Capoeira Angola

Old drawing based on travellers' tales.

Capoeira is an art that has evolved in Brazil over the last four hundred years, since the first slaves were brought from west Africa to build the new colony for the Portuguese empire. The Africans brought with them a culture of nature-based ritual magic, ancestor worship, and plant-spirit medicine. Their traditional practices changed to adapt to their new environments, incorporating the practices and beliefs of the Portuguese Catholics with their worship of saints, and also those of the indigenous natives who knew the local plants and animals, the weather, and the local spirits.

Out of this mix came the Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomble, equivalent in many ways to the Haitian Voudou and other Caribbean spiritualist traditions, and the arts of Capoeira – a strange (to us) ritualized mixture of dance-fight-game. In the mostly African state of Bahia, Capoeira retained much of the ritual magic and ancestor worship of the old African spiritual traditions, while in the urban slums of Rio de Janeiro it became associated with the gangs of the criminal underworld – mostly poor mulatto or mixed-heritage descendants of slaves who flocked to the cities after abolition to try to make a living. So Capoeira, forbidden like all African traditional practices during the slavery days, was forbidden again post-slavery because of its association with criminal gangs.

Capoeira is an art rooted in history, the music follows the African and slave traditions of repetitive hypnotic rhythms and call-and-response singing. The lead instrument is the berimbau, a one-stringed harp, one of the most ancient instruments in the world. The songs are about the history of the world and the struggles and joys of daily life. The movements mimic animals and field-work. The martial aspects are all hidden, the art’s history is one of struggle against brutality and oppression, trickery and deception are more valuable in this context than open displays of strength and power. Because of this historical context true Capoeira is inherently revolutionary! In Bahia where it is from the descendants of Africans are still mostly destitute, no money, few jobs, no welfare or health care or education, living in slums in one of the richest countries in the world. African nations are poverty-stricken, their resources plundered by colonialists and corrupt politicians and warlords. The Empires of four hundred years ago remain, along with their legacies of oppression, slavery and genocide. These realities are too easy to forget living in countries like Australia, they are hidden away in the far north and the central desert, in Aboriginal communities and refugee detention centers. Most of us would prefer to think about other things.

(Capoeira Angola, a short video trailer for a Brazilian movie featuring many of the old Masters of Capoeira, including two of my teachers Mestres Ciro Lima and Lua Rasta.)

The greater purpose of Capoeira though is the development of mandinga, “sorcery” or wisdom: understanding of the ways of nature. Human nature, the tendencies for people to take power and abuse it, to dominate or to nurture, to love and to destroy, to fear and rejoice. Understanding the current state of the world through understanding the greater context of history – the corruption of the current world system, and the preservation of the ancient knowledge of where we came from, who we are, our ancestors, and the earth. Being able to read the signs in people’s faces and bodies, their voices and the voices and movements of animals, the weather, the plants, the soil, and live life accordingly.

(O que e Mandinga? – a beautiful little video in which various old masters answer the question: “What is Mandinga?”)

And despite all of this dark history, Capoeira is a game! A truly fun, zany theatrical game, a seemingly carefree and joyous expression of being alive and dancing, playing with friends. Leaping and cartwheeling and bouncing like a cat, a frog…understanding context and history, oppression and suffering does not mean that we should give up hope or define ourselves only by that which we struggle against – it is an art of paradoxes and contrasts, difficult to define, it has to be felt to be understood.

CAPOEIRA ANGOLA CLASSES in Melbourne: Starting in 2012, Capoeira Angola from the traditions of Mestre Pastinha and Mestre Joao Pequeno, and Mestre Lua Rasta of the Angoleiros do Mar. For more information contact simon.thakur@gmail.com or 0431 166 737

There are two other groups training Capoeira Angola in Melbourne:

Capoeira Angola ECAMAR, under Mestre Roxinho www.capoeira-angola.com.au
Flor da Gente, with trainel Gingaginha www.flordagente.com.au

Ancestral Movement

Crawling Olmec baby from approx 1000 BC.

Here’s an interesting study about human locomotion: How humans learn to walk

“(Medical Xpress) — A new study has revealed that as humans learn to walk the two basic patterns of stepping present in the newborn remain unchanged and two new patterns are added at the toddler stage. This development process and the patterns are similar to those found in other species such as rats, cats, macaques and guineafowl, which suggests that locomotion in the different species could be based on a common ancestral neural network.”

A lot of thought and mythology gets devoted to “what makes us human”: how humans are special, unique, created in God’s image or hybridized with alien DNA, how we became civilized, how humans don’t have instincts, how human minds and human consciousness are different to those of all other creatures, etc. All of this is great, fascinating, natural that we should be concerned with such things.

For some reason, I have always been fascinated with the many ways that we are the same as other creatures. I remember spending some days and weeks wondering to myself about the fact that all animals have heads. We’ve all got mouths, and anuses.

We all come from the same lineage. We share a common ancestor, many common ancestors. I am related to the bird outside my window in the same way that I am related to my cousins, just many more generations removed.

Human embryo

All creatures with spines have vertebrae shaped in the same way, made of the same stuff, made by the same kinds of cells. The pattern of four limbs has remained the same in lobed fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals – even whales still have fingers. Human embryos have long tails, and gill-slits. We all begin our lives in water.

 

The cells of all living things are still all essentially the same: salty water wrapped in a semi-permeable membrane that allows substances in and out, able to communicate chemically with the other cells in the region, containing DNA and various organelles responsible for continually repairing and maintaining the cell and eventually reproducing.

Comparison of plant and animal cells

Ethology is a word I’ve only recently learned, but it’s one of my favourite topics: animal behaviour. Neuroethology is the study of animal behaviour and its underlying neurological basis. We don’t just share the same basic anatomy with most other animals, we also share the same basic neurology – our bodies don’t just look the same, they act the same. Some questions asked by the neuroethologists:

How are stimuli detected by an organism?
How are environmental stimuli in the external world represented in the nervous system?
How is information about a stimulus acquired, stored and recalled by the nervous system?
How is a behavioral pattern encoded by neural networks?
How is behavior coordinated and controlled by the nervous system?
How can the development of behavior be related to neural mechanisms?

Here’s Robert Sapolsky talking about Ethology: Stanford “Human Behavioural Biology” – 9. Ethology

The way we turn our heads and eyes to look in the direction of new sounds, the way babies grasp things and put them in their mouths, the way we chew automatically, the way we crawl and walk, and in fact all of the basic movements of our bodies are shared with all other animals: vertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, primates. The closer they are to us evolutionarily the more apparent the similarities are, one of the main purposes of this blog will be to explore these similarities and shared patterns of structure, movement, and consciousness.

For more information on the movements, gestures and nonverbal communication that we share with other vertebrates, their neural basis and evolutionary history, check out this page: “The Nonverbal Brain” from the excellent Center for Nonverbal Studies, and follow the links for endless fascinating factoids.