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.