Black History Month: Capoeira, Brazilian slavery and Angola

Yesterday I was through in Edinburgh for a special event hosted by Edinburgh University and Mão no Chão Capoeira Angola Scotland, called Capoeira - An Afro-Brazilian Martial Art: History, Culture and Practice. The day was designed to encompass some talks about experiences, some history of Brazilian slavery, history of the roots of capoeira and a little taster class for those willing. And I can confirm that the day went really well and lots of people got a lot out of it.

I was helping out with Mão no Chão, and we had a small roda going as people were filing into the lecture theatre. The plan was to give people some idea what capoeira actually looks like as practised in Scotland today, as a base line for the later discussion. A couple of the guys from our group then gave talks about their experiences, in teaching capoeira and how the philosophy of the game has affected their personal philosophy for life. The repeating themes here were definitely games and play: the bending of rules and improvisation in the moment, and how the simple ideas of co-operation and conflict reflect life outside the game.

The organising lecturer from Edinburgh, Camillia Cowling, gave a presentation on slavery in Brazil, whose particular import for me was one of scale. Fully 40% or more of the people taken from western Africa ended up in Brazil. Compare this to approximately four percent for the United States of America — you can see there will necessarily be a big effect on a country with so many people bringing their existing cultures.

At this point there was a Q&A session where the three speakers so far answered questions from the audience. Then the guest from Essex university, Dr Matthias Assunção, gave a talk on The Angolan Roots of Capoeira. This was an introduction to some of the work covered in his book but concentrating on the N’golo dance/fight/game/ritual from Angola. Since his book was written he has visited Angola with documentary makers, historians, translators and capoeira experts to further find the facts behind the story of capoeira and N’golo being related. For more info keep your eyes on the project page for the documentary when it appears. There were many photos of berimbau-like instruments and many people who remembered N’golo from their youth and it having similar characteristics to capoeira — though it has seemingly died out in the places that have been visited so far.

After a break of tea and sandwiches the bateria jumped back into action, introducing a few people to the atabaque and the pandeiro and the agogo while others worked up a sweat on the floor. For half an hour we did some simple movements with those interested, then a roda pairing up experienced people from our group with the newbies for a little game. I was really impressed with the way everyone took to it, the way they all jumped into the roda when asked and the smiles at the end. I think we got a few email addresses of people who wanted to come to regular classes.

The final part of the academic day was a film shot in Brazil by Matthias in a previous study into jogo do pau, that is “playing with sticks”, a combat game involving stick fighting. There are very few people left who know how to do this, and they’re in their late 80s and early 90s now so it is hard to get an idea how skilled they were in the fitness of youth. The kids these days, they all want to play football…

At the end of the day we went to the pub for more chat and then to the Mosque Kitchen’s cafeteria-style place which I’d never visited before. It’s still the same old amazing smells, massive portions and cheap prices, but with protection from the elements and a deli counter with various baklava-type sweets which everyone argued over the names and ingredients for. Great fun.