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"Capoeira Angola"
par Dr. Morton Marks
texte issu du CD "Capoeira Angola 2: Brincando na Roda" / Smithsonian Folkways

The martial art and ritual combat dance called Capoeira Angola is one of the major expressions of an African, specifically Kongo-Angolan, continuum in Brazil. Its origins may go back as far as the 16th century, when slaves from western Central Africa arrived in Salvador and the surrounding Recôncavo region. They came in great numbers throughout the 17th centruy, when they formed the majority of slaves in Brazil. Parts of Angola were almost depopulated in the process. Since Angolans were the first large African groups in Brazil, they came into contact with the Amerindians and caboclos, people of Portuguese-Amerindian descent. To this day in Brazil, one often finds Angolan and Amerindian elements closely associated, as in the expression caboclos de Aruanda, literally Indians from Luanda, the Angolan capital. (In Afro-Brazilian religious contexts, a caboclo is the spirit of a dead Indian, and Aruanda means something like "spiritland.")

It is not surprising then, that the word capoeira is believed by many to have a possibly Amerindian etymology, although the word may also be of Portuguese or Bantu origin. The slaves brought to Brazil were replacements for indigenous laborers from whom they learned agricultural ttechniques. A generally accepted theory of the origin of the word capoeira is that it comes from the Tupi Indian ka puêra, meaning "secondary growth, the grassy scrubland that sprang up after virgin forest had been cleared for planting." The implication is that such clearings were secluded spaces hidden from the plantations ocerseers' eyes-spaces where African slaves might freely perform their dances. The word also carries the connotation of escaping to the "bush."

Besides the etymology of the word, the question of the origins of the genre often arises; is the genre traceable to Africa or is it a Brazilian creation? Its roots are intertwined with Brazil's history, but it is part of a complex Kongo-Angolan culture in the Americas. Evidence of its origins lies in its similarities to related martial-arts styles, always set to music, that are found in an arc stretching from Brazil through the Caribbean, and into the southern United States. Perhaps the closest thing in the Americas to it is the danymé (also called ladja), a combat dance on the Caribbean island of Martinique. As in the Brazilian form, there is a ring of spectators, and each contestant enters the circle, moving in a counterclockwise direction and dancing toward the drummers. This move, called kouwi lawon, or "circular run" in creole, is an exact parallel to the capoeira interlude called dá volta ao mundo, or "take a turn around the world." Once the danmyé begins, the contestants' movements are mirrored in the music. Some superb examples of danmyé drumming were recorded by Alan Lomax in the early 1960s (Martinique: Cane Fields and City Streets, Rounder CD 1730). The master drummer follows the contestants closely, timing his accents and rolls to their blows (Gerstin and Cyrille 2001). In the 1930s, Katherine Dunham fimed dockworkers of Fort-de-France, capital of Martinique, performing danmyé, a specialty of theirs, and an echo of performances on the docks of Salvador, Brazil, where capoeira has traditionally been a favorite practice of fishermen and longshoremen. In Cuba, with its wealth of Kongo-inspiried music and dance, there was a mock-comabt dance called mani. It was performed to the sound of yuka drums, the precursors of modern conga drums and rumba. A dancer (manisero) would stand in the middle of a ring of spectator-participants, and moving to the sound of the songs and drums, would attempt to knock down someone in the circle. Some of the manisero's moves and kicks were comparable to those of Brazilian capoeira (León 1984:71-72), including its basic leg-sweep (rasteira), which also occurs in samba duro, a dance found in Salvador. Exactly as in Martinique, the Cuban master drummer's patterns would mirror the contestants' actions, and suppy accents to accompany certain blows. In the 19th century, mani was so widespread an popular in Matanzas, a sugar-growing province east of Havana, that slave-owners would take their best maniseros to fight teams from nearby sugar mills, betting on them as in prizefighting (León 1984). In 1965, with the help of an old participant, a reconstruction of mani singing and drumming was recorded in Matanzas (Linares n.d.), but by then the genre had long been obsolete.

Combat dances may once have been part of Kongo cultures throughout the Americas. Robert Farris Thompson has found what may be a Kongo-derived martial art in an Afro-Venezuelan coastal village (Thompson 1992), and in the United States, the "knocking and kicking" combat of the Sea Islands and costal Georgia, a Kongo-influenced area, may be related. But with the possible exception of of Martinique, where danmyé has been revived and is performed regularly, some of these forms are known only to a handful of ethnographers and none has taken root the way capoeira has in Brazil. In addition to the ring form and basic movement patterns, what makes all these genres African-based is that the mock-combat is cooridnated with a percussive musical accompaniment. As in Martinique and cuba, early depictions of capoeira show drums present, as they are on this disc. But capoeria today is inseparably linked to movement-related rhythms (toques) played on the berimbau, a single-stringed musical bow with a gourd resonator, and in fact there is no capoeira without the berimbau. The instrument symbolizes the authority of the capoeira master (mestre), and its rhytms, whose name derive from the mny styles and moves of capoeira, control the action in the ring and signal the transition from one style to another.

Like the combat dances themselves, this musical bow has or had cognate forms in the Americas, from the cocoa lute or bouth bow of Grenada to the diddley bow of the American South, where its slide techniques became an important ingredient in the blues guitar-playing. Another singles-stringed instrument of northeastern Brazil, the berimbau de lata, has a tin can for a resonator, is played horizontally with a bottleneck technique, and closely resembles the homemade instrument of American bluesman Eddi "On String" Jones. In Cuba, resonated musical bows of Kongo origin, called sambi or burubama, resembled the Brazilian berimau in construction and playing style (Ortiz 1996). They are now obsolete, like most of the African-based combat dances of the Americas. Virtually all the musical bows in the Americas are nw known only to a handful of musicologists or folklorists. The berimbau, in contrast, has becom the emblem of capoeira and sometimes of all of Afro-Brazilian folklore. Musicologist Gerhard Kubik (1979) has traced the Brazilian berimbau to two resonated musical bows of Angola, the mbulumbaniba of southwestern Angola, and the hungu of the Luanda area, whose port played a major role in the transatlantic slave trade.

The word hungu is from Kimbundu, a language that has made a large contribution to Brazilian Portuguese. The construction and playing technique of the hungu is similar to that of a Brazilian berimbau, and Brazilians can recognize in recordings of Angolan musical ows rhythms that they associate with capoeira. Browsing in Lisbon record stores, one can find CDs by Jovens do Hungu (Berimbau Youth), an Anglan group from the Luanda area. On the cover of their first release, Sembele, they are seen with an array of instruments that includes hungus, and anyone familar with Brazilian culture might expect them to have some connection with an Angolan version of capoeira. Yet their music has nothing to do with it, and anyone who goes to Angola expecting to find a Brazilian-style capoeria ring with berimbau accompaniment will be dissapointed. In Brazil the berimbau is rarely heard outside of a capoeira context, with the exception of Bahian samba and the cutting-edge music of Naná Vasconcelos, who freed the berimbau of its capoeira constraints. It might therefore come as a surprise to aficianodas that early depictions of the martial art, such as the one by Rugéndas that dates from the 1830s, show no berimbaus present. Throughout much of the 19th century, the instrument was associated not with capoeira, but with street musicians or pregoeiros, street vendors who hawked their wares to the sound of a berimbau. At some point near the end of the 19th century, berimbaus were added to the capoeira ring, possible to disguise its martial-art aspect by making it look more like a dance. But so strong is its association with capoeira, and so problematic its absence for some, taht in a book about capoeira someone has doctored the Rugendas engraving to make it look like a berimbau was present in the early 19th century rings.

In Brazil, the full name of a musical bow with a gourd resonator is berimbau de barriga, or "belly berimbau." A skillful player can create wah-wah vocal effects by manipulating the gourd resonator against his belly. A clue to the origins of these effects comes from the mouth bow of Grenada, which survived into the 20th century and which uses the mouth caivty as a natural resonator. In continental Portuguese, berimbau denotes a Jew's harp, and in Brazil, the name was probably first applied to the African mouth bow, whose vocalized effects were imitated in the gourd-resonated instrument. This vocalization of a stringed instrument was revived in North America, albeit in a more sophisticated form, with the wah-wah guitar medal of the 1960's. As in Martinique and Cuba, there is a tight correlation between capoeira's music and action in the ring. Rhythm, song, and dance interact at many levels. The first sounds are from the gunga, followed by the second and third berimbaus. In an African-style staggered entry, the pandeiros, agogô, reco-reco, and atabaque add their rhythms, in that order. With the first two contestants crouching in front of the berimbaus, the master begins the ladainha, literally "litany", which narrates capoeira's philosophy and praises the bond among its players. The master then begins the salutations, answered with responses from the ring, in the section called the chula. Finally, he calls for the game to begin, for the players to move "out into the world" (pelo mundo fora). Again the music changes, this time moving into the corridos section, the songs that accompany the game, with responses sung by the entire ring. The berimbaus move from rhythm to rhythm as the game opens up and the action in the ring accelerates, and the mestre may improvise a commment on the action. It is said that skillful players can hear the berimbaus' variations instructions taht tell them how to "play." This is the reason for the proverb "the berimbau is the first mestre" (Downey 1996).

This is another part of the answer to the Africa vs Brazil question: instruments and capoeira movements may be traceable to western Central Africa but the parts were reassembled into a different pattern by Afro-Brazilians. This should be kept in mind when considering the attempts that have been made to "trace" African origins for specific moves in the Brazilian genre. Mestre Pastinha believed that the source of capoeira is the n'golo, or "zebra dance", a ritual combat performed by young warriors in southwestern Angola. Other echoes of or parallels to capoeira can be found elsewhere in Central Africa, in Angola and the north Kongo region (Thompson 1992). This fact spports the view that capoeira did not originate in a single dance or martial art transported to colonial Brazil with the slave trade, but was created in Brazil by Afro-Brazilians, who based it on Kongo-Angolan philosophical and aesthetic principles.

Preservation and transmission of the Angolan style of capoeira stems from the work of Mestre Pastinha (Vincente Ferreira Pastinha), who in 1941 fromed the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola (CECA), the first school to teach capoeira Angola in Brazil. In 1955, the school moved into new headquarters in Pelourinho, in the heart of Salvador's old city, now considered one of the glories of colonial Brazilian architecture. Mestre Pastinha, born in 1898, had himself been taught by an Angolan master named Benedito, also known as Africano. Mestre Pastinha organized and gave coherent form to capoeira Angola, and propagated it throughout Brazil and in other countries. He was the first capoeira master to write a book on the history of capoeira, philosophy, and practice:Capoeira Angola (1968). In 1968, he and a group of his students were invited to participate in the first Festival of African Arts in Dakar, Senegal. He also recorded albums, in which, over the sound of the berimbau, his voice can be heard narrating his life story and the history of capoeira Angola. Despite his renown, he lost his school in Salvador in 1973, and died in poverty in 1981. Above all, Mestre Pastinha taught capoeira Angola as a path of self knowledge and a way of life. This approach has been followed by Mestre João Grande (João Oliveira dos Santos, born ca. 1933), one of the two remaining angoleiros (masters of the Angola style) taught by Pastinha. João Grande taught at Pastinha's academy in Salvador, and now has his own school in New York City.

Underlying capoeira and all the African-based combat dances of the Americas is the Bantu circle cosmogram, which the game sets into motion. The ring is always the space within which the ritual combat takes place, and it represents the world in minuture. Mestre Moraes has stated this idea as Capoeira Angola's basic philosophy: "The capoeira ring, whose geometric form facilitates the propagation of energy, is one of the symbolic representations of the 'macro' world. The movements we make inside the ring symbolize the adversities we encounter in life, which we often don't know how to deal with. In the game of life, our opponents, in most cases, know nothing of capoeira but have movements peculiar to their own game, which we should be able to interpret and understand in their context, taking the capoeira ring as a point of reference. Playing in the ring, we succeed in establishing a fusion between playful elements and respect for the other person. But the ring isn't reality; the world is. If we win in this ring, we can take the other one too!"

© aruera