Capoeira Angola Essays by Contra Mestre Pererê

Capoeira Angola and the Art of the Approach.
part 2

by Contra Mestre Pererê ©2002 CM Pererê

Capoeira's social politics: Is it an obstacle, or asset?

Yes, Capoeira has about it an aspect of politics, but when players complain and gripe about this they have completely missed the point. Though I am not condoning any abuses that persons of influence perpetrate on their communities, any social activity includes politics. There is no escaping it if you wish to play the field. I was taught that the social obstacles in Capoeira are there by design, and though they may be often less than enjoyable or palatable, and seem insurmountable for the student of the art (especially for non-Brazilians), they serve an important function for the player: How to successfully negotiate the human world, with all its dangers and payoffs.

In short, to find the advantage. Same game, different playing field. In an environment where someone else has all the resources, authority, and power; and uses them as leverage against us, this being one of the primary motifs used to explain the development of Capoeira, then malicia (tactical intelligence) becomes a path to the advantage, and possibly to self-enlightenment. If we consider the social context with which the people who developed Capoeira lived in over the past centuries, we can see how an organized body of knowledge like those found in Capoeira Angola might be in high demand, and short supply.

The art of Capoeira was not in past ages merely prized by its adherents for its movements, music, and lyrical beauty, but also for its tactical and strategic concepts and application, pedagogy, and holistic curriculum. Politics not withstanding. I quote a passage from 'Order and Progress' a book in a famous series on Brazilian culture and history by the noted author Gilberto Freyre:

"Thus Horacio Pires Galvao states that he and other members of the elite learned aspects of capoeira from Negro soldiers during the war (1865-70). This Afro-Brazilian art became highly prized by some upper-class whites, not only for self-defense but also as an expression of physical elegance. With the republican movement, however, capoeira came to be considered shameful and degrading. Coehlo Neto recalls associating with colored laborers - shortly after the Paraguayan war - in order to learn the secrets of capoeiragem, so useful for those in politics, in teaching, or in the Army and Navy. Later, while a member of the federal legislature as a delegate from Maranhao, he had considered sponsoring a project to make the teaching of capoeira obligatory in the armed forces as being a truly national sport."

It is interesting to note that this must have taken place years before Mestre Bimba - the developer of Capoeira Regional - was even born.

When trying to gain some perspective on this art, it may prove useful to keep the above Freyre text in mind, specifically with regards to the obvious developmental depth that was acknowledged to already exist in this art by the mid-1800's - the art that would later to be termed 'capoeira angola' some sixty years later.

Now I wish to venture into the topic of how to approach a roda de Capoeira Angola (perhaps any roda), and how these skills are utilized by Angoleiros in the world at large. It is the use of these skills and perspectives that I have been taught to view as the major differences between Capoeira Angola and other interpretations of Capoeira, rather than whether or not one wears shoes or uses queixadas in the roda. It is how I both participate in Capoeira as a society, play the game, and teach my students.

"Capoeira Angola is like having one eye on the parish, the other on the priest." - Mestre No.

In days of yore when Capoeira was considered by the elites to be the root of a variety of ills in Brazilian society (rather than a response to those ills), and was, as we all know, an illegal activity with heavy penalties placed on its practitioners (if they were caught), Capoeira was played on the street in locations where one eye could be keep on the game, and the other on the surrounding environment. Rodas were held in places that afforded the participants a measure of time before an enemy could intercept them, with easy escape routes that could confound pursuers. That this strategy succeeded in some way is proven out by the fact that Capoeira is still around to be played at all.

My teachers have made it plain to me that this type of vigilance is still a valid aspect to the art and can be seen often when Capoeira is played on the streets today in the city of Salvador. And to their credit, I found it to be true in every roda I have ever happened upon during all of my visits there. They have made it plain to me that to loose this aspect in Capoeira would effectively put an end to the art as they know it and have played it all their lives. Even indoors you will find that a roda is most often positioned in such a way that the bataria can keep an eye on the primary entryway to the room, so that anyone who comes in the room can immediately be seen and assessed, while also maintaining a firm control over the goings on within the ring.

This strategy is used often by individual players as well. Capoeira Angola players know that unperceived approaches by others can lead to bad situations, so they make a habit of putting themselves in places that afford the best vantage and possible escape. For instance: In a restaurant an Angoleiro might put there back to the wall that allows them to keep an eye on the exits, both in front, and in back. It has been shared with me several times over the years by various Angola masters that this type of vigilance is meant to be extended to ones own life in the world, it is one of the lessons that the old masters of the art stressed often.

How to approach a roda de Capoeira Angola.

Note: This part of the essay is focused on Capoeira Angola in specific, but it will serve well as guidelines for entering any roda de Capoeira.

When approaching a roda, even one that is held by a group you are familiar with, always do so in clear sight of the bataria. You do this both out of respect, and to allow the owner of the roda to assess you, and your intent. If you try to sneak up on a roda, (which is not impossible) because you want to demonstrate how clever you are, you might be assessed as a threat, or at least a wise-ass, neither of which really work in your favor. Trust me, you will not impress anyone by sneaking around during roda. If you wish to join the circle, first take a moment and take in the energy of the roda, is it inspirational to you? Do you get a positive vibe from it? If not you may not wish to join in, its your call.

No one can make you enter a circle except you, but there are many out there who can con you into going in against your better judgment. It is often respectful to have consideration for the conventions of the group, are they all wearing shoes, do they have players with both shoes and bare feet? Each group, each roda, is unique to some degree and deserves a moment of assessment. Once you've taken in the vibe, get the attention of the owner of the roda and express to them your desire to participate. If you are unsure who this is, catch someone's eye who is nearby and ask them specifically who the mestre is.

Often they will escort you directly to the owner of the circle, or explain to you how to best participate. If you come up to the edge of the circle and no one addresses you, you should always take the initiative to ASK someone if you can participate rather than barge right on in. It is considered rude, and very disrespectful to enter a roda without consent of the mestre of the circle. Remember, as a ritualist, or 'master of ceremonies' the leader of the circle is responsible for providing a safe environment for their roda, and you may not be immediately considered a safe element. Some might not mind it, but by and large do not assume. Be courteous, it costs you nothing.

Once (and if) you have been given consent and have joined the circle, and have met any conventions of attire that may be in place (which particularly apply to rodas de Capoeira Angola more so than many contemporary styles of Capoeira), show your positive intent by joining in to sing (and clap hands if that is going on) with the rest of the chorus. Always first ask to play a musical instrument before asking to play in the circle, this demonstrates your willingness to give energy to the ritual and will give the mestre time to watch how you comport yourself. Tactically, it also affords you the opportunity to watch everyone else in the circle, to learn who can play well, who may be dangerous, who is inexperienced, who may be a hothead, or who plays really well, etc'.

I repeat, take the time to play in the bataria! While playing the music you also get to ground yourself in the energy of the roda, listening to the messages in the playing of the berimbaus. This is not psuedo-mysticism, but practical, tactical information. You will learn a lot about the mestre and their roda by the playing of the berimbau. Look for any correlations between berimbau toques and what type of action is going on in the circle between the players.

There may be particular games going on that are correctly played to certain toques (or rhythms), this was very common in the past, and is quite rare nowadays, however several groups out there still have more than one type of game they play. I am not just referring to playing the correct rhythm for 'Regional', or 'Angola'. This Angola/Regional split is a vast oversimplification of what is in actuality a wonderfully elaborate curriculum in traditional Capoeira, an elaboration that used to define the art in past eras.

The mestre may not wish you to play a berimbau at first, or at all, as these instruments are the primary tools for communicating to the players in the circle, a job that has with it a lot of responsibility. If you ask to play a bow and are turned down don't take it personally, gesture to another instrument. If you are passed an instrument, take up that musicians place in the bataria and play conservatively, refrain from drawing attention to yourself by showing off with fancy rhythmic variations unless invited to do so. Humility can go a long way in the roda de Capoeira, you will most likely impress the mestre more with your ability to fit in than showing off your prowess.

If all goes well you will most often be asked to play in the circle after a short while. The roda de Capoeira Angola has two entrances for player to enter the ring and play, one on either side of the bataria. These are the only two 'exits' for players. It may happen sometimes that a mestre exits the roda at another location for some reason, that is their prerogative as a master practitioner. It may come across as confusing at times, but they may be trying to teach something to someone, it is best to follow the basic convention of exiting (into the roda) and entering (back into the world) from either side of the bataria.

With regards to playing. It is important to realize one crucial fact: That upon entering the circle to play a game with your partner/opponent, you have already begun to play! Your 'real' jogo began the moment you approached the roda, and your game in the circle begins the very instant you set foot in the ring. It does not start at the pe de berimbau. That is the place were Angoleiros pay homage to their artistic ancestors, to their mestre, to the berimbau, and acknowledge their adversary. It is where the players come together in ritual, but it is not where their game begins! Once you have taken up a position at the pe de berimbau, have patience and wait for the mestre to acknowledge your ensuing bout by nodding to you, or dipping the top of the berimbau into the circle between you and your partner, but beware! You are playing already.

How you play, and what you do in the circle are best learned directly from a qualified instructor, but if I can offer a few pointers: 1. Keep your eyes open, and head down. 2. Try to have fun. 3. Relax.! 4. If you want to hug your partner after your bout, do it after you have left the circle (because you are still 'at play' while inside it), and try not to put your dirty hands all over their clothes!

In conclusion: The offer of an open hand is more powerful than a closed fist.

After the roda has been completed, or if you need to leave beforehand, always come up to the owner of the roda and thank them for having you. The same as you would if you were a guest at their home. It is a mark of graciousness on your part, and a means of setting a good example to all. It demonstrates your comprehension and appreciation of what I have termed: Approach, Engagement, Interaction (participation), and Disengagement. All of which represent skills held in high regard by anyone who knows anything about Capoeira Angola.

It also reflects very well on your teacher, who's reputation you are responsible for, whether you believe it or not. Often you will find that mestres treat their classes with the same vigilant care that they do their rodas, perceiving the same potentials in both circumstances. Therefore you may find that these same skills are useful when coming to a Capoeira Angola academy, school, or group practice.

Malicia, a skill or perspective often proposed as some sort of trickery, treachery, and slyness in the ring is frequently considered the most important skill for the angoleiro to develop, but I beg to differ. In the world of Capoeira many things can be like sticking your hand in a dark hole where a snake may be coiled up napping, yet ever-ready to strike. If you are to clever you may outwit yourself in the end. Malicia, in order to be a tool for personal cultivation (transformation!) in the world of Capoeira must be soundly rooted in a foundation of respectful courtesy and honor towards our fellows, or we may all very well forget what it means when we shake hands at the beginning and end of our games in the circle. And that these things too require skills worthy of mastering. 1