this case, the “great” may be the traditions and vastness of capoeira, and the “small” may be the individual players and this particular community. Through songs, prayers and rituals, the individual can invoke the greatness of capoeira into his or her individual game. And by performing the meticulous rituals associated with creating the roda, the group creates a sacred environment in which this interaction can occur.
TRADITIONS AND THE MESTRE
Traditions play an essential role in capoeira classes for this community. When asked about traditions’ importance in class, many echoed one student’s response, “it’s not capoeira if you don’t have the Brazilian tradition in it.” Tradition lies in the definition of capoeira; capoeira by nature is traditional. The fact that capoeira maintains its traditions is commonly cited as a primary reason for KCA members’ involvement in the art. Emily, a two year student explains:
[Capoeira traditions are] really important. That’s a reason why I do capoeira and not other classes is because of the amount of respect and the keeping of the traditions. A lot of classes from other cultures have become really perverted. It seems that the intention is with the heart of really staying with where it came from and why it came from and why it was invented and what it is rather than like, “how can we market to please these people”… I think it’s really beautiful.
This excerpt from an interview with a community member may lead one to wonder “what are these ‘traditions’ and how are they resisting perversion?” Indeed this is a difficult question to answer. Many people in this community were hesitant to answer this very question, Megan a student who has been involved with capoeira classes at many different places throughout North Carolina answers:
That’s a good question. [Pause]… I’m not a historian, I’m not African American either. I’m a white girl in US that’s training capoeira. For me to talk about “ how important are the traditions?” in an art that is so steeped in, well that comes from culture that I don’t have a genetic connection to or a cultural connection to in my up bringing…
Despite their admitted lack of authority as to what the capoeira traditions really are, all of these students were able to give some examples of traditions that are expressed in class. They expressed four main aspects of capoeira traditions in their class: dress, language, songs, and appropriate rules of etiquette. All four of these aspects are embodied by the symbol of “the mestre.” The mestre at once enacts and dictates these traditions. “The mestre” is the KCA community’s connection to and symbol of capoeira’s traditions.
During class time, it is required for all experienced students to wear a yellow shirt with sleeves (preferably a shirt with the KCA logo on it), black pants, and sneakers. This traditional dress was, according to the community, created by Mestre Pastinha. According to a story told in class, Mestre Pastinha (1889-1981) was the first capoeirista to start a Capoeira Angola school. His students were required to wear the colors of yellow and black. Another story told by Draven explains Pastinha’s choice for these colors:
Pastinha loved soccer…so his school colors were yellow and black, the colors of his favorite soccer team.
This dress code is now somewhat universal in Capoeira Angola schools in the United States, and it was also the dress of most students who attended the 2002 FICA gathering (a conference attended by many different Capoeira Angola schools from around the U.S. and some schools from outside of the U.S.). This dress code is not only a connection to the traditions of capoeira, but to the broader capoeira community aswell.
The Portuguese language is used during much of the class. All of the movements taught in class are referred to by their name in Portuguese, all instruments are referred to by their Portuguese names, and even some students are called by Portuguese nick-names. Draven uses Portuguese words for simple commands when instructing the class, and he will teach the class new words periodically. According to Draven, all of the Capoeira Angola mestres speak Portuguese, and many of these mestres do not speak English. Thus, the Portuguese language is essential in order to learn from a mestre.
The songs sung in class are sung entirely in Portuguese and accompanied by the Brazilian berimbau (along with other instruments). Many of these songs were either created or passed down through mestres.
Proper rules of etiquette are both taught and practiced in class. This etiquette is two fold: it can refer to the understanding of rules of etiquette for rituals and behavior during the roda, or rules of etiquette when participating in class. During class some rules of etiquette include: pay attention to the teacher, cooperate with others, don’t talk back to the teacher, and keep awareness of the instructor’s body language. In the roda some rules of etiquette include: shake hands and pay respects to the head berimbau before beginning the game, go to the berimbau when physical contact occurs, and listen to the head berimbau during the game.
The Capoeira Angola mestres offer this community a connection to capoeira’s past. The mestres have trained with previous mestres, who have taught the current mestres many traditions of capoeira. In this way, a mestre has knowledge that extends far past his lifetime. The mestres understand many of the traditional rituals, many ritual customs, many ritual beliefs, and even oral histories. The mestre is valued by the community because of his connection to capoeira’s past and because of his longer than lifetime knowledge of the art.
The mestres act as the mediators between the “great” (abstract traditions of capoeira) and “small” (individual). They have a connection to the traditional world through their extensive experience with the art and knowledge of traditions that are passed onto them through older mestres. At the same time, these mestres communicate with the broader capoeira community by teaching classes, holding workshops, hosting conferences and creating songs. The KCA community looks to these people as the mediators between the mystical world of tradition and the grounded world of capoeira in practice.
Most students have seen a mestre once or twice, but few have interacted with a mestre on a regular basis. Consequentially, the student’s perception of these mestres relies heavily on a small number of physical interactions. These few physical interactions often have a great impact on the students’ memory and their perception of capoeira in general. And where the constrains of time end these experiences, stories can be used to immortalize them. These stories are the primary way in which the symbol of “the mestre” is constantly being defined and redefined, and because this symbol plays an essential role in interpreting capoeira, the student’s perception of capoeira and it’s meaning is also constantly redefined. These stories can be discussed during or outside of class, they can be lectured by the teacher in class, or they can be read in a book written by an influential capoerista. These stories also play an essential role in legitimizing a mestre’s title. “Traditionally…the title [“mestre”] is conferred by capoeiristas themselves and the public at large to those who have proven themselves over many years (usually no less than ten) as both capoeiristas and teachers” (Capoeira, 1995: 146).
Many informal conversations between capoeira students in this community draw upon the “super human” nature of these mestres. The mestres are often seen as magical, ultra sensitive, or even immortal. One story told by a student emphasizes the magical qualities of mestres:
At one point he had all the women playing in the bataria, and the guys were practicing. I was sitting right next to the woman with the gunga I was holding a berimbau, playing...longer than I had ever played. We were playing and singing all day long. And after a while I knew I was drooping and I was really trying as hard as I could to keep it going. But it isn’t an easy thing to do…my energy was lagging a lot, and I was pretty alarmed by it…but there was no where I could go…Jao Grange had such a presence that he came near me and put a hand on the back of the chair... and I swear there was like an energy transmission, but it wasn’t this sort of thing like, the mestre’s here and I'm worried mentally what he thinks of me…when he came into proximity, he s got that kind of energy rolling. When he put his hand on the back of my chair, I didn’t think that I had a thing left in me… danged if I didn’t pick up and keep going. I thought “this guy is something else.” I just felt joy and happiness coming though him …
This story illustrates an encounter that megan had with one of the most respected mestres, the senior aged Jao Grange. In this story he is clearly seen as a magical elder. It is also interesting that in this story the student is not intimidated by him but feels “joy and happiness coming through him.”
Much of this community’s discussion of this particular mestre revolves around the man’s age. No one seems to know exactly how old he is, but Draven vouches that he knows, “he must be over seventy [years old].” Draven has even suggested that this man gets younger each year, “one year he was 72 and the next he was 71…” The inconsistency in the mestre’s age reinforces the idea the he is ageless and perhaps immortal like capoeira itself. And it is not uncommon for individuals in this community to explain that “[the mestre] is capoeira.”
Other stories revolve around mestres who can play games with their eyes closed without compromising their abilities, mestres who can take down the toughest individual, and mestres who can perform impossible movements. A story of this nature was told by the teacher of this class:
A rival group came to visit Mestre Cobra Mansa’s school. They had come to show up the mestre, so Cobra went into the roda with one of these rivals. The rival student played very fast and tried really hard to show up the Mestre. But at one point, Cobra Mansa spun around with a loud scream, and without losing his calm, the mestre swept the rival. The bataria and audience responded with laughter.
This story shows the Mestre’s ability to defeat an enraged opponent. In addition to showing this mestre’s great physical abilities, this story also shows the audience’s important role. The audience’s laughter showed their approval of the mestre and disproval of the newcomer. But perhaps the most important part of this story is the fact the mestre was able to defeat his opponent calmly and without responding emotionally.
Other stories focus on mestre’s mystical knowledge of capoeira. During the 2002 FICA (a capoeira organization headed by Cobra Mansa) conference which was attended by over 100 capoeira students and many mestres, Cobra Mansa elaborated on this point. According to a story told by a KCA student who attended this conference, the mestre reinforced the idea that mestres have the greatest understanding of capoeira:
“[During the conference] there was this big debate happening over whether capoeira was Brazilian or African. All of a sudden, Cobra intervened and said…let me remember…it was something like, ‘People ask me what the secret of capoeira is…I tried to figure it out for a long time, but then I finally figured it out. It is something that you cannot explain, but you can only understand through experience…’”
This story clearly illustrates the mestre’s mystical knowledge. This knowledge cannot be explained and can only be gained through experience with the art. The knowledge that the mestres have cannot be transmitted to others through the normal logical forms like lectures or diagrams. It can only be gained through experience. Because the mestres are the individuals with the most experience in the art, they have the right to claim knowledge of the “secret.” The mestres’ status is thereby protected from outsiders.
These super-human characteristics attributed to mestres through the medium of stories distance the capoeira students from the mestres. These stories show the mestre as a symbol of capoeira at its utmost potential, a symbol which is abstract and lacks any human qualities. At their extremes, these stories illustrate mestres who symbolize the “great” in capoeira ~ a game that can cause an individual to transcend humanness.
Most of the songs sung in the roda were written by mestres. These songs dictate movement in the roda and can give or take power away from the players. One sung in the roda follows:
Cataina demaya que mato meu curio,
Eu jojo capoeira mestre Pastinha eu mio
The last verse written states, “I play capoeira and Mestre Pastinha is the best.” This song reinforces the super-humanness of mestres, and at the singer of the song may be evoking the spirit of the mestre. A more clear example of this follows:
E! viva meu deus
E! viva Pastinha
E! viva meu mestre…
These are a few of the lead lines to a song usually sung at the beginning of every roda at the Katuah Capoeira Studio. This song first exclaims “long live my God,” then “long live Mestre Pastinha,” and finally “long live my mestre.” By singing this song at the beginning of every roda, the class is respecting these individuals, and the vast power of tradition that they represent.
Some stories of mestres told by members of the KCA community are less flattering. These stories focus on the mortality and humanness of the mestres. They may mention times when a mestre has done something wrong, or they may emphasize the mestre’s inconsistency.
Some other stories stress the surprising imperfect aspects of the mestre. The following story emphasizes the imperfect nature of a mestre:
The mestre was flirting with a woman who (without his knowledge) was married to a nearby man. That man (the woman’s husband) challenged the mestre to a game in the roda. As they sat below the berimbau, the mestre began to sing a long latainha before playing. Halfway through the song, the woman’s husband lunged at the unsuspecting mestre and grabbed him into a head lock.
These stories show the symbol of “the mestre” to be more human-like. The mestre is seen in these stories as able to make mistakes, imperfect and human. These stories make the symbol of “the mestre” accessible to less than perfect people. They are usually told outside of class time during a more casual setting. They may be told at a restaurant or after a class, but seldom is there talk about the imperfect mestre during class. Surprisingly, the teacher of the class leads many of these stories and encourages his students to realize these mestres’ imperfect nature.
While a mestre’s words are felt to be the closest to “correct,” and are seen as the highest authority on traditions, there are many stories that show a mestre’s inconsistencies, faults and non-sensible nature. During one class, Draven warns, “[a mestre] will tell you that this song should not be played in the roda…but later, he will play that song in the roda…” This warning highlights an interesting aspect of these mestres: they are wise, but their wisdom may lie in paradoxes.
Interestingly, most if not all of the Capoeira Angola mestres in the United States are of Brazilian decent, and most of them would be considered to be “black” in the United States. Many of these mestres have come from “underprivileged” homes and grew up with poverty. The status structure within the capoeira community seems to be the mirror image of that in the dominant culture of the U.S.A.; instead of the rich white male who is usually seen as having the most status, this community awards the most status to the poor black foreign man.
This status structure opposes the structure that exists in the society at large in a very real way. There are no Capoeira Angola mestres who are white Anglo-Americans, yet many of these mestres’ students are white Anglo-Americans. And within KCA most of the students could be classified as white and even the teacher is white. Nonetheless, all people within this community not only accept these mestres’ superior roles, but perpetuate and give these mestres positions of power because of the mestres’ vast knowledge of the art and it’s traditions. This knowledge cannot be learned through the traditional western means of reading, attending lectures and studying, but must be learned through the immersion of capoeira through experience. This knowledge is embodied in the mestre who mediates between the “great” of capoeira’s traditions and knowledge and the “small” of capoeira in practice.
The stories told by this community reveal that the mestre is in both of these worlds at once. He has an intimate connection to capoeira’s traditions and the knowledge and skill that accompanies it, but he also has human flaws. The mestre was taught by a “great” mestre, yet he teaches capoeira to beginners. The mestre may be the creator of songs, but these songs ultimately are given to the community.
Finally, by respecting traditions that are mediated by these mestres, members of the KCA community are connected to the larger capoeira community. The traditions practiced by this community are also practiced by many other capoeira communities around the world. Draven explains:
Even though some people have never done capoeira outside of Asheville, they are still part of the international community because parts of our community are parts of the international community. What parts do we share? The teachings that I'm passing down, I've learned from countless masters and contra mestres…as soon as you learn that move you are part of that community…you are part of the Pastinha lineage...you have Brazil in you now, you have Africa in you now…
And this connection can have very real consequences. For example, when the members of the KCA community travel to other schools they have been welcome to stay in strangers’ houses, given hospitality, and offered food. These strangers however are not exactly strangers, because they are connected to the KCA community through capoeira and a respect for its traditions. Draven explains:
If I go to Belgrade tomorrow (I don’t even know where that is), if there was capoeira taught there, I could knock on their door, I’ll have a place to stay food to eat, interesting people to talk to, if I don’t have money, they’ll probably let me stay in class anyway.
Vermelho explains this community’s purpose:
[The community] perpetuates capoeira. Because for me it is such a beautiful thing that I have gained so much appreciation for. And it has helped me in so many parts of my life…
The community’s common thread is capoeira: it’s traditions and mestres. All members of this community recognize similar rules of etiquette, rituals, dress codes, language, songs and movements. “Community” was even a highlight of discussion during last years annual “International Capoeira Angola Foundation Conference,” held by Mestre Cobra Mansa, which was entitled “Community and Spirituality.” Community is an important part of the capoeira traditions in itself. The mestres and traditions play an important role as the glue that ties this large community together.
Hegemony can only be maintained so long as dominant classes ‘succeed in framing all competing definitions within their range’ (Hall, 1977), so that subordinate groups are if not controlled; then at least contained within an ideological space which does not seem at all ‘ideological’…(1991, p. 16)
In hegemonic discourse’s attempts at framing competing definitions, using hegemonic labels is essential. And if subordinate groups are to be contained, then categorization is essential. Hegemony depends on these labels in order to “frame” activities and groups into black and white categories, and capoeira’s resistance to those categories challenges the forces of hegemony.
[Capoeira] has hidden mechanisms and schemes that are part of its infrastructure to oppose the creation within capoeira of structures or organisms similar to those of the [hegemonic] state. (2002, p. 96)
The art of capoeira is at once a dance, a fight and a game. It can be a martial art, a performance, or just a way of passing time. As Nestor Capoeira writes, “To our western minds, accustomed to dissecting and classifying objects, people and events into specific categories, it can be difficult to grasp and understand what this thing called “capoeira” really is” (1995, p. 30).
When a naive onlooker asks a capoeirista what exactly capoeira is, he or she is likely to leave the conversation with less of an idea of how to properly categorize it. For example Cedar explained:
“I describe it to people as a variation on martial arts, break dancing and dance…plus a whole culture, religious involvement…”
This characteristic which is common throughout the art serves an important function ~ the resistance to categorization protects the knowledge that older players have and thereby protects the art from being absorbed into the hegemonic force. This ambiguity is perhaps capoeira’s best protection mechanism in this sense and is essential in preserving the art’s “traditional” aspects.
Ambiguity and the resistance to categorization is not limited to the structure of capoeira itself, but is also a common trait among the art’s practitioners. After being asked “what does capoeira mean to you?” during an interview Emily, a capoeirista of more than two years replied:
[Long pause]…[pause]…I could say deception, but I don’t think that would really be true…I think that’s part of it…pause…It means freedom… it’s just something you have to experience..[Sarcastic laughter]
It’s Rebellion but its respect… Nothing is what it seems, I guess. I hate these questions!!
[“What are you rebelling against?”] I’m not answering that!!
This excerpt shows at once the illusionary nature of capoeira and the practitioner’s resistance to labels. She has a hard time explaining exactly what capoeira means, and after struggling with vague words such as deception, freedom, rebellion and respect, she gives up on the question and explains that “it’s just something that you have to experience.” It is also worth noting that her response to the question eluded the question with the use of vague words and paradoxes. She even utilizes sarcasm, attacks the question, and refuses to answer.
The resistance to categorization is common throughout the practice of capoeira as well. Vermelho remembers his first day of capoeira class:
I came in and the first person I saw was Draven and he came out and met me and I said “are you teaching a capoeira class?”, and he said “well, we are playing capoeira.”
This example shows the capoeira instructor himself resisting being categorized as a “teacher” to an outsider. His true label is revealed only later to the outsider when he has been incorporated into the class as a student.
During capoeira classes this resistance to labels is practiced as well. When movements are taught in class, they will often resist the labels of “offensive” or “defensive,” but instead Draven may explain that a movement is at once an attack and an escape. Many of the rules of the capoeira “game” change from class to class or even from minute to minute:
Draven asks Kevin “what do you do when you are feeling overwhelmed and want to change the pace of the game?” Kevin responds, “chamada” Draven says, “no!” he then asks another younger student (cedar) the same question. She answers with the same word “chamada.” Draven exclaims “yes!” as he gives Kevin a glare and says “see!”
In this example, the fluidity of the terms “right” and “wrong” can be seen. Although the instructor could have misunderstood the student during this example, the instructor’s response is not questioned; other students act as if Draven is right and seem to accept this inconsistency as normal. This interaction reinforces onto the student that capoeira resists any solid labels, even the most basic labels of logic (correct and incorrect). This example shows how inconsistency can be used to combat labels, and thereby resist hegemony.
This resistance to categorization can be seen during the game of capoeira as well. In the roda, one player may appear to be injured, and as the other player attempts to help him, the “injured” player may kick the unsuspecting opponent. The two players in the roda may appear to be fighting one minute, but engage in a friendly dance the next.
The playing with and resisting labels and breaking their boundaries bleeds through the categories of the roda, training, and outer life. And in this way students have expressed that capoeira in their lives is not limited to the time within the classroom. Megan explains that capoeira is “everything you eat, you cook, you talk about.. capoeira is everywhere.”
If “capoeira is everywhere,” then it is also in almost every category. It is at once a fight, dance, game, tradition, spiritual practice, exorcise and sport. It is important that capoeira is in all of these categories and not be in no categories; by existing under all of these categories, this art resists being categorized as “abnormal” or “nonsense.” By resisting hegemony’s attempts of framing, individuals are affectively resisting one of hegemony’s most important tactic of categorization and labeling.
This community’s desire to understand capoeira’s traditions seems to be an attempt to understand capoeira in its “pure” form, “uncorrupted” by modern capitalism. These traditions represent something old and sacred to this community, something that cannot be measured in dollars. Many members explain that the beauty of capoeira comes from its roots:
I think one of the things that I really like about capoeira and one of the reasons that I go to class is the feeling… of it being rooted in something old, and coming from this really strong, like noble purpose. And being carried out…by oppressed people…Its like something that has had to struggle and you know fight in this you know world to be around…
And indeed, capoeira did not arise in order to support the existing social order. Rather, it survived despite a repressive social environment. It was created as a reaction to this environment and many people today, including many members of this community, are struggling to continue to use this tool for its original purpose.
Capoeira is seen by many of its practitioners as an activity that resists the normalcy of everyday life. Many students emphasized the importance of leaving “normal” life with its responsibilities, roles and restrictions:
For me, its like a weird time in my life; its like my first full time job, and you know like, I have to decide now what I really want to do with my career… dating a girl that’s not my girlfriend, its kind of a weird situation… To me its like, its nice to go and its absorbing enough, I'm generally interested enough that it really makes me not worry about the rest of my life. But just in general being able to you know do something that gives me inner focus in my life away from the worries in my life. One of the things in my life right now, I don’t really know where I will be in 6 months or a year from now. Whereas in class it is like immediately about right then ~ I really enjoy that.
Many students explained that capoeira class offered a “sacred space” where they could forget about every day normalcy. This may imply that capoeira class offers members of the community a feeling of liminality. Turner explains that a “limen” is a “corridor almost, or tunnel which may, indeed, become a pilgrim’s road or passing from dynamics to statics, may cease to be a mere transition and become a set way of life” (Turner, 1972: 37). Thus liminality exists when an individual is within this tunnel. This liminal space offers a space outside of society, a sacred space, where the dominant society can be challenged.
This space is consciously created through the use of individuals’ free time. Many students echoed Mike’s comment:
“Its just how you spend your time…Capoeira is a good way to spend your time, its not a waste of time.”
The act of organizing “free time” or “leisure time” in of itself can be a threat to the dominant society. “Leisure is…potentially capable of releasing creative powers, individual and communal, either to criticize or prop up dominant social structural values” (Turner, 1972: 42). The fact that capoeira is seen by this community as what one student calls “hackey sack,” reinforces the idea that capoeira is largely seen as a way to spend leisure time.
One student explains that he uses capoeira as an alternative “way of passing the time” that is “better that sitting at home watching Nascar.” And because television “relays and reproduces and processes and packages and focuses [hegemonic] ideology,”(Garner, 2000: 288) the act of replacing television with capoeira is a strong statement. And as television organizes an individual’s “free time” “into end-to-end interchangeable units…extends, and harmonizes with, the industrialization of time,” (Garner, 2000: 290) replacing television with capoeira resists that “industrialization of time.”
Other students stressed the fact that capoeiristas are fighting against normalcy of everyday life. Kevin suggests that some members may even feel oppressed by mainstream society:
We are definitely fighting something. We have to fight to be a unique and strong individuals. Maybe we’re fighting against the melancholy of everyday life.. for me school…people in class feel somewhat oppressed.
Perhaps KCA students are fighting normalcy that exists in everyday life. Capoeira may be a way for these people to escape their mundane yet hectic existence within normal life.
Dick Hebdige states that subcultures who work to undermine the dominant hegemony “go ‘against nature,’ interrupting the process of ‘normalization’” (1991, p. 18). The most obvious way in which this capoeira group accomplishes that task may be the “weird nature” of the movements. The movements that this class trains include headstands, cartwheels, low crouching movements, and various other strange movements. Headstands and handstands particularly contrast with what is generally thought of as “normal movements.” And when one thinks of “walking” most everyone assumes (through common sense or normalized thought) that this movement is performed with feet on the ground, but in capoeira classes one is likely to witness people walking on their hands instead.
Indeed, these movements are among the primary reasons that many capoeiristas cited for their initial interest in the art. Emily remembers her impression of the art when she first witnessed it more than three years ago:
I thought it was so cool. I thought it was so cool. I was just really impressed by the flow of the movements and it just looked so beautiful… I was just really impressed by it, I though it was so cool looking. I don’t even remember the music at all…
Megan emphasizes the physical aspects of capoeira:
I love what its doing for my body. Especially as I'm getting more comfortable upside down.…Pushing my body to new limits.
Velmehu explained his fascination with capoeira’s movements:
The gravity defying headstands intrigue me.
This statement reveals his belief that a movement can resist gravity. Or in other words, a movement can resist an unseen yet very real force in our world. Perhaps in this way hegemony is similar to gravity; it is unseen and very real. And if capoeira’s movements can be used as tools to defy gravity, then perhaps these tools are also capable of defying hegemony.
Like traditions, hegemony is in the realm of the “great.” It is an abstraction of reality that manifests itself in “small” ways. In order to resist this unseen force, one must do more than acts of defiance within the realm of the small. Resistance to this force requires an alternative ideology, an alternative “great.” Capoeira provides this alternative by offering capoeiristas an ideology derived from the margins of society: “tradition.” This ideology gives a foundation for small acts of resistance to grow from. As opposed to hegemony, which teaches compliance and passivity, the capoeira tradition teaches struggle and activity.
I have been asked many times by spectators, “could you really use capoeira in a fight?” Many are skeptical of capoeira’s power as a fighting tool, but they are simply not looking deep enough. Capoeira can be used in many fights, whether they be physical, emotional, mental or ideological. But perhaps capoeira can be most beneficial as a tool used to fight the ideology of the normal and the mundane existence of the office worker. In Nestor Capoeira’s words, “when these schmucks wake up and try to take over things, we, the capoeira players, will already be in the strategic key points with our game rehearsed and ready. It will be more difficult for them to cheat and rob us. We’re not going to give it over easy to those motherfuckers” (2002: 236).
Bateria: The band of musicians who play music in the roda.
Berimbau: “A bow-like percussive instrument which dictates the tempo of the music and consequentially the tempo of the capoeira game. Commonly three types of berdimbau are present in the roda, the gunga, the medio, and the viola or violinha…” (Capoeira, 1995: 143).
Capoeirista: One who plays capoeira
Ladainha: “The soulful songs that typically mark the beginning of a roda or a game…where he [the singer] praises capoeira mestres, places or famous capoeiristas, and the chorus responds in acknowledgement by repeating what was just said….” (Capoeira, 1995: 145).
Mestre: “A capoeira master…Traditionally, however, the title is conferred by capoeiristas themselves and the public at large to those who have proven themselves over many years (usually no less than ten) as both capoeiristas and teachers” (Capoeira, 1995: 146).
Roda: “Literally means ‘wheel’ in Portuguese. This is the circle in which capoeira takes place. The roda is usually made up of other capoeiristas or bystanders standing or sitting in a circle”(Capoeira, 1995: 146). During my research, I found that the meaning of this word may be extended to incorporate the musicians as well.
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