Category Archives: Philosophy

Is your Corpo Fechado?

verger-capoeira-26454

Capoeira is not only a martial art, a dance and a game. It comes along with its cultural background, which developed in the Afrobrazilian circles of Brazil and spread all over the world. It’s like HipHop, or like Yoga. It left it’s national and cultural boundaries and spread to places where some parts of it’s culture might be less well understood than others. Some interesting thoughts about cultural differences in the practice of Capoeira are given in a post by Mandingueira on her highly recommendable blog www.mandingueira.com. Even in Brazil many connotations and aspects of this art get lost due to old mestres dying and their knowledge usually dying with them. Here in Europe or in the U.S. or in Asia only few pieces of this culture are learned. This is why once in a while I come along and try to explain some of the words which you will hear in connection to capoeira. I’m not Brazilian and my connection to Brazil is solely because I love to play Capoeira Angola. So all I can give you is my limited view on some parts of Capoeira culture. If you know better, feel free to correct.

After this short intro I will now come to the question given in the title. Is your Corpo Fechado? For all those who dont know Portuguese, Corpo Fechado means “closed body”. in Capoeira, and in related Afrobrazilian cults like Candomblé, Corpo Fechado does have an important meaning. I will try to explain both the secular and the spiritual meaning of this word.

Corpo Fechado – in the Roda

The closed body in the Roda is a basic principle of Capoeira. Everybody learns it from the very beginning without having to know that they are actually working on a ‘closed body’. The Corpo Fechado in the Roda is your defense, most basically your hands and arms protecting vulnerable parts of your body. These parts are especially your face, neck, chest and lower torso.

Already doing the Ginga does demand the player to keep up his defense every time his body is moving forward. One arm always protects the face. If not so the danger of getting a kick or slap into the face is imminent (I wont judge now how nice or fair it is to kick into the face of somebody whose face was unprotected… that’s another topic). The same does account for every single movement in Capoeira. And also both in traditional and modern variants of the Game. Some Mestres do complain that in modern variants due to a higher distance between players the necessity of a “closed body” decreases. In Capoeira Angola on the other side, a closed body is a necessity – and in every second of the Game a hole in your defense can be used by your partner.

I dont want to scare you people away. And I also dont want to show you just the one side of the coin. Modern Capoeira and Capoeira Angola do allow you to show apparent “entrances” into your body. In the ideal case sometimes you might seem absolutely helpless with you body wide open. And still be able to close the body when it’s needed. That is to lure your partner into a situation where he thinks he has you, and showing him that that is not so. One of my favoritue Capoeira Angola pictures is the one posted below where the player in white seems absolutely helpless. Still, his partner does not fall into that trap keeping up his defense, knowing that a good player can defend himself in whatever position he is.

corpo fechado

But dont forget one essential thing about capoeira. That it is not about concentrating on one thing. Corpo Fechado is a set term in Capoeira culture, but it is not the only thing. Theoretically you could have a perfect defense, but still be absolutely horrible in playing Capoeira. Thus, Corpo Fechado is one part of Capoeira, a part everybody should know of, but not the above-all most important part of it.

Corpo Fechado – in Life

Corpo Fechado does also have a very religious connotation. In Afrobrazilian practises achieving Corpo Fechado is possible through specific rituals and by wearing amulets. Having a Corpo Fechado means being invulnerable against all kinds of physical attacks. If it’s knives or bullets. The most favourite person to have had a Corpo Fechado was the Capoeira legend Besouro Manganga. Manoel Henrique Pereira (1897-1924) was a legendary Capoeirista and criminal in Santo Amaro, Bahia. He was known and loved by the folks for his fights with the police. In times of danger he would transform into a beetle and vanish from the place. He was also known to be invulnerable – or only vulnerable by an enchanted wooden dagger (made of the Tucum-tree), which was the reason for his death in 1927.

But the Corpo Fechado does exist outside of Capoeira aswell. As I said, it is part of Afrobrazilian culture. The rituals and ideals behind this go back into Kongolese religious practices, where there was the belief in Kanga Nitu. Kanga Nitu was “binding your body” thorugh rituals protecting it from evil spirits. Other rituals did include the use fetishes and amuletts – socalled Nkisis – against arrows from enemies in times of war, or for a successful hunt (among many other uses). The ideas of Kanga Nitu and corresponding rituals came along with the slaves and still have an influence on Afrobrazilian culture.

One part which is to be mentioned together with it are the patuás, the amuletts which protect the faithful from all kinds of physical harm. These amuletts did contain a diversity of herbs alongside with prayers written into them. But it obviously doesnt seem to be enough to just wear a Patuá around your neck, you also have to know your prayers and rituals, and what is forbidden and what not. Basically, you have to believe and know the religion before you start “protecting” yourself with a Patuá. As the proverb says: “Quem nao pode com mandinga, nao carrega patúa.” Roughly translated: Who doesn’t know Mandinga, should not use a Patúa. Today a lot of people do carry a Patúa without actually believing in it’s use. It has become a part of Capoeira fashion. I personally do not believe in the effect of a Patúa, but I still would strongly recommend any person who carries a Patúa to learn about its implications. Even if he/she does only see it as a fashionable accessoire, it is still of use to know what you are walking around with.

There are also certain ways to “open” the body of a person, even when that person does have a “Corpo Fechado”, this does include the use of enchanted weapons (as it was in the case of Besouro Mangangá). But also the person himself can cause his “protection” to fail. One known way is to have sex. Some traditional Mestres dont recommend practising Capoeira after having had sex the night before.

So, the next time a mestre screams at you to “fechar o corpo” he means that you should keep up your defense. He usually does not mean you to be abstinent before you come to his class or to wear a Patúa, because as Capoeira does spread around the world, there will be more and more practitioners who do not believe in Candomblé or into any Afrobrazilian manifestation of those ancient Bantu traditions. Still, even if you dont believe in them, it’s useful to know about it – and even if it is only to comprehend more what we are doing, playing Capoeira.

Picture sources:

http://www.ele-mental.org/capoeira/TABCAT/aboutcapoeira.html

http://albenisio.spaces.live.com/blog/

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Respect Your Berimbau!

The first time I heard and saw the Berimbau, I was amazed. Some other people were not used to its sound and did not understand it. And while learning more about Capoeira, a student does understand that having a Berimbau and learning how to play it and that listening to the sounds and the orders of the Berimbau in the Roda is of uttermost importance in Capoeira. I always accepted this as a fact and did not waste energy to think about it, until the first person asked: “why?”

When we thoroughly study the sources, we see that Capoeira was not always associated with the Berimbau. When Rugendas was describing Capoeira in 1825, there were drums. When Debrét was drawing the black street vendor with the Berimbau, there was no Capoeira. In the few first-hand sources we have about Capoeira of the 19th century, there is just no Berimbau. And still, today all our Mestres and teachers do emphasize the importance of the Berimbau. The Berimbau started to become a symbol of Capoeira. When I see somebody walking around with a Berimbau here in Europe, I just assume he is a Capoeirista. So, what happened in the last 100 years? Why is the Berimbau so important to Capoeira, while it was just not associated with it just 110 years ago?

Let’s try to track it back.

Out of Africa – the Berimbau

The Berimbau is an African-derived instrument. Recent and past indigenous tribes of Brazil did not have musical bows, the Europeans neither. But in Africa around the 15th century till today there was a huge diversity of different musical bows, of which I have given an overview in another post of mine. The ones who played these bows and built them in Africa were shipped over to Brazil and there they started making Berimbaus and playing them. We find the first historical documentation of the Berimbau in the early 19th century. Especially travellers from Europe were fascinated or curious about the musical bow which was described as being used by street vendors and beggars. And it was especially an instrument used by Blacks, not by the mestizoes, not the poor whites, it was the African Brazilian people who used the Berimbau.

The first times the Berimbau was mentioned together with Capoeira, was in the early 1880’s. One document of this time (about 1891) is a description by Joao Silva da Campos, whose description was published posthumously in 1941:

The excited dark crowd performed Batuques. Samba. Capoeira circles. One heard pandeiros, cavaquinhos, violas, harmonicas, berimbau and cadential hand clapping. It was  pandemonium (Campos 1941:131).

This description, which does not seem to be the description of an insider, does definitely show us that Capoeira and the Berimbau were already in the same happenings, but maybe not specifically linked to each other. It was still mainly poor African Brazilians who practised Capoeira, and who played the Berimbau. But in one expect there is an important difference between Capoeira and the Berimbau. While Capoeira was practised in different places, the Berimbau seems to have survived in only few places. Especially in Salvador. In Rio Capoeira was practised without the Berimbau (and without the Ginga and so on), but was associated with war songs used by the Guiamos and the Nagoas. In Recife Capoeira was associated with the city’s principal music bands, but they also had no Berimbau.

Symbiosis

In the 1930’s the Berimbau was nearly extinct in Brazil. It was only played in Salvador, and here most of its players were Capoeiristas or associated to them. And then, when Capoeira did suddenly increase in popularity thanks to Mestre Bimba and the legalization of Capoeira Academies by Getulio Vargas, the Berimbau did start to be used more and more. And today, only 70 years later, the Berimbau is a symbol of Brazil, but more of Afrobrazilian culture, and, of all, of Capoeira. It is still most intimately connected to Capoeira, but has now its existence in performance and entertainment outside of it as well. Without Capoeira, the Berimbau would never had experienced such an increase in popularity in the world. And maybe, though this is speculation, it would not have survived.

But there is also the other side of the coin. Would Capoeira have survived or gained so much popularity without the Berimbau? Mind, that the Capoeiras of Rio de Janeiro and Recife, the ones without the Berimbau and stripped from many parts of Afrobrazilian culture, did not survive. Alright, this is all speculation, because, in fact, Capoeira and the Berimbau did survive. My opinion is still, that without each other, both would have been much weaker nowadays than before. They are in a symbiosis: a situation, where two different entities are closely associated gaining mutual benefit from this. Already this is a reason to respect the Berimbau and keep it in your Rodas and in your trainings.

Control

There is more to the Berimbau. The Berimbau is the Master of the Roda. Of course, yes, there are other Mestres, but in every Roda, in modern Capoeira Rodas and in traditional ones, the Berimbau does control speed and style of the game. That’s why there are different rythms, different toques of the Berimbau. That is why the Berimbau is the first instrument to play in a Capoeira Roda. That’s why every instrument can miss in a Roda, but not the Berimbau. And that’s why Capoeiristas can walk through any street and will react on the sound of the Berimbau, usually making him attent and making him search for the Roda. That is why there are all rituals around the Berimbau, why it’s at the Pé do Berimbau where we enter the Roda.

Mestre Bimba did modernize Capoeira, but he did leave the Berimbau, because it is the controlling instance in a Capoeira Roda. It is the Berimbau and the bateria of Capoeira, which did keep Bahian Capoeira under control, so that it could be playful in the first, beautiful in the second and deadly in the third game. That’s the big difference of Bahian Capoeira to Capoeira Carioca or Capoeira of Recife. That’s why it did survive.

Everybody has to listen to the Berimbau, if he does not, he doesn’t have any idea of Capoeira.

And us?

I have to admit it. My Berimbau skills are far less than my playing skills. I might play some toques and be able to keep up a Roda, but whoever calls my Berimbau play beautiful has never heard a good Capoeirista play the Berimbau. What I am gonna do is learn to play the Berimbau. Training it as regularly as your Capoeira skills is something most people do not do – and when your teacher doesn’t give music lessons (or only rarely) than your music will be horrible. Until you start learning it yourself. We should understand that the Berimbau is as important as the Ginga in Capoeira. When you are a longterm Capoeirista and you have no Berimbau, the question is: why? Get yourself a Berimbau, start playing it till there is no feeling in your pinky and then: play more!

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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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What is Mandinga?

There are a lot of different words in Capoeira which do have an own meaning in the Capoeira world. I am not talking about movements and their names, which are anyway different from group to group. I am more talking about conceptual words. These words make up the basic elements of Capoeira Philosophy. Just to mention, malicia, malandragem, axé, mandinga and jogo are words which do have special meanings in Capoeira. One of the strongest words in this context is Mandinga.

If you just translate it from Portuguese into English you will find “(black) magic” or something related to it. If you hear it in the context of Capoeira, people are generally talking in a respectful way. As if Mandinga is partly amazing and partly frightening.

I actually wanted to dig into the meaning of Mandinga and found three very good sources, which will explain you the meaning of ‘Mandinga’. There is a) the trailer of ‘Mandinga em Manhattan’ which shows a part of the movie where several mestres (big names all of them) explain in few words what Mandinga is. You will see that there is no direct definition of Mandinga, but that Mandinga is more of an umbrella for different characteristics of a person, if they are secular or more part of the mystical world. Source b) is actually a very good elaborated post from the site Mandingueira, a highly recommendable blog for Capoeiristas. And here she goes into the meaning of Mandinga in a more structured and definitive way. And then there is c) another post from a blog, but this time from the Capoeira Connection Blog, which is a great blog with highly valuable translations of texts about capoeira. The post I am referring to is a definition of Mandinga given by different Mestres, but this time written down.

Alright, after having viewed these sources you might have an idea about Mandinga, although I think there is a difference in reading it and seeing it happening in the Roda. The best way of experiencing it is being the victim of an Mandingueiro. It happened to me a couple of times when I realized that I am getting deceived by the other one, that he is influencing my attention, my concentration – and that, thus, I fall under his control. It’s nothing you got to be sad or angry about. I admired it every time when it happened to me.

Can we learn it? Some people say yes, others say that Mandinga is a natural attribute which you have and which you don’t have. One quote is definitely right: “You can learn Mandinga, but you cannot teach it.” There is no way somebody can teach you how to “put a spell” on somebody, because Mandinga has a lot to do with natural expression, smartness, instinct and – of course – malicia and axé. Most of these are things you can’t learn, you just have.

My idea upon this is that everybody has a kind of way of expression. Everybody is smart in some way and instinct and malicia and expecially axé are all things every person does have. Of course, for some these things are coming more naturally, others inhibit themselves because they are thinking too much or trying to be too clever about things. But this all doesnt change my opinion that everybody HAS these things. It is just about developing them. Some can be actively developed, some come with experience and time. You grow in Capoeira and the more you grow, the more you learn, the closer you will come to be a Mandingueiro.

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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.

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