We were searching for the definitive capoeira experience. Since arriving in Brazil, I had seen it on postcards but not on the streets.
Brazil’s very own martial art capoeira has been of fascination to me ever since my late teens – September 12th 1998 to be exact – when the videogame Tekken 3 was released on the Playstation.
I had played Tekken before, of course, and I was never very good at it – winning essentially boiled down to being able to tap out a series of precise button sequences in time with the movement of your onscreen character. If you messed up the sequence, your character would sit there like a lemon whilst getting beaten to a bloody pulp by your opponent.
But the third instalment of the Tekken franchise introduced a new character, Eddy Gordo, the capoeirista from Brazil.
Eddy was different to the others – not rigid like the karate/kung fu based characters of the rest of the game. He was more like a breakdancer or an acrobat than a fighter – equally agile standing on his hands as his feet. It didn’t matter if your opponent was up in the air and he was on the floor (or vice versa), Eddy was limber enough to attack from all angles. There were lots of leg sweeps and cartwheels and backflips.
Eddy Gordo helped me win at Tekken. Whatever buttons I pressed in whatever order, Eddy would chain the moves together. That was Eddy’s style – effortlessly fluid – the style of capoeira.
The origins of capoeira…
A decade and a half later I was sat on the golden sands of Mucuge beach in Arraial d’Ajuda in the state of Bahia, wondering where all the capoeristas were.
I struck up conversation with Ruyter, a thirty-something English speaking postal worker on vacation from Brasilia, and asked how closely the video game version of capoeira resembled the real deal.
“It’s more of a dance than a fight – most of the time you don’t actually hit each other, you just get in to a position where you could hit the other person if you wanted to. And it’s not from Brazil originally – it was brought over by African slaves hundreds of years ago,” he said.
“It started out as a way to fight, but learning how to fight was illegal for slaves, so they added in bits of dance and music so their masters didn’t get suspicious. So there’s a mixture of different African dances in there – it became its own thing in Bahia and then it spread across the rest of country.”
“I tried it when I was younger but I wasn’t very good, so don’t ask me, I’m not an expert,” he added helpfully.
Capoeira in the gym…
The German girl running the front desk in our hostel suggested that we gatecrash a training session at the nearby Capoeira Sul Da Bahia – a gym for local capoeristas.
When we arrived they were warming up to a piano disco version of Mas Que Nada. There were thirty or so capoeiristas, the youngest of which looked about 12 and the oldest being somewhere in his mid-forties.
The Capoeira Mestre would demonstrate a short sequence of eye wateringly flexible body movements, and one by one his pupils would be made to imitate them. It all seemed very relaxed – not like a fight or a dance or at all like badass Eddy Gordo – more like yoga.
Then the capoeira proper began.
The capoeiristas sat in a circle, leaving a gap in the middle for two fighters at a time to challenge each other. To one side sat half a dozen capoeristas armed with musical instruments – namely berimbaus (a sort of one stringed bow instrument that was hit with a stick) drums and tambourines. There was also a dude with a cowbell.
Like almost everything in Brazil, it was deafeningly loud. The capoeiristas would sing ‘call and answer’ style, with the Capoeira Mestre leading the chant. Every now and again there would be an extra tambourine shake or cowbell flourish, but I could never tell whether they were intentional. It was a numbingly repetitive beat that seemed to go on forever – deliberately so – like a latin infused Velvet Underground.
The best fighters would enter the ring with a backflip or handstand. They rocked from side to side to the rhythm, flinging their bodies across the circle using their own momentum for leverage. Every animalistic manoeuvre seemed connected to the last. When one fighter kicked high in to the air, the other seemed to instinctively know to go low. Ankles travelling at terrifying speeds missed faces by millimetres. Buckets of sweat were shed.
After twenty minutes the beat began to crescendo. It was the turn of the Capoeira Mestre and, what seemed to be, his most able student to enter the circle.
They bounced around like rubber bands. The chanting became louder, the drums harder. As the rhythm got faster and faster with every bar, so too did the movements of the capoeritsas. It was utterly ferocious, but still graceful. The dude with the cowbell went in to overdrive as the music reached its orgasmic conclusion.
“It must be weird having tourists watch you do that,” piped up my girlfriend. “I mean, imagine if a load of foreigners turned up to my step class and started taking photos.”
I struggled to contextualise what we had seen. The level of skill and balance was faintly jaw dropping. Even the least experienced were as agile as the most, just not as fast. It must have required phenomenal dedication to reach that standard, and a small town like Arraial d’Ajuda seemed unlikely to have a large enough population to produce such a high number of talented athletes.
But Arraial d’Ajuda is a sleepy place. Nothing opens until 1pm at the earliest and the crystal clear waters of its adjoining beaches aren’t rough enough to surf. Other than sunbathe, eat in a restaurant or drink in a bar, there is really very little else for young people here to do. Perhaps capoeira is the only way they have to expend their energies.
Capoeira the tourist trap…
As we travelled north along Bahia’s Discovery Coast, capoeira sightings were fleeting. We spotted some teenagers practising on a beach in Itacaré and some bored kids mimicking the leg sweeps behind their parents’ backs’ in a shopping centre.
Then we reached Salvador, state capital of Bahia and the absolute beating heart of Afro-Brazilian culture.
The original colonial capital of Brazil, Salvador was for three centuries the most prosperous slave trade centre in all the Americas. It is also home to the first ever capoeira school – founded by Mestre Bimba in 1932, eight years before capoeira was finally made legal to practise in Brazil.
That afternoon we wandered around the Mercado Modelo, Salvador’s grand old market building, formerly the city’s Customs House. Legend has it that the tunnels underneath served as the original holding area for slaves as they were brought in from sea. Now the Mercado Modelo sold mainly crafts and souvenirs.
There were capoeira fridge magnets, paintings, potteries, figurines, t-shirts, towels and scarves on offer. I even found a capoeira themed chess set.
We wandered out back with a beer. Lo and behold, there was a capoeira stage. The two capoeristas on it weren’t really sparring, more posing. I wheeled over to the man with the berimbau and handed him a R$5 note, making a hand gesture that said, “do you mind if I take some pictures for my blog?”
At that moment, the two capoeiristas jumped down from the stage and grabbed a side of my wheelchair each. I was lifted in to the middle and handed a tambourine. They took turns to do flying kicks over my head whilst my girlfriend took photos and combusted in to hysterical laughter.
Capoeira here was a marketable commodity to idiot tourists like us. I had to admit, it was fun. Given capoeira’s roots in desperation and misery, I questioned the ethics, but consoled myself in the knowledge that our very presence in the Mercado Modelo pumped much needed cash in to the local economy.
Capoeira: The Musical!
We wanted to see capoeira in its most polished form so shelled out half a day’s backpacking budget on Salvador’s infamous Balé Folclórico da Bahia in the Teatro Miguel Santana.
As the lights in the auditorium dimmed, we were told by an English voice over that taking photographs and reporting on the performance without permission was forbidden.
Standing to our left was a sanctioned documentary crew. My girlfriend handed one of the crew my camera and made a hand gesture as if to say “do you mind taking some pictures for my boyfriend’s blog?”
The performance was tightly choreographed. There was even a story – eight impossibly bendy capoeiristas all competing to impress the town’s ladyfolk.
The now familiar berimbau rhythm was terrifyingly fast. There were the same leg sweeps and backflips and somersaults as before, but clinically precise. The leg sweeps were closer, the backflips were higher, the somersaults contained more spins. These capoeiristas weren’t just dancers or fighters – they were performers – precariously balancing capoeira as art form and entertainment with Olympic standard bursts of athleticism.
The spectacle was breath taking – one false move and you just knew someone would end up getting hospitalised – but it felt truer to the spirit of traditional African dance than anything we had seen previously.
Capoeira for dinner…
We left the Teatro Miguel Santana and ended up ordering moqueca, a traditional Bahian fish stew, in a nearby restaurant.
“Hey you, where you from? You English?” bellowed a voice from the table next to us. “Did you enjoy the show?”
The man was chowing down on a gigantic mound of spaghetti topped with lobsters. I realised that less than an hour earlier I had been watching him leg sweep, backflip and somersault, and he had recognised me as the guy in the wheelchair in the front row of the audience.
He reeled off a list of countries that he had performed in. I was impressed. Capoeira had taken him all over the world. The Balé Folclórico da Bahia was not just a dance or a fight, it was a cultural ambassador for Brazil.
“My name’s Eddie,” grinned the capoeirista – (honestly, I’m not making this up).
Eddie looked very confused when I laughed.
Capoeira on the streets…
Our time in Bahia was drawing to a close. As we wandered back to our hostel that night we stumbled across a bunch of old hippies in a capoeira circle in the middle of the street.
The hippies were lumbering hulks. They kept falling over and hitting each other with their feet. On a few occasions they fell in to the crowd to the sound of much cheering. By this point I was no capoeira expert but I could tell they weren’t very good. They looked drunk.
“I think this might be Angolan capoeira,” said my girlfriend. “That’s the version that’s much slower and lower to the ground, and you’re supposed to make bodily contact. It’s not usually done in front of tourists.”
She was perhaps right. I was more confused than ever about which of our many capoeira experiences was the most authentic. We had come all this way in search of the definitive example, and none of them stood out.
It occurred to me that, in all the capoeira bouts we had seen, there never seemed to be a winner. Be it a fight, dance, performance, tourist trap, video game or antidote for boredom – winning isn’t the aim of any form of capoeira – it is the ritual of each ceremony that counts.