"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."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Olu ndi Afrika

Mba na-as
N’onu n’onu
Ma egbuchaa ikili
Ọ bụlụ ofu.

Différents peuples
parlent différents langages/dialectes
mais une fois que les gorges s'eclaicissent
le message reste le meme.        

Órísirìsì enìyán gbó ọrísìrìsì èdé súgbòn nígbá ti à bá a ọná fùn ọkanaa la sọ.

The above quote is translated into a few languages but essentially it means the same thing: Different people/races/nations speak different languages/dialects, but when the throat is cleared it conveys the same meaning. The original axiom comes from the Igbo ethnic group of southeastern Nigeria. In a country of 150 million people Nigeria has roughly 300 languages distributed among its populace.  One may wonder how the people of Nigeria communicate with such a plethora of living and breathing vernaculars to choose from. The answer is they communicate in different languages, using their ex-colonizer’s language as a lingua-franca on the surface, in this case that would be English, and their original languages to express their more intimate, deeper seeded thoughts and cultural wisdom. This statement is made without judgment or value placed on one language over the other, rather it is made to illustrate the cultural complexity and multilingual nature of contemporary Nigerians.

This example can be seen all over Africa. Blessed with rich array of diversity, both in its people and its resources, The Continent of Africa has also been challenged with how to express a sense of oneness from this variety. As it could be imagined no ethnic group anywhere in the world would want to succumb to their language, and thus identity, becoming inferior to another’s. So, to evade the dilemma of furthering pitting one African group against another to fight for linguistic and cultural dominance Africans adopted the language of their ex-colonizers as a means to communicate amongst themselves. Evidently, this acceptance also placed Africans in a position to communicate with many other people in the world, as Africa was colonized by Europeans and there are a great number of speakers of European languages around the globe. However, as stated earlier, Africans never stopped speaking their own languages even with the implementation of European dialects. As Africans move with the rest of the world into the 21st century it is becoming more and more evident that there are limits to communicating with another person’s choice of words, as there are some African concepts and ideas that do not translate into a European/American context. In addition, the angle in which a word expresses its particular view is seen from a cultural lens, one that an outsider to that lens may not agree with but has to accept or try to redefine because they are communicating in that language (i.e. the word “black” is simultaneously used describe a people and a dismal state of being). Consequently, interest in African languages are growing with each generation as its youth are becoming more aware of the need to assert one’s genuine identity, decode the world through their own cultural framework, and simply enjoy speaking in the idioms of their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents, etc. All of this is to say that although it is true that Africans speak in different tongues and the meanings are generally the same in each, there comes a time when one must prioritize their own particular style of communication to retain cultural authenticity and express originality, which only makes the world a more abundant and exciting place to live in.

As this concerns capoeira, I am an advocate for the use of African languages within the art form. My perspective on this topic comes from that of an African in America. Both of my parents were born and raised in Nigeria, West Africa. I have brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents who have never set a foot on any of the lands in The Americas. While I have lived and schooled in Nigeria, and visited other parts of The Continent, I was born and raised primarily in the U.S. so I believe it is fair to say that I am influenced both by my heritage and my upbringing. From this vantage point, when I began capoeira some odd years ago I knew that language would be a barrier if anyone tried to introduce this to Africans on the continent. With the nature of continental Africans being so multilingual I didn’t necessarily think that picking up another language would be a problem. It was more so that I didn't believe the stories that were being told - their characters, their context, their codes - would carry over well from Portuguese to African languages. Reason being: continental Africans can locate themselves in capoeira’s narratives of slavery and colonization. So the practice of capoeira becomes personal to Africans, even political. Continental Africans took part in the slave-trade, were traded as slaves, were colonized both at home and abroad and traveled to and from the Diaspora during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. So capoeira's story is also Africa's story. The waters can't wash away our memory. Thus to do the capoeira dance to African lyrics is not only an expression of joy because of its familiar speech and utterances, but it is also a symbol of resistance, reclaiming our culture and asserting the self-determination to tell our own story, which are the very same principles that capoeira (as we know it today) were founded on.

Now, should every African ethnic group translate capoeira songs to their own language? I wouldn’t go that far. The aim is not to loose capoeira’s rich history and storytelling by diluting the Brazilian experience with the politics of cultural ownership. Rather the aim is to empower both the Afro-Brazilian community and the African World through the spread and practice of capoeira. And this is really where I think the division will lie on which side one chooses to stand on this issue: is the spread of this Afro-Brazilian art form aimed at bringing awareness to these communities and to Africa where they came from, or is it solely to bring awareness to Afro-Brazilians and their current country of Brazil? Honestly, I believe it’s both. But definitely, as sure as I can be, a tree can not be separated from its roots...or it will die. Thus, the case for African languages within capoeira becomes even more reasonable and a worthy discussion to be had. What I will say shouldn't happen, however, is that for other cultures outside of Brasil or Africa to make their own songs in their own languages. While there is no patrol on that act and people are free to do as they please, we practitioners of capoeira must assess why we do the art in the first place. Capoeira was born out of the struggle and spirit of Africans in Brazil and should, I believe, reflect the character of each location. More importantly, capoeira would cease to have a common thread amongst its practitioners if every capoeirista in every corner of the world were to make their own songs in their own languages. Yet, if there is a systematic inclusion of agreed upon songs inserted into the culture the thread will continue to weave different people, different histories and different cultures together under the same cause and humble beginnings (which is what we plan to do with Capoeira Africana). In the end, the many languages of the world do convey the same meanings when diagnosed for content. But in this context, since we are talking about the African character, culture and creation in relation to capoeira, I think it is time capoeiristas learn to speak like Africans.

                                                                     - Chike Nwabukwu, Capoeira Africana

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