Monthly Archives: September 2008

Are Angoleiros Snobs?

The other day I talked with a Regionalista whom I didnt know much. And in this conversation he was talking about a teacher of Capoeira Angola who was (quote) “like all Angoleiros a bit of a snob”. He knew who he was talking to, so I smiled and replied “yeah I know, I’m like that, too.” Actually I was not even mad about that, I kind of saw where this prejudice is coming from.

Prejudices

It is kind of true. Angoleiros do often look down on modern Capoeiristas, or – and this is much more the case – try to point out why Capoeira Angola is preferable. Angoleiros do bitch about the music, which is so much better in Capoeira Angola than in Capoeira Regional, they do state that the interaction is missing in Capoeira Regional, they do say that modern Capoeira did lost its roots and does prefer muscle over brain and full-body-workout over freeing your soul. Some Angoleiros do smile when they see a pumped up guy walking around in his white Abada, because that Regionalista is so clichè! Of course this is not a one-way road. I have heard enough remarks which made me go mad, like “your training is for sissys”, “yu call that capoeira, I show you what Capoeira is” or just “well, Capoeira Angola is just slower Capoeira”. And the stereotype of the smelly Angoleiro with dreads and being stoned like a wall is so old, I won’t even touch it.

Where does it come from?

The habits Capoeiristas of my age (not that old) are showing around today – all these prejudices – are nothing new. It has its roots in recent Capoeira history. It’s the phenomenon of the Regional-Angola dichotomy which arouse in the 1950’s and 1960’s. This dichotomy did come to existence when Capoeira Regional did start growing rapidly due to the achievements and the regulations made by the Senzala group and their contemporaries. In those times Capoeira Angola was still small and stayed small till the 80’s, where some people said that Capoeira Angola actually died out. In these times Angoleiros had to struggle for acceptance in the Capoeira scene. The new modern Capoeira scene was growing so fast and there were so many Regionalistas who did believe that modernity and change was good and that traditions are to be discarded, that they saw Angoleiros as something inferior. “We put the angoleiros on the grounds and stamp on their heads.” is a quote Mestre Moraes cited about some comments he heard of Regionalistas (you can read this in Nestor Capoeiras ‘The Little Capoeira Book’). A lot of Mestres de Capoeira Angola resigned in those times and only a few did fight fiercly for their acceptance. In those times the GCAP from Mestre Moraes did start saving Capoeira Angola. Mestre Moraes, a highly valuable Mestre, is often seen as a difficult personality, as a typical example of the fanatical Angoleiro. What most people don’t see is that his way to stick to the traditions and to actively distinguish and define Capoeira Angola from modern Capoeira was the only way to keep the Capoeira Angola scene alive. If it was not for him and Mestres alike him, Capoeira Angola would still vegetate in an existence like in the early eighties, or it might be de facto non-existent.

And this is the heritage Angoleiros do carry around. We are learning movements, philosophy and attitudes from our Mestres and our teachers. And even if they personally didnt live through the hard times of Capoeira Angola, then it was their teachers who did.

Of course there are also other cases, like Angoleiros who were Regionalistas before. These convertits do have a classical convertit-attitude. They are Angoleiros because they are convinced that Capoeira Angola is the right Capoeira. If you started in a Capoeira Angola group from the very beginning (like I did) it’s quite likely that your attitude is less strict. People who changed usually fight hard for their acceptance as Angoleiros in the beginning (well, they even have to learn the Ginga from the very beginning) and might have the need to prove themselves, and also to convince others that the change from Regional to Angola does pay off.

And finally there are the ones who just see the success of Capoeira Regional and do feel the need to point out that Capoeira Angola does have its own qualities, which makes it a real alternative. Everybody knows that Capoeira Regional does have a strong effect on the common audience. People who have no idea about Capoeira do get attracted more often by Regionalistas than by Angoleiros. Capoeira Regional is considered to be cooler. Capoeira classes and workshops of modern Capoeira are usually much more crowded, while a group size of more than 20 is already quite big for a group of Capoeira Angola. Also the average age of Regionalistas seems to be lower than the age of Angoleiros. All this does certainly rise the need for some comments by Angoleiros.

Is this changing?

Yes it is. Capoeira Angola does more and more get the respect it deserves. More and more Mestres and teachers of modern Capoeira do accept Capoeira Angola as being a striving, modern part of Capoeira – and not just history which is only kept alive by some stick-in-the-muds. Capoeira Angola is still small in comparison with modern Capoeira. But it has found its nichè and new confidence does allow interstyle contacts, meetings, workshops and rodas. This development does not only occur between Mestres and teachers, but also between students. Angoleiros and Regionalistas do get more and more involved with each other. Some Capoeiristas try to learn both (which is something I’d post later about), some say that they do merge things together which were splitted in the past, and some just accept that the styles are different, but not to be compared in terms of what is better, what sucks?  Comparison between Capoeira Angola and Regional should be more What does suit me more?

This doesnt mean that you will never encounter snobistic Angoleiros, but this also does not mean that I will never meet a guy who says that Capoeira Angola is for old men, until I prove him otherwise 😉 What do we learn out of this? Don’t be too harsh with the Angoleiro’s attitude of teaching you or telling you what Capoeira Angola is about. This attitude is decreasing and as such you don’t have to bother (much) with it in future. And I try not to get annoyed when some Regionalista guy comes up to me and tries to explain to me that Capoeira Angola is too slow for him;)

And if there is an active Angoleiro-Regionalista contact, that will lead to so many interesting workshops, games and Rodas. And that certainly it will pay off in future, enriching both styles and the Capoeira scene in general. For a nice example of an interstyle game see this video:

picture source: http://www.nzinga.org.br/

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Spot the mistake

Or: A painful lesson in malicia

The first time I have seen this video I thought, yep, this clip will make a big round in the web and people will start discussing about how effective Capoeira is in a fight or not. I don’t think that people who dont know much about Capoeira should judge about it. I also dont think that comparing martial arts is a highly intellectual thing to do. So I wont go into this topic. I didnt start Capoeira because I wanted to learn a martial art. But I learned things about fighting and about life. And, as everything in life is kind of a learning process, we will now start learning from the mistakes our fellow capoeirista made.

I dont know where this video comes from. I dont know who that capoeira fighter is. I just know that he did some serious mistakes and that the other guy did understand a certain aspect of Capoeira much more than this guy. Malicia.

Mistake 1: Honourful Fights

The first mistake might be a bit controversial. I will try to explain this as good as possible. The first mistake I see is that our Capoeirista is actually there. Why is he engaging in an arena fight? I am not against sparring with a practitioner of another fighting style. And I am also not against using Capoeira knowledge in a fight (I am against fights, but once it happens, there is no reason not to use Capoeira). And I know that some of the old capoeiristas did go into the arena. So I cant say “You should never engage in an arena fight.” But an arena fight has certain rules and the people want to see something special. A Capoeirista does – or better did – never fight to show off, but for survival. Of course there were the old Capoeiristas of Rio de Janeiro who did also fight for being famous, but even then it was a matter of survival. Because if you lost in these fights there was a high possibility that you lost with a razor in your belly. And if you fight for survival, you dont care about rules. That is why even the play of Capoeira does have so many unexpected situations. This is why I trained to throw sand into the eyes of the opponent in my old group. When you go into the arena, you deliberately give up many chances to turn the fight into your advantage. The Capoeirista is the one who fights when he knows that he can make it or who fights when he is forced to. So for me, the Capoeirista’s natural environment is not the arena, either the streets (where he fights) or the Roda (where he plays).

Mistake 2: The higher you climb the deeper you’ll fall

The next mistake is pretty obvious and you see it in the first seconds of the clip. This Capoeirista is a show off. Yeah, of course he is doing some mad and cool stuff out there. But he is there, in an arena, and seems to think that this is the best time to show some of his Capoeira techniques. With this he raised the expectations of one half of the audience, and the other half started to loathe him, to wish that he gets kicked in the ass big time. And when he then gets kicked in the end, the one half is absolutely disappointed and thinks “wow, Capoeira sucks” and the other half says “yeah, you deserved it” and maybe “Capoeira sucks! This is the proof”. Of course we dont have to care about people and what they think. But with showing off so much he just raised the stacks. And the higher they are the deeper is your fall. Otherwise this youtube video would not show up in so many places. And this puts Capoeira into a bad light. Which I am not pleased with.

In terms of Malicia this mistake is one of the most often made. A person who has malicia would be very careful to show off with his talents. It’s not about humility – there are some pretty big egos amongst Capoeiristas – but about tactical advantage. The less the opponent sees you “jumping around” or doing whatever, the less he will know what to expect.

Mistake 3: Corpo aberto

Another big mistake our Capoeirista made was his way of approaching the other person. As Capoeirista you learn that while playing you have to keep an eye on your opponent. When you ever had an opponent with malicia in front of you, you learned to be alert and to not do movements which leave you completely vulnerable to an attack. And even if so, then you certainly should know at least one way out. In this video our Capoeirista did about everything wrong while approaching the other person. Acrobatics look nice but are the best way to get yourself kicked (or in this case: punched). He does do saltos and does see the fist only in the last micro second – and far too late. He didnt keep an eye upon his opponent and – and that is the worst – had no defense at all. Already in the first lesson you learn to always have a hand somewhere close to your face. Although it might not be used much in a Jogo, sometimes it is the last chance to not being hit in the face. When you cant evade an attack, you must block it or get hit. But his hands where noway near his face.

Mistake 4: Intermixing play with fight

And the last mistake I see is actually the most fatal mistake this Capoeirista made. He did intermix the Roda with a Fight. This fight we see on the youtube video is obviously not a Roda. But what does our Capoeirista do? He does things which are amazingly cool in the Roda, when your partner lets you do it. Actually, most of the time such movements do come only when there is time and space in the Roda. In a fight, you do usually neither have much time nor space.

People have to understand that the Roda and a Fight are something different. In the Roda, we are playing. In this play we learn a lot about fighting, but we also do a lot of other things. We play, we sing, we dance. And by the way, we learn important things about a fight. That is the safe area in the Roda. There we can play the game with all its floreios and all its different rituals. Outside, a good Capoeirista will not play, sing or dance. He will only fight – and for sure he won’t do many movements he would do in a Roda. For example: he would leave out the acrobatics!

I believe the Capoeirista we see failing so miserably on Youtube is actually a long-trained Capoeirista. He seems to be athletic, he knows how to do beautiful movements. And he is, obviously, very courageous. But here the other guy was just much more malicioso. He waited, watched, and took the chances the opponent gave him. So, my dear Capoeirista friends, dont worry about this video. Cause, whoever thinks that this is a proof for Capoeira being not effective and dadada, doesnt know what Capoeira is about. And we do actually get a lesson in Malicia, for free!

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African Roots IV – Fight

The slaves who were transported to the Americas were not weak. At least the probability was high that weak people were not bought on the coast of Africa. Young men were interesting, especially the strong ones. Of course they were in chains and of course they did not have much to resist against European firearms, at least not in the beginning. But their martial arts came with them. And they made use of them.

The first thing to know is that Martial Arts seem to have evolved everywhere on the world. Most people are quite ignorant of this fact, mainly because East Asian arts like Kung Fu or Judo come into our minds when we hear the word Martial Arts. But French fencing, Turkish oil-wrestling, Zulu stick fighting and Indian Kalarippayat are martial arts, too. Martial arts evolve efficient fighting patterns, rules and rituals, because most of the martial arts are meant to be practised and you cant practise a martial art when your partner gets severely injured or killed every time. That’s what makes them arts, apart from pure violence. Also in Africa martial arts exist,and someof them belong to the most ancient fighting systems there are on Earth.

African Martial Arts

Sadly there is one problem when researching about African martial arts: they are very poorly documented. To find written information is about as simple as to nail a pudding to a wall, and finding video footage is about impossible. The best way to find information would be: go there and see it. That is what TJ Desh Obi did and does and his new book which came out this year (“Fighting for honour”) should give some new insights into this not-so-clear chapter of African history. In this post I just want to spotlight some martial arts of Africa and show that a) there are actually a lot of African martial arts out there and b) that these did influence several martial arts in the Western Hemisphere. This would then be the last thing I want to do for this African roots series. Yes, people, although there is a lot more African’s did contribute to the Americas, after having described the people, their believes and their music I will finish with this, describing the martial arts of the African Ancestors.

The first martial art I want to mention is Nubian wrestling. That is because it is so unbelievably old. The picture above is, as you might have recognized, Egyptian, showing men who engage in a clearly martial art. The picture is to be found in the temple of Ramses III. in Medinet Habu and is, yes, over 3100 years old. That is older than East Asian Martial arts, which are only just above 2200 years old, by the way. A modern historical view of Ancient sports does see Nubian wrestling as a predecessor of Graeco-Roman wrestling, eventually, of modern wrestling. Why is that? The Nubian people had times when they were pretty dominant in Africa.

Nubia was home of various empires and states as early as 3500 BC and was for long times under the rule of Egypt, but there were also times when the Nubians did rule over the Egyptians (during the times of the Kush Empire, which existed between 1000 BC till 300 BC). So there was a 3000 year long cultural interdependence and cultural exchange. So Nubian wrestling started to get known to the Egyptians. And the influence of the Egyptian culture on Ancient Greek culture was quite strong and is well documented… But is Nubian wrestling just history? No, as the picture above shows clearly, Nubian wrestling is still a tradition among some people in Nubia. The Nuba people for example still practise it. Some hardcore readers will now say “So, but that’s clearly not Capoeira’s predecessor, right?”. There you might be right, but look at this description and try to imagine it and then try to find similarities to Capoeira. The description is from Oskar and Horst Luz and their article “Proud primitives” (National Geographics Magazine 130, 5: 672-699; published 1966):

A wrestler dances into the ring, looks challengingly around, assumes a fighting
stance, elbows on his knees-and waits. Whoever accepts the summons enters the
ring. . . . Now the two men take measure of each other, crouching, wary, flexing
bulging biceps. To over awe the opponent, they whirl with springy steps, shake
arms and shoulders, limber up, and ripple their muscles. One wrestler darts
forward, taps his head, feints probingly, backs away, flicks his tongue in and out,
advances again. The easy graceful movements resemble advance. The adversary
springs forward, reaches down, tries to seize his opponent’s legs. The two
grapple, arms coiled around each other. One lifts his opponent and attempts to
throw him to the ground, but the other, catlike, lands on his feet. It is only a
momentary reprieve. A quick fake, a rush, another clinch, another lift-and this
victim is slammed on his buttocks to the ground. Next match!
 

But there are other martial arts, all over Africa. Let’s go closer to the origins of most Afrobrazilian people, for example the Congo. For the Congo I found the mentioning of at least 3 martial arts, although most of them are poorly described (as always). There is Kipura, Mousondi and Gwindulumutu. There are already people saying that the word Capoeira comes from the Kipura martial art. As I am not an etymologist I won’t comment on that. Much more interesting is Gwindulumutu which is only described as a “headbashing martial art” (and I didnt find anything else on this martial art except this 3-word-description, would come in handy if somebody knows more details about it). I am kind of interested in that because there was the mentioning of Rugendas when he was describing Capoeira in the early 19th century where he write “Much more violent is another war game of the Negroes, Jogar capoeira, which consists in trying to knock one another down with headbutts in the chest, which one dodges which skilful side jumps and parrying. While they are throwing themselves against one another, more or less like rams, sometime heads run terribly into each other. Thus not infrequently the prank turns real fight and a bloody head or blade put an end to the game.” For the German original of that text click on this link.

And then there is the N’Golo or Engolo, which is often cited by Angoleiros as being a direct ancestor of Capoeira. This theory came up in the sixties where the Angolan Neves e Souza stated that the N’Golo is Capoeira. The N’Golo is a dance ritual of the Mucupe people in Southern Angola. It is a passage to adulthood and the champion of the N’Golo ceremony is allowed to marry the girl he wants, without paying the prize for her. The dance is believed to be derived from the way Zebras fight, it is also called the Zebra dance. In memory of this history a lot of Angola groups do have a Zebra in their logo and the one or other mestre does wear a zebra belt while playing in the Roda.

There is still a lot of doubts considering this version, especially as there are only few people who have seen this N’Golo. As far as I know Mr. Desh Obi does have video footage of the N’Golo and it is said to be very similar to Capoeira Angola. But this is only hearsay. If somebody can come up with some solid information, he/she would make me a very happy man 🙂

 

Capoeira d’Angola, Ladja and Jailhouse Rock

Now we are going over the Atlantic Ocean and try to see if there are African Martial arts and since when they are there. The problem here, as everywhere, is that the documentation is poor and that the African people (or those of African descent) were able to hide parts of their martial arts as ritual or dance. On the other side, the European slave masters were not stupid, so they found out. And when they found out, sometimes they documented. And one of the earliest documents I found about an African martial art in the Americas is actually about Capoeira. I found this document on two pages, on the Capoeira Connection page (who by the way just posted some brand new info on the Capoeira community!) and on the French Capoeira Palmares site. This document is from the year 1789 and the first documented evidence of Capoeira. Of course we dont know if there are older ones or if they were all burnt after the abolition. That is something we will see in the future. What this document shows is that Capoeira seems to be a known phenomenon back then. So it didnt just come up in 1789, but was around for a while already. How many years was that? Nobody knows. Here the text I copied from the Capoeira Connection site:

The capoeira

Adam, the mulatto boy that master Manoel Cardoso Fontes had bought a young lad, grew into a robust, hard-working and very obedient slave in household duties.

Manoel decided to rent him out as a mason assistant, a porter, or for any other hard labor. So Adam turned out to be a major source of income for his master.

With time, the shy slave who used to be fairly domesticated became more off-handed and independent and began to come back late, much later than the end of his working hours. Manoel asked repeatedly what was it that made Adam change so much — but his answers were weak and inconsistent. Until one day, fulfilling Manoel’s fears, Adam did not come home at all. He had certainly fled to one of the villages [quilombos] around the town.

To his surprise, Manoel found Adam behind the bars of the regional jail. He had been arrested with a gang of ruffians who practiced capoeira. A quarrel had broken out that day and one of them got killed in the action. These were extremely grave crimes under the laws of the time: practicing capoeira, and what’s more, causing a death.

The trial found Adam not guilty of the homicide, but confirmed his guilt on the charge of capoeira, and condemned him to 500 lashes and two years hard labor in public service.

After Adam had suffered the lashes in public and laboured some months in the public works, his master sent the king a plea in the name of the Passion of Christ, asking that his slave be released from the rest of his term, on the grounds that himself was a poor man and depended on the income that his slave brought him. He promised to take care that Adam would not join the capoeiras again. His plea was granted by the Regional Judge on April 25, 1789.

But Capoeira is by far not the only African martial art which came and developed in the Americas. There is for example Ladja. Ladja (or also Danmye or Ag’Ya) is a martial art which is practised on Martinique. Also here, drums and singing do give the competitors the energy they need for the fight. And like in Capoeira there is no easy distinction between fight and dance here. Just watch the video beneath and you will see what I mean. Capoeira and Ladja might be brothers, or at least cousins, coming from the same region or even from the same ritual. But there is no evidence for that. So maybe Ladja did develop it’s dance properties and it’s delusiveness because of the same needs Brazilian slaves had: Deception. There is no proof for both arguments, so this is the point where you believe this or believe that. For me the video footage clearly shows a martial art which is related to Capoeira and might have come from the same people.

 

But there are also other martial arts, also in the U.S. Here you’ll find the mentioning of Jailhouse Rock. Interestingly there is also very poor information on this martial art. Jailhouse Rock does go under many different names like 52 Blocks, peek-a-boo or Stato. It is believed to have been developed in the American penal system, spreading from jail to jail and – due to the very special circumstances in jails – quickly developing into “regional” styles (the regions were the different jails). Oral tradition says that Jailhouse rocks originates in the 17th and 18th centuries when first African people were put into jail. Today Jailhouse Rock is more a collective term trying to summarize very different Fighting Systems which are nowadays strongly influenced by boxing. Only few people believe that Jailhouse Rock does still have much of its old traditions in it. So the videos you find for that are oviously not that flashy or dance-like as Capoeira is. But the agility and dance-like stance of African martial arts does come through sometimes. For example in the following video footage, showing the martial art called 52 blocks.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVbqrz5XGE0

 

So…that’s it. This was the last post of the African roots series. That does not mean that I wont come back to these topics once I have some nice things to share with you (for example an N’Golo video footage!), but for now I think everybody has enough overview over the African influences on the Americas, especially on Brazil. And maybe I have convinced some people to see that Capoeira does have so many African features, that you can call it an African martial art. Yes, it did evolve in Brazil for the last 500 years and that’s something which has to be recognized. But even there the influence of Africans did dominate till the 19th century.

But as you also have seen, documents about the African Diaspora are extremely hard to find, especially documents which are not biased. I hope together with these posts I can persuade other people to research about African diasporic culture and make them publicly available.

Axé!

 

Some Sources used for this post:

Journal of Sport History 15, No.2, Summer 1988 – Ancient Nubian Wrestling

http://mcclungmuseum.utk.edu/research/renotes/rn-23txt.htm

http://wysinger.homestead.com/mapofnubia.html

Library of Congress for an interview on Ladja

An article about Ladja/Danmye (how reliable this is I dont know)

Capoeira – A Game-Dance-Fight for Life by Edward L.Brough Luna

Picture sources:

San Diego County Office for Education

www.wrestlingbest.com

Capoeira – A Game-Dance-Fight for Life by Edward L.Brough Luna

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