In honor of Craig Magraff, who tragically lost his life on January 19, 2022, here is a look back at his coverage of the history of capoeira and its scene here in New Orleans. He will be dearly missed.
Capoeira (pronounced cop-pu-eh-da) exists as a complex curiosity in popular culture today. It looks a lot like breakdancing, with people standing on their hands and heads and performing breathtaking acrobatics. At face value, it understandably seems much more like a dance than the potentially deadly martial art it is. But of course, for those in on it, that is the point. Many who approach it are often surprised by the deep amount of history, ritualism, and depth involved. Due to the incorporation of samba instruments and dance elements, capoeira is easily recognizable and practiced world-wide by millions of people as a quintessential ambassador of Brazilian culture.
Capoeira's basics are also its more recognizable features. First is the ginga (jenga), which is known as, "the walk." It is the side to side movement players use to syncopate to the music and each other. The other is the roda (hoda), which is the circle created by capoeiristas and onlookers as they wait for their chance to play inside of it. The exact origins of capoeira are shrouded in mystery. Ask any two capoeiristas (cop-oh-reestas), or capoeira practitioners, and you may get two distinct answers. In reality, it's hard to really agree on anything universally in capoeira. For some it's a game, for others it's a competitive sport, for some it's a martial art, for some a cultural exercise, and for others it's a way of life. The easiest way to quell the confusion is to accept the fact that capoeira is actually all of these things and more as Mestrando Cocada, leader of local Capoeira Group, Grupo Maculele, explains: "It's a combination of everything and hard to explain," says Cocada. "A lot of people do studies about it, but they really can't decide on whether it's a sport, a culture, or just something based on music."
Mestrando Cocada, (Mestrando his title within his school and organization) has practiced capoeira for almost twelve years now both in his native Brazil and more recently here in the states where he teaches at his own academy.
"For me capoeira is a lot like life," he gushes. "It's the moment, in the game you can play how you want to play. But if you do a move you have to know somebody may be there to counter it. You have to do what the moment tells you. You have to play well, if you don't play well, you get in trouble." One thing that isn't debated among capoeiristas is that while capoeira itself is Brazilian, it was developed by Africans exported to Brazil as slaves who combined elements of their vastly different cultures as early as the 16th century. While Mestrando Cocada practices a capoeira style called Capoeira Regional (hey-zheo-nal), which focuses highly on capoeira's journey from Brazil and beyond, Curtis Pierre, known as "The Samba Man," also a teacher with his own academy in the city called Grupo Besouro, practices a more traditional capoeira form called Capoeira Angola. Angola is a much slower game with few acrobatics, a style usually less exposed within the art than the more acrobatic and exciting Capoeira Regional. Capoeira Angola focuses more on traditional elements and is interested in capoeria's journey backwards anecdotally from Brazil into Africa. His accepted theory of capoeira, based on years of his own research and others, is built on this evidence."
"Capoeira comes from the N'golo (En-go-loo) martial art in Angola which was developed in the Bantu nation. The game was actually created to bring a boy into adulthood and involved a dance in which the main objective was to sweep the other man off of his feet," he explains. "Once this dance moved to Brazil via the slave trade, it took on a more martial aspect where they developed a lot of attacks and techniques as they began using capoeira to defend themselves. There were whole armies of rebel slaves who lived in Quilombos (remote vilages), way up in the mountains and defended themselves from slavery using capoeira."
Pierre has been practicing capoeira for thirty years and like many Angoleiros (ang-go-lair-rows), or Capoeira Angola practitioners, remains faithful to its African origins. But he actually began his journey in the capoeira like many, practicing the far more popular and widespread Capoeira Regional. "I started in Los Angeles, California studying Capoeira Regional. Then after about a year or two, I met a friend of mine who was doing Capoeira Angola, and I was like, what's the difference?" He told me there's a big difference in the application of how it's played as well as a big difference in the racial standpoint." Pierre explains that while capoeira is an African-American (South American) art form, today many of his students are surprisingly white or from other cultures. While he welcomes all students, he expressed frustration in African Americans not being more tuned to their own cultural origins while also explaining that in less enlightened times this surprising ratio was not the case. "When I really became involved in Capoeira Angola I began to realize all of the cultural differences from Capoeira Regional. Where Regional was more of a sport for me, Angola was more of a ritual. That's one of the reasons Capoeira Angola was pushed to the side, I think. Because the minute you talk about rituals, you start stereotyping and talking about African descendants, superstition, and eventually black magic. Many white people back in those times thought this way, and didn't want anything to do with that. Regional was the safer alternative."
In fact, due to capoeira's intimate connection with rebellion, outlaws, and those who could not be controlled, the art form was banned in Brazil in 1890. Any person caught practicing capoeira or at a cultural activity like a roda were arrested and often tortured and mutilated by police until around the 1920's when Mestre Bimba, whom Mestrando Cocada traces his ancestral lineage to within the game, began developing Capoeira Regional. By 1932 Regional stood as the first systematic method of an art that before then was highly mysterious, mutable, and shrouded with superstition. Bimba added much of the martial elements of capoeira: a corded belt system similar to karate and other Asian martial arts, punches, elbows, and throw attacks into a style traditionally head butt and kick dependent as an answer to fighting in chains, and eliminated many of the superstitious elements descended from slave religions. With his help, capoeira began to be accepted by the general public and by 1940, was legal again. Only a year later in 1941, Mestre Pastinha (Pash-teen-ya), an Angoleiro to whom Curtis Pierre traces his ancestral lineage to within the game, created a school to preserve the old ways of traditional capoeira.
Often, these styles of capoeira are seen as rivals vying for the spotlight of the game and challenging each other's viewpoints for superiority. But in New Orleans, Curtis Pierre explains this is just another way we break the mold. "With the two groups here, myself and Cocada's, we've actually become really good friends and we do a lot of things together. It's always good relationships here. Many people think the two styles of capoeira don't mix but we're doing our best to erase that." Cocada explains the rich culture bank of New Orleans may be what allows the two distinctly different styles to flourish, mix, and prosper. "I love all capoeira. I love New Orleans, I feel like I'm in Brazil here. I tell all my students, if I had not come to New Orleans I wouldn't be in America today. I would have gone back to Brazil a long time ago, I think because of all the culture, this is an awesome place for capoeira, and capoeira is awesome for New Orleans too."
Curtis Pierre's capoeira classes are offered through his umbrella group, Casa Samba, which specializes in Brazilian percussion, dance, and other cultural arts. Capoeira classes are available on Wednesdays and Fridays from 6-9 p.m. for $10 at the N.O.R.D. Lyons Center at 624 Louisiana Ave. For more information about capoeira and other Casa Samba classes, check out casasamba.com.
Mestrando Cocada's capoeira academy holds classes Monday through Saturday in three locations: 1016 N. Broad St, 31 5th St. in Gretna, and at 4415 N. I-10 Service Road in Metairie. Kids classes and adult classes are offered. For more information, check out their website at nolacapoeira.com.