The intriguing ‘fighting dance’ from Brazil

JOINING a class to learn the acrobatic martial art of capoeira is like taking a journey back to a bygone era — that of colonialism and slavery.

Besides training for the martial art proper, students not only get to learn to speak some Portuguese, play the berimbau (a Brazilian single-string musical bow) and the Pandeiro (a Brazilian hand frame drum) but also about Brazil’s African roots, including the struggles to seek freedom and peace.

Capoeira is said to have started as a fighting skill during the 16th century by slaves taken from West Africa to Brazil by Portuguese colonists. Prohibited from celebrating their cultural customs and practising any martial arts, the slaves created capoeira to circumvent these two imposing laws.

Hidden in the musical and rhythmical elements of the form, violent kicks were disguised as passionate dance movements and the martial art’s mixture of West African cultures saved it from being identified as an attempt to preserve any specific tradition.

As such, capoeira came to life as a survival tool not only of self-defence but also as a cultural identity.

According to Malcolm Wu, Sarawak’s first and only capoeira instructor, this martial art is an expression of the body, mind and spirit. It looks like a dance and can be regarded a fighting dance with mesmerising and scintillating movements.

Wu is the founder of Movimento Simples De Capoeira Sarawak (MSDCS) and has been a capoeira practitioner for 12 years.

Watching him spin on his shoulders, jump and kick his way through several routines at his training studio in Kuching was a riveting experience. The fluidity and beauty of the performance was really amazing — which is why capoeira’s influence has penetrated the world of movie-making and attracted scores of fans worldwide.

During the demonstration, Wu and one of his students took a position at the centre of the studio. After shaking hands, they began to gesticulate with their hands, whip out their legs towards one another, leap over and slide underneath each other, then fell to the floor, got up again, kicking their legs and swinging their arms.

It was like watching a blend of judo and boxing.

Wu said although capoeira looked like a ‘dynamic activity’, it could be practised by people of all ages with different levels of fitness.

“It’s not just about combat or self-defence but also the training of physical and mental attributes such as body balance, coordination, strength, flexibility, agility, concentration, rhythm, timing and even self-confidence, respect, consideration for others, teamwork and discipline. All these traits can be incorporated into everyday life usage for self-improvement.”

He revealed all the students would eventually get an apelido (nickname) in capoeira — a practice harking back to its history.

Origin of capoeira

Capoeira originated in Brazil as a dangerous sport during the 1500s when slaves from southwest Africa were brought to work on Portuguese-owned plantations. The slaves would pair up, strap blades to their ankles and swing their legs at each other. It was a martial art that grew out of a necessity for survival and freedom.

After slavery, the oppression continued. There were not many employment opportunities for uneducated former slaves. For many, their only skill was capoeira, and to survive, they turned to petty thievery and gangsterism or were hired by corrupt politicians and high society as personal bodyguards and thugs.

Around the late 1800s, capoeira in Brazil was negatively associated and its practise became a punishable offence. Hence, capoeiristas of that period gave themselves nicknames to hide their real identities and more often than not, had more than one alias.

Later, capoeira spread to the cities and grew despite being made illegal because of its slave-against-master origin. Many practitioners were arrested. When slavery was finally abolished, practising capoeiristas began using their skills as bodyguards or hitmen for war lords or criminal masters.

Over time, capoeira gradually lost its martial art roots and was used increasingly as a sports activity mainly for entertainment. By 1932, the first capoeira school was set up, marking the start of its systematic training method. By 1940, after being taken up by the cultural elite, capoeira finally lost its criminal connotations and was legalised.

Today, capoeira is a martial art through which Brazilian culture is also spread around the world. Proponents popularise it through theatrical, acrobatic and martial art presentations. One interesting move of the martial art is that a capoeirista can disguise an attack as a friendly gesture.

The style emphasises the use of the lower body for kicking and sweeping while the upper body assists in these movements. The goal is to confuse and then take down the opponent. The series of complex positions and body postures are executed in a continuous flow of movements that displays the martial art’s characteristics of unpredictability and versatility.

The accompanying music has also come to be an integral part of capoeira, giving the performance the energy, tempo, pomp, elegance and style. Typically, the music is created by various traditional instruments and narrative singing.

Capoeira is now one of Brazil’s national sports.

“So getting a nickname in capoeira has become a tradition and one is usually given a nickname at his or her first batizado (baptism in Portuguese),” said Wu who is known in the capoeira circuit as Instructor Bocão.

Founder’s story

Wu fell in love with the Brazilian martial art after coming across a Hollywood movie titled ‘Only The Strong’. In this 1993 film, actor Mark Dacascos starred as a former military specialist in South America who returned to Miami to find schools taken over by drug dealers and other hoodlums. He then taught the students capoeira to defend themselves.

Wu was inspired to learn the martial art and had been trying to start a capoeira class. So when he heard there was such a class at a gym not far from the college where he studied in Kuala Lumpur, he was among the first few to sign up. That was in 2005.

Wu became the pioneer who brought the MSDC name to Sarawak when he set up the first official capoeira school in the state since his homecoming in 2012.

In the first year, he showcased capoeira at Damai Central during the Annual Rainforest World Music Festival with the support of eight capoeiristas from Kuala Lumpur. The following year, he decided to push the limits on the capoeira scene by organising MSDCS’ first official festival and grading ceremony called Simplesmente Capoeira 2013 with guests coming from places such as Brazil, Shanghai, Japan, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Sabah.

José Soares Jr, Minister Counsellor from the Embassy of the Federative Republic of Brazil, travelled to Kuching to watch the event, paving the way for Wu’s capoeira school to hold public performances (at Plaza Merdeka) to further promote the name of MSDCS.

Aside from Simplesmente Capoeira, Wu also organised a workshop, attended by Mestre Fantasma, a capoeira master from the Philippines. It was also the “opening act” for Puma’s grand opening at CityOne Megamall in Kuching.

In 2014, Wu added more events to expand the school’s membership base by opening a capoeira club at the Institute of Teacher Education, Batu Lintang Campus, Kuching. He also organised a second festival and grading ceremony called Simplesmente Capoeira 2014 — Viva Brazil in conjunction with the World Cup in Brazil.

The school invited Contra Mestre Versatil from the world-renowned capoeira school — Capoeira Batuque (US) — for a workshop to aid the development of capoeiristas in Kuching.

Contra Mestre Versatil studied the martial art under the guidance of Mestre Amen Santo, an Afro-Brazilian capoeira expert, and Lateef Crowder, a Brazilian-born American actor, stuntman, and martial artist.

Mestre Amen Santo is known for his role in the movie ‘Only The Strong’ while Lateef has a myriad of movie roles to his name, including ‘Tekken’ and ‘Undisputed’.

Wu also organised the first Sarawakian Capoeira Retreat, attended by Professor Malandro from the famed Filhos de Bimba Academy in the US, and other guests from Hong Kong, the Philippines and Kuala Lumpur.

A small workshop was held in conjunction with Brazil’s Independence Day celebration. Among the guests were Movimento Simples de Capoeira’s principal instructor, Professor Rafael from Kuala Lumpur, and Contra Mestre Claudinho from Bantus Capoeira Singapore.

During the celebration, Contra Mestre Claudinho put up a small performance at tHe Spring Shopping Mall together with a samba show by Farah from Singapore.

Wu’s efforts to promote capoeira locally were noted by Maria Auxiliadora Figueiredo, Brazil’s ambassador to Malaysia, who wrote a personal letter to congratulate him, specially mentioning he started a capoeira school in Sarawak literally with no budget, yet was able to produce remarkable capoeiristas.

She commended Wu, “It’s a deed which deserves my sincere congratulations and confirms you as an effective agent of the Brazilian culture in Malaysia.”

Vehicle for development

According to Wu, capoeira engages students in a continuous learning process whereby they absorb practical lessons and apply them to their daily lives.

He said the martial art promotes certain values that could be used on a daily basis such as cooperation, responsibility, leadership, discipline and humility.

Believing the capoeira pedagogy has great potential as an avenue for the development and empowerment of children, Wu started giving free classes to underprivileged boys at the Salvation Army. He said it would give them autonomy and access to relevant information, educational activities, cultural experiences as well as a means to develop new skills and learn important moral values they could use on a daily basis.

“This notion of developmental supports is extremely important because it goes beyond protecting children and providing them with a safe environment and includes opportunities for social, intellectual and creative growth essential to the children’s integral development,” he explained.

Delving into the details of capoeira, Wu said there was no one standard style of the martial art, adding, “It has Regional, Angola and Contemporanea styles and even these have undergone various transformations through the influence of the different masters of the art. But most of the styles seek to maintain as close as possible to the root of capoeira, characterised by being strategic with sneaking movements executed standing or near the floor, depending on the situation faced.”

Capoeira Angola vs capoeira Regional

Capoeira Angola is the base, the traditional style of capoeira, raised by Mestre Pastinha (Vicente Ferreira Pastinha) who was later called the father of this style. Capoeira Angola is mainly played in slow and smooth motion, low to the ground, characterised with low kicks, head butts and dodges. The two players, called Angoleiros, stand very close to each other.

Capoeira Angola contains a lot of ritualistic and demonstrative movements, bringing a sense of the African rituals and philosophy to the fighters. The music of Capoeira Angola is slower than that of Capoeira Regional and calls for less aggressive interaction between the Angoleiros and more positive energy.

The first Capoeira Angola School was created in Bahia in 1942 and called Centro Esportivo de Capoeira.

Capoeira Regional is the other style of capoeira that appeared after Capoeira Angola and was raised in the early 1930s of the 20th century by Mestre Bimba (Manoel dos Reis Machado) and for which he is called the father of Capoeira Regional. During his childhood, Mestre Bimba learned (and trained for) another Brazilian fighting form — Batuque — often using Batuque moves when practising and teaching capoeira which had greatly influenced the Capoeira Regional style.

Upcoming event

Wu revealed while promoting capoeira locally, he noticed some similarities between Sarawak and Brazil in terms geography and history in that both lie alongside the equatorial zone and had gone through a period of colonisation.

The fauna and flora and climate of both countries are quite similar in some respects while their histories have some more or less similar colonial cultural influence.

To complement his introduction of a foreign culture to Sarawak in the form of capoeira — tag-lined I Bring Brazil to Sarawak — Wu said he was equally enthusiastic about introducing Sarawak’s arts and cultures to foreign visitors.

The school will celebrate the fifth anniversary of MSDCS — called Simplesmente Capoeira — on July 12-16, and has also been invited to hold a mini workshop at the Rainforest World Music Festival from July 14-16.

Wu said he is happy the school and its activities have finally received some attention from the Sarawak Tourism Board.