A few weeks ago I happened to be walking in the beautiful Company’s Garden in Cape Town South Africa. I came across a bunch of people standing around a group of performers. Naturally I was drawn to take a peek at this street performance that had taken over this section of the park. For the first time ever, I witnessed a live capoeira performance.I had only read about it and heard about it from my portuguese language tutor. I always pictured this dance as similar to salsa or the tango but I was clearly wrong in my assumptions. What I saw was a beautiful art form, complex in its execution but flawless in its aesthetic.
Capoeira is a Brazilian art form that combines fight, dance, rhythym and movement. It looks like a dance and a martial arts simulation all in one. It has been described as ‘a dialog between players – a conversation through movement which can take on many shades of meaning.’
What caught my interest about this Brazilian art form was how much the movements and songs resembled traditional African dance rituals. The video below shows an example of a performance.
A lot of historians debate the details of capoeira’s origins. However it is clear that African slaves played a crucial role in the development of the artform. There are also distinct native brazilian influence. Evidence suggests that the word capoeira originated from Angola, from the Bantu word ‘kapwera’ which means ‘to fight’. Although there are so many stories about the origin of capoeira, I agree with the school that says capoeira was developed in Brazil mainly by African descendants incoporating N’golo/zebra dance with native Brazilian influences particularly Maraná war fight. To quote mestre Vicente Joaquim Ferreira Pastinha, a master of capoeira- “It is said that long ago – centuries even – in Angola, they would have a yearly celebration to honor the girls who were entering adolescence. First they were operated on by the priests, thus becoming equal to the married women. Then, while the people sang, the men fought like zebras, giving kicks and headbutts. The winners were rewarded with being able to choose the most beautiful women.”
History has it that capoeira was practiced by slaves in order to learn how to fight and defend themselves but it was disguised as a dance so that slave masters wouldn’t realise it. Very clever!
Music is an important part of capoeira. The ‘capoeiristas’ on this day used intruments and sang during the performance. I found out that capoeira is usually performed to traditional berimbau music. The berimbau is the leading instrument and it determines the tempo and style of the music and game. If you look closely in the images I took, the berimbau would be that instrument that one of the guys is playing. It looks almost like a bow.
I couldn’t quite catch the words to the songs that went along with the performance. I have always said, real life conversation is nothing like they teach you in foreign language classes! My portuguese tutor would be sad! Anyhow, the songs included mostly humming and calls from the leader with responses from the group members.
Maybe one day I will sign up for capoeira classes and learn this beautiful art form. It is amazing how intertwined our worlds are after seeing clear African influence in this distinctly Brazilian art form. It would be wonderful to learn the deeper meaning of this art form and what goes into a performance.
I didn’t get the name of this particular capoeira group but kuddos to them for doing this street performance and opening up their art form for the public to see and appreciate!
If you would like to read more about capoeira, An introductory history by Bira Almeida – Mestre Acordeon is a great resource.
Eu sou mestre que aprende, [I am a master that learns,]
Disciplo que da licão. [And a student who teaches.]
– Old capoeira song
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