Modern Malandragem – or: should we take lessons from thugs?

Manduca da Praia, murderer of 27 people, hired muscle for a lot of politicians, feared by police and criminals in mid-19th century Rio. He was a Capoeirista. Besouro Manganga, got into fights with the police regularly. Usually just beat them up and did sent them back to the police station. Or went there personally to bring the weapons he took from the policemen he has beaten up. He was a Capoeirista. Maria Doze Homen, a woman who has killed 12 men until he was captured by the police. Also a Capoeirista. These names do come up when people are talking about the pre-Bimba Capoeira. The urban Capoeira which might not have much resembled today’s Capoeira, but still is the rightful ancestor of today’s forms. But most interestingly, these Capoeristas are mentioned like heroes.

 Al Lamperina, by Kalixo, picture of Capoeiristas 1906

Picture of Capoeiristas as drawn by Kalixo 1906, picture taken from Centro de Referencia da Capoeira Carioca

They are glorified despite or maybe because of them being criminals. Small criminals managing to keep the police on heat and managing to avoid them or beat them up.

The phenomenon of the glorification of known criminals is nothing Capoeira-specific. You have the same thing in modern Gangsta Rap, in the glorification of Robin Hood and Al Capone and most recently, in the hype which came up when Jerome K. did speculate and lose 4,8 billion Euros belonging to the French Societé Generále Bank. But does this mean that these people should still be role models for us?

The short answer I would have, and which is most instinctively, is no. We cannot compare our situations with the situation of Afro- and other Brazilians in Brazil in the 19th century. Most of us here in the blogosphere do have a moderate lifestyle, a job and a decent income. We might not hang around with the meanest guys in our hood. This does not mean that we are bad capoeiristas. Even when you might belong to social classes with…errr…’a minority problem’ or ‘a lack of education’ or practically non-existing opportunities, this does not necessarily mean that you have now the full right to become criminal, go out and kill some people. No!

Actually, I can’t believe that these few names are representative for the normal Capoeirista of the 19th and early 20th century. I can easily believe that the picture of these villains was amplified and generalized as general Capoeirista picture to justify the hard measures being taken against capoeiristas by the police. They mostly DID belong to the underprivileged parts of society and when they decided to take a not legal route through life they had all the attention of the newspapers and of the police. So there might have been only 1 thug in 10 Capoeiristas and that would have been enough to create a general image of a Capoeirista = thug.

But there are actually some qualities Mestres, teachers and scholars point out when it comes to these legendary figures of the Capoeira History. And that is the qualities of Malicia and Malandragem. Wit, cunning, street-smartness, mental flexibility. These things are still of certain value in today’s society. Of course, general society would still have the opinion that at least wit and cunning are not really favourable qualities.

But maybe they are. At least they are smart means to solve problems in life. Strategies to overcome any difficulties arising. At least having the mental ability by the hand to use wit and cunning when it is needed.

I’ll finish with a small story being told to me by my first capoeira trainer: One day he was in the cinemas having a date with a woman. After the movie had finished they ran into two guys in the cinema. These guys seemed to be…errr…very interested in his girl. So they exchanged some bad looks and some tough words and eventually my trainer and his date left. Unfortunately the guys followed him to the next underground station. So at a certain point my trainer said: “Hey, we can settle this like men. Just leave the woman out of this.” So they let her enter the underground and leave the scene. MY trainer was alone with these two guys and after a couple of seconds one of the guys asked: “And now?…” Which my trainer didn’t answer to. He ran away.

That’s a Capoeirista.


Filed under Capoeira Today, Philosophy

20 responses to “Modern Malandragem – or: should we take lessons from thugs?

  1. I love your posts!! So far every one of them has been interesting, in-depth, informative, original…at least to a non-angoleira’s point of view!

    I’ve briefly wondered about this too, and there were several parts in your post where I wanted to say something, so I’ll do this one by one. XD

    a) Maria Doze Homen was a guy?!?!?!! There goes my “look at this famous capoeirista femme fatale!” post! How do you/people know s/he was a transvestite?

    b) About the capoeiristas being criminals and whether we should look up to them for that…I think it’s like what you said, you have to take everything into context. So maybe by heroizing these capoeiristas and what they did in their times, we’re not celebrating and lauding the fact they stole and murdered, per se, but the fact that they fought against a system that itself was criminal (pun intended XD), in the only way they knew how–or at least made it work for them, which follows the ideals of malandros, and malicia.

    Then again, malandros aren’t exactly the best role models themselves, in the conventional sense of the term. On the other hand, if I remember my readings correctly, that’s not because they’re intentionally immoral, but because they’re amoral. Kind of like Oscar Wilde and art, only malandros and life! (…whoa…epiphany…)

    c) I wouldn’t say society considers wit and cunning as unfavourable…maybe more inapplicable, as like you said, we don’t really need wit and cunning to walk around our neighbourhoods safely–just eyes and ears for cars! Also, it depends on your connotation of the words. Wit is definitely valued in social settings, interviews, speeches, lectures, etc. Cunning you’re more right about, how if someone’s cunning in business deals for example, people are less likely to trust them once they realize.

    d) That’s a funny story about your trainer! I do have to wonder how much his date liked him though, leaving him alone with the two guys like that. 😛 That’s interesting though, the idea that the capoeirista also knows when to run away…when I read the story, the first thing that popped into my head was malandro, not capoeirista…and now I’m wondering what exactly are the distinctions between the two, if any? I think it’s a malandro lives more by his wit, whereas capoeiristas can live by their wit as well as physical strengths. So maybe I expected your instructor more to knock them out in a clever way rather than just run away. =P

    Anyway, I finally added a link to your blog on mine! Looking forward to what you’ll come up with next!

  2. p.s. Oh yeah, as you can see, comment lengths aren’t really something I worry about. 😛

  3. angoleiro

    Hey Joaninha. Thanks for your comment. I looked up Maria Doze Homen again and you are right. She was a woman. I somehow mixed her up with Madame Satan, who was, actually a transvestite and also not a very shiny figure for morality… so thank you very much for your question there!

    about your other comments…I’ll just stick to your division.ok?

    b) I dont know how much those malandros fought the system. Well, yes, they did beat up some policemen occasionally. But for example a person like Manduca da Praia seems to be more of a person who did benefit from the system (he received money from politicians for his services and was saved when people tried to jail him for a murder he committed). on the other side they did sometimes show their own morality (like being generous to poor people) like Lampiao (who might not have been a Capoeirista but has his position in Capoeira songs like “Mas hoje tem amanha nao, olha pisada de Lampiao”). So one might say that they all had in common that they didnt exactly fit into society and did find their own way to live their lives.

    c) YOu are right when you say that not all of the features are negatively connotated, at least not all the time or by all social classes. But Cunning and Wit are definitely none of the characteristics of a classical hero. A capoeirista is not necessarily described as being earnest, for example, or hard working. Those would have been classical hero-characteristics.

    d) Yeah, about my teacher I can of course only tell you what he told me. He didnt tell me about the woman much more (a sign?), so maybe it wasnt a very serious date, anyway. But as I know my teacher he might just have WANTED her to go and tell her. Not because he was playing the sacrificing man (maybe this being a positive side effect) but just because it does not make sense to run away when your date is still standing there where the people you run away from are. As far as I see it Malandro and Capoeirista are not the same. A Capoeirista can have Malandro qualities (which seems to be a good sign for a capoeirista) and Malandros can be Capoeiristas, but don’t need to be.

    But our definitions do go into different directions here. You’d say a malandro wont fight but a Capoeirista possibly would. I’d say a “simple” malandro would go more into fight than a capoeirista. This comes from the definition that malandros can be any kind of thug, from the really bad rough boys to the street-smart survivor who does not get involved in fights. A Capoeirista usually tries to avoid a fight (the elusiveness of a capoeirista), even in ways which seem not to be honourable, like running away. But sometimes the non-honourable way is the smartest one.

    There is the story about this Capoeirista who was very good and guys from his neighbourhood wanted to find out HOW good he was. So they followed and eventually chased him as the Capoeirista started to run. And at a certain point, when the guys just thought that they’ll have him in a second, the Capoeirista made a salto backwards, just over the two guys – and ran away into the other direction. That was when the two guys found out how good the Capoeirista really was. 😉

  4. angoleiro

    Oh – and thanks for adding my blog onto your links list… I feel honoured 🙂

  5. akira87

    Haha your trainer’s story is priceless! I’ve heard a similar story but it was during one of those qualification courses of Bimba’s where you get ambushed by approximately 4-5 mestres/professors. When the guy got jumped, he looked for the smallest one, shoulder-charged and knocked him to the floor then sprinted to the end. Now THAT is using your head.

    If you read any self-defence articles/books, the first advice they give you is to run away. Escaping is the number one defence. Failing that, then you do a), b), c), etc. Although a capoeirista may be strong, you forget that cunning and wit are huge factors in capoeira. If you’re outnumbered 2 to 1, the smartest thing is not to fight at all! Moreover, his date was gone and not present to be hurt – and more importantly, witness his escape. 😉

    My father used to be an absolute nightmare when he was younger. He was a wing chun practitioner and once was expelled from his school for beating up his whole class simultaneously. No joke, he took them all on at the same time. But even he now advocates that I should walk away from any trouble I might encounter on the streets. He tells me that my continued breathing is far more valuable than exchanging blows. I’m still too young with too much pride to take his advice so I still finish anything someone else starts. Taunts, sniggers and stares I can ignore, but if he makes one physically aggressive move then -BAM- I’ll show ’em what a childhood wasted on kung fu films can teach you.

  6. angoleiro

    Hm… well I stopped fighting when I was about 14 years old. After that of course I came into situations which were not pleasure at all, but usually there is always a way to get out without a fight, even if they stand directly in front of you on an abandoned metro station and ask you so smart things like “you gotta problem, dude?” I feel so much superior when I manage to say “fuck off” and go my way…

  7. Pingback: What Oscar Wilde Can Teach You About Capoeira « Mandingueira

  8. akira87

    I’m only 20 and still a baby. I’ll learn in time I suppose. However, I find talking back to them aggravates the situation. I ignore taunts and sniggers (I get a lot since I’m Chinese with long hair), but I make it clear that I’m not meek. As I walk past slowly, I’ll stare them (leader; every important in mob situations) in the eyes, watch their every move and smile. Not a pleasant smile, the sort of smile you’d imagine a wolf would be doing before he ate your chickens.

    When they see that I’m not afraid of confrontation or a sheep and possibly not even sane (who expects someone to grin evilly when they’re outnumbered and might possible be gang banged?) they generally just keep the aggression purely verbal. Then I go my merry way. Plus, I have the whole kung fu thing going for me since many westerners watch Jackie Chan and Jet Li films. 😉

  9. angoleiro

    Hah… the Face. It does help to know how you are looking and what kind of message you are delivering. When I feel that I have to be careful about my movements I do exhibit a little angry and “barely hold back” expression, not ignoring them but also not staring at them. Delivering the message: “You do not annoy me, yet, and you better let me go my way”. Me being dark haired and dark eyed does help 🙂

  10. akira87

    Hehe yeah, being dark and mysterious would help with the intimidation factor.

    Also, let me add this for anyone who read my comments: if you live in a major city or some place famed for gun and knife fights, do NOT attempt to do what I do. I’m currently in a small place where the majority of troublemakers are either in their late teens or incredibly stupid. If you piss off the wrong gangster or even a crazy person with a weapon, that’ll be your last mistake…

  11. It’s funny/coincidental that you guys have started a discussion on how you fend off trouble in the streets here, because there was an exact parallel one going on for women, on my blog! (The post is called “Walking Home”, if you’re interested.)

    And thanks for that caveat Akira; I really was reading and taking in what you said as advice, kind of!

    Thanks for replying to my first comment Angoleiro =D Yeah I pretty much agree with everything you said…one thing though, I find it so funny that you said cunning and wit aren’t “classic” hero traits, because I don’t know if you’ve read The Odyssey, but Odysseus was *known* precisely for his cunning and wit, and he’s as Classic[al] as you could get! (Pun intended, heh :P)

    Also, I didn’t know that about malandros…I thought the point of being a malandro was that you’re NOT a common thug but actually a street-smart guy by definition, someone who knows how to get the most benefit from the least work possible, who has finesse and knows how to use it…? I like the point about capoeira being about evading though, that’s true, and something I forgot!

  12. Touché, you two! ==>

    From Greg Downey’s Learning Capoeira:

    In capoeira stories, one finds few heroic stands against impossible odds, no tales akin to the Seven Samurai or the Alamo. Far from it. One veteran capoeirista told me a legend she had heard about Besouro Manganga that, for her, captured the lesson of malicia. She recounted how, when surrounded by a squadron of police, Besouro fell to the ground and cried like a baby. … The police were stupefied upon finding the notorious thug curled up on the ground sobbing shamelessly, begging them not to hurt him. … Mestre Joao Grande had once told her that “the first weapon of a capoeirista is to disarm” an adversary. Or, as Mestre Pastinha reportedly said: “A capoeirista has an obligation to cry at the foot of his adversary.” Mestre Moraes added that capoeira taught one to use whatever trick was necessary to gain an advantage, regardless of one’s pride or moral reservations. In addition to skills, a lack of concern for social norms or honour, according to Moraes, made a capoeirista especially dangerous and unpredicable.

  13. angoleiro

    yup…people do think a lot of times that capoeira is quite harmless because 80% of all the movements are not applicable when you are in a man-to-man fight somewhere on the streets. and they are right, yeah, but nobody said that a Capoeirista does do the same in the street! A real Capoeirista does not feel ashamed when he beggs for his life one day just to get out of the situation. A real Capoeirista does not favor a situation where the chances are high that he might get beaten up…so he uses EVERY possibility.
    A couple of other examples:
    During training I learned a certain movement (and a lot of Angoleiros do know this movement) which looks kind of silly when you are playing in an academy but does make a lot of sense on the streets. This movement is bowing down, grapping a handful of sand and throwing it into the face of the other person. In the training you usually dont have sand lying around so you do this movement “dry”, so it might look silly, but everybody knows how painful sand can be in your eyes.
    Another story. My plays with my first teacher were always quite rough, that was because he knew I would not take things personally and he knew I was able to defend myself (not always of course and he more than once took me down or kicked me out of the roda). In one of those games he took of his hat, threw it at me and I instinctively ducked away from it. In that second I realized that that was just a finta and I wanted to prepare myself but in that moment I was already flying out of the roda, cause my trainer jumped in with a full fleshed chapa. Well, at least I was laughing on my way out of the roda… 😉

  14. Hahaha you have some great stories! You and your teachers must have a lot of fun in class/in the roda =D

  15. angoleiro

    we definitely had a lot of fun, especially in the rodas where malicia was kind of important!

  16. Pingback: Revenge in Capoeira « Angoleiro’s Blog

  17. Hello angoleiro,

    your posts are great. I enjoy reading them and i read ´em all, thank you! Valeu mesmo!!!

    If i understood you right, you do live in the netherlands. I live in Hamburg, when you pass by northern Germany, come on over some time! Maybe in September…
    falou, pirulito

  18. angoleiro

    Hoi Pirulito, thanks for your comment! I am glad about every kind of response to my posts here, especially the ones which tell me that the posts are great ;)! isnt your name “Lollipop”? great name! yeah I am living in the netherlands and I just saw the flyer from the workshop in september. looks quite interesting! well, gotta see if I am able to come around.


  19. Im a noob capoeirista and i find your blogs very interesting, informative, and inspiring. Muito Obrigado! 🙂

  20. Briana

    Hey! You say it like all capoeiristas are like that. That’s not true. What about Mestre Pastinha? He became well-known after Mestre Bimba and he was good person. Any of you guys know Mestre Chuvisco? He’s my mestre, obviously post-Bimba, and he’s a good guy. We don’t idolize these capoeiristas because of their deeds. We idolize them because of their capoeira. Besouro Manganga dodged bullets from forty guns. Anybody who can do that is an awesome capoeirista.

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