The mention of capoeira evokes images of fight, music and dance. The fair of capoeira has been incorporated into popular culture from Hollywood movies to video games.However, it is in the dance form that capoeira’s influence endures, most notably in break-dance. Today, the criminalisation and bans that fettered the practice of this art in the 1800s are no more. In as much as the style has contributed to economic development to a certain extent, capoeira’s legacy to the world lies in its great capacity to transform self and society.
Weaving a remarkable testimony to this universal reach is the lineage from Senzalain Santos, Brazil, headed by Mestre Sombra who has taught and inspired his students to open schools in various countries. Mestres Sylvia and Marcos began the London School of Capoeira in 1988 where Professor Tijolo learnt the art before starting his own Capoeira Norte in Manchester, UK. Professor Tijolo’s student, Brian Kassim Owango, returned home in 2005 to open Capoeira Balanço Negro, the first official capoeira school in Kenya.
Balanço Negro, which means Black Swing or the Way of the Black Man, is redefining the Kenyan cultural scene through artistic and community activities. The school has over 30 capoeiristas (players) who attend class regularly while more than 500 people have been under the school’s tutelage since its inception. From 2006 to date, the school has been honored to host Professor Tijolo, Mestre Ediandro, Mestre Beija-Flôramong other masters of the Senzala lineage, who shared their wealth of knowledge and expertise through workshops held during their time in Kenya. These visits area testament to the capoeiristas that Mestre Sombra has nurtured and sent out to continue passing on this rich heritage. The school has also had the great pleasure of receiving Mestre Sombra himself in 2010, for the school’s first batizado (grading ceremony), and more recently in April 2014. I am proud to be part of this family, one I can identify with and ft in with ease be it in Nairobi, London, Manchester, Barcelona,Athens or Santos.
The school also mentors a group of young people at the Ongoza Njia (Lead the Way in Kiswahili) Community Centre in Huruma. We spend our weekends with a delightful group of children and youth at the Centre, teaching them the movements and music of capoeira. It is a way to engage them constructively and positively while reducing the time in which they would be idle and open to participating in anti-social activities.The school has also been able to contribute meaningfully to the community through Tandawazi, a festival of dance, music and martial arts conceptualized by Brian. The proceeds from the festival go toward Project Baraza, an empowerment initiative that seeks to build and refurbish community youth centres in underprivileged communities.Brian seeks to guard the rich tradition handed down through generations of the Associação de Capoeira Senzala that first grew, 35 years ago, from Mestre Sombra’s simple home area. An inscription hangs over the door of the Academy: ‘Na Senzala,somos varios expressoes de um mesmo rosto’, (At Senzala, we are various expressions of the same face).
When you look at another and appreciate that they are human, irrespective of status and aspirations, therein is the beginning of harmony. Capoeiristas, regardless of occupation, seek to excel in all that they do and to uphold virtues of respect and Mestre Ediandro playing with Brian In as much as the style has contributed to economic development to a certain extent,capoeira’s legacy to the world lies in its great capacity to transform self and integrity in spite of the fact that each is drawn to capoeira for different reasons. For some, it is a way of keeping ft while others are interested in understanding and being part of a different culture in which they can achieve a level of mastery and expertise in the art
The pull that capoeira has for me lies in the historical, the musical and the physical elements of the game. It is that which has enabled me to stay on even when the movements initially appeared impossible to execute and I felt more than a tinge of frustration. The friendship I have come to share with my fellow capoeiristas has given new meaning to the practice of this art as I continue to understand the school’s values better. Brian’s passion for the art is based on the strong relationship he sees in everyday life played out in a circle and the music that accompanies it.
Tracing Movement and Music
It is a daunting task to attempt to trace the history of capoeira let alone define it.Great masters like Mestre Pastinha said that “Capoeira is whatever the mouth eats”whereas Mestre Bimba, famous for the Regional style of the art, defined it as treachery that enables one to face life’s dangers. This further illustrates how this mysterious art touches people in different ways.
Slavery is synonymous to the roots of this ancient art form, which possesses distinct physical and musical aspects of the African culture. Towards the 18th Century, the Portuguese intensified their trade in slaves, especially from Angola, in the Atlantic Passage. Overall, it is estimated that more than four million African men, women and children went through the slave ports of Luanda and Benguela into Recife, Salvador,Rio de Janeiro and Santos in Brazil.
Captivity did not deter the slaves who occasionally revolted and escaped from the senzalas to form quilombos. In reference to the low bush in the forest areas where the slaves escaped to, the word ‘capoeira’ has strong allusion to the defensive positions that needed to be adopted in the face of vengeful slave masters. Africans in Brazil also borrowed from traditional dances like the n’golo from Southern Angola where techniques of fighting with the feet involved kicks, foot sweeps and leg locks. Often the fighting style was disguised with dance to fool any authority who would chance on capoeiristas in the senzalas hence the reference to an “Afro-Brazilian dance form”.
Expressions of Body, Mind and Spirit
The unique qualities of capoeira borrow expansively from creative expressions in the movements and the music. Capoeira is a philosophy that can only be fully experienced from the inside out. Physical and mental discipline is vital to achieve a boundless synchrony that flows effortlessly and instinctively from the person. The transformation of the self leads one to engage respectfully yet playfully with another in the roda, the circle formed by the people around a game of capoeira.
Wit is equally appreciated in the apt songs that are sang in a roda; in lyrics that laud the game and teachers alike, mock opponents and celebrate daily events, joys and sorrows. It is a reminder of the beauty of a tradition that was wrought from the greatest struggle of all mankind: to be free.Personally, my favourite definition of the art remains that of Mestre Sombra: “Capoeira is a prayer”, a connection with the Supreme, an expression of the self and a reflection of the infinite avenues that are available to us to change society for the better.