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A Capoeira Angola Primer

About the art and traditions of Capoeira Angola

A Primer for beginner students 

©2002 by Pererê

Capoeira Angola is a game with an amazingly diverse variety of interactive elements. In Brazil, this many-faceted tradition has developed for centuries with its roots tapping deeply down into ancient Bantu warrior traditions and cosmology originating from within peoples of south central Africa and these roots also reach broadly across into other resonating cultural sources out from which Capoeira Angola derived infinitely useful and practical perspectives, conceptual tools, and what from the adept player's perspective might well be acknowledged as spiritual medicine - all of which offers greater practical capacity to navigate and negotiate the perils and obstacles (i.e. reality) of surviving and living in Western-based Societies. In other words Capoeira Angola as an activity and modality absorbed enough practical utilitarian aspects of Western civilization to allow it to function and metabolize an antidote to the prevailing systems of control within that civilization. Capoeira Angola may be a creolized cultural art, but all aspects of it - the composition of its music, song structures, self defense techniques & personal safety tactics, its expressive dance, ritual structure, and spiritual cosmology have all been developed by master and adept players over many generations in order to function together as a whole, and to function in many ways as a counterpoint to what has been historically an overtly repressive dominant paradigm.

Capoeira Angola is the mother art from which all other contemporary expressions of Capoeira owe their origins. It is the most musically and ritually replete style, with a phenomenal range of interactive strategy, techniques, and attack and defensive movement combinations. Techniques, so long as they are within the context of Capoeira Angola play, are only limited by the individual player's creativity and imagination. Here are some perspectives and ideas that may prove insightful for understanding the game of Capoeira Angola:

*Ritual of the game: The game of Capoeira is played by two contestants within the confines of a ring, the boundaries of this ring can be set by swinging a gunga (berimbau) at arm's length in a full 360 degrees, creating a space roughly ten to twelve feet in diameter. The other participants then move in to fill the designated edge of the roda. A bataria (battery), comprised of participants playing percussive musical instruments, sets up shop at one side of the circle. Usually taking a position that affords the best vantage place to watch over the roda, and the surrounding environs. This action precludes anyone from approaching the roda unnoticed. After the parameters of the roda have been established, two contestants from the group of participants enter the circle and crouch down in front of one another. Centering themselves for their coming engagement. The music has by this time begun and one of the contestants, or another member of the bataria, begins to sing a litany, sharing their views, offering praises, and metaphorical verses meant to inspire reflection about the art. Once the litany has been sung, all the praises and blessings offered, and views expressed, the leader of the roda offers the contestants the ring. The game begins.

A single individual always leads the roda de Capoeira Angola. This person is either the mestre of the group, or someone designated as the ringleader by the mestre. This ringleader, or 'mestre de roda' controls the goings on within the roda and holds the authority for how the rituals of the roda will be developed. The ringleader sets up the 'house rules', commences and concludes the roda, and administrates what will happen within the confines of that ritual space. The mestre de roda has a lot of responsibility. Having to provide a safe environment for all the roda participants. The mestre de roda is responsible for arbitrating everything that goes on inside the ring, and for everyone that approaches and then enters that ring. In the not so distant past of Brazil, Capoeira was illegal to practice in any form, and the members of Capoeira communities had to be very watchful so that they where not caught unawares during the Capoeira roda, to be caught could mean injury, imprisonment, or death.

During games, if some form of danger came near, the mestre de roda alerted all other participants of the approaching danger through use of specially coded rhythms played on the gunga (also called a berimbau). The mestre de roda usually sits in as a member of the bataria of musical instruments that provide the rhythmic environment in which the jogos (games) are played. The symbolic authority of the mestre de roda rests in the viola, the musical instrument of central importance for the roda. It is this instrument that is played by the mestre de roda, or by someone who takes cues from the mestre. The viola has the central position in a line of the three gungas (berimbaus) or musical bows. The top end of the viola is dipped into the roda to signify various changes for a game between two contestants. Requiring them to end their bout, replay their game because of some type of foul by one or both players, or change into a new level of play. Whether inside the circle, or outside, the ritual of the roda de Capoeira Angola allowed for the fact that danger was a part of life. And rather than shut out, or ignore that potential for danger, the Angoleiro learned to use it in order to refine their skills, senses, and reflexes to a high degree.

*Objectives for playing in the ring: When two contestants enter into the roda and crouch at the foot of the berimbau to play, their game actually begins the moment they both step within confines of the ring. Though it is considered improper for one player to attack another before being offered to play by the viola, it is also disrespectful to disregard the danger that one's opponent represents. Players prepare themselves physically, emotionally, mentally, and often spiritually for their games. As long as both players conform to the basic rules of play, or at most bend them in creative ways that do not ruin the integrity of the roda, they should expect that anything can happen, and most likely will - to them - especially if they forget to pay attention to their opponent. Each player studies the habitual movements of their opponent in order to devise tactical strategies that will give an advantage to them in the game. Angoleiros also learn to ruthlessly stalk their own behavior and habits in order to become tight and efficient, giving nothing away except by design.

There are three potential outcomes to a game of Capoeira Angola. These are the same as in many types of gaming activities and sports. These outcomes are: Ganhar (to win), Perder (to lose), and Empatar (to draw/tie). Each player wants to win their bout, endeavoring to expand their control within the circle while simultaneously minimizing their opponent's ability to do like-wise. Ultimately reducing their opponent's ability to mobilize within the roda to zero. This can be done by applying any of a truly massive variety of strategically placed strikes, feints, escapes, and take-downs combined with techniques that are meant to draw one's opponent into making tactical errors that the player can then take advantage of in order to prevail. Within our group's training games, if a student wins or looses any individual bout it is of no great consequence as long as both players give 100% to their game. The important lesson is to understand that life is full of similar trip-ups, and to realize that falling, and getting up again, is a vital part of the learning process. If a student gets caught in a take-down while playing in the roda, they learn over time to detach themselves from feelings of failure, and work at finding the lesson within the fall. Only in this way can they begin to constructively explore their own strengths and weaknesses in order to master themselves.

*Music and song: The music in Capoeira Angola is vitally important to the art. The rhythms that are played on the gungas establish the type of game that is to be played in the roda at that time. The other instruments in the bataria provide a supplemental background for the rhythms to unfold. In the tradition of Capoeira that we follow, we use a bateria that is comprised of three gungas: the Berraboi / bass - this bow holds down the bottom with the toque (rhythm) Angola. The Viola / lead - this bow plays the toque which will designate what type of game is being requested. The Violinha / rhythm - this bow plays variations on the same toque that is laid down by the Viola. Other instruments in the bataria are: two Pandeiros (tambourines), a Reco-Reco (rasp), and an Agogo (double gong bell). The Atabaque (conga-like drum), a common feature in most Capoeira baterias, is considered an optional instrument, and is not required to compose a full bateria in our group.

Singing is of vital importance for Capoeira. The many traditional songs in Capoeira Angola are the storehouse for oral history, and serve as a primary way to educate the player in the concepts and values that have developed in Capoeira Angola for hundreds of years. The songs are commonly grouped in 4 categories. The Ladainha (litany) - this type of song is used to begin a roda, or start a new round of games. Ladainhas can be about almost any subject, though they are most often used to convey parables, legends, traditional values, and humor through poetic verse. The Louvacao (praises) flow directly from the ladainha and are a form of call and response song in which the caller acknowledge certain qualities, actions, persons, places, or their diety, and receives an affirmative reply to each acknowledgement by the participating assemblage of players. Following the louvacao there comes the Corridos (runners), which also follow a call and response form. This group of songs are often strung together and used as a means of commentary by various callers. They are often used to highlight an aspect of the action, either positive or negative, that is going on within the ring, with the meaning of the traditional verses dependent on how creatively the caller can establish a context for the game that is being played. Context defines content, or meaning, for a song.

There are hundreds of traditional corridos and many have been added over the years from various mestres who popularize them. Done well, corridos bring add a lot to the games being played, and can enhance the enjoyment of the action in the by all who participate. There is also another traditional song form called Quadras (four-line verses), but they are falling into disuse by the majority of groups, and may completely vanish within the next few generations of players if an effort is not made to revitalize them.

*Movement, Falling & Winning the Circle: At its heart, the movements of Capoeira Angola are all about falling. Learning how to fall in such a way that it stimulates new perspectives and understanding about the nature of life and the world, and maneuvering yourself and your innate resources within that world in ways that open you to advantages and opportunities. Falling skills are at the core of successful locomotion, recovery, effective attack & defense, and all acrobatic embellishment. Falling skills are particularly crucial to 'understanding' how to take advantage of power inversions against an adversary set to dominate you. Don't let anyone ever lead you astray on this, or try to convince you otherwise - your time and life energy are precious. If you don't know how to fall well, you don't know much at all.

A bout in Capoeira is won in one of three principle ways, each of which demonstrates an expanding magnitude of control and influence over the roda:

1. When a player is able to lock-out their opponent's ability to freely move within the confines of the ring thus reducing their tactical options to zero. This is a neutralization of one's adversary and is traditionally referred to as 'Amarracao' or 'tying-up' your opponent. It is the least decisive of the three ways to gain control over the roda and thus victory, but still a very good demonstration of skill and control.

2. When a player is able, in some way, to bring about a physical expulsion of their opponent from the ring. This can be done by knocking them out of the roda in some fashion or even intimidating or startling them into jumping out of the ring by using a well-placed feint or marked attack. This form of victory is more decisive than a mere tie-up of one's adversary but less so than...

3. When one player disrupts their opponent's balance and mobility into loosing control of their body so as to precipitating a fall (queda) off the supports of the hands, feet, and head. If the player who is falling does not recover from the fall in time, and thus lands on the ground (most often on their rear-end) this is commonly considered a win for the opposition. An inglorious conclusion no doubt, and one that each player attempts to avoid when ever possible. Causing a queda onto the floor is by far the clearest most decisive (least arguable!) way of gaining control over the ring.

If the player receiving an attack is able to recover from a fall before hitting the ground, or falling out of bounds, it is not a win for the opposition, but they definitely got the upper hand! If the players are evenly matched more often than not, a bout may become an 'empate' or a 'tie' where a clear victor is not discernible. These sorts of initiatives and recoveries happen all the time, lending inspiration to the singers & music and offer a major source of satisfying entertainment for all who watch. In any case, the main objective is to utilize all three of the principle conceptual tools available to the Angoleiro. Malicia. Malandragem. And Mandinga.

Without clearly apprehending the consequences of our decisions and actions in life we have little way to develop wisdom let alone personal power over the direction of our lives. This is one of the most overtly practical purposes of learning capoeira angola in the first place, one that more & more seems to go unappreciated in the modern era.

There is a common conception these days that the jogo of capoeira angola is not meant to have winners and losers; that it is merely about 'having a conversation' with a partner in the ring. In other more contemporary interpretations of modern capoeira which are essentially divorced from consequence with the real world this may be just fine, But in the world from which capoeira angola developed in, this is a serious (historically speaking even lethal) misinterpretation by modern players which has lead to a great deal of misunderstanding and wasted effort. Capoeira Angola was initially and remains a path to realizing one's potential, one's deepest capacities and finding (creating) a greater degree of fulfillment in one's life, and that can only be found through having one's presumptions, ideas, abilities, and skills thoroughly tested and proven sound. A warrior's path no doubt. During the times of Colonial & Empirical Brazil capoeiristas of those eras did not free themselves from the centuries old institution of slavery by conversing and flopping around with their oppressors and captors; and later in the Brazilian Republic, they did not escape from tyrannical and well-armed police repression and establishmentarian attempts at extermination by conversing & scuttling about with the authorities: In the hour of need - The angoleiros of old beat the living shit out of their enemies and made good their escapes! They trained, and practiced, and played with this potential in mind. This, more than anything else is why we have this art to guide us and assist us in our modern day migrations from bondage towards freedom - and beyond. You can quote me if you like. I'll stand by this.

In a hundred different ways you need to fall - over and over again - guided by one's mestre (in your life by your mentors, parents, gurus, guides, elders, etc') in learning how to avoid the mistakes of all those who came before you - in how to finally stand on one's own - both in the ring, and then out into the world. Life is absolutely filled with obstacles and traps of every sort. These barriers and pitfalls will not respond to 'conversation' but must be overcome and outmaneuvered by force of your will, by the sharpness of your reflexes, by the capacities of your body, and by the depth of your insight into the nature of adversity. Respect your adversary in the ring and realize what they are providing for you in this time - and what you are providing for them in this time - in your steps on the pathway to greater liberty and self realization. If they get upset at being brought to fall, well then, that's their lesson - not yours.

Malicia for the Angoleiro is the embodiment of guile, craftiness, one-up-manship. The use of malicia requires the Angoleiro to be attentive at all times, in order to take advantage of the slightest opportunity. Maicia is also used to develop vigilance so that others do not take advantage of the Angoleiro. Malicia was developed as a primary philosophy in Capoeira Angola at its origins. Africans brought to Brazil and put to work as a slave-labor force were at the mercy of their captors. These captors had all the firepower, all the authority, and all the resources. Against superior physical strength, or other unequal power relations, only cunning, craftiness, and deceit will prevail. It is under this tremendous pressure that Capoeira Angola developed over generations, into a tool for liberation, and a path for self-mastery.

The movements of Capoeira Angola are fluid and beautiful when performed by an adept. When two players have a bout in the ring, each attempts not only to prevail, but also out perform the other with breathtaking flourishes and balancing skills that are both spectacular and economical in their use. Each opponent attempting to compliment the actions of the other while also working to out maneuver them. Regarding Malandragem and Mandinga...well, I'll have to go into those another time. Drop by the house and we'll talk...

*Lineages in Capoeira Angola: There is a falsehood that has been circulated for some years by members of various members of the Capoeira community which states that there has been only one master of Capoeira Angola who single-handedly was responsible for passing on this art into modern times, that there were no other masters of this art during his life. This mestre of Capoeira Angola: Mestre Pastinha is without a doubt one of the most famous figures in modern Capoeira history. He opened the first academy of Capoeira Angola and taught many generations of players. He was not, however, the only mestre of Capoeira Angola during his lifetime. There were many other teachers who, though they may not have had the same spotlight or large number of students lived relatively quite public lives more on the periphery of Bahian popular culture, and whom still passed their knowledge and skills in the art of Capoeira Angola down to new generations. The tradition that I have learned from my teacher mestre No and guide my own students within is one such lineage.

Though it is not commonly acknowledged, or explained, Capoeira Angola has been developed through many generations within a number of distinct lineages. Not so long ago, in fact, in some instances only one generation ago, Capoeira Angola was most commonly taught by a master to his small number of current apprentices. There was no academy, no sala, no group, just the backyard. Masters of various lineages would often play together in arranged street rodas, exchanging ideas and innovations while renewing a sense of common ground within the community of players. Masters brought their apprentices along to watch and learn. However, apprentices were not allowed to play in the roda until their master said they demonstrated the proper skills, maturity, knowledge of etiquette, and high level of self-restraint needed to function in these venues.

Study with another master was discouraged unless the other master was a close and trusted comrade, often himself a member of the same lineage. How lessons were imparted to apprentices, what techniques were taught, and how strategies were developed and applied for use in the roda completely depended on the knowledge and skills that their master had learned and developed over the course of their lives, as well as what he had inherited from his master before him. This gave rise to a wide variety of interpretation within the art. Though today it is much more common for students to learn Capoeira Angola in a training hall setting rather than within the context of their lives as an apprentice, the art, and its current master instructors retain much of Capoeira's past context, pedagogy, and philosophy towards instruction.

*Four principles of Capoeira Angola: One of my most formative teachers Mestre No teaches that there are four primary principles, which form the ethical cornerstones of Capoeira Angola. These principles are Respeito(Respect), Responsabilidade(Responsibility), Seguranca(Safety/Security), and Liberdade(Liberty/Freedom). These four principles are often expanded upon and included into class lessons, for the purpose of developing a foundation for moral and ethical behavior through Capoeira Angola as a path, and towards life, for all our students. It is through an appreciation of these values that Capoeira Angola is taught to new generations of players within or academy.

None of the above concepts are meant to serve as absolute definitions for this art. They merely reflect the lessons and perspectives that have been shared and followed within one tradition. These ideas may even be in conflict in some ways with what others may say or think about Capoeira Angola. Be that as it may, Capoeira Angola is more than what any one voice can define.

Capoeira Angola: An art of many voices

An important fact to acknowledge about Capoeira Angola is that it has never been standardized or codified into an art that has 'only one' correct expression (though it would seem that this is the agenda of some of the more influential organizations within the Capoeira Angola establishment in recent years) Various Capoeira Angola lineages define their techniques, movements, and game strategies in ways that differ from one another on certain points. Whether a lineage/group prefers to use one form of ranking system over another, does or does not wear shoes (or does both), wears yellow and black training clothes or purely white training clothes has nothing at all to do with the validity or legitimacy of that lineage/group in Capoeira Angola. This, however, is exactly what is done, with differences in management and administration often used as a point of contention between organizations.

When Capoeira Angola entered the training hall and came largely off the street it became wide open for diverse ideas about how these new 'schools' should best be administrated, and how students progress within the art should be charted. These things are merely tools put in use by individual group leaders in order to facilitate their own group's development, and have nothing what so ever to do with the quality or correctness of how traditions and information about the art of Capoeira Angola are passed to new generations of players. It is a generous art, it has room for many voices, many views. Throughout its long and turbulent history Capoeira has always been adapted to best suit the needs of its practitioners. Even in the city of Salvador, Bahia, which is considered by many to be the 'Mecca' of Capoeira Angola, this art is not practiced the same from group to group within the various lineages.

There is a great deal of shared context between all groups or lineages of Capoeira Angola, how they play in the roda, how ritual is developed, how the music and songs of Capoeira Angola are used. These have much more in common with each other than not, and are the defining qualities that bring all Capoeira Angola lineages and groups together. Yet it is the differences that do exist in movement, strategy, and technique that allow for the richness and depth of this ancient art. If everyone in every Capoeira Angola group or community played the same way it would be somewhat boring and repetitive. It would be a very small 'gene pool', which would not speak well for Capoeira Angola's chances for a strong and vital future.