Africa, as a continent, but more as a concept, ideal or set of values, gives the context for capoeira. There is a more recent history that is also communicated through the songs and movements of capoeira. This is a history of heroic capoeiristas and their – often military – exploits, and of ordinary capoeiristas and their daily lives.
|From Africa, with sunshine!|
I got back to Salvador from Kilombo Tenonde and found a postcard from a friend in Madagascar! It took a month to arrive and seems to be evidence of a big world out there!
There are a few songs in capoeira that are traced to military battles. Paranaé – perhaps the most widely sung capoeira song – references the involvement of slaves in the war against Paraguay (1865-70) in which many capoeiristas were enlisted.
The participation of capoeiristas in historic battles places them central to the history of Brazil – and as a function of their martial art, which was illegal at the time. This was also a moment of liberation: capoeirstas were promised freedom on the misplaced assumption that they would not survive the fighting. The song: “I won the battle of Camugerê,” also recalls a victory; in this case runaway slaves killed the slave master who was pursuing Aidê, an African enslaved woman. The recounting of these stories locates capoeira politically – in opposition to the state and slave masters. It also creates a heroic past in which capoeiristas’ exploits became decisive in their freedom from slavery.
There is a more radical critique of mainstream Brazilian history relayed by capoeira songs that debunk of the myth that slavery was abolished by the Golden Law of 1888. The argument is put succinctly in the ladainha ‘Dona Isabel, que historia e essa?’ (Madame Isabel, what history is this?). The ladainha offers an explicit counter-narrative: freedom was not given by Princess Isabel; it was Zumbi who fought for the true freedom, training heroes in the runaway settlement of Palmares. A similar line is given by the ladainha ‘Zumbi, King of Palmares,’ which begins, “history deceives us, telling us the opposite of what happened…” and elsewhere, sometimes mixed with the – contradictory – assertion that slavery has never been abolished.
|Zumbi dos Palmares, statue in the Pelourinho, Salvador|
There is a range of trades but they are all labouring jobs: there are no bureaucrats or property owning classes in capoeira songs. The jobs cited demand bodily strength, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes notes that people who have physical work are more likely to express themselves somatically (Scheper-Hughes 1992, 187). The shapes of the moves in capoeira are expansive and demonstrative of physical form: they are devised by labourers, not by people sitting at computers or driving cars.
|women in the roda (from Alexandre Robatto’s 1954 film |
‘Vadiação’; photos displayed in Forte de Santo Antonio)
Practically all capoeira songs present the male perspective, reflecting the predominantly male history of the game, a predominance that continues particularly in the upper echelons of the game. There are references to female Orixás and occasionally to their associated female saints. There is also a palpable female human presence: there are very few romantic love songs, but women appear in the everyday of life. There are women market traders, there are women’s names in songs ‘sai sai Caterina’ (leave, Caterina); ‘Dona Maria, como vai voce?’; (Maria, how are you?) ‘Dona Alice, nao me pega nao,’ (Alice, don’t get me) or more generally, ‘menina,’ ‘nega,’ ‘morena,’ or ‘mulher’ – terms addressing or referring to women.
An important set of references is also made to Salvador, Bahia, the home of capoeira. There are a few mentions of Brazil (usually as the country that abolished – or didn’t – slavery), but the immediate geographical environment is frequently the subject of songs. You can literally (yes, literally) sing your way round Salvador: ‘Bahia de todos os santos’; ‘Good Jesus of Lapa!’ (an area of Salvador); ‘I’m going to Maré Island’; ‘If you want to see me, go to Piedade [Square] tomorrow’; ‘Adeus Santo Amaro’ (a town near Salvador).
|Bom Jesus de Lapa-eh!|
|Sao Bento me chama|
|Saia do mar, marinheiro!|
The perspective relayed through movement and songs is a workers’ perspective. There is not a strong class-consciousness or a unified political ideology, but there is a strong recognition of roots and social context.
References to Salvador and Bahia and the lives of extraordinary and ordinary people who live here sit within the broader context of Africa and slavery and provide local roots to capoeira. The relaying of experiences and familiar places establishes a bank of shared knowledge, experience and identity. Capoeiristas come from the street, are workers and – despite all the talk of travelling – really rather like Bahia (it’s lovely!).
Scheper-Hughes, N. (1992). Death without weeping. The violence of everyday life in Brazil. Berkeley, Oxford, University of California Press.