Thursday, 26 April 2012

No such thing as too much capoeira (life!)

“Dona Maria from Camboatá
She arrives at the market and bosses people around
She arrives at the roda and does a backward summersault”

This is my final ‘introductory’ blog. It’s to explore the relationship between capoeira and life as this has many dimensions and is relevant when considering the ways in which security has been distributed through capoeira. For those who play, capoeira is engrossing and taxing; but more than that – it becomes conceptually linked to practically all other elements of life.

It’s about time

Playing capoeira

Training takes a lot of time and cuts out various other things (meals, alcohol…). Rodas (games) in Salvador tend to take place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays – so capoeira takes over your social life too. Capoeira makes you stronger, more flexible and fitter. It consumes parts of your brain, so when you’re not training, conversations turn to how to do things faster, slower, more beautifully, more tricksily. Lots of corridos (capoeira songs) are about the game or the instruments – ever decreasing circles!

This much is not unique to capoeira; many sporting or leisure activities develop absorbing communities, although capoeira’s range of skills – from acrobatics to ritual to musicality – is particularly demanding. The conceptual links, though, are more profound. As I write this blog, I am swiping at a mosquito. The mosquito retreats, flies round, makes another approach. It feels like capoeira. Capoeira affects your relationship with your body, with time, and with others. It is part of every other game, every other struggle and every other dance.

When considering the distribution of security, the use of tactics and strategy, the force of creativity and expression and the generation of identity are not boarded up inside the game or extracted from life and transposed to a playful setting. It is much more integrated than that. Capoeira maintains a duality – as a game and as a way of life – as is regularly acknowledged by capoeira teachers and in songs.

I have just caught the mosquito.

In his book, Ring of Liberation, Lowell Lewis discusses capoeira as reflection on life and escape from it, simultaneously a space for forgetting and for acknowledging.

Reflection on life

Come on in - the water´s lovely!
“Quem não sabe nadar vai ao fundo” “whoever doesn’t know how to swim sinks to the bottom”

Capoeira’s moves and music reflect on life and, to a large extent, on brutal aspects of life. Reflections on slavery are pervasive in the ladainhas (the long songs that are sung at the beginning of a roda), as are reflections on the fickleness of life and power and the need for deceit and trickery.

The movements of capoeira have violent elements, embodying not a role-play of oppression and liberation, but a somatic reflection on it. In line with Bourdieu’s law of the conservation of violence, the kicks are real, even though the context is ritualised. The movement establishes a somatic discourse. Faber writes, “The centrality of the body to ritual means that “ritualization” is a particularly mute form of activity. It is designed to do what it does without bringing what it is doing across the threshold of discourse or systematic thinking” (Faber 2004, 110). Capoeira repeats and repeats its references to violence and freedom without articulating experiences or opinions.

Escape from life

Capoeira is also an escape from life. It provides community, conventions, and hierarchies that, even if they are not completely safe, at least set customary parameters. According to Miller, “Common understandings arrived at consensually provide the basis for a morally valued way of life and the construction of collective identities that transcend the individual” (Miller 1992, 29). The roda is a place of camaraderie: people greet each other, sing together, respect the art, and end games with a hug.

Capoeira allows adepts to play around: they express, create and imagine – the words ‘jogar’, ‘brincar’ and ‘vadiar’ capture different elements of play. It is pursued with a kind of religious tenacity: in the 19th century people risked being whipped or incarcerated for playing capoeira, but it did not stop them. Many songs talk of being ‘called’ to capoeira (and sometimes beaten or killed by it!). Sometimes it is the berimbau calling, sometimes Angola, sometimes Saint Bento – calling to play capoeira. There is also a freedom – of vagrancy and nomadism: songs state, ‘I’m off!’ – I’m going out to play capoeira, as if capoeira takes place a little apart from the usual cares of the world.

Escapism - only the blessed love cycling in Salvador

I’m already sick of living on the earth.
Oh, Mum, I’m going to the moon.
I told my wife and she replied,
“We’ll go if God is willing” 
(ladainha from CD Mestre Pastinha/ FICA songbook p6)

‘Jogar o jogo da vida’ – to play the game of life

And despite all the reflection and escapism that capoeira offers, the politics of its day-to-day administration is as divided and mundane as any other group activity. There are disputes within groups and between them. Groups tend to acknowledge the legitimacy of their mestre and lineage rather than submitting to an overarching authority.

What counts as capoeira, the names of the moves, interaction with different styles provided grounds for little agreement through the 20th century. The pressures of globalisation, the need to attract students, the struggle of making a living from art are worldly concerns that contribute to the dimensions of the relationship between capoeira and life.

Contradictory, as is life

Contradictions - what´s not to like?

Equilibrium in capoeira is not static with both feet planted on the floor but fluid and responsive. Capoeira maintains contradictions – of deceit and camaraderie, of hanging out and discipline, of fighting and playing, of equality and hierarchy, of authority and resistance, of united struggle and internal division. It is all very contradictory. Life can be like that.

When I die
I don’t want crying or mystery.
I want a berimbau playing
At the gate of the cemetery
With a yellow ribbon round it.
(ladainha from CD Mestre Traíre/ FICA songbook p5)


Faber, A. (2004). Saint Orlan. Ritual as violent spectacle and cultural criticism. The Performance Studies Reader. H. Bial. London and New York, Routledge: 108-116.

Fundação Internacional de Capoeira Angola/ International Capoeira Angola Foundation (FICA/ICAF), Livro de Músicas (Ladainhas/Corridos), in-house publication.

Lowell Lewis, J. (1992). Ring of Liberation: deceptive discourse in Brazilian capoeira. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Miller, B. (1992). "Collective action and rational choice. Place, community and the limits to individual self-interest." Economic Geography 68(1): 22-42.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

All comms open

Investing in the myth

The Easter break imposed a three day stay of capoeira! Also, my computer charger broke. So I was left just with sunshine, sea and a little more than a litre of acaí (which is like ice cream and, apparently, very good for you!)

This blog develops my thoughts on how to understand capoeira.

Political games

Where people find meaning and happiness is political territory. Many games have social and political functions and have been subjected to state intervention and regulation. In Afghanistan, buzkashi, a form of horseback hockey played with a goat’s carcass has been the centre of negotiation and compromise between the state and players (Azoy 2012). Geertz, in his analysis of state attempts to control play, examines Balinese cockfighting. He records, “[the elite] sees cockfighting as ‘primitive,’ ‘backward,’ ‘unprogressive,’ and generally unbecoming an ambitious nation. And, as with those other embarrassments – opium smoking, begging, or uncovered breasts – it seeks, rather unsystematically, to put a stop to it” (Geertz 1972, 2). In the early 20th century, capoeira – along with other manifestations of Afro-Brazilian culture – was regarded in much the same way by the Brazilian state.

First step – cover your breasts

Geertz notes that to see Balinese cockfighting as a rite or pastime obscures its ‘use of emotion for cognitive ends’ (Geertz 1972, 27): knowledge is generated through emotional – specifically ‘non-rational’ – means. This is a helpful starting point for analysing capoeira as the dance, fight and game elements provide simultaneous emotional markers.

What are the cognitive ends of capoeira and how are they transmitted? There are no written accounts from the quilombo runaway slave settlements where capoeira developed and many of the documents on slavery were destroyed as the Brazilian state tried to dissociate itself or deny its past as a slave colony. Conquergood quotes the Comaroffs as asking: “do we still have to remind ourselves that many players on any historical stage cannot speak at all? Or, under greater or lesser duress, opt not to do so” (Comaroff & Comaroff 1997, 48). He writes,
“Oppressed people everywhere must watch their backs, cover their tracks, suck up their feelings, and veil their meanings. The state of emergency under which many people live demands that we pay attention to messages that are coded and encrypted; to indirect, non-verbal, and extralinguistic modes of communication where subversive meanings and utopian yearnings can be sheltered and shielded from surveillance” (Conquergood 2004, 314).

To understand the perspective of those who have been oppressed, we need to find ways of accessing and decoding these encrypted and subversive meanings.

Extralinguistic cognition

Grasping the cognitive ends of extralinguistic communication is something we do all the time. Take music, for example. We have all gained knowledge from listening to music: we have learned tunes, lyrics and stories. Anyone who has learnt an instrument has done so largely through practical example. Also, there are ends beyond the technical: those who play or write music know the totally disproportionate and broadly inexplicable happiness that it gives, and the emotional or political potency of expressing and creating unencumbered by written prose.

Music therapists Andsell and Pavlicevic draw on Trevarthen’s notion of “Communicative musicality… [which] is the dynamic sympathetic state of a human person that allows co-ordinated companionship to arise” (Andsell & Pavlicevic 2005, 195). ‘Co-ordinated companionship’ in capoeira arises between the teacher and student, between players – the game of capoeira is similar to a conversation – and within the roda, between the batería (the musical accompaniment) and players. Communication is not simply about sending messages, but takes place according to an ‘orchestral model’ whereby ‘coactivity, harmonization and co-regulation in context define the process of communication as meaning created or shared.” This renders communication a “social phenomenon, where the meaning of any musical utterance lies within the context of its social use” (Andsell & Pavlicevic 2005, 199). In capoeira, companionship within groups and across groups is established through somatic and musical references and in-jokes, and also across time as knowledge is embodied in moves and songs that are transmitted through the lineage of the group.

Security: Attunement

The movements, melodies, rhythms, lyrics and rituals of capoeira provide diverse channels for cognitions to be transmitted – all communications are open. Andsell and Pavlicevic assess not only the attunement – the process of copying – but also the ‘carefully judged mis-attunements’ which extend repertoire. They cite Keil’s notion of ‘participatory discrepancies.’
“[Keil] writes that ‘music, to be personally involved and socially valuable, must be ‘out of time’ and ‘out of tune’. The ‘groove’ of music is its attuned flow, but the aliveness of the musical communication between the musicians depends on how they play around the set-up expectations” (Andsell & Pavlicevic 2005, 202).

This has particular resonance for capoeira, as trickery and deception – confounding the expectations of the other player – are central to the game.

Letting it out!

Capoeira is improvised but, like musical genres of improvisation, it is not random. The movements and music provide adepts with cognitive tools not only for representation but also for self-representation and expression. Arnold Davidson’s work on jazz improvisation is instructive. Arguing that improvisation reflects on ethics, he “makes reference to the ancient tradition of self-realization through rational inquiry, or ‘care of the self,’ to explore the relation between self and other in the process of collective improvisation.”

By playing capoeira, adepts take part in capoeira’s history and develop an awareness of their part within it through their performance. (‘Performativity’ is explored in gender studies: people understand gender through the process of taking gender roles. In a similar way, capoeiristas understand capoeira through the process of playing). The ‘co-ordinated companionship’ established forges a communicative rationality in generating and reinforcing personal and group understanding and identity, and with it a vector of security. 

The diverse forms of extralinguistic communication grant access to various themes and conventions that establish the parameters on capoeira’s discourse. An understanding of this discourse – an appreciation of the cognitive ends of capoeira – can be achieved by examining not only the content of these themes and conventions but also their meaning, political force and the spark that makes capoeira so much fun.


Ansdell, G. & M. Pavlicevic (2005). Musical Companionship, Musical Community: Music therapy and the processes and values of musical communication. Musical Communications. Hargreaves, North & MacDonald. Oxford Oxford University Press: 193-213.

Azoy, G. W. (2012). Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan (Symbol and Culture). Illinois, Waveland Press.

Conquergood, D. (2004). Performance Studies. Interventions and radical research. The Performance Studies Reader. H. Bial. London and New York, Routledge: 311-322.

Geertz, C. (1972). "Deep play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight." Daedalus 101(1): 1-37.