A Dance of Survival & Freedom

By - Oct 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Alexander Ragir

In the 17th century, African slaves in Salvador (Brazil’s oldest city) were routinely shackled and beaten. But those slaves of 400 years ago were not as beaten down as they may have appeared to their Portuguese slave masters. Always coming up with ways to survive their oppressors, the slaves practiced combat moves under the guise of a dance, and taught one another how to fight.

When you watch Capoeira dancers/athletes in action it’s easy to see how those 17th-century slaves from Angola outwitted their masters: the purpose is to avoid aggressive movements, instead relying on stealth. The martial art was outlawed until the 1930s in Brazil; now you see it everywhere in the city of Salvador.

Salvador was the second most important city in the Portuguese empire after Lisbon, and the center of the sugar trade. The city is said to be the most “African” place outside of Africa. It is also one of the poorest places in Brazil. The old city of Salvador, Pelorinho (meaning “whipping post”), was formerly the home to Bahian aristocrats and its cultural elite. Descending from the baroque architecture — gold-filled churches and beautiful mansions at the top of the hillside — are steep, twisty cobblestone roads paved by the hands of slaves.

Four centuries later my North American friend, Joey, and I drank in the same breathtaking view overlooking the plaza below. A man approached us, spreading arms colored with beaded necklaces in the shape of a berimbau, the principal instrument of Capoeira and proclaimed, “Amigo!” He went on to inform us that 10 necklaces for three reals (90 cents) is a good deal, because all the Bahian women love them.

Today, Pelorinho is restored for tourists and packed with restaurants, bars, art galleries and boutiques. The architecture is wealthy 17th-century Portuguese, while the culture is more African or Jamaican than South American. The relationship between past and present in Pelorinho is striking; understanding it, elusive.

Survival on the streets.

The spirit of Salvador is belied by smiles and overfriendliness that lend a superficial air of gaiety, but its true theme is survival. Whether being befriended by a stranger, seduced by a woman or being invited to participate in a Capoeira performance, tourists will be asked for money afterward. Native Salvadoran culture was developed through a struggle to survive as slaves. Now, the spirit of survival embedded into that culture dips into the hearts and pockets of tourists.

Begging in Salvador is endemic. If you do not completely ignore the beggars, you will be surrounded with palms-up. For many in Salvador, one American dollar is equivalent to one day’s work at minimum wage.

We had arrived that morning from the red-eye, an 11-hour bus ride from Puerto Seguro, and were waiting on the front steps of what is now the Jorge Amado Museum. It was to reopen after the midday siesta. The humid heat made it hard to breathe.

As we sat on the steps, the man with necklaces tried new sales techniques every five minutes, like a fly that gets swatted at and immediately buzzes right back. His determination brought out the best and the worst in me.

After a long day of alternatively giving money and refusing to give money to beggars, I began to respond randomly. One minute, I was like the-guy-with-white-hair-from-Save-the-Children; the next, a self-righteous-tourist-who-hates-poor-people-because-they-all-should-just-get-jobs.

“No, you are interrupting our conversation, leave. Bye.” I said curtly on more than one occasion.

Afterwards, I thought about how mean I was. But it is okay in Salvador. There are plenty of chances to make up for your lows. After I blew up on the fifth person, the sixth beggar was an adorable child selling candy who really preferred to play with me than work. His eyes screamed “Let’s wrestle!” His name was Walter. My money in hand, he scampered off.

Joey and I found an outside café in front of a group of people performing Capoeira. The place turned out to be a historic site called Mercado Modelo, where old capoeirista thugs would have dance battles for supremacy. We ordered an ice-cold bottle of Brahma (a Brazilian pilsner) and watched from white plastic “Brahma” chairs.

The Dance as a way of life.

Capoeira appears similar to break-dancing. The slaves disguised the training from their masters by making it seem like a dance, and it is said that the slaves would later put razorblades between their toes. What appeared to be an acrobatic African dance turned into a murderous style of combat versatile enough to take on several men, the “dancers” defending and attacking using handsprings, somersaults, cartwheels, high kicks, aerial leaps, spin kicks and head butts.

Slave owners prohibited the practice of Capoeira and banished it from the senzalas (slave barracks), although escaped slaves formed villages and continued developing the art. Now, Capoeira has become assimilated into Bahian culture and is internationally widespread. It is a complete art form that combines music, singing, dancing and fighting. Capoeiristas, the people experienced in the culture of Capoeira, say it is a way of life based on survival that combines mind, body and spirit.

Experienced capoeiristas perform Capoeira like a chess game, where each move from the opponent dictates the next move. Thinking ahead will put the opponent in a back position if the opponent makes the wrong decisions. Capoeira is not a “real” fight, but more about showing the opponent what you could do, predicting the opponent’s move and putting your foot where his head will be, for example.

There are Capoeira schools, usually taught by a mestre (master). To be a mestre, a capoeirista must have superior ability and a great understanding of Capoeira’s history and culture. The only way to become a mestre is if your own mestre grants you that status.

A venerable capoeirista once said, “I wished to be a dancer and could not be. Today I dance in Capoeira. I wanted to be a fighter, so I fight in Capoeira. Because I want to be an artist and express myself, have self-esteem, and be a real human being, I am a capoeirista.”

The student meets his mestre.

We were on our third beer when the tempo and energy of the game picked up. Now the top fighters were in the roda (the circle of people formed to watch the two fighters and add to the ambiance by clapping to the beat). They were all in top shape, even though some were more bulky than others. Their loose white Capoeira pants contrasted with their dark skin, emphasizing every kick. The capoeiristas spin-kicked with incredible speed, slicing through the humid air with complete control and cadence. Their bare feet landed on the concrete, balanced and strong, like roots, punctuated by elegant defensive back handsprings.

We were joined at the table by Walter and two of his friends (Joaquim and another kid), all around 10 years old. We took these kids on a shopping spree and bought them sandals, powdered milk, Capoeira pants, a drum and a tambourine. We had acquired three surrogate children and a pagodi band!

Back we went, up the elevator to Pelorinho Plaza for our first show as performers. I was going to be the drummer, Joey would play the tambourine and the two children were to play Capoeira for tips. My lack of skill on the drums was immediately evident, and I saw a group of men selling berimbaus (the main instrument of Capoeira that looks like a bow and arrow) notice my inadequacy. The kid yelled “Chega aqui!” (Get over here!). They took over the instruments and successfully elicited the raw sound of the berimbau, which controls the tempo, thus the energy, of the game. The drums came in with a simple 2-1 rhythm, which were then joined by the tambourine.

They began singing “Parana é, Parana é Parana,” a famous song about the state of Parana. They changed the words as a tribute to us gringos. “Parana é, Estados Unidos é Canada,” they chanted.

After the song was over they said something I did not expect but probably should have.

The small man on the berimbau asked, “Can you spare some money for us?”

“Doesn’t anyone not ask you for money?” I thought.

“I’m not a bank, man. Why would I give you money?” I said.

“Because we made you happy,” he smiled.

I laughed at him and shrugged.

The little boy ran to my side and explained to the men “No, they just bought the drum and tambourine so we could play here and make some money ourselves.”

It felt like the wind had changed direction. The whole vibe of the conversation shifted after the little boy spoke. It was better than giving them money. Teaching a man to fish is better than giving him a fish. They saw it as helping the children develop talent in their native arts, and feel pride from working for their money. The men embraced me, with nods and deep looks.

We began talking and I told them how I was studying Capoeira. The small man playing berimbau said our spirits had collided because they are alike, but now they complement each other. He said he has been Mestre Cebolinha for 40 years and showed me a postcard of him playing Capoeira at age 21, soon after he became a mestre.

This is the story of how I met my first true mestre. While training with him I learned about his life. It is not reflective of the glamorous postcard of him as a great capoeirista. He told me he never would have taught for the low price he gave me unless he really needed the money. Making berimbaus and selling them in Pelorinho Plaza for $10 or $15 does not give him much. He lives on about $7 a day: $3 for room and board, $2 for two packets of cigarettes and $2 for two soups, one in the morning and one at night. Living his life with his art is his blessing; meeting him, mine.

Capoeira in Milwaukee.

There are two types of Capoeira, Regional and Angola. Regional is the newer form and accommodates a faster game that consists of higher kicks and more acrobatics. Angola is the original Capoeira and demands a slower, more controlled game consisting of more ground movements and strategy.

Regional Capoeira groups:

CAPOEIRA MACULEL is a newly formed group that comes straight from Paran·, Brazil, and is taught by Instructor Claudia. The group trains weeknights on the lakefront as long as weather permits, and offers classes and private lessons. They also offer a Capoeira Regional class at UWM. For time and location information, call Claudia at (414) 332-9662

CAPOEIRA BATUQUE has been in Milwaukee for eight years. They train at the Downtown YMCA on Monday and Wednesday, 7:15- 9:00 p.m., and Saturdays 9:30-10:30 a.m., with a children’s class from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Classes are taught by Professor Gume (Wayne). For more information, call (414) 378-5442.

Angola Capoeira groups:

ASSOCIAC√O DE CAPOEIRA; CORPO E MOVIMENTO came to Milwaukee three years ago. They train in UWM’s Green Hall (3347 N. Downer Ave.) on Monday from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. (beginners) and 8:00-9:30 p.m. (non-beginners). They also train at the LCC (Latino Community Center, 807 S. 14th St.) on Wednesday from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. (adult beginners) and Saturday from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. (children).

UWM CAPOEIRA CLUB has a class and club at UWM. Contact Sam Jackson at (414) 297-9593 or Andrew Jacob at (414) 273-3514.

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