"The roots don't depend on the tree. The tree depends on the roots." / "As raizes não dependem da árvore. A árvore depende da raíz."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Let My People Go: A look at the African-American experience in Capoeira Angola over the past 20 years

On September 18, 2010, a number of African-Americans and supporters of this community joined to discuss the experiences of the black people in Capoeira Angola since its arrival in the United States 20 years ago. The discussion was prompted and facilitated by Totti Angola (Aristoteles Kandimba), a senior student of Mestre Joao Grande and a native of the country Angola in southwestern Africa. Totti currently lives in the Netherlands and is working on a documentary entitled, “Let My People Go”, which will explore this very issue. The meeting was meant to be a research session for Totti’s project and was held at the Low Country Capoeira Angola Society (LCCAS) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Many older students and significant members of the African-American Capoeira Angola community were present, including Professor Ken Dossar, a lecturer at Temple University who was responsible for bringing the first angoleiros to the U.S. in the 1980s (Mestre Moraes and Mestre Cobra Mansa);  Jamie Brown, an angoleiro who started capoeira in the '80s, has trained extensively under Mestre Moraes and Mestre Cobra Mansa and is responsible, directly and/or indirectly, for the creation of every angoleiro in Atlanta, Georgia; Professor Justin Emeka, a theater director at Oberlin College and a long-time angoleiro who was responsible for first bringing Mestre Jurandir of FICA to the U.S., as well as training with the organization for a number of years; and the leader of the Low Country Academy, Chicago, another long-time angoleiro and community activist that trains many members of the African-American community in Philadelphia and a strong influence on the greater African-American capoeira community in the U.S. at-large.

The afternoon started off with a roda (of course!) which contained lots of axé and many good games. The capoeiristas sang beautifully, moved gracefully, and danced rhythmically around the roda. For the sake of having enough time to for the discussion the roda ended at the two hour mark sharp. After taking another hour to cool down and consume snacks and beverages the discussion began. The topics covered in the discussion spanned a wide but focused spectrum, including when and how Capoeira (Regional then Angola) first came to the U.S., the participation of black capoeiristas then and now and why some African-Americans (and Americans in general) have an aversion to learning the Portuguese language.  Participants also wanted to discuss their reactions to the recent delay in naming Chicago, a student of the Mestre Joao Grande for almost two decades, the honorary title of Contra-Mestre. This part of the discussion was not prompted by Totti but the conversation ensued because there were so many passionate speakers on this topic. It arose in relation to Mestre Joao Grande bestowing a handful of his other longstanding students this year with the honorary title when Chicago’s credits appeared to be just as credible…if not more. In addition, Chicago is the only American, specifically African-American, within the eligible crop of honories that was not acknowledged as having some mastery of the art thus some members of the African-American community felt it was a topic that affected their identity as well.    

In all, the 5 hour discussion was informative, enlightening, and enriching. It only ended because time ran out due to prior commitments. Totti encouraged the community to continue to have these discussions and all consented that they would like to. With the lack of representation of people of African descent in Capoeira Angola right now it seems as this would be a positive step towards the cohesion and comprehension of what Africans are experiencing in this art form today. Thus, not only do we encourage the meetings but we also hope to be a part of the next one and the many more to come.

~ Some games from the event ~

1 comment:

  1. No one talks about the man who first started organizing and practicing Capoeira in the Bay area. Sifu Bill Owens. And the shut out he experienced as the awareness of the sport grew and more mestres who are now local to the area arrived.

    Bill Owens also taught Kung Fu for Decoscos Kung Fu and is one of the main reasons why only the strong was created directly or indirectly.

    For the details, on this and the man's thoughts on the subject. Someone should talk with the man. I haven't talked to him since 1996, maybe 98. So, I no longer have his number. I'm guessing he would be easy enough to find. There are others who share his near to all, or part of his experience but are not mentioned hereto as they are either native (first nations north american) or one variety of euro- 'north' -american or another. (mark: markao - the eldest of these would have better information)