Capoeira Angola

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Capoeira Angola is the traditional style of Bahian Capoeira. It is usually, although not always, characterized by playful, ritualized games, which combine elements of dancing, combat, and music, while stressing interaction between the two players and the musicians and observers.

Capoeira has its roots in Central and West African cultures that were brought to Brazil through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. There are diverse theories about the origins of the art form. One of the most popular was introduced by Álbano Neves e Sousa in 1965. This theory was subsequently adopted and developed by Luís da Câmara Cascudo in his book Folclore do Brasil in 1967.

The theory concerns a practice known as “N’golo,” or the Dance of the Zebras. The movements of N’golo mimicked the movements of fighting zebras. The N’golo dance was practiced by young warriors competing for the hand of a young woman of marriagable age in a puberty rite known as efundula. The specific group cited by Neves e Sousa was the Mucupe (sometimes spelled Mucope)in Southern Angola. Whoever had a more impressive performance won the bride and was excused from having to pay a dowry.

The ‘N’golo theory maintains that in the port of Benguela, and also once in Brasil, the dance developed into a foot-fighting style that was used by both bandits and slaves for defence and attack. The N’golo and its ‘cognates’ are argued to have been been used by Africans and Afro-Brazilians to maintain themselves spiritually and physically under the harsh circumstances of slavery and plantation life. It developed mainly in three places: Recife, Rio de Janeiro, and the state of Bahia.

While in the first two places, Capoeira was said to be violent, and had no music, in Bahia it became more of a ritualized game, with a strong musical element. It should be noted that much of what is known of Rio de Janeiro capoeira in the 1900s and earlier derives only from police reports, which naturally included no information about whether capoeira in Rio was done to music or not. Various police orders were given to search capoeiristas carrying instruments, usually ‘marimbas’, however.

The Bahian style of the late 19th and early 20th century became what is today referred to as Capoeira Angola. This term was originally coined by Mestre Pastinha in an attempt to differentiate it from Capoeira Regional, which was created by Mestre Bimba in the 1930’s. Mestre Pastinha was the founding Mestre of Brazil’s first officially recognized capoeira Angola academy, the ‘Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola’, which was originated in 1941 and gained government recognition in 1952.

Since the 1960s the N’golo theory has become popular amongst practitioners of capoeira Angola, although it is not accepted by all scholars of the art form. Considerable academic discussion of the N’golo has occurred. Some books which relate specifically to the origins of capoeira Angola and discuss the N’golo theory are: Nestor Capoeira’s: ‘Capoeira Roots of the Fight-Dance-Game’, Waldeloir Rego’s excellent: ‘Capoeira Angola Ensaio Socio-Etnografico’ (in Portuguese), Gerard Taylor’s in depth study of Capoeira’s African antecedents: ‘Capoeira The Jogo de Angola from Luanda to Cyberspace Volume One’, J. Lowell Lewis’s ‘Ring of Liberation’, Matthias Röhrig Assunção’s ‘Capoeira The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art’ and an interesting essay by, T.J Desch Obi in ‘Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora’ edited by Linda M. Heywood.

While many practitioners in Bahia used their knowledge of capoeira to fight, the elements of Capoeira Angola can be practiced without solely relying on the martial elements.

Since the rise of Capoeira Regional as practiced by the group Senzala in Rio de Janeiro (the name came from Mestre Bimba’s school which originally taught what was called the “luta regional baiana” or the “Regional Fight of the state of Bahia”), the popularity of Capoeira Angola declined in the face of the flashier and far more overtly martial style. Apparently very little thought was given to the roots of capoeira by the Grupo Senzala, who’s style of Capoeira ‘Regional’ became popular in Rio de janeiro and Southern Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s. It was assumed by many, including masters of the Angola style, that ‘Angola’ was seeing a slow slide toward becoming a historical footnote.

By the end of the 1970’s however, many players of Capoeira Regional began to seek out the older Angola masters in order to connect with and understand the roots of the game. Capoeira Angola thus experienced a resurgence that involved a re-assessment of the traditional form of Capoeira. This may also have been due to the fact that Capoeira began to be played outside of Brazil, where a greater number of capoeiristas became interested in Capoeira Angola (the bias of most Brazilians against elements of their country’s culture that come from Africa, especially those things that have a relationship to African traditions, could partly explain why outsiders could have more interest than Brazilian practitioners in the traditional form of the art).

It is worth noting that many feel that Capoeira Angola itself has changed from what it used to be 100 years ago. It is much more organized, and the style of play, though it is distinct from Capoeira Regional, has become very technical in some places. This is a natural outcome of having capoeira academies (in Portuguese, the word “academy” means the same as “gym” in English – a place of exercise), and classes for Capoeira Angola, where training goes on.

O Jogo De Capoeira Angola: The game of o jogo de Capoeira Angola is a ritualized mock combat that is played with two players within a ring of people, known as a roda (pronounced “hoda”). The game is played to music, which is played by people who form one side of the roda. The musicians form the bateria which is normally composed of other players of the game, rather than specific band members. The objectives of the game are vague, and are largely dependent on the outcomes that are desired by the two players and the person who is in charge of the roda (usually the Mestre). In other words, there is no official winner or loser of the game.

Generally, practitioners attempt to cause their “camarada,” or comrade, to lose their balance, fall, or to put them in a position where they could not avoid a blow inflicted upon them (sort of a checkmate moment), while at the same time not letting the opponent do the same to them. J. Lowell Lewis, in his book Ring of Liberation, mentions that one particular master, Mestre Moraes says that the only objective of capoeira is “movimento só” or “just movement”. For Moraes, the game becomes about maximizing one’s own freedom of movement while restricting that of the opponents. Note that generally the game of Capoeira Angola is non-violent and any blows, or fast sweeps that may cause injury to an opponent are usually shown and not completed.

The movements used by the players in attack and defense are characterized by being “closed”, as opposed to open movements which offer the opportunity to be attacked. Being closed refers to an inability of the opponent to attack a weak point because it is covered by a part of the body that is not considered attackable in the game. Closed body parts are thighs, the back, the buttocks, and the arms. Areas considered open when left unguarded, and therefore vulnerable to attacks, are ankles, the head, the stomach and chest, and genitalia.

As well, many of the movements are done with one or both hands flat on the floor, and some without one or both feet on the floor. This is perhaps due to the importance which is placed on causing a fall in the game – the additional balance allowed by having additional points of contact with the floor defeat many of the leg-sweeping attacks, known as rasteira. Attacks almost always come in the form of kicks.

There is speculation by many, but no clear reason as to why this is. Hands and arms are only used in occasional defensive postures, and are not used to attack except for dramatic purposes such as pantomiming the strike of a razorblade to a throat (in the past, capoeira was infamous as a dangerous sport where razor blades and knives were used, so the symbolic use of these implements are shown for dramatic effect). As well, movements are characterized by circles and flow.

Capoeira Angola contains rituals known as chamadas which translates literally to English as calls. This can be related to the idea of call and response that permeates the music of Capoeira and other African-derived musics such as samba de roda, jazz and blues. Chamadas (or calls) are initiated by one player signalling with a consistent ritual, such as holding one hand up, or holding both hands down near the feet while crouching over with the feet together and looking at the other player.

These sequences of movements are done within the capoeira game and have strategic significance such as trying to change the pace of the game, or to indicate the dominance of one player over the other. However, like all things in Capoeira Angola, the sequences can be broken at any time if either person sense the opponent is open or vulnerable and they wish to take advantage of this opportunity. There are many chamadas, and some people rightly claim that every movement in Capoeira Angola is a chamada – that is, a call requiring a response.

Due to the difficulty of explaining Capoeira Angola play in words, it is recommended that interested persons view some of the videos which have been linked to below, or visit an open roda at a nearby school if they have an opportunity. Unlike rodas at schools of Capoeira Regional, the roda is commonly given a regular time and day of the week of its own so that there is sufficient time for everyone to play a game that lasts 5 minutes or more. This requires an all-day event to give everyone a chance to play two or more times.

Music: Capoeira Angola is always played to music. It is not incidental, but rather a crucial element to the game. The reason for this is that during the game there is not only interaction between the players themselves, but also between the music and the players. Often subject matter of songs will describe a situation occurring within the roda, or will call players to change the quality of the game in some way. In an even more fundamental way, the rhythm being played calls for a certain kind of game between the players.

For example, one rhythm known as Angola calls for slower games, and less aggressive interaction. Another known as Jogo de Dentro calls for players to play within close proximity to each other. Although these rhythms, or toques are well known to everyone, it is rare to observe a distinct change in the game based on a toque changing besides a pause to allow the musicians to settle into the new rhythm and a singer to sing an appropriate song.

There are different types of songs in Capoeira Angola, but generally they take the form of call and response; that is, a leader will sing something, and the chorus responds with some other line. One notable exception to this is a type of song known as a ladainha (which translates as litany, which is a solo sung at the beginning of the roda, and which leads into the more call and response style of music, called corridos, with an interlude called a chula or luvacao where certain characteristics of the game or the players or the roda or other circumstances are called out, usually from a varied but well-known set of possible choices to describe something that is present in the mind of the singer.

Music is always in Portuguese, but there are influences of West African and Native American dialects from Brazil present in the lyrics. While subject matter of the music is varied, many songs are metaphorical in nature and tell stories that illustrate the worldview of the Angoleiro or practitioner of Capoeira Angola (typically a poor, black male).

The most important instrument is the berimbau which is a one-stringed instrument which is usually made from a piece of beriba wood, native to Brazil, a steel wire from a car or truck tire, and a calabash gourd as a resonator. It produces a very distinctive sound that practitioners of capoeira recognize and respond to.

This musical bow is one of the oldest in the world, as drawings of its cousins have been found in caves dating back 1000s of years. The string resonates through the gourd, known as a cabaça. The berimbau can only create three different pitches – a high one, a low one, and a buzz note, that is sort of in between the other two notes and is created by the metal disc pressing fretting the string not being secured firmly against the string, but does not have a definite tone or pitch. Generally three berimbaus of different pitches are present in a Capoeira Angola roda, providing three different pitches.

The deepest is the gunga, the middle is called the medio and the highest is called the viola which is given the most freedom to solo and improvise. The berimbau is crucial to the game in a way that other instruments are not, because the rhythm, which calls players to play certain kinds of games, is set by what the gunga plays. Other instruments used include cousins of the tambourine, conga drum, and cowbell, known as the pandeiro, atabaque, and agogo, respectively.

Quality of music is not judged in the same way as western music. This can be noted by the fact that instruments are almost always out of tune with each other relative to well-known tonal systems, as are the singers. The most important thing in Capoeira Angola music is creating a good positive energy, which Angoleiros affectionately refer to as Axé or Energia. As well, the rhythm or tempo must be maintained at all times.

Conclusion: Today Capoeira Angola academies are present all over the world. Angoleiros cite different reasons for playing, the most important one seems to simply be enjoyment of the game. Added benefits are improved malicia or cunning, physical fitness, musical ability, singing, body awareness, and arguably self-defense ability.