Boy, who formed you?
Who gave you so much shelter
Who taught you the beauty
Of dancing within the fight?
-Aú, Ronaldo Santos [trans.]
[Full disclosure: The writer trained at Bantus Capoeira Singapore from 2010-2012.]
It’s difficult to explain capoeira to someone who’s never played it.
You could call it a martial art. But why then, do the practitioners form a roda – a circle – for the game to take place? Why are they clapping and singing? Why are they playing those percussive instruments — berimbau and atabaque and pandeiro – that make up the bateria (orchestra)?
You could call it a dance, but there is an element of aggression in capoeira’s flowing circular kicks and dodges, the first images that come to mind when one thinks of capoeira.
You could call it a game; Capoeiristas speak of ‘playing capoeira’, and never of ‘fighting capoeira’. But it is a game with no points, where the rules are ambiguous. There are no winners or losers, only two players, in conversation with one another in the circle.
For each element that comprises capoeira, there is a dual, opposing element: Fight and dance, performance and danger, dialogue and competition.
The Roots of Capoeira
Capoeira is an art form with a chequered, storied history. The seeds of capoeira travelled across the Atlantic Ocean – from Africa to Brazil – during the 1500s, when Portuguese colonialists transplanted slaves to their colonies to work on the sugar cane-plantations. To better understand the roots of the art form, I sat down with my instructor, Mestre Claudinho of Bantus Capoeira Singapore.
“Capoeira started in Brazil, but we like to say it’s Afro-Brazilian,” Mestre Claudinho tells me. “The slaves brought to Brazil from Africa usually worked on sugar cane plantations. The aspect of dance in capoeira was because the masters didn’t allow the slaves to practice martial arts. When the master asked them “what are you doing?”, they were like “we are just dancing”.”
“I think they did such a good job of hiding it that, until today, people don’t really know what capoeira is about.”
There are no written records from this period, so the evolution of capoeira from the 1500s to the 1800s is murky. Even the origins of the name are obscure: the courting ritual or fight among male partridge; a clearing where the brush has been cut down; the disappearance of a runaway slave into the wilderness.
Slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, under Lei Áurea (the Golden Law). Capoeira itself was banned in 1892, under the first constitution of the Brazilian Republic, due to the perception of the capoeira as being associated with gangs and criminals. Capoeira was practiced in hidden locales, and capoeiristas used apelidos (or nicknames), to obscure their identities.
“At one point of time, capoeira was illegal in Brazil,” Mestre Claudinho explains. “It was outlawed to practice capoeira on the streets. To make [it] difficult for the police to capture the capoeiristas, the capoeiristas developed this system of giving nicknames. Capoeira is no longer outlawed, but the tradition of giving nicknames still remains.”
Capoeira only began to be accepted by the Brazilians authorities in the 1930s, when a central figure of capoeira, Mestre Bimba, began to merge it with the elements of other martial arts, and to formalise its teaching in an academy. He called this style of capoeira Luta Regional Baina, or Capoeira Regional. Capoeira was legalized in 1937 and recognised as a national sport. To this day, Capoeira Regional coexists alongside the more traditional form, known as Capoeira Angola.
A Conversation About Capoeira
Capoeira, then, is rooted firmly in a heritage that is both anti-establishment and egalitarian, born on the streets and in the plantations. Within the roda, the only thing that matters is the game itself, and not one’s race, or religion, or social status.
During my conversation with Mestre Claudinho, I was struck by his conviction that capoeira as an art form sees no boundaries. Capoeira may be Afro-Brazilian in origin, but the language that it speaks is – in essence – universal.
Before we begin, could you tell me a bit about yourself?
I was born in Minas Gerais, Bel Horizonte, Brazil. Actually, I was born in a slum, called a favela. My childhood was pretty good, but the neighbourhood was really violent. I grew up seeing death happen around me. The violence in that place is something that… it’s not nice for a kid to see this happening around them.
But I had a lot of fun as a kid as well. I managed to run around with all my friends. Beside that, I did things like any other kid: Go to school, come back, play around, have a good childhood.
At the age of 13, I I started playing capoeira in a social project that my master – Mestre Pintor – started in the slum, to take kids out of the violence that happens around them.
When did you start your journey as an instructor?
When I turned 19 years old, I had a chance to teach capoeira in Israel. I stayed on there for one and a half years. I got a lot of experience teaching, and I learnt my first new language; my first language to learn was Hebrew, after Portuguese of course.
After that I went back to Brazil, and I did some other jobs, waiter, delivery, working at a printing delivery. And together I was teaching capoeira there in Brazil as well.
After, a few years, I got the proposal of coming here to Singapore to teach capoeira. Back then, capoeira here was still not very popular, but I’ve managed to be here in Singapore for 10 – going to be 11 years now – working only with capoeira.
Was it difficult pioneering capoeira in Singapore?
In the beginning, I was receiving like, $300 a month, $400, $500… because I was teaching in a week like one or two classes. It was really hard in the beginning but I managed.
I didn’t drink anything besides water; I just had simple meals; I didn’t even take the bus or MRT, I just walked. I managed to make [things work out] because I believed that capoeira will succeed here.
And thank goodness this didn’t last for very long. After one year, we started to build a community. Since then, everything going quite well. I have my students who become my family here in Singapore.
And now we like, have our own place where we learn capoeira. We call it Vida Academy – Life Academy in translation – which is dedicated full time to capoeira.
Could you tell me about being a mestre in capoeira?
I love capoeira because capoeira is not like other martial arts, where you have to bow to your master and treat him [as if he’s living] in a glass dome. You respect him, but as a human being, you don’t put him on the top, untouchable.
Capoeira is very open. Even with the old master, you can shake his hand, tap him on the back, or even give him a hug. He is the same human being: close and down to earth.
And that is what make me like capoeira even more: You have the respect for the master, and the master has the respect to you. You are equal, but you know his place and your place in the roda. You don’t have to bow, you just have to treat them with respect. Not only my mestre, but all the other mestres.
What’s the greatest life lesson you’ve learnt from capoeira?
Capoeira teaches me a lot of things. But one of the things that capoeira really, really taught me in life is bonding with different people.
When I was a kid in a slum, the people there hated the rich people, and we also felt like the rich people hated us. But the only thing is we didn’t know each other.
In the roda, everybody has a different background. We have doctors, students, janitors, doctors, lawyers, judges, policemen. All of them in the same place, interacting with each other.
For someone from the slum to see all those people, all those people who are so different from me – more educated, a higher standards [of living] – and at the same time shoulder to shoulder with me, respecting me in the same way I respect them.
It’s not just the social boundary, but religion. You see people from different religions: Muslims, Hindus, Catholics. In the roda they are all the same. When I was teaching in Israel, I have seen Jews and Palestinians playing capoeira together. For that moment, they forget those fights they have.
So this is one of the lessons capoeira really teaches me: this connection of people. People from different backgrounds joining together in the same moment.
What’s the significance of the berimbau, in capoeira?
The berimbau is the main instrument in capoeira. It leads how fast or slow each game is going to be played. It is an instrument that you must really respect [in capoeira]; it’s the one that starts and ends the roda.
The berimbau is a very simple, very rooted instrument. When you play the berimbau, it sits more or less here on your lower chest, over your stomach. -Gestures over his solar plexus- The vibration comes right here.
Everything in the roda is a vibration. The vibration actually come from the berimbau, and the berimbau itself carries all the vibrations of the roda. If the roda is becoming too violent, you can change it to a much calmer situation by just changing the rhythm of the berimbau. You change the vibration, this rhythm calms everybody down. Or if you play a faster rhythm, you can make the roda much [more] agitate.
Do you think that’s what distinguishes capoeira from other martial art?
Capoeira is very unique from other martial arts. You don’t only learn how to strike and dodge, you learn as well, to be more creative. If you are doing capoeira, you’re also going to learn how to sing, you’re going to be inspired to be a poet, to write lyrics, to play the instruments.
Capoeira is a platform to help you express yourself, to put all your creativity into the roda.
Why is capoeira played in a roda?
The roda is the only shape that makes you equal. A pyramid has a top and a base; there are sides to a square. But a circle has no sides, everybody’s equal.
And this also applies to the mestre in the roda. You don’t have to put him in the corner, or the top. Everybody knows him, but his place can be anywhere. He doesn’t need to stay in one corner: He can be on the instruments; he can be on the sides singing; he can be inside playing.
So we don’t put him in one special place. The roda makes everybody special. When you do capoeira, it’s not only yourself in the centre of the circle. It’s two persons who need to do a dialogue, and everybody watching has to understand them.
What makes you happiest when you think of capoeira?
At different steps in my life, capoeira has made me happy about something. But what really makes me happy now is to see my students playing capoeira.
When I see them take charge of a roda, knowing how to play, how to sing. The more as I see my students improve, the happier I became. I can see when they are feeling capoeira. It makes me very proud, that I’m managing to pass on what I believe capoeira should be.