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.

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