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Devagar, Devagar…

…Capoeira de Angola é devagar!

historyCapoeira2

The aim of this post is to highlight an important, but often overseen aspect of Capoeira Angola. I myself do oversee it far too often and while I was thinking about it the idea came up to make a blogpost out of it. The aspect of Capoeira Angola I want to point at this time is “playing slowly”.

The speed of your game

Most people do know that Capoeira Angola is generally played in a slower pace than Capoeira Regional. In fact, some people think that Capoeira Angola is just the slower version of Capoeira Regional. I wont go into that one, because most of the fans and players of Capoeira know that it’s not right anyway. Some people also know that Capoeira Angola games are highly variable in terms of speed. A game can switch from slow to fast to slow in less than ten seconds. That Capoeira Angola is always slow is a common misunderstanding which usually leads to some unpleasant surprises. But, and that’s what this post is about, it is still an important attribute.

Why?

There is many different reasons why Capoeira Angola is played in a slow base rhythm. I will just count the most common (and obvious) of these:

  • Endurance: As a typical game in Capoeira Angola goes into the minutes and can easily go on for more than 10 minutes a high pace is not recommendable. In comparison, games in some Regional rodas are incredibly short, sometimes it’s a matter of a few seconds until you get bought out. This short timespan forces you to get into a game as fast as possible. If a game in a Regional roda would take 10 minutes retaining its speed, most people would drop unconscious 😉
  • Safety: A Roda is not always a safe place. In Capoeira Angola your space is petty limited. It is almost impossible to be not enangered when a person in a two-meter-diameter-roda does make a fast kick. For the safety of you and your partner it is recommandable to slow down the game, even if it gets faster in between. And even if you dont care much about the other person you are playing with the rule applies “what goes around, comes around”. Play fast and you will get a fast response. Thus, it is sometimes just smarter to play at a slower pace.
  • Aesthetics: Players of Capoeira do regularly state that Capoeira Angola is much more expressive and playful than Regional or Contemporean Capoeira. This would not be possible in a high speed game. The higher the speed of the game the more people (especially beginners and not-so-advanced players) concentrate on not getting hit, hitting the other person and maybe even performing a good game. And the first things dropped would be the playfulness and the individual expressions you can do in a roda. Thus, a too fast game which keeps on staying too fast is often seen as an “ugly game” Angola roda, more because of the lack of grace and mandinga than because of the speed.
  • Precision: Here I will quote my first teacher. During training he liked to tell us “I have you rather doing the movements 3 times right than 30 times wrong”. He used to say this when the students sped up in training and started being sloppy with the movements. This does easily apply to a game. The faster a game is the less time you have for precise movements, the sloppier you get. That can lead to accidents involving you and/or your partner. Or, it can just lead to the movements looking short, uncomplete, ugly. Having time during the game does give you the chance to do your movements right, precise and with grace.
  • Health: It is indeed healthier to play slow than to play a fast paced game. This does count for the individual game as well as on the long term. Why? The faster the game the higher is the danger that you dont listen exactly what your body tells you. An Au you might go into might be started wrong and risking your back or your limbs. In a fast game the chance to correct this fault is lower than in a slow game. For example: in an Angola game which was a tad too fast a friend of mine did almost cripple himself doing an Au malandro (I think some people call it an Au batido). He had so much speed that his upper arm moved forwards while his hand was planted and his upper body falling backwards – to make it short: for a split of a second his elbow was on the wrong side of the arm… In terms of longterm effects of fast playing wearing off of knees and wrists is one of the most prominent Capoeira illnesses. Jumps and rapid stressing these vulnerable body parts do have a bad effect in long term (although: I am talking here out of a mixture of experience and pure logics. I have no statistical or medical data for this. But it would be interesting if somebody would investigate this!)

Counting in the music

An obvious reason for playing slow in the Roda de Angola is that it otherwise wouldnt fit to the music. Most people know that a game is not an exact representation of the Berimbau’s rhythm played in the Roda (meaning, the steps and kicks dont come in the same rhythm as the berimbau is being beaten). But there is a linkage between the music and speed of the game. The players have to follow the music in this case. Thus, when they speed up and dont turn back to a slow pace while the music is slow the whole time, they will most possibly be called to the Pé do Berimbau and reminded of playing slowly. Or they will hear the song “Devagar, Devagar”. Here is the lyrics of this song (not exactly what I learned but nicely written down by Mathew Brigham (Espaguete) in his very good “Capoeira Song Compendium“)

Devagar, devagar                                              Slowly, Slowly
Devagar, devagarinho                                       Slowly, very slowly
Refrain: Devagar, devagar              Slowly, slowly
Cuidado com o seu pezinho                           Be careful with your foot
Capoeira de angola é devagar                     Capoeira Angola is played slowly
Esse jogo é devagar                                          This game is slowly
Eu falei devagar, devagarinho                    I said slowly, very slowly
Esse jogo bonito é devagar                           This pretty game is played slowly
Falei devagar, falei devagar                        I said slowly, very slowly

This song is sung to a slow rhythm, which makes it almost impossible to be ignored by the players. And if they do so, it usually results in being reminded specifically/personally, or just asked to stop that game.  So why does the music then have to be so slowly? Well, first of all, it’s a question of taste. Capoeira Angola music is slow to medium paced, with a lot of different nuances and a rich sound. This does come because a) the presence of 7 instruments incl. 3 differently pitched berimbaus gives a very rich acustical caleidoscope and b) the low speed of playing allows for wonderful variations (especially of the Berimbau Viola). I know, for a lot of modernist Capoeiristas it is too slow, but people wont understand that keeping a rich sound and keeping a slow pace is actually much harder than just beating the crap out of your berimbaus and drums. I speak out of experience that keeping the rhythm slow is harder than just playing a fast rhythm. And, as in Capoeira Angola slower games are preferred, the Bateria does control this by controlling the speed of the music.

How to achieve a slow game

Now, this is the most complicated part of this post. Because, to be sincere, I dont know a perfect recipe to keep your speed slow. I too get faster while playing and I guess I am not alone in this. I guess it is the same as with drumming. The natural tendency seems to be that you want to get faster. You might start with a slow rhythm (in playing or in music), but if you dont take care of it you will get faster. I want to point out that it is not bad to become faster. The player just has to know when to get back to “normal” speed again and when being fast helps, and especially when it doesnt.

Thus, the simple (and admittedly not very helpful) answer is: focus. Concentrate on te speed of your movements. Not too slow, but also not hastily. Before you can do that you have to get used to play in the Roda of course, and get secure. Thus it helps when you are not a pure beginner in Capoeira Angola. This doesnt mean that if you are a beginner you are free to play as fast as you wish. You can immediately start concentrating on playing slowly. But if you lose your focus on playing slow, dont worry, try harder next time. As a beginner you usually just dont have the peace of mind to play slowly yet. You get nervous, you get hasty. Being calm and relaxed is key here.

It also helps to be a bit mature. When you want to impress, show off, make fun of a your partner and have similar immature ideas about playing you usually dont go for the slow movements. But maturity is something you cannot train. That comes by itself, hopefully.

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Surviving a Capoeira Angola Roda II: Space

roda

Some of those who know my blog might know the title of this post, at least its first part. Most things to know about surviving a capoeira angola roda were already posted in one of my first posts. Today’s post is about a certain aspect of a Capoeira Angola game. But this aspect is also something many people have to get used to. I hope this post will help in that process.

According to Mestre Moraes the aim of the Game of Capoeira Angola is movement itself. That is, maximizing your own and minimizing your opponents possibilities to move. One might say now “wait, that’s not the only purpose” and yes, that’s right. But, and that’s why I write about this topic, it comes up every now and then. With this post I will give you some hints, what to look for when you are in a Capoeira Angola Roda, but most importantly this information is for you so you dont panic when you feel cornered. Because, if you know what’s going on, you can start thinking about the way how to get out. And not panicking is a good step further on the way to a better game, no?

Geometry of a Roda

Ok, so now the big news, a Roda is a circle. At least almost a circle. On one side of the circle there is the Bateria. And the rest of the circle consists of people. The people observe your game, give energy by singing along and do define the boundaries of your game. These boundaries shouldnt be crossed.  Entrance to the Roda is defined by the edges of the bateria. And entrance into the game is defined by the spot in front of the Gunga. So far  most of these things are things you people already know. Some people who already have seen a Roda de Capoeira Angola will also be able to tell that in a Capoeira Angola Roda people are sitting or crouching in the circle. This helps keeping the circle tight and at one position. More important is that Capoeira Angola circles are usually smaller than circles of Capoeira Regional and Contemporeana. A diameter of about 2 meters or 1.50m (sometimes also only 1 meter) is a good size for a capoeia angola roda. The advantage of this size is that there is actually no space to keep out of reach. One step forward and you are close enough for an attack however the positions where before. This forces both players to play and react properly (on the otherside, usually you also have more time to do so, because too fast games are not liked much in capoeira angola). The knowledge about the dimensions of the Roda you are in is important. Also the knowledge that it’s a circle.

Movement

Capoeira has a lot to do with moving around. The Ginga and the Au are the first things you learn in Capoeira. And that is for a reason. There is only few things more boring than a game between two players who stay at their positions. It then resembles one of those 90’s computer games like “Mortal Combat” or “Street Fighter”, where player A is right and player B left. All the round kicks and turns and other movements of Capoeira do make less sense when you only have one direction to take care of (your front). So the first thing to know about the “Space Game” in Capoeira (Angola) is: you are mobile. As simple as it seems, some people panic and freeze at the spot. Although it might not be bad to stay at a spot sometimes, it definitely makes their game less fluent and thus, less attractive. The Roda being a circle does want you to move around each other.

Center vs. Edge

In a circle, and especially while playing Capoeira, there is only few preferred positions. (As a side remark, if you are playing outside, you can try to let your opponent face the sun over longer terms in the game. It’s not exactly fair, but well, life is a bitch! 😉 )

The preferred position I am talking about is the center of the circle. In an ideal game between equal partners the game will be very balanced in terms of attack, defense and moving around the center. Most players do regard the center as ideal place in the roda for following reasons:

1. You can move in any direction, left, right, forward (to your partner) and backwards (away from your partner).

2. Your partner/opponent has less opportunities, because behind him there is the edge of the roda. So moving backwards is less of an option.

3. when you stay in the center most of the movements of your opponent will be left or right, which leads to him travelling around you. He is making more meters in the game than you are (because in the center you only have to turn around), which can, in a longer game, be extremely tiring.

On the other side it’s good to know that it’s not a shame to be on the edge. Yes, when you were forced to the edge it’s a sign that the other person did dominate you, but in Capoeira you get dominated once and the next day you dominate, and the other day nothing happens. As long as you dont panic on the edge the game is not lost. And the better you are the more opportunitues you will find to get away – or to gain dominance over the center.

The Art of Cornering

Cornering is a step further than just forcing somebody to stay on the edge of the Roda. Cornering is the art keep the other player close to the edge and to hinder him from moving sideways too, until he a) finds a way out, b) submits by standing still until you let him go or c) does make such a mistake that he could get a Rasteira, Cabecada or some other “finishing movement”. It’s not the nicest way to play with your partner (and some people might get annoyed or agressive because of such a game), because it is almost equivalent to a Rasteira. You stop the possibilities of your partner to move. On the other side, a Rasteira is usually much more spectacular than plain cornering, which is the reason why some people disregard cornering as bullying and playing unfair.

But cornering itself is an art because of two simple facts: a) the Roda is a circle and has no corners and b) touching is not much allowed in Capoeira Angola, so the most effective way to force a person into a corner – by strength – is not allowed. Cornering is something which needs skill, you have to learn it. Here are some tips how to corner (the best tip is to learn it at training):

1. Cornering by size: the bigger you make yourself the harder it gets for the other to get out. When your partner is on the edge and on the ground, standing up is an option (and a danger too, cause a Rasteira or Tesoura might end your attempt). You can also move and place your legs in the possible directions your partner might take, thus hindering him from his escape.

2. Cornering by speed/experience: When you are faster than your opponent you can just move into every direction he just wanted to move. This is not so easy, cause at a certain speed you will not be able to distinguish a feint from a real attempt to escape. And when you speed up your partner will speed up too. This will eventually spiral up to a speed where you will hear the Berimbau calling you cause you have been too fast. Experience helps more in this terms. This includes the ability to read the other player. When you know what he is gonna do then you dont have to be fast to be able to block that movement.

3. Cornering by psychology (or Mandinga): The best way to corner a person is making that person believe there is no way out. Either you scare that person by a sudden change in speed level or you distract him by a certain smile. Or you just look into a certain spot in a way that he thinks you gonna go there. Or you just dont look at him anymore (keeping an eye on him on the edge of your sight) which makes him nervous or at least ignorant about your motivation. These are only a few possibilities I can think of. And I guess that there are thousand others.

The Art of Escape

A good player does not only know how to corner somebody, but also how to get out of that. The ways to get out of there in a nice way are easily described, but all of them do need one premise: no panic. If you dont panic, and this accounts for the whole game, you cant do much wrong. Because if you panic, you will react instinctively, which can be wrong. Some of those reactions are letting yourself fall, run out of the roda, starting to grap the opponent, knocking him out, run against your partner, and stuff like that. All of them are ways do get you out, but with that you are killing the game. So which are the ways to get out of there?

1. Escaping by refusing: You can stop moving. OK, this is actually submitting yourself and giving up, accepting that the other person did corner you and that you are not able or willing to get out. At a certain point, your opponent will have to release you (otherwise the game will have to end). It’s not the best way to get out, but it’s far better than using brute force – or falling out of the Roda.

2. Escaping by fighting back: There are several movements which can help you get out of the corner. All of these are attacks which make your opponent back up or move another way. Those movements dont work always and with every opponent, but using them is often very secure and leaves you with more space at the end than before. These movements are: Tesoura, Cabecada and Chapa de Costas (amongst some other). All of these are simple movements, and that makes them so effective. On the other side, there is always the possibility to get a counter-attack, so dont think that they are optimum solutions.

3. Escaping by Blocking: A major part of cornering is hindering a person to go this way or that way. But this game can be played by both. This will eventually lead to a Remis situation, which wouldnt improve the dynamics of the game but would definitely improve your own situation.

4. Escaping by intelligence: finally, the best way to escape is also exactly the best way how to corner a person. By anticipating, by experience, by wit, by Malicia and Mandinga. If you are experienced and dominant enough you can make the opponent think you will definitely go there. Thus, if he tries to block that possibility he has to open up other possibilities.

Finally, you have to realize that this is only part of the game. It’s important and some of these hints are both smart in Capoeira Angola and Regional/Contemporeana. And, I know I repeat myself here, dont panic!

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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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