Capoeira is a combination of dance, music, martial art and game that has been passed verbally through generations of slaves and workers in Brazil during colonial times. It was played in an attempt for slaves to keep their original culture alive and is played today to maintain the same culture. When a group gathers to participate in capoeira, it is referred to as roda, which is Portuguese for wheel.
“The gathering is called roda because we form a circle around the players,” said UT Capoeira Angola group president Clyde Sheble.
All the songs are in Portuguese as well as all the terminology and instrument names. Sheble said some of the group members are fluent in the language, while others have learned only what is essential to participate.
To play, two people crouch in the center and slowly kick, duck and punch in an acrobatic manner to the beat of the bateria, or rhythm section.
“The music starts and you and your partner flow into it,” Capoeira Angola member Tiffany Hernandez said. “It’s a dancing type of martial art. You’re not actually trying to attack them — just play.”
When not in the center, members play percussion instruments and sing in the bateria. The berimbau is the essential instrument of capoeira, Sheble said. It consists of a long piece of berimba, or wood, with arame, or wire, tied from end to end. Three berimbaus are used to make the required sound — one high, one medium and one low-pitched. Other included traditional instruments are the pandeiro, or tambourine, the agogo, or bells, (hollow wooden stick with ridges strummed by a smaller stick), the reco-reco, or a hollow wooden stick with ridges strummed by a smaller stick and the atabaque, or drum.
Most singing is call and response. The songs tell of problems Brazilian slaves faced.
“A lot of what is sung is history,” Sheble said. “The songs are about capoeira and what it means to people. One lyric [translated from Portuguese] says ‘I’m a person who plays Angola and I am proud.’”
Some lyrics direct the movements of the players by telling them to play nice, slow down, speed up or be more aggressive, Sheble said.
“When we are supposed to fight more aggressively, the lyrics ‘My machete hit the banana tree and split it in two so all the bananas fell down’ might be sung [in Portuguese],” Sheble said. “There’s a number of different songs that can be sung.”
When two players complete their turn, one will take an instrument from someone in the bateria and that person will enter the circle, with the music never stopping. This is repeated until the players decide to stop.
The movements of the dance reflect the lives of the slaves who started it. For example, the players crouch because when slaves played, they had to hide behind the grass, Sheble said.
When slavery was abolished, capoeira remained a street art associated with gangs and became illegal in Brazil for a short time. The game is now found all over the world and quickly becoming more mainstream, he said.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Zach Reyes, UT alumnus and observer. “It’s an elegant martial art. They must really have to feel their partner.”