The science of the art of capoeira


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The Modernisation of Capoeira

In 1927 Manoel Reis do Machado, otherwise known as Mestre Bimba opened the first capoeira Academy in Salvador, Bahia. This was a radical step in capoeira history, it was moved from the streets, from the margins of society into a place of officialdom where its practice was to be regulated and taught under the auspices of the ‘Regional Fight of Bahia’ (Luta Regional da Bahia). Mestre Bimbas’s style soon became known more simply as Capoeira Regional, and this term came to be equated with certain key elements in the format of the physical game.

The greatest structural changes to capoeira were Bimba’s. He extended capoeiras repertoire of movements drawing on his own experience in the now extinct Afro-Brazilian fighting art of batuque (his father, Luiz Candido Machado was a champion batuqueiro), and oriental martial arts like jiu-jitsu. His stated aim was to better equip capoeira against other fighting styles, now that its main advantage (the element of surprise and unpredictability) had been lost. He continued the work of elevating capoeira’s perceived national status in two main ways: By fighting in competition. Issuing open, no holds-barred challenges to prove capoeiras effectiveness and often won, thereby increasing its popularity and esteem. By formalising the structure of capoeira: the institution of a pedagogical system, defining a nomenclature, introducing set time periods for and ascending levels of graduation, and finalising all of these into a comprehensive system, denominated Regional. We can see that Mestre Bimba's influence was both theoretical and also set by personal example. During his career as a fighter he earned the nickname, the three hits. It was said that three was the maximum number of blows anyone could sustain from him before being completely incapacitated. If someone was to make changes to capoeira then it could be argued that there was none more qualified than Mestre Bimba.

In 1927 the practice of Capoeira was officially prohibited, the first and greatest challenge for Mestre Bimba was to obtain official recognition, and a great deal of his innovations can explained by this motive. The state needed to see capoeira as something within their control, and to gain official patrimony Bimba would have to present capoeira in a formalised structure that would render itself intelligible to the organs of local government. Firstly his removal of capoeira from the street scenario into the academy negated many unpredictable elements, he was now in control and unpleasant surprise would only occur as part of the game, limited by the tacit rules thereof and so rendered considerably less harmful. For example, within the four walls of this respected fighter’s academy there could be no random stabbing (an event which frequently happened in capoeiras history up to this point). A knockout could and did still occur, I have personally heard Mestre Acordeon’s stories of “acordando estendido no chão”. Among high level students injury of this type would most likely be considered the failing of the victim. Into this new regulated environment came many curious young pretenders, among them medical students, doctors and deputies. The academy was by no means limited to the upper classes, it merely made capoeira in Bahia accessible to them in a radical new way. The diverse social mix of Mestre Bimba's students can be exemplified by the lasting friendship of two of his disciples, still alive and teaching Capoeira Regional today - Mestre Deputado and Mestre Onça Negra. The first is defined by his capoeira name - ‘deputy’ the second is an adopted son, rescued by Mestre Bimba from the poverty of the streets. The fact is they gained equal ranking and can now be found appearing at capoeira events world-wide, often together. To gain admission to Mestre Bimba’s academy proof of work or student status was a prerequisite. If this seems incompatible with capoeiras genesis as an urban street game practised largely by criminals or a guerrilla fighting tactic of slaves then we must remember that Mestre Bimba was engaged in the process of changing capoeira for what he believed was the better. Should we subscribe to either or even both of the theories mentioned then the fact still remains that Zumbi dos Palmares and Besouro de Manganga where famed as freedom fighters and not petty criminals. Was Bimba’s demand for a proof of status really a contradiction of capoeira’s ethos, or was it a method of guaranteeing both individual commitment and the state’s continued patrimony? Was Bimba playing a game with the state, anticipating problems, negating them in advance and incorporating their solution into a response tailored to his own ends? If, so then he would have been applying the lessons learnt within the roda in the outside game of life - to divert and dodge like a willow not block like an oak and to distract from and disguise his true intentions. Specualtion aside, the result was that in 1937, ten years after the inauguration of his academy he received an official invitation to the presidential palace. We find proof of the difficulties he faced in his immediate reaction - he supposed the nature of an official summons was to be his arrest He delivered a short speech of that effect to his students and departed to meet his fate, which turned out to be the opposite of what he had expected. In the same year of 1937 he was legally registered as a physical education teacher and two years later went on to teach capoeira in the Salvador army barracks.

Mestre Bimba’s critics point to his adoption of middle class, white students as the first stage in the process of the ‘embranquecimento’ (whitening or europeanisation) of capoeira. But Bimba’s students were not the first example of Brazilians of European descent to be found in the history of capoeira, they were simply the first to come in any number. Mestre Bimba’s involvement in capoeira was as an exponent, a champion fighter and a teacher - he did not see it exclusively as representative of race but of personal achievement. For it to gain respect he felt the need to separate it from an unruly past, he denied that his art should be considered inferior in any way. It would not be an exaggeration to say that his entire life’s work was dedicated to the improvement of capoeira as an effective fighting art and its removal from the margins of society. It is clear that Mestre Bimba was not motivated by racial concerns, but this does not mean that he had no racial identity. On the contrary, he was completely versed in the Afro-Brazilian traditions of Bahia, his mother was a mãe-de-santo (spirit medium of candomblé) and his father a champion batuqeiro. Detractors of Regional, point out that his removal of the atabaque from the capoeira scenario effected capoeiras divorce from other Afro-Brazilian cultural manifstations such as candomblé and furthered the whitening of the art. When we consider Bimba’s deep involvement with candomblé this seems unlikely; it is evident that the atabaque meant something very specific to Bimba and this was not to be confused with Capoeira. Neither was he motivated by social concerns, indeed he was ready to accept anyone who had the inclination to work. Mestre Deputado points out that if a prospective student didn’t have proof of status, he could return when he did. Mestre Bimba was not the first to believe that capoeira membership was earned through personal merit, Juca Reis was an earlier example of this. Racial demography played no part in Bimba’s conception of capoeira; white, black, rich and poor had to undergo the same rigorous training and were ultimately pitted against each other in the Regional roda.

The open discourse and theoretical debate prevalent in Mestre Bimba’s nascent ideology attracted literate members of society to explore something which they believed explained a unique aspect of Brazilian culture. Perhaps they were concerned with something which they felt, or wished to feel more, part of. Intellectual interest in the effectiveness of capoeira as a fighting art was nothing new. Ciriaco, the Rio capoeirista who was most famous for defeating Sada Miako, a Japanese jiu-jitsu expert was celebrated in student circles. Indeed his victory, reported in the magazine, O Malho, on the 15th of May 1909, described him as a national hero. In the early twentieth century, the most probable explanation for the marked and rapid increase in the participation of the upper stratas of society was that Bimba made it accessible to them. It was part of his overt strategy to take capoeira off the streets and into the academy. He explicitly forbade his students to play in street games for a variety of reasons, he did not wish: them to be injured; the street players to learn his moves and compromise his advantage; his own students to be adversely influenced by the style of street players; the loss of face to any unforeseen defeat over which he would have no control. Thus we see an overt controlling of the capoeira group, for the first time formally structured and given concrete boundaries in order to maintain integrity.

Wherever there is a movement for modernisation we find its opposite in a movement for preservation. Vincente Ferrinha Pastinha (1889-1981), better known as Mestre Pastinha, quickly followed Mestre Bimba’s example and inaugurated his own academy. His emphasis was drastically different in that he concerned himself much more with the element of play. Martial effectiveness, such a concern of Mestre Bimba's, was subjugated to the precepts of what Mestre Pastinha avowed to be the traditional format of capoeira. Given that his own master, Bentinho was a self-declared Angolan and that Mestre Pastinha strongly believed that capoeira came from that part of Africa he denominated his style Capoeira Angola. Much like Mestre Bimba he emphasised certain aspects already existent in the capoeira of the time. Unlike Mestre Bimba, he did not seek to add to capoeira but the very nature of emphasis - is that certain elements are correspondingly de-emphasised and perhaps eventually eradicated completely paradoxically effects change in the name of preservation. Mestre Bimba’s style featured a lot of upright, rapid kicks and Pastinha began to eliminate these from his version of capoeira, demanding a lower game that was played at a slower pace. Like Mestre Bimba, he too began to attract artists, intellectuals and members of the upper classes. The celebrated writer, Jorge Amado was a close personal friend as was the artist, Carybe. Mestre Pastinha shared his counterpart’s view of capoeira membership earned through merit, exemplifying the warm, poetic spirit that was to become his legacy he openly declared that, “capoeira was for man, woman or child”. When asked for a definition of capoeira, he responded that it was “all that the mouth eats”. Perhaps he meant that within capoeira play there are no correct responses, the object being to create one’s own personal style, reacting with creativity and originality. Nevertheless his students were rigorously trained within a framework that he himself designed and the similarities in style between his disciples are as marked as that between Mestre Bimba’s.

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