Friday, 21 August 2015

Identity in the history and geography of capoeira

I'm in Salvador, training and playing in rodas. The Forte de Santo Antonio, overlooking the Bay of All Saints, received a facelift in the 1980s and has been the cultural centre for capoeira since, but capoeira is played elsewhere too – in other academies and in the street.

Bay of All Saints, looking lovely

Inside the Forte de Santo Antonio

The groups in the Forte de Santo Antonio retain the characteristics of their teachers' capoeira. The identity of each group is reproduced in the conventions of training, movement, rhythm and repertoire. Playing in the Forte de Santo Antonio is like taking a step out of time – and space (as many of the students are foreign) – to a kind of ideal capoeira, stylised by practitioners of the mid-20th century.

The attention to convention in the Forte de Santo Antonio contrasts with the lawlessness of capoeira in 19th and early 20th century when it was played in the streets. Arguably the most significant change in capoeira in the 20th century was the move from the streets to the academy in the 1930s and 1940s. Most academies are named after their founding teachers, and teaching lineage is – for many – a mark of legitimacy of style and identity. (For others it is constraining, and knowledge is acquired through engagement rather than hierarchy). Just at there is a contrast between the convention of the academy and the lawlessness of the capoeira that preceded it, there is a contrast between 'purity' of lineage since the mid-20th century and the mixed African, indigenous Brazilian and Portuguese heritage of the capoeira that preceded.

Roda at GCAP in the Forte (that's me on agogo!)

Identities make historically and geographically links, and provide a framework for navigating diverse and mutating capoeira lineages and groups. They are also forged by the relationship between capoeira and the state. Academies changed the identity of capoeira from an evasive practice in ungoverned areas to a governed art – in fact over-policed initially, when security agents attended games in the early years.

Last week I drew parallels between the attempts by the Brazilian state in the early 20th century and contemporary European governments to institutionalise inequality, noting that inequality has been the subject of various theories relating to security. Identity, too, features strongly in academic literature on security, and assessing how interests interact with identities offers insights into the survival and growth of capoeira.

The relationship between capoeira and the state puts the contrasts in capoeira identities in political perspective, encompassing the struggle for space (the street) and heritage (African/European). By accepting the state's need for regularity, and some 'Brazilian' ownership of capoeira, capoeira practitioners interlaced their interests with those of state authority, reducing the perceived threats. Today, groups in the Forte, other academies and the street reach various settlements of allied interests with each other and with the state.

Workshop on the street with Mestre Claudio de Feira de Santana (I'm at the back in red!)

Capoeira has flourished largely because its diversity enables it to adapt it to different political and cultural conditions. There is no overarching or united goal and therefore no rationality determining strategic gains. Instead, Habermas theory of 'communicative rationality' is helpful in detailing a rationality oriented towards understanding. The practice of capoeira generates opportunities for communication in the the game, group and teaching. While there is abundant bickering between capoeira teachers and groups, there is no fundamental incompatibility and the contestation of identities maintains connection and difference.

Capoeira provides a laboratory study in identity politics that throws regressive contemporary politics in Europe into relief. Crucially, capoeira groups have negotiated their own identities and interests, rather than having characteristics assigned and manipulated by others. Current portrayals of refugees, Muslims, welfare-claimants, the unemployed, and migrant workers as threatening are determined largely by the popular press. Ring-fencing sections of the population – allocating them an identity – and presenting these identities as having interests that are incompatible with the mainstream fosters blame, competition or conflict. As the imperfect but strangely functional case of capoeira demonstrates, though, diversity is a strength not only in that it accommodates a range of predilections, but that in doing so, it constitutes an adaptable and self-reflective whole.

I will be presenting these thoughts in the Post-Colonial Studies Convention in the University of Leicester in September.


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