Saturday, 13 October 2007

A plug for a worthy book

Fighting for Honor
The History of African Martial Arts Traditions in the Atlantic World
T. J. Desch Obi
A groundbreaking investigation into the migration of martial arts
techniques across continents and centuries
6 x 9, 376 pages, 45 illus.
cloth, $34.95s
ISBN 978-1-57003- 718-4
The Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World
David Gleeson, Simon Lewis, and W. Scott Poole, series editors

The presence of African influence and tradition in the Americas has
long been recognized in art, music, language, agriculture, and
religion. T. J. Desch Obi explores another cultural continuity that
is as old as eighteenth-century slave settlements in South America
and as contemporary as hip-hop culture. In this thorough survey of
the history of African martial arts techniques, Obi maps the
translation of numerous physical combat techniques across three
continents and several centuries to illustrate how these practices
evolved over time and are still recognizable in American culture
today. Some of these art traditions were part of African military
training while others were for self-defense and spiritual
Grounded in historical and cultural anthropological methodologies,
Obi's investigation traces the influence of well-delineated African
traditions on long-observed but misunderstood African and African
American cultural activities in North America, Brazil, and the
Caribbean. He links the Brazilian martial art capoeira to reports of
slave activities recorded in colonial and antebellum North America.
Likewise Obi connects images of the kalenda African stick-fighting
techniques to the Haitian Revolution. Throughout the study Obi
examines the ties between physical mastery of these arts and
changing perceptions of honor. Including forty-five illustrations,
this rich history of the arrival and dissemination of African
martial arts in the Atlantic world offers a new vantage for
furthering our understanding of the powerful influence of enslaved
populations on our collective social history.

T. J. Desch Obi received his doctorate in African history from the
University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on
historical ethnography, which he explores through the lens of
African and African diaspora martial arts. He is currently an
assistant professor of African and African diaspora history at the
City University of New York's Baruch College.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Back to 1987 - Jumping ship (part 1)

It's taken a while to get to this point in my story, which was also a pivotal point in my life. I'm still dealing with the consequences and enjoying the benefits of my decision to stay in Brazil.

To recap, I was only planning to spend three months in Bahia, gathering preliminary information for a dissertation on the role of high priestesses (iyalorisas or maes de santo) in the non-Candomble community. I had enrolled in the UCLA Department of History's PhD program before I left. However, a number of things happened to me in Brazil: I felt at home in Bahia, which was and is very similar to Puerto Rico, where I'd grown up; I had no one to go back to in LA, except Lily, my Siamese cat; I had only enrolled in the PhD programme because I couldn't see any immediate option to the "perpetual student" route; I had become deeply and passionately involved in Capoeira Angola. Given these factors, living in Bahia seemed a viable and attractive alternative.

Also, people in Bahia kept telling me that I was just a tourist; only they knew the real hardships of life in Brazil and they would still have to face them when I was gone. It sounds silly to say that I took it as a "dare," but it's true. Still, I was seriously in doubt. Like the character in Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," I stood at a fork in the road. I decided to consult the orishas through Mãe Stella de Oxossi (see photo above) of Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá to help me choose the way forward.

Mãe Stella (or Odé Kayodé) has been the high priestess of one of the oldest and most prestigious Candomble temples, or terreiros, in Bahia, since 1976. She gives public readings on Wednesday mornings, the day that Shango receives offerings at his altar. Through the usual course of serendipity (the person I was staying with worked at a clinic with Mãe Stella's cousin) I managed to get the address of the temple and the date of the readings. I took a bus way out to the Cabula district and walked down a long sloping hill till I reached the wide gate and white walls that marked the entrance to the Ilê Axé compound.

A man with dreadlocks was being spiritually cleansed with bunches of leaves as I passed him and went into the reddish house where Mãe Stella gives the readings. I sat on one of the sofas in the waiting room and waited (I later found that "hurrying up and waiting" is very much a part of life in Candomblé). I had arrived relatively late - around 9 am - so there were plenty of people ahead of me. Finally, Mãe Stella herself came out of the shrine to take a break - I recognised her because I'd seen her at a conference in New York City the year before, and she was just as regal as ever. Seeming much taller than she actually is, she looked down at me and turned to her secretary, saying "She's the last one." So I waited more hopefully than ever.

After a while, the man with dreadlocks walked in (he turned out to be Lino Almeida, the DJ and activist who recently passed away at an absurdly young age). He came straight up to me. "You should leave," he said. "Mãe Stella is tired." "But she said she would see me," I implored. "She said I was the last one!" I was determined to stay because it might be my last chance to see her. He shrugged and walked away.

When I finally entered the shrine for my reading over an hour later, I was very nervous. Would my Portuguese be up to understanding everything that was said? My "doubting Thomas" side came to the fore - I wasn't going to provide any information that could be used in the reading, just my name and nationality. I left my shoes at the door and walked across to the table in the corner. Mãe Stella was sitting there, with a basket of cowries and beads before her. I settled into the chair across from hers and thanked her for seeing me. She looked at the cowries for a while, then asked if I had any questions.

I told her that I would only ask two - I realised she was very tired. "I'd like to know my orisha." She studied the cowries again, and said, "It looks like...yes, it's Oshun." She said it so tentatively that I wondered if she was in doubt, but then I realised that that was the answer. I had always thought my orisha would have something to do with water but assumed it would be Yemanja. I knew very little about Oshun, except that she is a river divinity. "Your name has everything to do with your orisha," the high priestess continued. I was named after a river nymph, the goddess of the Severn. How could she know that? Had she read Milton's Comus? I was very impressed.

All my life I have borne the name of my orisha - long before I knew the orishas existed. My "doubting Thomas" side was confounded. Furthermore, I was born near a lake, and have always preferred fresh water (lakes, rivers, waterfalls) to the sea. My favourite metals are gold and bronze and I prefer them to be set with brown topazes, cat's eyes and amber. Later, I read a Jungian theory that the orishas are part of the collective unconscious and that people unconsciously "adopt" the orisha that most closely fits their preferred avatar - the personality they secretly desire to emulate. I am living proof that this is hokum. How could I possibly have adopted the traits of a divinity I'd never seen and barely heard of - consciously or otherwise?

Then I asked the other big question: should I stay or should I go? After reading the cowry oracle once again, she said: "If you return to the United States, you may or may not come back to Bahia. But if you stay here, you will have everything you desire, though it will be a struggle followed by victory." I thanked her and, on my way out, mentioned my research project, asking if I could interview her some time. She said, "Don't call me, I'll call you." And that was that. I got the overwhelming feeling that she was tired of being studied, and that I would much rather be a part of Candomblé than study it.

My next assignment: buying contas - a necklace of amber-colored beads, the color of Oshun. Ore ye ye o!

Olóomi máà, olóomi máà iyó
Olóomi máà iyó ènyin ayaba odò (ìyáàgbà)
Ó yèyé ó.

International event at Capoeira Fort

The International Capoeira Festival began on Monday, August 20th, in Salvador, bringing together representatives of 36 countries. Here's the program (from the looks of it, it's mainly Regional, though Angoleiros are included):

Monday - 20/08

18h – Opening Cocktail Party

20h – Roda de Capoeira with foreign capoeiristas and guests
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

Tuesday - 21/08

10h - Capoeira class with teachers from Abadá
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

Berimbau workshop
Samba de Roda workshop with Nalvinha Machado
Percussion workshop with Mestre Giba
Venue: Pelourinho plazas

12h - Lunch

14h - Capoeira class with mestres and aspiring mestres from Abadá
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

15h30 - Break

16h - Capoeira class with mestres and aspiring mestres from Abadá
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

Jongo workshop with Professor Barbaro
Swing Baiano workshop with Prof. Zé Carlos
Venue: Pelourinho plazas

17h30 - Break

18h - Capoeira class with mestres and aspiring mestres from Abadá
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

19h45 - Break

20h - Round Table: Capoeira at the Fort, with Mestre Curió, Mestre João Pequeno, Mestre Boca Rica, Mestre Moraes and Mestre Nenéu. Mediator: José Augusto Leal (superintendent of the Fort)
Exhibition by the new generation of Capoeira Angola
Screening of a movie titled "Mudança do Clima, Mudanças de Vida" (Changing Climates, Changing Lives) by Greenpeace. How global warming is already affecting Brazil.

Wednesday - 22/08

10h - Capoeira class with Abadá teachers
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

Berimbau Workshop
Samba de Roda Workshop with Nalvinha Machado
Jongo Workshop with Professor Barbaro
Venue: Pelourinho plazas

12h - Lunch

14h - Capoeira class with mestres from Abadá
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

15h30 - Break

16h - Capoeira class with mestres and aspiring mestres from Abadá
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

Percussion workshop with Mestre Giba
Swing Baiano workshop with Prof. Zé Carlos
Venue: Pelourinho plazas

17h30 - Break

18h - Capoeira class with mestres and aspiring mestres from Abadá
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

19h45 - Break

20h - Round Table: Capoeira in Bahia, with:
Mestre Medicina - Capoeira in rural Bahia
Mestre Geni - Capoeira in Salvador
Mestre Saci - Capoeira in the University
Mestre Lua Rasta - Street Art Capoeira
Mestre Gil Alfinete - Capoeira Angola
Mestre Boa Gente - Capoeira in the communities
Mestre Nenel - Capoeira Regional
Mediator: Mestre Camisa

Exhibition by new generation of Capoeira Regional
Screening of a movie titled "Mudança do Clima, Mudanças de Vida" (Changing Climates, Changing Lives) by Greenpeace. How global warming is already affecting Brazil.
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

Thursday - 23/08

10h - Capoeira class with teachers from Abadá
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

Berimbau Workshop
Percussion Workshop with Mestre Giba
Venue: Pelourinho plazas

12h - Lunch

14h - Capoeira class with mestres and aspiring mestres from Abadá
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

15h30 - Break

16h - Capoeira class with mestres and aspiring mestres from Abadá
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

Samba de Roda Workshop with Nalvinha Machado
Jongo Workshop with Professor Barbaro
Venue: Pelourinho plazas

17h30 - Break

18h - Capoeira class with mestres and aspiring mestres from Abadá
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

19h45 - Break

20h - 6th World Capoeira Games - "Peneirão" (semi-finals) - Rodas
Venue: Antônio Balbino Gym

20h - Round Table: Capoeira around the world with: Grão-Mestre Camisa Roxa, Mestranda Márcia Cigarra, Mestre Acordeón, Mestre Jelon, Mestranda Edna Lima and teachers from outside Brazil. Mediator: Bernardo Conde

Launch of CD "Homenagem a Mestre Bimba e Mestre Pastinha"
Exhibition by "Old Guard" of Capoeira Regional and Capoeira Angola
Screening of a movie titled "Mudança do Clima, Mudanças de Vida" (Changing Climates, Changing Lives) by Greenpeace. How global warming is already affecting Brazil.
Venue: Forte da Capoeira Santo Antônio Além do Carmo

Friday - 24/08

8h - March from Lapinha to the Mestre Bimba School in Terreiro de Jesus plaza

12h - Lunch

14h - 6th World Capoeira Games - Eliminatory bouts
Venue: Ginásio Antônio Balbino

Saturday - 25/08

9h - Batizado, Troca de Cordas and Graduation
Show by "Old Guard of Bahia," Green Capoeira

12 - Lunch

14h - 6th World Capoeira Games

Folk Festival
Shows: Capoeira Especial and Orquestra de Berimbaus
Venue: Antônio Balbino Gym

Sunday - 26/08

Class on the beach at Farol da Barra
Capoeira Show including world champions
Campaign against global warming

Closing ceremony for the International Festival of the Art of Capoeira
Venue: Av. Oceânica - Farol da Barra

Monday, 6 August 2007

Back to the present (with a jolt)

By an incredible coincidence, I came across the following newspaper article in Correio da Bahia yesterday:

"Teachers and students seek to strengthen Capoeira Angola: Combination dance/fight was almost extinct in the 1980s"
By Adriana Jacob

The 25th anniversary of the beginning of the process of reaffirming Capoeira Angola in Bahia will be remembered through to this coming Tuesday (August 7th) by a group of students of masters Moraes, João Grande and Cobra Mansa. Gathered at the Nzinga Institute for Capoeira Angola Studies, the International Capoeira Angola Foundation (FICA) and the Zimba Capoeira Angola Group, teachers and students held classes, rodas and debates about the aim of strengthening and discussing the combination dance/fight and sport immortalised by names like Mestre Pastinha.

"We called the event Malungos, which means 'travelling companions', because the word invokes the journey and memory of a generation of Capoeiristas who have been active participants since the time that many researchers call the reaffirmation of Capoeira Angola in Bahia," says Paulo Barreto, or Mestre Poloca, from the Nzinga Group. He explains that in the early 80s, Capoeira Angola was considered virtually exinct. "Then a group started to mobilize itself through events that showed the world that the great masters of Angola were still alive, but forgotten," he relates.

Ever since, Angoleiros, set apart by their yellow and black uniforms - chosen by Mestre Pastinha in honour of Ipiranga, his beloved football club - have been gaining more and more ground. "Today, Capoeira Angola is found in Israel, China, Japan, Turkey, Mozambique, the United States.... It's estimated that in Brazil, 8 million people play Capoeira, but most practise the regional style created by Mestre Bimba."

"Capoeira Angola is a cooperative interplay and not a competition. It is a different kind of philosophy, but it can also be violent," observes Poloca. Created in honour of Queen Nzinga of Angola - who reigned for 40 years due to her skill in negotiating and making war on the slave trade - the group makes the struggle against gender discrimination one of its watchwords. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, they hold women-only classes. "Capoeira has always been a predominantly masculine space, partly because of its past history of persecution and violence. This is a new achievement for women," says Paula Barreto, or Mestra Paulinha.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Training and more

One thing set GCAP apart from the start: it was more than a Capoeira school. It was also a centre for the study of Capoeira Angola's history and the preservation of its living treasures, the "mestres antigos".

The training routine was rigorous. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we would spend about 90 minutes practising moves and developing flexibility. Like most women, I had to work on my upper arm strength. Thanks to the GCAP method ("put one hand here, another there, and flip"), I finally learned to do an (in my case it was closer to a standard cartwheel than the slow, controlled Angoleiro style aú, which requires considerable arm strength and the ability to maintain a handstand).

Moraes told us that in Pastinha's school, landing with a thump was frowned on - particularly because it was on an upper floor and the people below complained. Even when the Mestre was old and blind, and probably deaf, he would catch offending "thumpers" and tell them to leave. I would have spent a lot of time in "detention" in those days.

Following the tradition of Pastinha's school, we wore black trousers and yellow t-shirts with the GCAP insignia. Trainers (sneakers) were also required - in direct contrast to the Regional "dress code" of bare feet, white baggy trousers and sometimes no shirts at all, for men.

Naturally, we also learned to play all the instruments in the Capoeira Angola "band": agogo (cowbells), recoreco (scraper), atabaque (conga drum), pandeiro (tambourine) and the Alto, Tenor and Bass berimbaus, called Rum, Rumpi and Lê, like their drum counterparts in Candomblé ceremonies.

Moraes and Cobrinha also taught us about the Angoleiro philosophy - which I found very similar to Zen thought - and encouraged us to learn about the history of our martial art. They emphasised its African roots, directly contradicting the Regional claim that Capoeira was created from scratch in Brazil, and traced its origins back to the Zebra Dance, or N'Golo, practised in what is now Angola.

They also organised "rodas de mestres antigos" to give the ageing masters of Pastinha's day a chance to show their stuff. They included some who have since passed away, like Mestre Waldemar (see photo above), as well as João Pequeno (whose school is still downstairs from GCAP in the Capoeira Fort), Curió, Mala, Boca Rica and many more - especially João Grande, of course.

Watching João Grande play was like observing a bout of chess, where hands and feet replace the pieces on the board. Mestre João can create and eliminate space, lay traps and set up his opponent as cleverly as any Russian grandmaster.

GCAP's Mestres, Contra-Mestre and top students, who then included Valmir (now Mestre at Fica in Salvador), Moraes's son Pepeu, Paulinha, Poloca, Janja and Zelias (my future ex-husband), would perform during public holidays, following a Capoeira tradition. One of the favourite dates is Bonfim Day.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007


I'd like to thank Faisca (what a great name!) for his kind words about this blog in "The Capoeira Blog" at

He also mentions

Bahia-Capoeira Blog - This is a promising blog with some great content. Be sure to check out their tutorials on how to string the berimbau. They also have a store, always a good thing.

Jogo Log - This one hasn’t been updated since April, but it has some good stuff. Check out the Learning Portuguese for Capoeira post.

Generic Capoeira LJ - A LiveJournal community for capoeiristas.

We met through CapoeiraEspaço, which I found through the Capoeira group on Facebook. What a great way to work together and make Capoeira as viral (and vital) on the web as it is in real life!

Sunday, 29 July 2007

João Grande

I first met João Grande when I went to a restaurant in Salvador - now defunct, fortunately - called A Moenda. It was a tourist trap that served forgettable food. The main attraction was a stage show that included scantily clad dancing girls - more often found in Rio than Bahia - and a bit where an unwitting tourist was invited to join a conga line of said dancing girls. The catch - he was blindfolded. At some point, to the audience's delight, someone dressed in a gorilla suit would replace the woman behind the "mark" and dance salaciously. Since the victim thought it was a beautiful, half-naked woman, you can imagine how he responded. Some might say he deserved it, but that's really up to him and his conscience.

Towards the end of the show, there was a flashy Capoeira exhibition, and at some point a sparely built, older, dark-skinned man in an oversized Mexican-style hat played berimbau.
I was told that, after each show, he also swept the stage. Clown and janitor - that was what A Moenda had tried to make of Mestre João Grande. After working till the wee hours - about 3 am - at the restaurant, he would grab an hour or so of sleep before heading to his day job at a car wash.

In an act of tremendous self-sacrifice, due, no doubt, to his passion for Capoeira,
Mestre João spent his day off - Sunday - teaching anyone willing to learn, for free, at the GCAP space in Fort Santo Antonio alem do Carmo. I had the privilege of being one of those students. When I arrived for class, he'd be taking a nap on a bench, sitting up. The man seemed to be made of leather and iron. He said he rarely if ever drank water and fuelled himself with "mingau de cachorro" - a mix of manioc flour, water and garlic. He also said he never went anywhere without his berimbau - according to him, he used it to "espantar cachorro" (scare off dogs).

Fortunately - especially for us - GCAP was able to get him the documents he needed to get social security benefits and a government pension. That meant that he could teach full-time. Unfortunately - for us - he found a place that truly valued and rewarded his talents and viewed him as what he really is: a living national treasure. It should have been Bahia or at least somewhere in Brazil, but it turned out to be the Big Apple.

When I saw him earlier this year at his school in New York City, I asked one of his students how old she thought he was. She said, "About 60?" He must have been nearly that age when I met him 20 years ago. He looked younger and sprier in 2007 than I remembered him in 1987 - the spirit and soul of Capoeira Angola in flesh and blood.

Friday, 27 July 2007

More about Cobrinha

Anyone who reads the Wikipedia entry on Mestre Cobra Mansa, better known as Cobrinha, will know that he is a well-established master, and co-founder of the International Capoeira Angola Foundation (FICA). What it doesn't say - and it may or may not be true - is that he started life as a "street kid." He certainly learned "street smarts." When I first met him in Salvador in 1987, he earned a living as a street vendor, but was more like a medieval mountebank.

He would set up a bicycle rim with large knives inserted point inwards, and offer to dive through the small hole in the middle. A crowd would inevitably gather round to witness this feat, but Cobrinha and his assistants managed to keep them going for hours with a sales pitch for a "massage ointment" laced with a local anesthetic, xylocaine (lidocaine) - a precursor of Viagra - and otherwise manage to avoid taking the deadly plunge between the knife points for as long as possible. It seemed impossible, because the hole was smaller than the breadth of his shoulders.

I only saw him do it once. He literally dove through the hole with his arms stretched well above his head, reducing his shoulders to their narrowest point like a diver into a pool. It was brilliant, and people were willing to hang around for hours - and even buy his product - on the off chance he'd do it again. He later started using his acrobatic and Capoeira skills at the Picolino circus school, both teaching and performing.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Moraes, Cobrinha and GCAP

Fortunately, I rarely throw anything away (though my cats have been known to do so inadvertently). I've found a 20-year-old notebook that I used when I was taking my first one-hand-washes-another Portuguese lessons from Moraes. It includes a short essay, written in Portuguese, that describes how we first met. Every detail matches my recollections, so there was little to correct in the previous entry, but the essay did remind me that the day after my fateful first visit to Fort Santo Antonio Alem do Carmo - now called the Capoeira Fort - I not only saw my first roda, but met Cobra Mansa, better known as Cobrinha. This is as good a place as any to say a few words about Moraes and Cobrinha, saving the great João Grande for later on.

Moraes told me that he was born on Ilha do Maré (literally "Island of the Tide") in All Saints Bay and later moved to Massaranduba, then an infamous slum on the outskirts of Salvador. When he did his obligatory military service, he joined the Marines and was sent to Rio de Janeiro. While there, he met Cobra Mansa, or Cobrinha. Moraes taught Cobrinha and others, like Mestre Braga, the form of Capoeira he had learned from João Grande at Mestre Pastinha's school in Pelourinho as a young man, and that is how the Grupo de Capoeira Pelourinho (GCAP) got its start in Rio.

When he returned to Salvador, Bahia, Moraes found that the older mestres were not being given their due, and Capoeira Angola was losing ground to the Regional style. With Cobrinha as his assistant, or contra-mestre, Moraes started teaching students and organising special bouts, or "rodas", for the "mestres antigos" who had trained alongside or under the late great Pastinha. Therefore, Moraes, Cobrinha and their students deserve most of the credit for the revival of Capoeira Angola that began in Bahia in 1981.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

"Jack of all trades, and master of none"

Now that I've run out of diary material to copy, I have to rely on my memory again. The photo I've added above shows a corner of Fort Santo Antônio além do Carmo (now the Capoeira Fort) with the eponymous church in the background

I don't remember what day it was - but it was sometime between January 1, 1987 and Bonfim Day that I finally met a real-life mestre in Bahia and started learning Capoeira Angola.

It was one of the many days that I'd taken the Lacerda lift up to the upper city and hastened to Terreiro de Jesus plaza, which I'd mistaken for a Candomblé temple (or the site of one) when I first arrived because they are also called terreiros. I'd been there many times before, and wandered as far as I dared in Pelourinho, long before it was turned into a relatively safe tourist theme park.

But this day was different. I know it was in early January 1987, on a Friday, because I was wearing white, in honour of Oxalá (Obatala). I had the wind at my back - perhaps a divine breeze - and it was pushing me towards the plaza with churches on three sides and a fountain in the centre. Some capoeiristas were playing a bout, surrounded by onlookers, and I joined the ring. Standing beside me was a man - slightly built, about my height - dressed all in white except for a black fedora hat.

I heard several people call him "mestre," with obvious deference and respect. Normally shy, I spent some time working up the courage to talk to him. "Are you a capoeira mestre?" I finally asked, in halting Portuguese. "According to some," he replied (modestly or deviously, I wasn't quite sure). After we'd spoken for a while, I discovered two things - one, that he spoke English, and two, that he had founded the Grupo de Capoeira Angola Pelourinho (GCAP), and held classes in a large space in a ruined fort on the very edge of the historic district, in Santo Antonio Além do Carmo. Even better, he offered to trade Capoeira classes for English lessons.

I told him that I'd learned bits and pieces of Capoeira Angola and Regional in LA, and he replied dryly, in perfect English: "Jack of all trades, and master of none". I was impressed.

Then he had me follow him through the maze-like streets of Pelourinho, past the blue church built by slaves for slaves, and up a sloping street that led to the Carmelite Convent. I was surprised to find that it seemed to be a perfectly safe, residential area, and wished I'd ventured there earlier (later Z explained that she meant it was dangerous at night, which is still true).

Then we walked down a long straight road that led to a large square overlooking the bay, with Bonfim church in the distance, and up to the gate of the crumbling fort. It opened onto a short dark tunnel, beyond which I could see a rubble and rubbish-strewn courtyard. For the first time since I'd met my new guide, I hesitated, but felt reassured by the presence of an elderly guard sitting near the entrance.

"Mestre Fedora" took me down the passage, across the courtyard, and up some steps to a grillwork door covered with a sheet of plywood and closed with a chain and padlock. Through a chink, we were able to get a glimpse of the room inside, with its distinctive black-and-white tile floor.

I was disappointed to find that he didn't have the key on him, but he said, "Come back tomorrow. We have class Tuesdays and Thursdays, with rodas on Saturdays and Sundays." I could see my first real Capoeira Angola roda the very next day!

As we walked back out of the fort, past the slumbering guard, and into the reassuring sunshine of Santo Antonio plaza, "Mestre Fedora," better known as Moraes, turned to me with a sharp look and gave me my first painful lesson in Capoeira Angola and life: "Never, ever, let a stranger take you into a place like that again!"

They say that God protects innocents, fools and drunkards. Which, oh Lord, was I?

December 21, 1986

I've been depressed most of the afternoon, despite a spectacular sunset, seen from the window of the bus. Can't help worrying about what's going on back at the flat in LA, and I miss Lily, my Siamese cat. If I come back for a longer period, I'll have to give up the flat and bring Lily with me. Then, who knows? Perhaps I'll stay.

Salvador is a city of unsettling squalor in the most gorgeous of settings. Most of the beaches have outcrops and islets of black rock, upon which the waves surge and foam, and out to sea, somewhere beyond the horizon, is Africa - so much akin to the dark brown folk of the Northeast (I feel like an albino here).

The lighthouse, picturesque churches and colonial buildings are enchanting. Then, of course, there are the shanty towns, the stench of urine and faeces, rivers made sewers, the sick, aged and mutilated, persistent beggars of all ages, the occasional body (alive or dead?) in the street. Even blood on the pavement near the beach; rust-coloured dew, spattered by a violent night.

I've committed myself to staying here until March 2nd - almost imprisoned myself in this gorgeous cell, Brasil. My greatest task and responsibility are to observe and learn as much as possible of the life and people of Salvador. If riding buses is a means to that end, then I'm well on my way. I think I've squashed up against half the bodies in Bahia!
[the diary ends here]

December 20, 1986

I've been in Salvador a week now. Practically a native, eh? Two days ago, I had lunch with Consuelo Novais, a historian I met at UCLA. Our conversation was initially tense while I struggled with the Portuguese subjunctive, then relaxed and finally very enjoyable. Her secretary was extremely helpful and walked me to the bus for Praça da Sé.

After that, my day deteriorated considerably. In Terreiro de Jesus, a character nicknamed "Robo" (not his real name, short for Robocop) latched onto me. It was hard to shake him loose. If I were a man, I'd feel freer to make "friends in the street".

I was trying to get a good rate for $20 and one shopowner (or clerk?) was patently insulting, "talking down" to me in a garble of Italian, English and whatnot. I'm afraid I lost my temper. Then Robo stepped in and took me to another shop. He probably got a commission.

Robo has one eye and dreadlocks. He said he makes berimbaus for Naná Vasconcelos, the famous percussionist. That may be so, but I seriously doubt that his motive in taking me over was entirely pure. [I finally got rid of him by letting him follow me into a coffee shop, and ordering for myself without offering to buy him anything.]

I took off for the Lacerda lift, and was once again assaulted by vendors in the Mercado Modelo - I began to feel dazed. In the end, I bought trinkets for most of my friends, t-shirts (one for me) and postcards. I also found Waldeloir Rego's book Capoeira Angola!

To buy it, I had to exchange $$ in the Mercado Modelo at a bad rate, go back up the lift to the bookshop, then down again, wait 1/2 an hour at the bus stop (which is gorgeous, right in front of the Navy headquarters looking up at the old buildings climbing the precipice that divides the old city from the commercial sector and facing the massive lift) and cram myself into a bus along with 100 other bodies, one of them very wet, for an hour's ride back home. I went to bed early and slept profoundly.

Yesterday, I went to Z's workplace for a Christmas party, which consisted of carols, mass read by a fire-and-brimstone priest, Brazilian snack food, including shrimp and shredded chicken in savory pastry and Arabian meatballs, as well as Coke and Fanta (ubiquitous here). [After eating those snacks, I'd had lunch, as far as I was concerned, which is why snacks are called lanches in Brazil.]

In the evening, we went to a student dance concert at the Castro Alves Theater as the guests of a teacher at the federal university.

Apart from the evenings, it's very hot and humid here. That contributes to my exhaustion. There was a prolonged attack of mosquitoes here too - at night, of course. I looked for a while as though I had chicken pox!

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Wednesday, December 16, 1986

I feel like a Henry James character - I have a guilty conscience about exploiting people via the exchange rate, but everyone is out to exploit me! I bought a berimbau, two whistles, an agogo (cowbells) and a colimbré (?) for $10 at Cz$28 per dollar, and still somehow I feel I've been had. Oh well.

Yesterday, I did a quick tour - saw the Mercado Modelo, bought fitas (after bargaining down the price), bought stamps and discovered that the Portuguese word for envelope is "envelope" (pronounced "enveloppy").

I wandered the Pelourinho district - a rough place even in the daytime (and the capoeira schools open at night). Three malandros offered an exorbitant exchange rate (Cz$32 to the dollar) if I sold them $200. I thought better of it.

[Here's the whole story: Every time I arrived in the plaza facing the Lacerda Lift in the Upper City, I was greeted by a young boy - a different one every time - who showed me a very good exchange rate written on a bit of paper. It was tempting. If I exchanged the dollars I still had at those rates, I could have lived like a queen for the rest of my stay. I asked my hosts what they thought and, in typically Bahian fashion, they shrugged and said "give it a try."

Still suspicious - thinking that if it was too good to be true it was probably false - I decided to test it out. The young kid of the day took me to Cantina da Lua - then an infamous dive and now a popular watering spot for tourists - and the three malandros sat down at a table with me to negotiate.

"We'll give you that rate for $200," said the head honcho.

"But I only have $20 on me," I replied.

When they saw that I was serious and wasn't going to offer them what they wanted, they all left except for one bright spark, who said "Give me the $20 and I'll go and fetch your money."

I said, "No, thanks, I'll wait for you to bring it here, then we can swap."

He shrugged and walked away.

It became clear that the scam was either to give unsuspecting tourists a wad of useless bills - because of rampant inflation at the time, valuable notes soon became worthless - or simply to take off with their money and disappear in the labyrinth that was Pelourinho.]

I took the Circular Bus to Campo Grande, the hub of Carnaval. Not much going on there during the week. My main accomplishment was getting 8 letters ready to mail. I sent fitas to everyone who would know what they are. I still have 17 people on my list. Cards and enveloppies are cheap, but stamps are a killer!

Today, I paid for the berimbau, etc., to pick up later, took a bus to Campo Grande, walked to the federal university's dance department, then walked along the precarious "sidewalk" of the beltway along the bay back to the Mercado Modelo [little did I know that this was and is one of the most dangerous parts of the city].

For lunch, I had cocoa juice mixed with orange juice and acarajé (again). The man who sold me the berimbau has taken a fancy to me - he even offered to let me stay at his mother's house till March! I don't know...

Monday, December 14, 1986

I'm having trouble budgeting - the only thing for sure is that I have to be very conservative in my spending. Rent and food are going to take up most of my $$.

One thing for the chronicle - I arrived in Salvador on the day of a general, nationwide strike protesting the government's austerity measures. The only result was that the beaches were full on a Friday.

People are understandably unwilling to shoulder the burden of repaying a (foreign) debt from which they received little or no benefit. I hear many people grumbling about the haves and have-nots, the latter being in the majority. It seems that the main effect of democracy is that people can openly express their grievances. The sources of grief remain much the same.

Today, Z and I went to a christening. Well, we missed the ceremony, because her friend couldn't follow directions and pick us up, so we hitched a ride with a portly, friendly man in a tiny white speedo. He looked as though he was in his underwear and, in any case, he was nearly naked. But - no problem.

He dropped us off and we waited at a crowded bus stop where one full bus after another passed us. People either piled into empty trucks that stopped for them or crammed into VW buses, or waited, played drums and sweltered.

We finally hired a taxi and the distance turned out to be barely 100 yards! At the party, we sat, I smiled and listened, and eventually submitted to interrogation. I was a bit irritable because of a painful sunburn, but managed to behave myself.

There was a feijoada (bean feast), lasagna, beer, Coke, cake, fruit salad, photo taking, proud drunken papa, proud beaming busy mama, and an alternately sleeping and crying baby. The photo album proudly recorded the (quite large) family jewels of the new scion.

I finally saw the sights of Salvador and was initially disappointed after hyperexpectation. That soon wore off. Z gave me a fita (Bonfim wish ribbon) and we rode back to her flat in a bus that went by the bay at sunset, the lighthouse, the baianas selling acarajé (bean fritters). I saw a restaurant named after the book by Jorge Amado that had made me come here: Tent of Miracles. I'm really here! The guidebook shows the candomblés and capoeira and the Historical and Geographic Institute library. Ótimo! Tomorrow, I plunge in.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Salvador, Sunday, December 13, 1986

My second day in Salvador! I left Rio at 10 am on the 11th, taking the "ônibus leito", a 17-seat sleeper bus. "Emílio", the man who sat next to me, is a descendant of a Tennessee family that fled the US for the Brazilian Northeast after the Civil War! What irony - abolition took place in Brazil about 20 years later. (I'm watching a variety show on TV [O Cassino de Chacrinha] with half-naked carnavalesque dancers in the background as they interview a vet about pets and have a man lie on broken glass.)

More about the trip - we had several stops and I ate most meals with E. We talked quite a bit. Along the way, the terrain was mainly green, sometimes treeless with a number of thin cows and horses, at times heavily forested with a number of light-limbed trees. Some of the hills were cut away for the road, revealing brilliantly sunset-coloured earth.

Closer to Salvador were large cocoa orchards with squat, broad-leaved trees. The rest stops became squalid as we moved North. I tried cocoa juice (similar to soursop) twice. The second time (and the last stop on the journey), the milk it was mixed with was sour and the serving hatch full of flies.

On the whole, the journey was relaxed and enjoyable, but I was hot, sticky and tired at the end of it. The noise, heat and movement of the bus made it hard to sleep.

Yesterday I went for a walk with "Zara", one of my hosts. Her sister "Tamara" was there when I got back. Today, "Tamara" worked while "Zara" and I went to the beach (Jardim de Allah).

The beach is gorgeous, with waves breaking over low black rocks, sand that seems to be mixed with grains of gold, and palm trees.

Tried a fruit like a large, soft-skinned quenepa, sour and refreshing.

Wrote 7 postcards.

Rio, Thursday, December 10, 1986

Went up to Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) and took a photo of "Guanabara mitológica" - a lovely statue of the mythical personification of Guanabara bay overlooking that eponymous body of water.

Well, I went, I saw, I sprained my foot (almost). Sugarloaf, Ipanema, Copacabana, all in one afternoon! Call me supertourist.

This city contrasts gorgeous, paradisal beaches and coastal vistas with mediaeval scenes of maimed (or shamming) beggars, children cadging cigarettes and miserable poverty. I've been to the bus station and the beaches - two ends of the continuum. Two people, a man and a woman, each carrying a baby, asked me for money at the bus station within two minutes of each other when I went to buy my ticket to Bahia. To the first - the woman - I gave; the man was not so lucky. I could hemorrhage pity.

After stopping back at the hotel and calling my future hosts in Salvador, I took off for Sugarloaf (the maid took the penny I left out on the shelf, as a test. Nothing else seemed to be missing, though. It was eerie, almost as though I had manipulated her into taking it.)

I took a bus almost as far as the cable-car terminal at Praça Vermelha, near Praia Vermelha and its reddish sands (must be clay content). I saw the beach as we ascended. It was a bit frightening, lurching slowly up the hill as awesome vistas spread out before us. We stopped first at Morro da Urca - very commercial, but nice view. "Climbing" Sugarloaf has been a goal of mine for as long as I've known it existed. I really feel as though I've been to Rio now - even more so than after the "showpy". I now have more postcards - I need a ton to fulfill all my obligations. I must write to my sister as soon as I get to Salvador.

I had to pay my respects to Ipanema - and it was incredibly lovely, with coastal mountains curving away into mist, clear, cascading, blue-green waves, white sand, people of all shapes, sizes, ages, colours (mainly shades of brown). I trucked back to Copacabana through side streets, as the two beaches are separated by a fort - I saw quite a few military installations today, and at least one mini-machine gun. The walk along Copacabana's famous tiled sidewalk soon became a trudge. I bought a Guaraná soft drink from a Brazilian from the Pomeranian-speaking German colony near Rio (Espirito Santo). Each of us thought the other was Argentinian!

I hurt my ankle trying to catch a bus, took the back streets, trudged some more, and finally hopped a bus back to the hotel. The Hotel Novo Mundo rented me a room for March 2 - what luck! I was afraid I'd have to spend the night in the street. Even so, I don't think I'll get much sleep - Carnaval on Fat Tuesday!

My experience of Rio has always to be bittersweet: a delicious seafood meal (Mariscada a la Carioca - how appropriate), balanced by overpriced, overpoured beer that took the bill to nearly as much money as I'd brought (no tip for the poor innocent waiter - I needed it for the taxi). The maitre-d' had told the taxi driver I was going to Copacabana - much further than just across the park.

The driver was put out when he realised how short the fare was but I promised to make it up to him. I ran up to my room to get more money - but the key jammed in the lock! What slapstick.

Well, the concierge got me unstuck, I paid the driver, and even though I tipped him I'm sure he short-changed me by 10 cruzados - not a big deal, less than 50 US cents. Oh, by the way, I found the penny. All in all, though, I'm thrilled at "my day in Rio". Having such a short time to enjoy it makes me appreciate it more.

Everyone seems very disillusioned with the police - the taxi driver said that the police rob people and book them for resisting arrest if they fight back! (He was a pure Carioca, by the way. I understood about 50%, the rest I intuited.)

Tomorrow, the great adventure - 27+ hours on a bus up route 101 to Salvador!

Rio de Janeiro, Wednesday, December 9, 1986

The view from my hotel window
Arrived in Rio at about 8:15 am, l.ocal time. Got sent to customs by a system that reminds me of a game show - press a button and a red or green light flashes at random (or is it as random as all that?). I got the red light, so I went to get my baggage inspected. Turned out for the best - the inspectors told me how to get a taxi. I had some herbal medicine in my hand luggage that they obviously thought was marijuana, because they eagerly whisked it off for testing. Fortunately for me, it really was comfrey in those capsules.

I was very lucky. The first hotel I tried had a vacancy. My room is on the 11th floor, with a gorgeous view of Flamengo beach and Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) - of which I took several photos. Oh yes, it was raining when I arrived; but by the time I had taken a nap, it had eased off.

The air of fear is palpable - and catching. Distrust is everywhere. It was very difficult to exchange money. Ironically, the best hotel around did it without any trouble - and at a good rate! Apparently, the government is cracking down on the "parallel" market in dollars, but only on the Brazilians involved.

I'm fighting off a cough and sore throat that threaten to be the dreaded Taiwan (?) flu. What lousy timing! Well, I'm tired, anyway. Just as well that I have a place to stay for two nights before I hit the road again.

I was reminded today that draft beer is called chopp (pronounced show-py). I soon put this knowledge to good use. As the delicious, ice-cold drink poured down my throat, it came to me that I'm really in Brazil!

Monday, 18 June 2007

Cobrina and Joao Grande in 1986

"Eu vou pra Bahia"*

I suppose the time has come to explain how I wound up in Bahia. The briefest reason I can give is that I sang "Eu vou pra Bahia" so often when playing berimbau that I brainwashed myself into going.

Capoeira had led me to Jorge Amado, whose novel Tent of Miracles introduced me to Manuel Querino, who became the inspiration and focal point of my MA research. Ironically, I knew much more about Brazil when I was up to my eyebrows in books and writing my MA paper. Once I'd graduated, the details were already starting to fade as I was finally being recognised as a Brazilianist by my friends and employers at the Centre for African American Studies (CAAS), who invited me to give a lecture on Querino to celebrate and mark my newfound status.

That lecture was the beginning of the end, because one of the people who happened to be in the audience was Consuelo Novais Sampaio, a visiting professor of History from the Federal University at Bahia, and a good friend of my MA advisor (who also introduced my lecture), E. Bradford Burns. When I told her that I was thinking of going to Nigeria to study Yoruba, she said, "Why not study it in Bahia? They teach it at the Centre for Afro-Oriental Studies!"

I didn't need much persuading. The entire reason for making Brazil the focus of my MA in Latin American Studies was to get a grant to visit the country. Unfortunately for me, the topic I chose - Brazilian race relations - was so sensitive at the time that the soon-to-be-defunct military government rejected any scholars intending to study that subject. My advisors - particularly E. Bradford Burns and Johannes Wilbert - suggested that I water down my proposal to make it more palatable.

Either because my heart wasn't in it, or the Brazilian government saw right through me, it was rejected and I finished my MA and graduated without setting foot in that oft-sung land. I ended up paying for the trip with money obtained from a grant to study Yoruba at UCLA and - in true LA style - a game show. My 31st birthday party at CAAS was also a bon-voyage party. I left for Brazil on Tuesday, December 7th, 1986, intending to spend three months in Bahia doing preliminary research for a PhD in History. I was already enrolled and planned to get started on it as soon as I got back; but as Robbie Burns once wrote, the best-laid plans "aft gang a-glee". I decided that, instead of studying the place and its people, I would rather be a part of it. Since then, I have learnt and grown a great deal from living in a society to which I will never fully belong. The following entries will contain excerpts from the diary I wrote at the time.

*I'm off to Bahia

Capoeira, California style

Back in the early to mid-80s,* the main Capoeira group in California was the World Capoeira Association, founded in San Francisco** by Mestre Acordeon, aka Bira Almeida (shown in the above photo), the Brazilian author of the polemically titled book Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form. Acordeon organised a major Capoeira gathering in 1986, way up in wine country. As usual I was the designated driver, so a bunch of Capoeiristas piled into my Dad's Cutlass Supreme (complete with cruise control) and we cruised up the coast to Frisco.

Acordeon’s school was located in the Mission district, but the venue for the event was a castle-like facility (complete with sauna) north of the Napa Valley, owned by a Bagwan-like cult. Capoeristas from all over the country took part. In those days, they boiled down to Jelom Vieira's group from NYC and students and mestres from LA and San Francisco. There seemed to be a healthy, friendly rivalry between Acordeon and Jelom. I thought it was funny that, in most of Jelom's rodas, the opponents ended up wrestling on the ground - especially when his opponent was Acordeon! I haven't seen that style of Capoeira before or since, but it was also the denouement of Ag'ya as filmed by Katherine Dunham, so I can't say it wasn't authentic.

The other leading Brazilian Capoeira mestre in California was Henrique do Nascimento, whose father, the poet, activist, sculptor, actor, scholar and politician Abdias do Nascimento, is a fascinating figure who unfortunately does not otherwise fit into this particular narrative. Henrique was involved in several Capoeira events in Los Angeles, but I don't remember seeing him play. I do recall going to a party at his home and tasting a batida (a potent mix of cachaça and lime juice) for the first time. Naively assuming it was lemonade, I took a hefty swig, and spent the rest of the party trying to sober up so I could drive home!

Back then, the most important characteristic of Capoeira in the USA was that it was dominated by Regional mestres. The only teacher who gave us a glimpse of Capoeira Angola was Paris. Even so, I got it into my head that Angola was the truly authentic style, and when I made plans to go to Brazil, it was Angola that I wanted to learn.

*I left the US for Brazil in December 1986, to give a more specific timeframe.
**Mestre Moraes once told me that this was like founding the International Hot Dog Association in Brazil - an apt analogy on more than one level.

Friday, 8 June 2007

More musings on "race"

"From a genetic perspective, all humans are Africans,
either residing in Africa or in recent exile"

Svante Paabo, Anthropologist
What, you may ask, do these endless musings have to do with Capoeira? Everything, in my opinion, because "race" relations and perceptions have always tinged my interaction with that African-Brazilian martial art, as a melanin-challenged "white" woman (more like undercooked crisp-colour).

To start off this bout of musings, let me say that I consider myself bright, with occasional sparks of brilliance and more than occasional plunges into abysmal idiocy. I can back up my claim to being bright with IQ results (135, which is nowhere near genius but good enough for the likes of me) and a first-class degree in English literature, albeit from a US university, which makes it a "summa cum laude". Like most Mensa candidates, I'm socially awkward, if not inept, but working on it, and that process is aided by the maturity that comes with over half a century of life in this cruel, sometimes tender and always chaotic world.

In addition to being blessed and cursed with intelligence, I have also enjoyed the considerable privilege of growing up in the Caribbean, specifically in bilingual and multiracial Puerto Rico, aka Borinquen, my lovely island, the birthplace of my brothers and sister and homeland of my heart. It would have been paradise if it weren't for the colonisers, but that's another story. (El Gran Combo is singing "Que Viva Puerto Rico" as I write)

Thanks to that combination of nature and nurture, I grew up with what I could call my only "super-power": X-ray vision. Instead of being "colour-blind", I see right past colour to the inner human essence that makes all people members of the human race - the only "race" there is (a view borne out by human genome studies). Which is not to say that I'm incapable of seeing the surface - just that I am capable of finding it beautiful, no matter what colour it is (white, black, brown, yellow, red, but probably not green or purple).

I may be more evolved than most or just an anomaly, but unfortunately I haven't met many people who share my "ability". Instead, "black" people tend to think that I have a "thing" for them, particularly men (something like the viewpoint expressed in the title of Spike Lee's film Jungle Fever), and most "white" people think I am at best eccentric (a euphemism for "barking mad"), or at worst a criminal or "race traitor".

I have fewer problems in this regard in Brazil, where I have always embraced and taken part in Afro-Bahian culture - for many years I chose to live it instead of studying it, and it has been a very enriching and fulfilling experience. While in Los Angeles, I ran into many barriers set up by African-Americans who - mostly because they have been traumatised by the pathological and tragic version of race relations that has developed in the US over the centuries - don't like to see "white" people anywhere near them, and are particularly offended by a pale face in the crowd when they are celebrating their history, community and culture. (I once witnessed the heartbreaking exclusion of a black student's white mother from an African-American-only graduation ceremony at UCLA.)

I was almost barred at the gate (literally) when I went along with my Capoeira group to give a presentation in LA in the early 80s. It all started when we were invited to perform at a celebration of African-American cultural expressions. We all piled into a car or two - my memory is hazy but "we" probably meant Cedric, Odie, Cornell, Steve, and yours truly - and drove off to the event. I often chauffeured for Capoeira players - particularly on trips to San Francisco - but on this occasion I’m fairly sure I was a passenger. Which accounts for my desperation when we arrived at the front gate and someone said, "Not her. She can’t come in." There was no muttering about "white devils", as I’d heard on another occasion, but it was clear that my pale skin was not welcome there. But then someone saved the day by arguing, "Hey, we need her to play berimbau so we can play in the roda." It was true - I could still play the instrument much better than I performed the martial art, and since someone had to do it, I would free up the African-American Capoeiristas to perform. The objections faded in the face of this argument, and the organisers let me in.

I should also say - and this is very important - that the occasions on which I have been "barred at the gate" on account of my colour were, and still are, more than compensated by the wonderful friends I have made as a result of my "gift". When people of African descent are able to overcome the trauma triggered by the sight of my "white" skin, and accept me as a sincere friend and an ardent admirer of their culture, they become more than friends - they're family.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Interlude (part 2): Musings on "gender"*

Yesterday, at the CSA conference, I heard a very interesting talk on "Honour, Gender and Combat" by T.J. Desch Obi. I hadn't noticed that there was a panel including three Capoeira-related subjects scheduled for 11:15 am on Thursday on the 54-page programme until my friend and colleague Danny Dawson pointed it out to me, for which I am profoundly grateful. (Unfortunately, the only talk that focussed specifically on Capoeira was cancelled - the panelist did not turn up.)

Obi's talk ties into the work that another friend, Marcus Trower, is doing on wrestling - he also includes the role of women in what I will loosely describe as martial arts. According to Marcus's book, The Last Wrestlers, women serve more as a goad and/or prize for wrestlers, particularly in Nigeria (see his comment below).

According to Obi, women are (or were) mainly involved in Trinidadian kalenda stick fighting as the elite male fighters' "sugar mommas", but some were fighters themselves. Called jamettes, they sang kalenda war songs, which formed the basis of calypso, and were led by an older woman called a matador. Sometimes the jamettes had to beat their kept kalenda fighters with their own sticks to keep them in line.

I was fascinated by Obi's emphasis on the "femininity" of the jamettes. He stressed that the women's involvement in kalenda did not "masculinise" them. As a contribution to Obi's very interesting research, I offer these musings on gender and femininity.

Women have always been warriors. Like the lioness, who does the hunting and rearing, women have to be able to defend themselves and their young. Being weaker (on the whole) than men just makes that all the more necessary. Just as kalenda fighting involves more than sticks - an "insult fight" similar to playing the dozens is a key factor - self-defence does not always involve brute force. Forms of mental/psychological manipulation commonly known as "women's wiles" are equally effective weapons. "Women's intuition" is an effective way of staying out of trouble, or dodging a blow without seeing it coming. Women also have a higher threshhold of pain than men - or so I'm told - and childbirth bears this out.

In my experience, most of the girls and women I've known who got involved in martial arts have been extremely feminine. The main problem for women in Capoeira is developing upper body strength, but the majority of the women I've met who became deeply involved in it - whether straight, lesbian or bisexual - were all paragons of "femininity". In other words, with one or two exceptions, they didn't imitate men in their dress or behaviour, and they very much liked men, whether as mates or lovers.

Ironically, as I'll describe in more detail when I get to it, I was forced to stop practising Capoeira physically because of two inherent conditions of womanhood - pregnancy, followed by the need to support my child and husband (like a jamette). However, as I hope to show in this blog, I've never stopped practising it mentally. I still try to think like a warrior, although I've laid down my metaphorical kalenda sticks. And I still wear lip gloss and earrings ;-)

*Funny how "gender" usually means "women"!

Thursday, 31 May 2007

Interlude (part 1): Musings on "race"*

The good thing about a blog is that, being a bit like a journal, it can include past and present events. I'm attending the Caribbean Studies Association conference in Salvador this week and have had at least two opportunities to discuss and learn about different aspects of Capoeira. The resulting musings promise (or threaten) to be longer than I'd originally planned, so I'll divide them into parts - the first on "race" and the second on "gender".

On Tuesday morning, I had a very interesting discussion with La Vinia Delois Jennings that covered, among other things, the political aspects of associating or divorcing Capoeira with/from its African roots.

In the US, Capoeira is often used by African-Americans and appropriated by a group that a friend calls "Africans with a k" as an affirmation of African culture and identity. This is all well and good, except that many of them buy into the Regional spiel that Capoeira was developed in Brazil by Africans whose hands were always shackled, so they fought with their feet instead.

In Brazil, the same government that legalised Capoeira in the 30s also made a strenuous effort to "regionalise" and "Brasilianise" it. My theory is that, since Capoeira was being co-opted and "decriminalised" so it could packaged as a commodity to be sold to the middle classes, it would be more palatable to non-blacks if it were presented as Brazilian and not Afro-Brazilian. The title of Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form by Bira Almeida (aka Mestre Acordeão) evokes howls of outrage outside Brazil but clearly expresses the Regional viewpoint.

I've heard more than one Regional mestre (both in person and in televised documentaries) claim that the Africans who supposedly invented Capoeira in Brazil were imitating monkeys, stingrays, goats, etc. In other words, the presupposition is that they lacked such moves in their cultural repertoire, so they had to learn them from the beasts of the earth and the fish of the sea! One (white) Regional mestre, who shall remain nameless, had the gall to say that the masters should be thanked for whipping their slaves and forcing them to develop a martial art.

Here, in a nutshell, is the response I've come up with over the years - not being one for quick, off-the-cuff retorts: After visiting Nigeria about 17 years ago and hearing that people in rural areas engage in a similar form of martial art, and also learning of the existence of N'golo in what is now Angola, I am convinced that Africans from several parts of the continent pooled and fused their knowledge to develop what we now know as Capoeira. Not only did they bring the knowledge with them, but enslaved Africans and their descendants rarely went about with their hands in shackles. For one thing, it would make it awfully hard to swing a machete in the cane fields, or stuff sugarcane stalks into a mill, etc. etc.

Also, many were sent out into the streets as slaves-for-hire and led relatively independent lives, bound only to deliver a specific sum of money to their "owners" on a weekly or monthly basis. Slavery was not a monolith in Brazil. By the time it was abolished in 1888, thousands of Africans and their descendants had been freed by a) purchasing or being granted manumission or b) qualifying for freedom under the "free womb" and "sexagenarian" laws, etc. etc. In fact, some slave traders and slaveowners were black.

Therefore, there is no question in my mind about the "Africanness" of Capoeira - despite its indigenous name - but its history is still shackled (pardon the pun) by serious misconceptions about the realities of slavery in Brazil.

*I put "race" in quotes because I believe the human race should not be subdivided.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Learning the ginga and berimbau (not in that order)

I joined Paris's Capoeira classes at the UCLA International Student Center a few weeks after the mugging incident. My fellow students included the Jamaican-born dancer and drummer Cornell "Sugarfoot" Coley, author Odie Hawkins, the Argentine anthropologist Alejandro Frigerio, Cedric Adams (whose claim to fame includes having his neck snapped by Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon I), and Steve McCray (a future school principal who appeared alongside Cedric in a Denzel Washington movie). Our teacher, as I recently discovered, had the best film credentials of all, because he had worked with the legendary Brazilian (and Bahian) director Glauber Rocha in the late 60s. At the time, the only one besides Paris with any claim to fame was Odie. All of them were well advanced in their Capoeira skills - brought together and trained by Paris, who modestly and accurately insisted that he was not a "mestre", just an aficionado who was teaching it to others so he could have someone to play with. He was probably in his 40s when we first met. Neither tall nor short, with a lean build and an aquiline nose, he always wore a baseball cap on his closely shaved head due to skin cancer. His personality was gruff and prickly, and he was a very tough teacher, more like a drill sergeant, which was perfect for slackers like me. He also had a hawk-like intelligence that saw right through the mildest of jests (like the time when I gave him a Brazil nut chocolate bar - he immediately perceived the double-entente). Mestre or no mestre, those are essential qualities for anyone who intends to teach Capoeira.

Paris sold me my first berimbau [see Wikipedia definition and photos here] for $30, which seemed cheap at the time till I discovered that you could buy 5 or 6 in Brazil for that price (call it import tax). Fortunately for me, I had taken piano lessons for many years - originally as physiotherapy - and played double bass in high school and an amateur orchestra in the US and UK, so I had some notions of rhythm and coaxing a musical sound out of a string instrument. The tricky thing was balancing a great big berimbau - which looks like, and is, a bow strung with piano wire (usually) with a calabash or gourd (the "sound box") looped onto the lower extremity - and playing it at the same time whilst bouncing the open side of the calabash off my stomach to get a "wah wah" effect. The musician's little finger, yes, the fragile pinky, curls under the string holding the gourd to the bow, and the same hand holds a coin or stone between the thumb and index fingers, which must be free to play the instrument by pressing said coin or stone against the wire. It sounds complicated and is much harder to do than to explain. In the engraving by Carybé that illustrates this entry, you can see the berimbau players in the background. They may be depicted as shadowy figures, but the rhythm they set is essential to the entire business and play of the roda - and the songs sung by the berimbau players, who are usually masters and senior students of the art, are often a running commentary on what the Capoeiristas are doing inside the circle.

"Ginga" needs just one letter to become "gringa" on the printed page, but it is a diametrically opposite concept. Basically, it describes a swaying walk that must be learnt from birth, in contrast with the stiff, linear manner in which most Anglos are raised to put one foot in front of the other as they forge ahead towards their manifest destinies (and heaven forfend if any swaying of hips is involved). In Capoeira, the ginga is a triangular movement in which the body becomes an elastically swaying tripod that serves as the base for any number of moves, from spins to sweeps to cartwheels. And for said Anglos, it is one of the hardest things to learn. Again, in this I was also fortunate because, although I am still relatively "stiff and wooden" compared with most Brazilians, I was raised in the tropics and could at least grasp the concept. Which is not to say that I was any good at Capoeira, particularly at first. The au (cartwheel), which I thought I would learn easily because young kids could do it, stubbornly eluded me. So I went ahead with the set routines Paris taught us, which I later found were part of the Regional training system, and thanked God that at least I could play the berimbau better than most of my classmates. It was my saving grace, and the only reason why I was asked along to Capoeira demonstrations despite my limited skills and unpopular skin colour (more on that later).

This video shows a demonstration of the ginga as I originally learned it (Regional style):

Friday, 11 May 2007

"If only I knew Capoeira"

I went to LA on my way to somewhere else and decided to stay. That was in 1978 or so. My first flat was in Palms - Mentone Avenue to be exact - in a building centred around a patio and a pool. The neighbours were like a mini-Organisation of American States with a few other countries thrown in - Spanish and Portuguese were the predominant languages, and the nationalities ranged from Cape Verdean to Cuban. The original manager was a Wasp who bred boa constrictors in his flat, and his successor was an Argentine woman with a slight German accent named Aida Horn who spoke little English and was dating a foul-mouthed Yugoslavian when we first met (she eventually married a handsome Mexican tailor who spoke no English at all). I got on very well with Aida, who was also my next-door neighbour, and it didn't hurt that my Spanish was fluent after several months in Spain.

I have lots of stories to tell about my years in Palms (down the street from the original Chippendales) but I'll cut to the chase. One night in February 1983, I decided to go to the supermarket. I think it was open 24 hours, so I went at 11 pm and got home a bit after midnight. I was driving my third car since I'd arrived in LA - a second-hand Cutlass Supreme (a very nice hand-me-down from my father) - and my parking space was in the back alley. I got out of the car and kept my keys in my hand - a lesson learnt from a self-defence book my mother sent me - while struggling with two bags of groceries and my handbag. Suddenly, someone shoved me from behind. I thought it must be one of my neighbours having some fun and said, "Oh, stop it!" Then I felt a tug on the strap of my handbag and fell forward while the bag went off in the other direction, under the arm of a burly Samoan-looking guy who jumped into the passenger side of a yellow car that sped away as he shut the door. Of course I chased after him, like a fool, all the while thinking "If only I knew Capoeira, I'd know what to do with him if I catch him!" Fortunately, I didn't come even close. Afterwards I noticed that an apple in one of the bags had been sliced with the same blade that cut the strap.

I let myself into my flat - thanks to my Mum and her handy self-help book - and one neighbour gave me some brandy while another rang the police. When they turned up, one officer took my statement while the other cheerfully remarked: "We've had several muggings in this area by a gang that's staking out alleyways. You're lucky to be alive. The other day they shot and killed a woman that screamed."

Nice of him to tell me - some forewarning would have been helpful! I certainly wouldn't have gone grocery shopping in the middle of the night. I had managed to memorise the license plate number (had no idea of the make or model of the car). Turned out to be stolen so that was no help at all. The thieves got very slim pickings - seeing me drive up in a Cutlass must have made their mouth water. They actually rang me (my phone number was on my worthless cheques - I cancelled them right away) to vent their rage and frustration. Fortunately that was all the revenge they took. I had to have another driving license issued, and the photo, taken the next day, is a portrait of my rage and frustration. The thieves got nothing, but it cost me nearly $50 to replace the bag and everything in it (some things, like a pewter-backed mirror I'd bought years before in Curaçao, were irreplaceable). The most important outcome of that incident was that I made a decision. I wasn't going to be a victim ever again. I was going to learn Capoeira.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Catching the Capoeira bug

We've skipped forward nearly a decade. By this time I'd stopped reading Archaeology, spent roughly a year in Polopos, a tiny village in southern Spain, and finished up in Los Angeles. Long story, not relevant, moving on. I had graduated with a first in English Literature from UCLA in 1982 but decided that the job market was saturated with BAs, and I didn't have the "fire in the belly" for a PhD in English (there was no stopping at an MA in that field, which was known as a "terminal master's"). Therefore, I went on for an MA in Latin American Studies based on my background. I was already working in the UCLA Latin American Center's editorial department - the only link between my BA and MA - and I was accepted mainly on the strength of having grown up in Puerto Rico. I welcomed the opportunity to learn Portuguese - something I'd wanted to do since I was 11, and the only language requirement I needed to fulfill because I already spoke fluent Spanish. However, my original focus was on Puerto Rican politics and history, and apart from Bossa Nova, I had little interest in Brazil.
"If these kids can do it, I can"
Then, an on-and-off boyfriend who was doing an MA in Dance Ethnology asked me to do him a favour. He had to be out of town during a Capoeira performance, known as a "roda," so could I photograph it for his thesis? I had heard a lot about it but was curious to see it first-hand - albeit through a camera lens - and as I would find, Capoeira is something one has to see in action to comprehend (which is why this blog is riddled with videos). The roda was run by a Brazilian actor and artist known as Paris, and most of his students were youngsters. They flew through the air and did cartwheels (aus) with the greatest of ease. I had never seen anything like it, and found the combination of athletics and wily sparring with music and song particularly intriguing. As I clicked away with my camera, I thought, If these kids can do it, I can (note: it would take me years to do an au properly). I had already caught the Capoeira bug, but didn't know it. It would take a traumatic event to turn it into a full-blown infection.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Practical uses of martial arts training

One of the best things about learning a martial art is that the traditional teaching methods drill certain moves into the pupil's body and brain and make them second nature. In other words, when you need to defend yourself you don't have to think, OK, now I grab his shirt and pull this way and then stick out my leg and sweep. You just do it. This came in handy for a UNIS classmate who was spending her lunch break in a tiny plaza across the bridge linking the Manhattan campus to the other side of FDR Drive. She told me that she was accosted by two or three young thugs, one of whom grabbed her from behind. Without even thinking about it, she threw him over her shoulder and ran back to the school, leaving the would-be robbers too stunned to chase after her. Fortunately, she didn't have to run far!
I had a similar experience, but it wasn't with muggers - just an overly eager would-be lover. This happened in London, a few months after I graduated from UNIS and began reading Anglo-Saxon Archaeology at University College. I had met a good-looking young Kurd at the student union and we were on our second date. I should have known that it would not end well because of a "portent" as I was crossing Leicester Square to meet him at the cinema - my glasses were suddenly hit with white pigeon dung, square on the right lens.
My date wanted to "make out" at the cinema, but I fended him off politely, trying to explain that I had no objection to kissing him but I really wanted to watch the film. He must have felt frustrated - or taken literally my suggestion that he had some kisses coming - because afterwards, as we were walking down a street parallel to Leicester Square, he grabbed me from behind. It didn't feel affectionate or playful. My reaction was entirely spontaneous - to this day, I'm not sure what I did. Suddenly, there he was on the ground in front of me, staring up with a shocked look on his face. I walked off as fast as I could, and never saw him again. I can't remember another time when Judo came to my rescue, but years later, Capoeira would instill reactions that would have made Bruce Lee proud. But more about that in a future post.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Cold War casualty

My Judo career collapsed with a bang and a whimper. UNIS held a tournament, and I was paired against the daughter of a diplomat from a Warsaw Pact country. I think she was a belt above my paltry orange status, but I held my own until I came down heavily on one knee. By heavily, I mean that I weighed well over 11 stone or 154 lbs (I'm just under 5'6" and hopelessly non-metric). My opponent went over to talk to her father while the ref decided whether we could go ahead. I might have been imagining things, but her stern-faced diplomat dad seemed to be telling her: "return with your shield or upon it" for the honour of the Soviet empire. After all, those were the days when the USSR was dosing female athletes with steroids to win Olympic gold medals. One small victory for Slovenia (not the real country), one huge step towards proving the validity of Communism and all its works. Alright, I was probably over-dramatising the whole thing, but then I was just 18 (though my daughters say I'm still a drama queen). I insisted on going through with the bout and lost by a fraction of a point. Soviet honour was saved and my opponent could return to hearth and home (I had less riding on the outcome - just personal pride). I spent the next few months recovering from a meniscus cartilage tear - a knee injury that is now common among athletes but was seemingly unheard of in the early 70s. When the x-ray showed nothing (the bones were fine), the doctors assumed I was making it all up to just get out of gym class (my gym teacher agreed). So I hobbled off and tried using a knee brace - wrong move, as it turns out, because it prevents the meniscus from moving and the cartilage from healing properly. It took years for sports medicine to catch up with my injury and heal me up before Capoeira damaged both knees more or less permanently.
There's a heartwarming postscript to this story. I put a Judo symbol next to my photo in the school yearbook and the teacher sought me out to thank me. He must have thought that my experience had embittered me against Judo and all martial arts. Far from it - I felt like a wounded warrior. Years later, my Judo skills would still stand me in good stead.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Judo at UNIS

Fast-forward to 1973/74, when I went to the United Nations International School (UNIS) in NYC to get an International Baccalaureate. I had decided to take the two-year course in one, as I had already graduated from high school and needed the IB to get into a British university. There were cultural requirements as well as academic ones, and Judo was among my options (the others I chose were playing double bass in the chamber music ensemble and orchestra). That's how I met Sonny Lwin (shown performing a flying kick in the photo). A former Buddhist monk and a grandson of U Thant, he also had a couple of black belts and the humility, good nature, cheerful disposition and patience to work with rank beginners like me. (Yes, I had taken Judo years before, but I had to start all over again and barely made it to an orange belt before crashing out in a competition with an injured knee - but more on that later.) Sadly, Sonny died recently, after battling demons that not even a black belt is equipped to vanquish. [Next installment: How I became a casualty of the Cold War]

Monday, 23 April 2007

From Kato to Kwai Chang Kane

I hear they're planning to do a film based on the "Green Hornet" series. I hope they don't destroy another favourite series from my childhood - the devastating blow to "Wild Wild West" was hard enough to bear. When the original "Green Hornet" came out in 1966, I had no interest in the masked white man in the dark green coat. For me, the fascination was all about Kato. Look at those moves! I had never seen anything like them. There was something so graceful and artistic about leg kicks and sweeps - they were much more exciting than fisticuffs. Of course, along with the rest of my generation, I was being introduced to Bruce Lee, who became a lifelong idol. I also loved "Kung Fu." One of my favourite episodes involved Kane, imprisoned in a Wild West jail, being put into solitary confinement in a searing hot tin-roofed shed. The idea was to either kill him or drive him mad with the unbearable heat. He promptly went into the lotus position and meditated for hours. To his captors' surprise, he left the shed fresh as a lotus, er, daisy. I always try to use that approach to stressful situations. (In Brazil this technique often comes in handy - especially during the recent air controllers' strike.) Years later, I learned that Bruce Lee helped conceive the "Kung Fu" series, and when David Carradine was chosen to star instead of him, Bruce went back to Hong Kong and became a legend.

First kick at a martial art

Here's the deep background: When I was 12 or so, my two brothers signed up for Judo lessons. Since I was the eldest and for 11 years and 5 months (yes, I was counting) the only girl, I decided that there was only one thing to do, for my own protection: I signed up too. Our sensei was Mr. Egermeyer, an American hairdresser with a black belt who looked like a Fat Buddha. He only played with brown and black belts because less-skilled judokas might hurt him (at least, that was my theory). We also had a teacher from Hungary - Gabor Kovacz. I had such a crush on him. He was a hairdresser too - somehow, in Westchester, NY, there was a beauty salon whose staff did hair by day and hit the futons in their spare time! I eventually dropped out, but when the same Judo team gave a demonstration at my high school, they invited me to join in. I demonstrated my favourite move - a "rear sacrifice throw" called tomoe nage, which involved dropping on my back, aiming a kick at my opponent's abdomen and flipping him over my head. Afterwards, the teacher I'd flipped (this one was French) whispered: "Too close to the groin!"
In the interests of full disclosure - and even deeper background - I was born with a disability that affects my coordination. It isn't too noticeable until I try playing sports. I can adjust for it when bowling but I'm hopeless at tennis. High school basketball was impossible. Once, at UNIS, a gym teacher actually asked me if I knew I should aim for the hoop! But Judo I could do - at least, I never kicked too far below the belt.

Friday, 20 April 2007

"As voltas que o mundo dá"*

“We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.”
- T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

I've lived in Bahia, in the northeastern part of Brazil, for over 20 years now. My original idea was to spend 3 months here and return to the US, where I had already been accepted by the UCLA History Department's PhD programme. After searching for Capoeira for nearly a month, serendipity (or my orishas) put me side by side with a mestre who ran a Capoeira Angola school. He invited me to take some lessons, I accepted, and for that and many other reasons, by the time I was supposed to leave Bahia (in the middle of Carnival) I'd decided to stay. One of the highest privileges I've had since then was learning Capoeira from one of the greatest mestres alive today - João Grande - but life steered me in another direction. Then, just recently, in February 2007, some 15 years since I'd last entered a roda, I visited him at his school in NYC, and he invited me to play a bout. Then he had me sit beside him and play berimbau. It was a huge honour and one of the happiest moments of my life.
"In my end is my beginning"
To paraphrase Michael Corleone's line in the Godfather, "Just when I think I'm out, it pulls me back in." Capoeira is more than a martial art. For a Capoeirista, it's a way of life. It changes your way of thinking and behaving and alters your DNA. This blog is about how I became a Capoeirista, starting with how a complete non-athlete developed an early disposition to learn martial arts. I can thank my brothers for that, in part - and it's probably no coincidence that one of them is now a Ving Tsun sifu.

*An untranslatable Brazilian saying referring to the strange turns life can take as "the world turns".