“Capoeira is joy, it is good humor, it is not that competition business; it is spontaneity.” –Mestre Suassuna
(Belo Horizonte, Brazil) When sitting down to write this post I was tempted to let the videos speak for themselves, letting them simply say, “This is capoeira.” I realized though that it would be a disservice to both this fascinating Brazilian art form and my friend who inspired me to write about it, Australian Chad Fishwick. You can read these words in their entirety before watching the videos, or just skip ahead to the action. Do you as you please. Like capoeira as a metaphor for life (and navegating minor bike blogs), you can play fast or slow, but the important thing is to play.
[White guy Chad in grey shorts playing tan man Trevor in green]
I met Chad through my American friend Justin, the same who has appeared in this blog countless times, both in Colombia and different areas of Brazil. Two English teachers in the city of Belo Horizonte, Chad and Justin found each other seemingly the same way two sea turtles find each other in the ocean: through dumb luck. They’ve since become roommates and are currently founding an English language school to meet the high demand for native-speaking professors in the city.
[Chad in black pants and white shirt playing with Mestre Agostinho]
Having already visited Belo Horizonte by bike some nine months back, I was lucky to return not only to a solid group of friends welcoming me back but also instant access to the local capoeira scene through Chad, a capoeirista (a practicioner of capoeira) for thirteen years now, first in his native Australian, then later in the martial art’s birthplace, Brazil. Here in Belo Horizonte we’ve gone to several capoeira sessions and practiced on the blinding white tiles of rooftops.
[Chad showing some moves]
Capoeira has many definitions and philosophies, just as it has different schools that teach varying techniques and styles. After reading Mestre Nestor Capoeira’s books A Street-Smart Song: Capoeira Philosophy and Inner Life and The Little Capoeira Book, my simple, straightforward, no-nonsense definition is this: capoeira was first developed by slaves in Brazil as a fighting technique which later evolved into an all-inclusive cultural expression (martial arts, music, dance, religion, philosophy).
[Chad in black pants and white shirt showing what’s what]
“Capoeira is a game, it is dance, it is fight, it is of war and it is of peace, it is of culture, of music, it is a portion of things.” –Mestre Suassuna
Between the 16th and 19th century three million slaves were brought to Brazil, more than one-third of all slaves sent to the Americas during the Atlantic Slave Trade. These slaves hailed from various African regions that many times spoke different languages, which made communication between them difficult. When the winds of rebellion swept through the sugar plantations and precious metal and gem mines capoeira was a unifying factor, a universal language of song and dance that was used to disguise its deadly intent.
[Chad in grey plays with Trevor in green]
On plantations, and even in most cities, slaves far outnumbered the enslavers. White fear was constant as violent rebellions were a very real reality at any time. To combat the tension as black to white ratios climbed increasingly in the slaves’ favor plantation owners ceded certain rights to their workers in hopes of calming the growing discontent.
[Giant Chad in black pants and white shirt plays in a tiny roda]
Plantation owners allowed their slaves to practice their “one religion” during non-work hours, failing to recognize that African slaves were a diverse population from an enormous continent. In other words, there was no one religion to practice. The slaves took advantage of this ignorance by creating capoeira circles, or rodas, in which they literally hid with human bodies and layers of musical distraction the violent martial art movements they later used to kill their captors.
[Chad doing a sequence in the sun]
The berimbau and drums used in modern capoeira schools and rodas all over the world were originally used by the slaves as just another form of deception. Capoeira‘s hybridization of music and warfare was unprecedented. The European plantation owners, with their ethnocentric view on what hand-to-hand combat should be, assumed the slaves were just practicing some crazy religious ritual from Africa.
After several successful slave rebellions in which capoeiristas defeated armed plantation owners and escaped into the Brazilian interior to slave enclaves called quilombos, capoeira was banned. As a result, capoeira went underground, practiced clandestinely indoors or anywhere outside the eye of the law. Later in the 20th century after slavery was abolished capoeira remained illegal because the martial art was popularly used by criminals and gangs to battle amongst themselves and against the police.
[Chad in black pants and white shirt styles it up]
Though capoeira has become accepted (it’s the national sport of Brazil), it is undefineable in essence, even the origin and meaning of the word “capoeira” is hotly debated. However, as an art form that I respect I wanted to share with MB&S readers at least this brief history.
Capoeira is one of my favorite aspects of Brazilian culture and represents everything I love about the country: spontaneity, creativity, respect, preserverence, diversity, musicality, energy—the list goes on. If interested in capoeira‘s history I recommend the Wikipedia page and the books A Street-Smart Song: Capoeira Philosophy & Inner Life and The Little Capoeira Book. Check out CapoeiraScience’s video section to watch the world’s greatest living capoeristas in action.
A special thanks to Chad for his friendship, floor space, and not taking my head off in the roda as well as Grupo Ginga in Belo Horizonte for allowing me to film. Salve!