Capoeira empowers people: from individuals to ethnic groups or strata of society. It is a synthesis of African traditions, customs and philosophies synthesized in and influenced by a Brazilian atmosphere. Capoeira is ritual and it is play. It is a meditation form, a dance, a fight and a form of entertainment, a way to pass the time. In the African tradition, it contains elements from all facets of life - it incorporates music, movement, spirituality, mysticism, magic, practicality and analysis. In Capoeira each of these concepts cannot exist without the others. Alone each is lacking and is meaningless. Capoeira is introverted and extroverted, rational and irrational, good and evil. It is an artistic expression of reality. To the Capoeirista, reality and capoeira intermingle and flow together, for they are each other. The Capoeirista learns about life through Capoeira and about Capoeira through life. Observation and awareness are crucial to learning. Nature and human spirit are the ultimate teachers. The good Capoeirista should know both like he knows himself, and he should know himself. Capoeira is a discipline packed with etiquette and rules yet it is never choreographed. The whole game is improvised through repetition of various movements and reactions to the movements of the other player as well as anything the player feels inclined to do. Capoeira is a frame of mind.
Capoeira is African. This is where it came from, enslaved Africans were brought to Brazil by the Portuguese from all over sub-saharan Africa: from the Congo, Angola, Namibia and perhaps even South Africa and Mozambique. The Africans from these countries are from hundreds of tribes and speak many languages however they have a common heritage.
Black slave culture in Brazil was a synthesis of the tribal cultures represented by the slaves. Of course there were many foreign influences to the culture as a result of the Portuguese slave owners and slavery in general. Portuguese language was imposed upon them, however it also provided a common language with which Africans from different tribes could communicate. This is also a manifestation of one of the basic ideals in Capoeira and that is to try to use every situation, even if it is forcibly imposed on you, to your best advantage. Direct confrontation is not a viable option for the underdog resisting a far stronger opponent. There is a proverb in Capoeira which says: Quem aguenta tempestade e rochedo. It means only the cliffs face the tempest. Fighting is reserved only for those times when you have no escape and no other option. Mestre Cobra Mansa once told a story of an excellent Capoeirista who was confronted by four good fighters who wanted to see for themselves how good this Capoeirista was. They followed him down an alley one night and challenged him. He did a back flip and was running in the other direction as fast as his legs could carry him before they knew what was going on. This is the Capoeirista's solution. Capoeira often provides a non-violent way out of a sticky situation like a cunning trick or a mental trap.
Some people say that Capoeira originated from African dances. There was no fighting aspect in the movements before they were modified by freedom seeking slaves in Brazil. Other people provide evidence of a ritual fight/dance called N'golo from Southern Angola as proof that it did exist in martial form before it reached Brazil. Many African dances are war dances and I have heard Capoeira be referred to as a war dance too. Slaves in Brazil definitely added to the martial qualities of the game for Capoeira to become a weapon but the dance qualities were never disregarded or lost. Dancing is a tribute to the joy of life. It was also used as a disguise when officials came upon capoeiristas practicing their art. This history/legend reveals some other basic ideals present in capoeira. Camouflage is a valuable weapon and if mastered, your actions are invisible to your enemy. It is also really fun. Retaining the dance aspect indicates Capoeira's dedication to tradition and the "go with the flow" attitude is once again expressed. Beauty is central to life and Capoeira, what is life without beauty?
The notion of "winning" in Capoeira is not based on suppression of your opponent/partner, though on rare occasions it is. In fact, there is no victor or loser in Capoeira. The one who plays a better game in the roda is the one who plays more gracefully, who shows his/her "malicia" through deception and trickery, who can perform more intricate ad complex movements (if they are in the right context) and who is able to remain fechado (defended) and not give the other person the opportunity to attack successfully. If there is a winner (which there isn't really), it is the one who wins the heart of the audience.
An integral part of Capoeira is the music. It dictates the pace and the mood of the game. It is used to signal or call players. History and philosophy are passed through the songs. Tunes reflect Malicia through variations and improvisation. Players of old are revered and remembered. Emotion is released and skill is displayed. The central instrument is the berimbau. The berimbau is the soul of Capoeira and it has powerful magic. The berimbau should be an extension of you used to express emotions which are otherwise impossible to express. Music and peace replaced violence and destruction. The berimbau is said to tame the soul and put one at peace. Ladainhas, the song sung at the beginning of the roda, is also a lament and often an expression of longing.
Capoeira and its music are one and the same thing, they cannot be seperated. Some more recent Capoeira styles that have deviated from the traditional Capoeira (Angola) place less emphasis on the music.
The music, as all aspects of Capoeira, reflects philosophy and meaning. Though the sounds that can be produced by a skillful berimbau player are very numerous and are constantly added to and improvised on, there are three basic sounds or notes. A high note, a low note and a buzz sound (which is not a note but its opposite). The high and the low notes are seen as direct opposites, analogous to attack and defense in the game. The buzz is seen as a neutral space, neither the high nor the low note but both follow from or are born of the buzz. It contains neither and both at the same time. This is analogous to the ginga, which is the source of attacking and defensive movements but is neutral simultaneously. This makes it dangerous and worthy of suspicion and never to be trusted.
Opposing forces are very important in Capoeira. The Capoeirista learns to play upside down and right way up because this versatility can be a great advantage. The Capoeirista can confuse and distract his opponent, creating opportunities for attack. The trick is to remain invulnerable to attack in a position that is not comfortable unless the Capoeirista trains the movements until his/her body and mind understands them. In many situations the Capoeirista will lure his opponent into attack by creating the illusion of being vulnerable. Such an ambush is not result of pre-meditation or fore thought but rather the product of a state of mind involving cockiness, playfulness, self-confidence and knowledge of human nature. Attack is always the time when one is most vulnerable and this is why the Capoeirista teases taunts and lures his opponent into a foolish attack that usually provides opportunity for counter attack. The Capoeirista is always very cautious and will rarely launch an attack with the intent of executing it or without an escape in mind.
We cannot have control of all that happens in the world, but we can have control of our own bodies and our own emotions. In Capoeira we learn to do this and this gives us strength and power. To have control of your body and to understand the forces that govern it, we have to practice and practice and practice. The movements of Capoeira become part of our consciousness and part of our lives. But to do the movements you have to understand them and feel them. Capoeira requires mental strength more than physical strength. When you play in the roda you have to be aware of every movement of your opponent. A game in the roda (especially on the street) can be very dangerous, anything is allowed. There is no violence in Capoeira but there is violence in some of the people who play Capoeira. As a Capoeirista you must always be very aware that anything is a possibility, never expect mercy, never trust anything that the other person does in the roda. For every move that your opponent makes you must be aware of every possible movement that your opponent could make next and every possible movement that you could make in response. You should know an escape from every move your opponent could make. Capoeira is full of questions and responses, challenges and replies, actions and reactions.
This dialogue is physical, mental and emotional. It is a physical game of balance and control. When you are as close to a person as you are in a Capoeira game, one does not have to move a long way or that quickly to effect the other person. Therefore you have to be able to move swiftly and with clear direction and purpose. You cannot be indecisive because there is no time for it. The game is like a game of chess because you are trying to outmaneuver your opponent or put him/her in position from which there is no escape. You are trying to prepare your opponent for a certain movement by distracting them or confusing them or deceiving them. Capoeira is also a battle of emotion. Your opponent will try to arouse emotions in you that put you off guard. He/she might smile or laugh and pretend that there is no ill intent while actually it is another camouflaged plot. He/she might try to instill fear by saying something or executing a very tough move. Fear will make you tense and rushed, which will impair your abilities and your awareness. The Capoeirista must control his/her emotions so as to keep calm and relaxed but also so he/she can use his/her outward display of emotion to his/her advantage. This is very valuable in life in general. The "chamada" is when one player calls the other with one of many set movements. The other player comes up to the caller and the two move together in close contact. The caller then breaks the chamada using some action with the intent of testing the awareness and the ability of the other. The one who was called is immediately expecting treachery. He/she also knows it is a test. This is when control of one's emotions is very important.
Playing in the roda is very similar to being in a trance. Time seems to be non-existent. You feel very closely connected to the person that you are playing, interacting with, deceiving and suspecting. You feel like a strong individual and a part of group, the group that is singing at you, watching you, encouraging you with their music and their "axe" (life force). Everyone is contributing to the energy and the experience. When you play you do not pay attention to anyone other than the other player, but you can feel and hear the rest of the group. You know they are there watching you and you know that you depend on them for life energy. It is very fulfilling and peaceful. You can feel your life force, your "axe" (pronounced: ashay), pulsing with your blood, with the beat of the music and the words of the songs and the movements of the other player.
Capoeira is not played to reach some end goal. There is no progression from level to level. There are no graduations, designed to put you on a scale and to make it seem official as if you were on some training course. We play Capoeira for ourselves so that we can learn about our bodies and our minds. We play so that we can be at peace with ourselves and so that we can be in a healthy mindframe to go out into the world and do whatever it is that we are going to do. It gives us the strength to do those things. That strength is a spirit and energy passed down to us by the mestres who teach us and whom we love and respect. These mestres each had their own mestre who had their own mestre. The Capoeiristas of this time are descendents of a long line of Capoeiristas. These are now our ancestors and we gain protection and guidance from them through Capoeira. We honor and remember them through Capoeira. We build a community around Capoeira that supports us, and which we support. This community extends outside of the Capoeira roda and into the society around us upon whom we rely for axe.