The HEART of Capoeira

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“If you want to understand the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration”

Nikola Tesla

 

Music plays a vital role in the development of Capoeira by injecting energy, style and rhythm to the game. Apart from infusing power to the players, It sets the tempo and style of game that is to be played within the roda.

 

 

 

So, why is music integral to capoeira, and why is it so important now, when apparently, it wasn’t important BEFORE?

Well, this little article is my way to try to answer those questions.

Now, let’s get into this.

Most capoeiristas claim that capoeira is played to music because during the times of slavery it had to be disguised as a dance in order to fool the slave owners.

It’s a nice story, but I think it’s bulls**t.

Although I concede that there may be some truth to this story, I think it’s a simplistic, common sense explanation for why capoeira looks the way it does, and does not take into account the fact that the West Africans who created this art were raised in various  cultural traditions, like poly rhythms, the pentatonic scale, syncopation, improv, theater, ritual, etc.,   in EVERY SINGLE ASPECT of daily life, things that to this day are an integral part of capoeira as practiced today.

And, I also believe that buying into this “explanation” diminishes and negates the complex interplay between sound, object and person that unfolds within the ritual space of the capoeira roda…
 
 
Music, in the context of the ethnomusicology of the African diaspora, not only incites the body into motion, but also creates energy and transmits oral history and tradition.
 
I believe that the music of Capoeira, through the fusion of music, rhythm, words, etc. and the “feeling”  that comes out of this fusion (If you play capoeira, you know what I’m talking about),  produces a kind of “trance” in the players, merges the past into the present, and, connects capoeiristas to the ancestors.
 
In essence, the music is the “Heartbeat” of Capoeira, if you will. if Capoeira has no music, it has no life.
 
 

At least, I think so.

 
 

Now, let’s take a look at how music unfolds in capoeira angola.

THE BATERIA (The Band)

 
 
O.K., there’s two reasons I posted this video here, which I would like to share with you.

The 1st reason is this particular formation was popularized by Mestre Moraes, the man singing on the lead berimbau, and his group, Grupo Capoeira angola Pelourinho (GCAP for short), has won music awards doing it his way, not to mention the fact that Capoeira Angola groups all over the world are doing it his way.

The 2nd reason is I was at this particular workshop in Berkley California, and this video gives me many fond memories. Shout out to Sergio, Jeff, and everybody else at No Balanco de Angola for hosting this event, and to Mestre Moraes, for the lessons he shared with us.
 
 
  Facing the musicians in this bateria, from left to right you will see: A   reco-reco (a section of bamboo or gourd with notches cut in it played by scraping with a thin stick,); an agogô, (a double-headed bell that is struck with a stick or thin metal rod,) a pandeiro, (a tambourine);  a berimbau-medio, (the berimbau with a mid-sized gourd and one that also maintains the rhythm); berimbau-gunga, (the berimbau with the largest gourd and the one that maintains the rhythm)  a berimbau-viola, (the smallest berimbau and the one that “speaks” i.e. improvises the rhythms),  another pandeiro,a; and an atabaque, (a drum that is played with the hands similar to a conga drum).These are the instruments that are played in a Capoeira Angola Roda, at least  in the Los Angeles area, where I’m from. Different schools will arrange the bateria a bit differently, of course.
 
For Example…
 
Aside from the awesome playing, if you look closely, you’ll notice that while they have the same instruments, the bateria is arranged much differently than in the above video.
 
 
And if you look at old videos and photos, you’ll see that things were much different then…
 
 
 
these days, no matter how the bateria is arranged, the dominant instruments are the three berimbaus; no other instrument should be played louder than these.

There is also an order to the types and use of songs. The ritual of Capoeira begins when two players enter the circle and squat at the foot of the berimbau.

 
One player will sing a ladainha, a ritual song of commencement. If his opponent doesn’t respond with a song of his own, he will begin another song, a
corrido a song for going out to play. The song is then passed on to one of the
musicians as the jogo-de-Capoeira begins.
 

Not every roda will contain all these instruments. Many times, not enough people are in the roda to play every instrument, so you gotta do what you can. For example…

now, let’s take at this amazing instrument.

Originally from Africa where it different names depending on region, the berimbau was eventually incorporated into the practice of capoeira. The berimbaus preside over the roda, their rhythmic combinations suggesting variations in movement style between the two players in the roda. For some capoeira groups, among the three berimbaus, the lowest-toned (called a gunga or berraboi) is the lead instrument, while other groups follow the lead of the middle (medio or viola) berimbau. The roda begins and ends at the discretion of the lead berimbau player, who may determine who plays next, can stop games, set the tempo of the music, and calm the players if they get too rough. There appears to be agreement that the treble-most berimbau (viola or violinha) is an accompaniment instrument, freely improvising based on rhythms of the middle instrument.

Besides the Berimbau, some other instruments that can be played in a roda are…

up to 2 pandeiros (Tambourines)

 

1 agogô (Musical instrument shaped like a cowbell)

 

1 reco-reco (notched wooden tube similar to a guiro)

 

1 atabaque or conga drum.

Okay, before I go on, I want to type a bit about the importance of the drum in african societies, and in Capoeira.

 

“Everyone knows deep in their hearts that the drums are the coolest instrument and that a band is only as good as its drummer. So I’m all for drum solos. I’m all for drummers hamming it up. I’m all for drummers standing up and kicking over the kit.” – Fred Armisen

 

THE DRUM.

 

African drums are so iconic of Africa that an African drummer is almost a stereotype. The fact is that drums have been an intrinsic part of African life for countless generations – to an extent that is probably beyond the grasp of non-Africans.

In our beautiful, marvelous Western culture, drums and drumming are most often, about entertainment. In Africa, drums hold a deeper, symbolic and historical significance.

Nowadays, it’s generally accepted that Africa is the cradle of humanity, so it takes very little to correlate that music formed a part of the African experience before many, if not all, other civilizations were even born.

Music is deeply woven into the fabric of African life, and drums are the primordial musical instruments.

Traditionally, the drum was the heartbeat, the soul of most African communities. They herald political and social events attending ceremonies of birth, death and marriage. They spark courtships, they herald home-coming and going and they accompany religious rites and rituals, calling up ancestral spirits.

They are also used as an alarm or a call to arms stirring up emotions for battle and war. They can also inspire passion and excitement and even cause trances, a momentary loss of consciousness to either the drummer or the listener. They symbolize and protect royalty and are often housed in sacred dwellings. They are protected during battle.

Drums have been such a large part of Africans’ daily experience for so long that drumming pulses throughout OUR collective unconscious, in africa itself, and the diaspora.

For us, it’s the “SOUNDTRACK OF LIFE“, if you will.

 

Drums are inseparable from the African culture – they help define it. So much so, that when the slave trade scattered Africans throughout the world, the love of drumming they took with them irrevocably altered the world of music, even in places where the drum was outlawed.

Quite simply put,It’s in our genes.

Drums are also about communication and making music, two essential characteristics of community life. For centuries the ‘TALKING DRUMS’ were a primary source of communication between tribes used to transmit messages sometimes across great distances, all across africa.

In fact, I heard a story that when the news of the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 was cabled to West Africa, the news was sent on talking drums, and native africans in outposts hundreds of miles from railways and telegraph lines immediately began talking of the death of the ‘Great White Queen.’ And, it was said, the news reached Cape Town, South Africa, before the official telegraph arrived.

Drums have been an intrinsic part of African life for many centuries and for countless generations, an ancient instrument used to celebrate all the aspects of life.

Today, many of us recognize some of the prominent African drums like the Djembe and the Sabar, but few of us realize how extensive their influence has become.

Drums such as the Conga and Bongos are not usually thought to be African, but look closely, and you can easily see their roots.

Listen to the music these drums play a role in Latin music, and you will hear typically African characteristics.

Now as far as capoeira is concerned…

Dr. Edward Poe says in his book, THE ABC AND BAY-AH-BAY OF CAPOEIRA DE ANGOLA…

“According to mestre Pastinha, the drum was the principal instrument used when he learned the sport from his mestre (master/teacher) and the berimbau was not used at all. Indeed, in most african drumming situations there are three drums which function somewhat the same way as the three berimbaus except that the smaller ome marks the rhythmn and the larger drum does the variations.”

Okay I admit, I went off on a bit of a tangent here, but I feel that I had to post about it.

 
 

I’ll end with this small video. this video is for you meatheads out there who, even after reading this page, STILL don’t see the benefits of learning to play music in capoeira.

 

 

 
 
 

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