Capoeira: an experience at Bali Spirit Festival
Capoeira (“kap-a-whera”) is a living kaleidoscope of movement. It’s a song, a dance, a martial art and a playful, acrobatic delight. If you’ve ever glimpsed a group of people standing in a circle singing and clapping while two people perform a seemingly impossibly, graceful acrobatic dance, with arms, legs and occasionally dreadlocks flying everywhere, then you’ve tasted the energy or axé (“ash-ay”) of capoeira. And if you haven’t, then quickly check out this video:
Originating in the dark days of Brazil’s slave but now a cultural celebration of freedom and expression, the Bali Spirit Festival was blessed to have two of Bali’s premier capoeiristas teaching us the traditions, the movements and the spirit of the game.
Noko hails from Seminyak and is a concentrated ball of muscle and laughter with a bright and infectious smile. Loved across the island for his devotion to the promotion of capoeira, he is an outstanding and passionate teacher. Despite being small he is the first person to make fun of his height, and it is this endearing nature which draws his students together in a close-knit community based in Seminyak.
I have travelled and played capoeira across several continents across the world and I have to say his students are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Not only do they have incredible physical skills, their knowledge of the game, its music, traditions and culture is fantastic.
In Ubud we are incredibly lucky to have Madeira who was teaching side by side with Noko. If all of Noko’s muscles were squeezed and stretched in to a slightly taller, more slender version you would be forgiven for thinking Madeira was his brother. The cheeky, bright smile remains a fixture on Madeira’s face, even as he’s flicking his heel towards you with a perfectly executed spinning kick or armada. Madeira’s fluid movements and sense of rhythm – helped by the fact he is also a salsa teacher – are gaining him a loyal and inspired following in Ubud.
Contra Mestre Gege
To add a cherry on the cake, we were blessed with the presence of a living master of capoeira – Contra Mestre Gege (“Jeh-jeh”). One of the finest female teachers in the Angola style of capoeira and founding member of the International Capoeira Angola Foundation (FICA), CM Gege was due to arrive a week before the festival to start a series of workshops. But as those of us who have travelled know, the details of passports, visas and travel restrictions can sometimes get the better of us and she was delayed in Malaysia for a few days before she could enter Bali.
Happily she made it in time to attend all of the workshops, including a special workshop just for kids.
Tall and slender, with the beautiful lilt of the Brazilian accent colouring her voice, Mestre Gege shared with us some of the true spirit of capoeira. As playful as she is dangerous, Mestre Gege was an inspiration to watch as she played in the centre of the circle (called a roda – “hoda”). Her agile body was able to twist, turn, bend and stretch over as she reached her legs and body to seek out all the subtle blind spots in her opponent. But best of all was her playful attitude. She was never out to prove that she was better, but took a great delight in drawing the best out of her opponent, while cheekily downplaying herself until the very last moment when she would suddenly change direction or stop and send a probing foot in their direction.
With capoeiristas from Noko’s school playing traditional instruments in the background, these three teachers provided a wealth of experience and excitement to everyone who attended their workshops.
Many people are deterred from learning capoeira because they believe it is too hard. The movements look difficult, it’s hard to understand what’s going on (why is everyone clapping?) and no one has done a handstand since primary school!
So Noko and Madeira began by teaching us “organicapoeira” – organic capoeira – a gentle, simple movement helping us discover our own rhythm.
The foundation movement of capoeira is called the ginga (“jinga”). It’s a rhythmic, swaying, back and forth movement of the legs and arms. The arms rise and fall to protect the face, the stance is low and strong to strengthen the back and legs, and the music governs the pace.
The ginga is the first movement to learn and the last to master. Your ginga is an expression of your attitude to life. It is your style and your own personal approach – as an example, when the Brazilians play football, their easy swagger is seen as their ginga, and it’s not enough just to win the game, you must look beautiful while you’re doing it.
Your ginga also expresses your streetwise smarts learnt in the school of life, which is reduced to its essence when you play capoeira in the roda. It’s your ability to sense the movement and intentions of your opponent before he executes them, to avoid conflict through cleverness and skill, to remain smiling and playful in the face of danger, and always to celebrate the freedom of our bodies, our minds and our spirits.
As MK Asante says in his book “Buck: A Memoir” – a story of how “one precocious, confused kid educated himself through gangs, rap, mystic cults, ghetto philosophy, and, eventually, books”, Buck learns from his friend Uzi what ginga really is:
…Ginga is what separates Brazilians from the rest of the world in soccer. Uzi broke it down for me one day when we were watching SportsCenter. They were showing highlights of Brazil’s team. “Peep the way they play, peep their rhythm. That’s Ginga! It’s an attitude, a way of life, like soul, style and swag all rolled in to one. It’s not just how you move, it’s when you move, where you move, and why you move. Ging-ga!”…
From our basic ginga we then learnt to move with another person. Capoeira is really a conversation. Sometimes it is a friendly conversation, sometimes it feels like a competition, and occasionally it breaks out in to a clownish argument before everyone becomes friends again. We start the dialogue with our bodies. The way we interpret the music of capoeira is expressed through our ginga, and then we learn to dance and play with another person’s ginga.
A Martial Art Disguised As A Dance
While we are dancing there are a few things that are important. Remember that capoeira has its origins as a martial art disguised as a dance, so we must never take our eyes off our opponent and we must always protect our face. Many times I have been doing cartwheel or a turn and come up to find myself sniffing someone’s toes as they extend their leg towards me!
Always keep your eyes on your opponent, because she can play tricks the moment you look away!
If you protect your face with your arms you will always be safe – but don’t be too safe! If you never have an opinion in a conversation then nobody can prove you wrong, but the conversation gets pretty boring. As you get comfortable you can take more risks – expose a part of your body, try and draw your opponent in to a movement, be a little provocative, and then the game becomes quite interesting.
Starting the Conversation
You can start the conversation by extending your leg in to a kick. This can be as simple as a martelo which is the same as a roundhouse kick in karate or tae kwon do. More usually a capoeirista will begin with an armada or a Meia Lua de Compasso (literally: compass half moon).
An armada is a crescent kick where you lift the leg high across the inside the body and sweep across with the blade of the foot. If you’ve got good balance you add a spin before doing the kick and it is one of the most common movements in capoeira.
The other common movement is the meia lua de compasso (“mey lewa de compass”). To do this beautiful movement you crouch sideways to your opponent with your hands and feet on the ground. With your back foot, lift the heel and draw a circle through the air, trying to pass it across the face of your opponent before returning to your ginga.
Both of these movements can be done extremely fast or very slow depending on the rhythm of the game.
Once a player has started the conversation it is the other person’s chance to respond. Noko and Madeira taught us that a capoeira game looks good when there is a combination of back and forth, high and low, left and right. If your opponent starts with a spinning armada, it is best to answer by crouching down in to an escape movement known as an esquiva.
When doing an esquiva, a capoeirista will bend down low, often supporting himself with one hand on the ground and the other protecting his head. From here she might flow in to a cartwheel – perhaps trying to tap her opponent on the head with her foot as she flows through the air – or else she might sweep her foot along the ground to perform a rasteira (“has-teara”) to trip up her opponent and bring him to the floor.
In capoeira we try never to touch the ground. Only the hands and feet are allowed to touch the ground, because if we were playing on the jungle floor in Brazil and our body touched the earth we would get dirt all over our clothes!
Some older masters will enter the roda dressed in a very fine suit which is all white. It’s not very helpful for performing the acrobatic movements but it’s a sign of how far the capoeiristas have come from their origins as African slaves in Brazil, and a master of this status will always walk out of the roda with his white suit still immaculately clean and untouched.
Sometimes it happens when we are playing someone very skilled (or very cheeky) we fall to the ground or get touched by an arm or a leg. If this happens we pause the conversation, our opponent might help us up and we start to ginga together again until someone begins a new conversation.
And if you’re really cheeky, when your opponent offers to help you up you might pretend to sweep his legs, or appear to be grumpy and upset for a moment until he apologises and you both start again.
So expression plays a big part of your game and your ginga. Being acrobatic and agile just lets you express more of your self in the roda
As people play in the roda we give them axé (energy) by singing and clapping and playing music. The songs we sing are all traditional songs that tell the story of capoeira. The instruments are extremely simple, led by the beat of the atabaque (the tall drum) and joined by the distinctive twang of numerous berimbau (a simple instrument composed of a long piece of wire, traditionally taken from the inside of a tyre, a gourd and a flexible length of wood. It is struck with a stick and the two different notes are made by pressing a stone or a coin against the string to change the note). There may also be someone playing a pandeiro (tambourine), the agogô or the reco-reco.
The rest of us clap to a particular beat and sing our hearts out while the players are inspired to give their best to the roda.
To play capoeira inside the roda is to express your freedom for life, for joy and for the spirit of capoeristas everywhere. It is a dance, a dialogue and I can’t wait to continue the conversation with everyone at next year’s Bali Spirit Festival.
(All photos in this article are by Pippa Samaya)
Written by : Russel Price