Developed in the 1800s by West African slaves in Brazil, the art of capoeira is a complex and powerful mix of martial arts fighting, dance, music and games. Carlton Jones took part in a New York performance honoring Black History Month.
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ALISON STEWART, host:
Capoeira is a martial art that looks like a dance, originates from Brazil, and was developed by slaves who meshed dance with fighting practice to fool their masters. Capoeira is still practiced and performed today, and for some, it's a symbolic resistance to oppression, and it's found residence in parts of African-American culture here in the U.S.
Carlton Jones is a member of a capoeira group here in New York called ABADA, and the group held a special performance recently in honor of February's Black History Month.
STEWART: Tell me about the first time that you saw someone performing capoeira.
Mr. CARLTON JONES (Member, ABADA): Sure. The first time I saw capoeira was actually at the Joyce Theater. It was capoeira Brazil, actually, which the -using capoeira as a part of the program of the night, but it - that small portion of the program was completely captivating to me. And I remember distinctly, because I've never seen it before and I've never seen anything like it and was instantly amazed and just in a trance.
STEWART: And as I understand it, your group held a performance earlier this month - February is Black History Month, and there was a performance that was dedicated to that month and the celebration of the African-American experience. This is a Brazilian art form, martial art.
Mr. JONES: Yeah.
STEWART: What's the connection with African-American experience?
Mr. JONES: Well, it's a Brazilian art form, but it was born out of oppression. I mean, it was originated from the African slaves, as you know, in Brazil. And I think black history is black history, whether it's from America or from Africa or from Brazil, wherever in the world, black people have a unity of some sort that connects their history. And being that it was born out of oppression, I think it actually shows quite a similarity.
STEWART: Can you explain a little more about that history? When you say it was born out of oppression, what were the circumstances?
Mr. JONES: The circumstances were the slaves captured out of Angola, Africa, originally, brought to Brazil. They were not allowed to actually gather at all unless they were singing and dancing and, you know, doing this type of art form, which was a similar case for American slaves as well. Yeah, it was against the law for them to gather unless it was worshiping or going to church.
So what they did was they formed what we call roda, which is a circle. And inside the roda, they were training their martial art skills. And unbeknownst to their slave masters, when the slave masters would look, they would instantly be able to change it up and make it look like they were just playing and dancing and cartwheels and having fun. And at the sound of the berimbau, actually, which is what alerted them to who was watching, that's how they knew what game to play and how to change it up and how to make it appear to others.
STEWART: And the berimbau is a drum.
Mr. JONES: No, actually the berimbau is - it's supported by the drum, which we call atabaque, but it's lead of the roda. It's the center of the roda, and it's the instrument that actually sets the pace of the entire game. And from that sound alone, people train their ears to be alert to what's going on from the beribau.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)
STEWART: And so that rhythm - how does the rhythm, or how does the music drive what's happening? A rhythmic change will say, now you're going to fight? A rhythmic change will say, now you're going to dance?
Mr. JONES: It's basically that in a more subtle - a subtle way. The rhythm will set the pace of the game, but then by, I guess, a strike of the wood on wood, rather than wood on the string, will alert to be attentive. So there's a constant rhythm going, and it's wood on string performing the sound. But just a slight knock of wood on wood would alert you that something's going on and to change it up, or at least be alert.
STEWART: Since this is a martial art, this is a way of fighting, but when I watch it looks like a collaborative effort with your partner. It looks like there's some cooperation - it looks cooperative in spirit, not necessarily antagonistic in spirit.
Mr. JONES: Interesting, yeah. It's very much a collaboration. Because we liken capoeira to be a discussion between two people. It really is a conversation. And so, when I throw a kick to your head, we liken that to a question. And you can answer that question with a duck. You can answer that question and return it…
STEWART: Which would be my preferred way to answer.
Mr. JONES: You prefer - always - that is the primary way you want to answer the question, to duck from the question. Duck, and then how you return it would be your response. So based on your vocabulary, you can return it with solely just not getting kicked. You can return it with a kick back to me. Or you can return it with taking me off guard from my kick and maybe taking me off of my feet. So depending on the tone of the conversation, and the tone of the game and what kind of a person I just am naturally will depend on how the conversation goes. So the…
STEWART: But this is happening - sorry, I have to interrupt you - this is happening between two people who know the vocabulary. So it's a conversation, as you say, between two people. But if we talk about the fact that this martial art, this dance, arose out of oppression, and slaves were practicing this, you would think, as a way to defend themselves…
Mr. JONES: Right.
STEWART: …or to fight people who don't know the vocabulary, right?
Mr. JONES: Exactly. Well, sure. Like when I'm playing with someone who knows the vocabulary, I'm in control of all of my movement. So I may throw a kick and I'm aiming for your head with all my might. But if you don't duck, it's my responsibility to stop that kick. So I have a certain amount of control there. But at the same time, I'm training that kick to knock someone's head off. So when I'm not in that training environment - and the slaves eventually used this for their freedom - they weren't playing with someone who had the vocabulary, and they weren't intending for that person to duck.
STEWART: How has this art form, this martial art, affected you, personally? What have you learned?
Mr. JONES: Capoeira just parallels life in so many ways. As, for instance, you know, things come at you that are very unexpected. And how you deal with it can be as simple as just not getting kicked, or you can turn these unexpected events into something that's actually very beautiful and continue the dialogue and make it something unexpected, perhaps even to yourself.
So, for me, I've been able to express myself in ways that I didn't even know possible, just getting it out physically, and then at the same time, just building confidence in my personal character and allowing me to know how to, you know, how to duck from things that come and not let it get - you know, don't sweat the small things, you know. Try and turn it into something that's actually going to be beneficial.
STEWART: We should also say this is a ridiculously killer workout, right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JONES: Oh, please, that is definitely - definitely, without a doubt.
STEWART: I mean, I've seen these people. They are ripped.
Mr. JONES: Yeah. What's so interesting is that, you know…
STEWART: Men and women, right?
Mr. JONES: Men and women. And actually, that's another reason I got started. I saw women doing it, and they were like bottom-heavyset women. And that's one beautiful thing about capoeira. It's not about how much muscle you have or how big you are, it's really about timing and finesse. So I've seen a five-foot-two thin man take a six-foot-four brawlic man off his feet with just a sweep and timing. It's so beautiful to watch. And so it's equal on every platform, which is amazing.
STEWART: Well, Carlton Jones, thank you so much for coming in, we appreciate it.
Mr. JONES: (Foreign language spoken) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.