"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."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wisdom of the Ages


Capoeira Africana was honored to have the opportunity to interview Mestre Bob Cooper, a long time martial artist and community member in New York City. We comprised 10 questions that related to capoeira, Mestre’s Cooper perspective of it, and how they relate to our mission. Below is some of what he had to say. You can request the entire interview by sending an email to capoeiraafricana@gmail.com.

Capoeira Africana: In your view, what are the origins of capoeira?
Mestre Bob Cooper: The word capoeira is not proven to be an African term. One researcher thinks it is the combination of two terms. Others have found different rationales, but none has offered proof that it is African in it entirety.

There is absolutely no evidence of anything resembling capoeira prior to the advent of the enslaved Africans into Brazil. All of the instruments - the berimbau, the agogo, the atabaque, the pandeiro,the reco-reco have been found and can be found in Africa as we speak. Mestre Cobra Mansa has done extensive research in this vein, and has made presentations documenting this. Mestre Moraes has also been to Africa, to investigate the evidence of the precursors to what we know as Capoeira. He, and others have discovered a version called the Zebra Dance..or Ngolo.

When I was first introduced to capoeira, and was told it was Brazilian, the claim did not clarify for me an apparent contradiction in survival and travel. My position has always been that a person leaves his home with information that he carries with him. It makes absolutely no sense to me that a person would leave Africa knowing nothing, and then, miraculously become a fully formed cultural fighting machine, complete with movements, dance and music as soon as his foot hit the Brazilian shore.

As the kidnappers of Africans deliberately separated men, women and children and put together, on purpose, different people from different tribes, various skills and purposes coalesced into unit, over time, to assist in the resistance to enslavement. As historian/lecturer C.Daniel Dawson has said, the enslaved Africans came to the new circumstances with several important skills in several areas - not the least of which was the ability to defend one's self.

So, in my view, the origins of Capoeira are totally African, and they alone - when in Brazil - created what we now know as capoeira. And, after a turbulent period of confrontation with the slavers, repression, punishment by imprisonment and death, the art is now claimed to be Brazilian and is a popular and loved activity worldwide. Those who first persecuted the practitioners now proudly claim it as a Brazilian cultural entity. In its present form, it is yet another gift Africa has given to the world, and the current Brazilians (and others) are doing an excellent job of preserving it.

Even now, in Brazil and out of it, the preponderance of images representing Brazil are white personnel, not black - even though Brazil is reputed to have the largest population of Africans and their descendants outside of Africa. What that means is that, when someone says an activity is Brazilian, you automatically think white. This, by omission gives no authorship or agency to the African origin of same. This is why some people, to correct this perception, hark back to the Africanity of capoeira.

So, I think it can be truthfully said that it is Brazilian in the sense that as it is presently practiced, it cannot be found originating in that form in Africa. And it is Brazilian because the Africans created it in Brazil, adapting what they knew form different 'tribes' into this amazingly effective art. So, to say it is Brazilian, to me does not mean it is not African. It means they have preserved it for us. And  some, including Mestre Jurandir of FICA, have brought it back to Mozambique and other areas, to return it in its present form, to the land from which it obtained all its components, save the Portuguese language. 

Capoeira Africana: When did you start doing capoeira? Why did you start doing capoeira?

Mestre Bob Cooper: When? In the mid seventies. Prior to that, I had been practicing and teaching two arts since the 1960s:  Chung do kwan taekwondo (black belt in 1970) and Veejitsu Jiu Jitsu (black belt in 1970),..the same year I started teaching for the NYC Board of Ed in the Junior High School division. To retain my license, I took several courses at NYU, which included a course in Black Music taught by lecturer Bill Moore. There I saw movies he had taken while in Brazil that included people that looked like they were doing the martial arts movements I was teaching - but to music, and dance-like. I was sure I was mistaken when I drew the 'erroneous' conclusion that these movements by the magnificently built, smiling young black men looked suspiciously like the deadly strikes and evasions taught in the arts I was familiar with. My education up to that point did not include the seminal, primary and current contributions of Africa to the martial art world. My knowledge base only included Asian contributions.

Why did I start doing capoeira? Since grade school days, and as a bookworm child who was bullied and chased from school, I have always had an interest in self defense. I remember reading about how to defend against being grabbed from behind by bending down and pulling the attackers leg in between mine, causing a fall, and having it actually work. When in the Air Force, I boxed middle and light heavyweight, and took lessons in the barracks from a traveling oriental practitioner. Years later, in the college classroom, I was floored by the spectacular information revealed before my eyes in home movies of this beautiful yet deadly system, and immediately chased down this life changing African contribution. About 1975, Bill Moore introduced me to an amazing touring show called 'Viva Bahia', (which, I believe, also appeared at New York City Community College), and three of its stars (Amendoin, Gatoinho, and Saci) came to the Vernon Community Center in Brooklyn where I was teaching the martial arts, and put on an impromptu demonstration.

I believe that there was an absolute hunger, an unrecognized yearning for this unheralded,never before revealed demonstration of African martial arts prowess in me that I was unaware of, and I asked Mr. Moore to please get me somebody who would teach myself and my students this wonderful body of knowledge. I had been raised on an intellectual diet of contributions of Columbus, George Washington, Tarzan, Marco Polo, and so on - nothing that ever included the seminal scientific, medicinal, civility, mathematical, and so on contributions of Africa. Mr. Moore sent down the man who I believe was the earliest, most important figure in establishing capoeira here on the east coast - Mestre Jelon Vieira, and his talent co-practitioner Josevaldo 'Loremil' Machado. We struck it off immediately, and he also took classes from me in my areas of expertise. As I was also going to NYCCC at the time and was the President of the Evening Student Government, we presented two well received shows. I took out ads in the Amsterdam News - which happened to be seen by Henry 'Carvao' Young, (promoted to brown cord)  and Warrington Hudlin (movie producer) - and was the sole reason they saw capoeira, according to them. But then, to go back to the question - how could I not do capoeira? It was- and is - exciting, nurturing, fun, rich, ennobling, beautiful, ever creative, proven, - and much more. Its beautiful moves, sweet and deadly, reminded me of Sugar Ray Robinson,reputed to be the greatest pound for pound boxer in history; its genesis emerged from the core of black consciousness, from the core of African power, from the richness of ancestral legacy. How can it be resisted, and one be fulfilled? As much of African history was - and is - not revealed, was distorted, was hidden - this was magnificent proof that unimagined, life-affirming riches was available and ready for those who discovered and were willing to learn. And it was the equal to and better than some of the more popular martial arts. And its only source were the enslaved Africans kidnapped and brought to Brazil. 

Capoeira Africana: In your opinion, what would the spread of capoeira on The Continent do for the capoeira world? For the African world?

Mestre Bob Cooper: The spread of capoeira on the continent of Africa for the capoeira world? If that was to happen, I can only see positive results, because it is, in effect, the child of African thinking. But, as I have said before, Africa has proven time and again to be a mother lode of riches in many areas, which, in my opinion, is why its ideas, land, traditions, etc. are so often adopted, co-opted, taken, borrowed, renamed, even up to the present. What that means in my opinion, is that all benefit when African positives are popularized. Easy or not, it is worth doing. Capoeiristas all over would get the sense of their art being appreciated and promulgated.

The effect of the spread of capoeira on the African world? "Welcome Back!!! If due credit is given, it would be yet another great instance of Africans reclaiming their past and present glory. We just have to remember that the robber is usually indisposed to return that which he has stolen, particularly if benefits are being reaped. Even now stolen property in Africa remains in many cases in the hands of the invading crooks (see South Africa)  Remember we are even now, as Dr. Jacob Carruthers of ASCAC said, we are in intellectual warfare. Even though Egypt is in Africa, it is taught as if it is a separate entity. Here in New York, the museum on 80th and fifth has two separate exhibits - one for Africa, and another for Egypt. Even though there is concrete evidence that math began in Africa, it is taught as if it did not. Even though the Greeks say they learned 'civilization' from the Africans, (see Dr. Theophile Obenga's books), we are taught that THEY are the origin of same. Remember that the Moors educated and ruled Spain for centuries - but in school, in many cases. we are never taught the debt Spain owes to them. And on and on. 

Capoeira Africana: [Now that you are a Mestre] What responsibilities, if any, do you feel you have to the capoeira community? To the African American community?

Mestre Bob Cooper: Where do I start? I have always felt big responsibility to capoeira as a part of my discovery of African/African American (True) History...as is noted in Carter G. Woodson's "Miseducation of the Negro" the educational system construct is totally at variance with the important contributions in the U.S. and worldwide, and needs perception and correction almost all the time. Even now most of the ads I have seen (in Brazil and Egypt) predominantly promote non-black images for beauty, importance, power and creativity.  The first time I took a plane to Brazil, after being introduced to capoeira by Jelon Vieira, the airplane movie show depicting it showed two totally unskilled non black practitioners, and gave no credit to anything African. It was bad. They could have at least shown someone with skill.....Another point is that the preponderance of martial art skills in the past, and even now highlight, for the most part, Asians and whites (Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jackie Chan, etc., with an occasional Wesley Snipes thrown in), and almost 95% of then showcasing Japanese and Chinese, etc. Arts. Why not the incredibly beautiful and deadly (proven in combat) capoeira art? It has all the elements and is powerful and beautiful and deceptive at the same time. I believe it is the obligation of all those who are fortunate enough to experience this art to promote it ceaselessly because of its' many benefits to all. Almost everybody I know who really loves capoeira is a wonderful person. And, to me, Mestre Grande is a wonderful example of that. No one is perfect, but this is a perfecting activity. To show the effect of dominant publicity of other arts, I remember that when we had Capoeira Angola in Manhattan on 135th street in a center on the second floor, many people would go right by and attend the karate class on the third floor. They seemed to be totally unaware of the gold mine they were passing up, and seemed to succumb to the brainwashing that indicates that Africa had minimal, if any contributions in areas. So those of us who know, and are "conscious" must take the lead in - as ASCAC (the Association for the Study of  Classical African Civilization) reclaiming African History with documented proof of martial arts (Beni Hasan area in Egypt), medicine, science, architecture..(Imhotep - not Hippocrates) in telling the truth. We need to follow the lead of Dr. Maulana Karenga, creator of Kwanzaa; the lead of Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, creator of the first PH.D program in the world in African studies at Temple University; the lead of Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop and Dr. Theophile Obenga who demolished all nay-sayers in 1974 at UNESCO with eleven different proof for various sciences that the original Egyptians were black Africans...and so on. I have no problem with those who say that capoeira is Brazilian, because it is - in my opinion - as of now; but the authors, creators were only the enslaved Africans - not the Indians, not the Portuguese, not anyone else. There is ample proof of that. But the misinformation of who did what has long been dominated by the skewed white supremacy doctrine so that, unless you specifically say something is African, it is automatically assumed that the author must have been white. So, if you simply say "it is Brazilian", based on all the ads I saw, you naturally assume - not African. Now if you say that Brazilians - and others - of all colors are brilliantly preserving the legacy of the African Creators of Capoeira - you then get it right!!!!  There are some working now in the trenches to unearth the African contributions - Chike of Capoeira Africana; Patrick Gorham lanfia Toure of Africa Writes; Dr. TJ Desch, author of Fighting For Honor; Dr. Edward L. Powe, author of  African Martial Arts; and others, to them we are grateful for this yeoman work, and with them unlimited success in Letting the Light Shine so that the  World May See It. 

 For further information about Mestre Bob Cooper please visit his 
site at www.ROBERTJCOOPER.com.