Capoeira Angola

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Capoeira Angola is the traditional style of Capoeira. It is usually, although not always, characterized by playful, ritualized games, which combine elements of dancing, combat, and music, while stressing interaction between the two players and the musicians and observers.

Capoeira has its roots in Central and West African cultures that were brought to Brazil through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. There are diverse theories about the origins of the art form. One of the most popular was introduced by Álbano Neves e Sousa in 1965. This theory was subsequently adopted and developed by Luís da Câmara Cascudo in his book Folclore do Brasil in 1967.

The theory concerns a practice known as “N’golo,” or the Dance of the Zebras. The movements of N’golo mimicked the movements of fighting zebras. The N’golo dance was practiced by young warriors competing for the hand of a young woman of marriagable age in a puberty rite known as efundula. The specific group cited by Neves e Sousa was the Mucupe (sometimes spelled Mucope) in Southern Angola. Whoever had a more impressive performance won the bride and was excused from having to pay a dowry.

The ‘N’golo theory maintains that in the port of Benguela, and also once in Brasil, the dance developed into a foot-fighting style that was used by both bandits and slaves for defence and attack. The N’golo and its ‘cognates’ are argued to have been been used by Africans and Afro-Brazilians to maintain themselves spiritually and physically under the harsh circumstances of slavery and plantation life. It developed mainly in three places: Recife, Rio de Janeiro, and the state of Bahia. While in the first two places, Capoeira was said to be violent, and had no music, in Bahia it became more of a ritualized game, with a strong musical element. It should be noted that much of what is known of Rio de Janeiro capoeira in the 1900s and earlier derives only from police reports, which naturally included no information about whether capoeira in Rio was done to music or not. Various police orders were given to search capoeiristas carrying instruments, usually ‘marimbas’, however.

The Bahian style of the late 19th and early 20th century became what is today referred to as Capoeira Angola. The term Capoeira Regional, on the other hand, was originally popularized by Mestre Bimba in the 1930s in an attempt to differentiate this newer style from the older form of Capoeira Angola. Mestre Pastinha was the founding Mestre of Brazil’s first officially recognized capoeira Angola academy, the ‘Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola’, which was originated in 1941 and gained government recognition in 1952. This was the start of the domestication of the street culture of Capoeira Angola.

Since the 1960s the N’golo theory has become popular amongst some practitioners of capoeira Angola, although it is not accepted by all scholars of the art form. Considerable academic discussion of the N’golo has occurred. Some books which relate specifically to the origins of capoeira Angola and discuss the N’golo theory are: Nestor Capoeira’s: ‘Capoeira Roots of the Fight-Dance-Game’, Waldeloir Rego’s excellent: ‘Capoeira Angola Ensaio Socio-Etnografico’ (in Portuguese), Gerard Taylor’s in depth study of Capoeira’s African antecedents: ‘Capoeira The Jogo de Angola from Luanda to Cyberspace Volume One’, J. Lowell Lewis’s ‘Ring of Liberation’, Matthias Röhrig Assunção’s ‘Capoeira The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art’ and an interesting essay by, T.J Desch Obi in ‘Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora’ edited by Linda M. Heywood.

While many practitioners in Bahia used their knowledge of capoeira to fight, the elements of Capoeira Angola can be practiced without solely relying on the martial elements.

Since the rise of Capoeira Regional as practiced by the group Senzala in Rio de Janeiro (the name came from Mestre Bimba’s school which originally taught what was called the “luta regional baiana” or the “Regional Fight of the state of Bahia”), the popularity of Capoeira Angola declined in the face of the flashier and far more overtly martial style. Apparently very little thought was given to the roots of capoeira by the Grupo Senzala, who’s style of Capoeira ‘Regional’ became popular in Rio de janeiro and Southern Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s. It was assumed by many, including masters of the Angola style, that ‘Angola’ was seeing a slow slide toward becoming a historical footnote.

By the end of the 1970s however, many players of Capoeira Regional began to seek out the older Angola masters in order to connect with and understand the roots of the game. Capoeira Angola thus experienced a resurgence that involved a re-assessment of the traditional form of Capoeira. This may also have been because Capoeira began to be played outside of Brazil, where a greater number of capoeiristas became interested in Capoeira Angola (the bias of most Brazilians against elements of their country’s culture that come from Africa, especially those things that have a relationship to African traditions, could partly explain why outsiders could have more interest than Brazilian practitioners in the traditional form of the art).

It is worth noting that many feel that Capoeira Angola itself has changed from what it used to be 100 years ago. It is much more organized, and the style of play, though it is distinct from Capoeira Regional, has become very technical in some places. This is a natural outcome of having capoeira academies (in Portuguese, the word “academy” means the same as “gym” in English – a place of exercise), and classes for Capoeira Angola, where training goes on.

The game of o jogo de Capoeira Angola is a ritualized mock combat that is played with two players within a ring of people, known as a roda (pronounced “hoda”). The game is played to music, which is played by people who form one side of the roda. The musicians form the bateria which is normally composed of other players of the game, rather than specific band members. The objectives of the game are vague, and are largely dependent on the outcomes that are desired by the two players and the person who is in charge of the roda (usually the Mestre). In other words, there is no official winner or loser of the game.

Generally, practitioners attempt to cause their “camarada,” or comrade, to lose their balance, fall, or to put them in a position where they could not avoid a blow inflicted upon them (sort of a checkmate moment), while at the same time not letting the opponent do the same to them. J. Lowell Lewis, in his book Ring of Liberation, mentions that one particular master, Mestre Moraes says that the only objective of capoeira is “movimento só” or “just movement”. For Moraes, the game becomes about maximizing one’s own freedom of movement while restricting that of the opponents. Note that generally the game of Capoeira Angola is non-violent and any blows, or fast sweeps that may cause injury to an opponent are usually shown and not completed.

The movements used by the players in attack and defense are characterized by being “closed”, as opposed to open movements which offer the opportunity to be attacked. Being closed refers to an inability of the opponent to attack a weak point because it is covered by a part of the body that is not considered attackable in the game. Closed body parts are thighs, the back, the buttocks, and the arms. Areas considered open when left unguarded, and therefore vulnerable to attacks, are ankles, the head, the stomach and chest, and genitalia.

As well, many of the movements are done with one or both hands flat on the floor, and some without one or both feet on the floor. This is perhaps due to the importance which is placed on causing a fall in the game – the additional balance allowed by having additional points of contact with the floor defeat many of the leg-sweeping attacks, known as rasteira. Attacks almost always come in the form of kicks. There is speculation by many, but no clear reason as to why this is. Hands and arms are only used in occasional defensive postures, and are not used to attack except for dramatic purposes such as pantomiming the strike of a razorblade to a throat (in the past, capoeira was infamous as a dangerous sport where razor blades and knives were used, so the symbolic use of these implements are shown for dramatic effect). As well, movements are characterized by circles and flow.