The lack of serious Black participation in Capoeira Angola in the United States is both striking and sad. Striking because Capoeira Angola groups in the United states are for the most part located in urban centers with large African Diasporic or Black (i.e. Dominican, Puerto Rican, Continental Africans, African Americans, French speaking and English speaking Caribbian) populations, and sad because Black communities in the United States would benefit from the serious practice of Capoeira Angola because of its ability to promote physical, mental, and emotional well being.
Certainly many Black people in the United States have had the opportunity to see Capoeira Angola, or even experience it in a class or two. It would seem like a natural fit. Martial arts, music, acrobatics and group ritual are all part of the traditional and modern day Black experience. However, because of a historical lack of strong leadership among angoleiros interested in bringing Capoeira Angola to Black communities, it has yet to take root. To successfully take root within a community an art form must move from being a novelty, to community members learning the basics, and finally to the community expressing it’s experiences and yearnings through the art.
We have an example of this concept of artistic root taking in the growth of hip-hop throughout the African Diaspora. Hip-hop, a manifestation of Africa in the United States, hit the scene in the late 70’s and early eighties. With the help of television it was broadcast around the world. The art of the descendents of Africans enslaved in the United States speaking their truths touched the souls of Africans whose ancestors had been enslaved in Cuba, Brazil, and Columbia. Even beyond touching the souls of Africans outside of Africa, hip hop music, dance, and dress is being practiced by continental Africans from Algiers to Zimbabwe, and from Seirra Leone to Ethiopia. In all of these cases the desires, the joys, the pains, and the visions of the communities engaged in hip-hop are expressed through the art form in an organic and genuine manner. Often the hip-hop coming from Black people outside of the United States sounds more beautiful and is more meaningful than the hip-hop being done by the Black communities that created it in the United States.
Those interested in helping Capoeira Angola take root in the Black communities of the United States must be clear on two points. First of all, we cannot look to the more established, well known Capoeira Angola groups, academies, or centers in the United States to provide viable models for bringing Capoeira Angola to Black communities. In many cases these organizations have no cultural relevance what so ever in the Black communities we wish to reach because the level of play in these organizations is low, the creativity is stagnant, and the environments are unwelcoming. An angoleiro I know who learned Capoeira Angola in New York during the early nineties used to joke that the best way to ensure a “sister” would lose interest in Capoeira Angola was to bring her to a Sunday roda.
Second, we must be willing to work in the wilderness. By this I mean that the Black communities we are endeavoring to work in will most likely not have an immediate appreciation for Capoeira Angola. This lack of appreciation for an art so beautiful by those to whom it should seem natural is one of the legacies of poor educational institutions, both formal and informal, within many Black communities. My dear friend, fellow angoleiro, and professor at Oberlin College, Justin Emeka, recently pointed out that African people in the Diaspora are often systematically denied access to their own classical cultures. He gave the example of a child whose parent was interested in her learning classical European piano. This child’s parent had no trouble finding 10 teachers to choose from, even though her family lived in a relatively small city. However, it is difficult to find someone to teach you the Lindy Hop even if you live in Harlem. Further, it is not uncommon for some Black people to have an aversion to learning because of the poor schools they attended. These schools, with cultures of violence and conformity, often punished learning and experimentation rather than encouraging it. Therefore, expect some Black people to laugh when you sing in Portuguese because they don’t understand it, refuse to bend low because they think doing so compromises their manhood, be frightened by the ritualistic nature of the roda because they are Christian, or quit training because they don’t want to sweat their perms out.
In spite of the difficulties associated with helping Capoeira Angola to take root in the Black communities of the United States, there are also strong indicators that at this moment in time Capoeira Angola can successfully begin to take root in these communities. One indicator is the growing number of angoleiros in the United States who are committed to creating organic communities of capoeiristas born and raised within Black communities. An example of one such angoleiro is Dorian Layssard of Austin, Texas. Dorian began Capoeira Angola with the International Capoeira Angola Foundation (ICAF) in 1998. He was subsequently kicked out of ICAF in 1999. However, Dorian kept the fire inside burning, founding the Free Angola Society in 2003. In 2009 Dorian opened one of the first Capoeira Angola academies in Texas. There he serves his community as a Capoeira Angola instructor, neighborhood organizer, and barber. Dorian has also brought Capoeira Angola to communities in Belize, showing a hunger for Capoeira Angola and dedication to his community that we should all emulate.
A second indicator that now is the time that Capoeira Angola can begin to take root within the Black communities of the United States is the significant level of expertise within Capoeira Angola reached by several senior African American students. One example is Dale Marcelin. Raised in New Orleans, Dale is currently located in Washington, DC. He is the founder and lead instructor of the Universal Capoeira Angola Center, and Cobrinha’s (Student of Mestre Moraes) most beautiful student. Dale has one of the more formidable and refined games I’ve seen. A second example is Skher Brown from Altamonte Springs, Florida. Skhere now lives in Baltimore, Maryland and is the lead instructor of ICAF’s Baltimore branch. Skher, like Dale, is a student of Cobrinha, and the living, breathing embodiment of class and grace. Whether in the roda playing, leading the bateria, or simply sitting outside of the roda observing, Skher brings a sense of balance to whatever environment he is in. Finally, I must also mention Umara Naves . Umara, whose father was Brazilian and mother was Cuban, was born and raised in Harlem, NY. Umara is an angoleiro who was key in establishing Capoeira Angola in New York City during the late 80’s and early 90’s. One of my favorite angoleiros when I began to learn Capoeira Angola because of his profound musicality and ability to bring dance to the forefront of the game, Umara remains one of my favorite angoleiros today because he is able to verbalize subtleties in the game most angoleiros don’t even notice. These three men exemplify how far people raised within the Black communities of the United State can take Capoeira Angola artistically. In many ways their artistic excellence can set a standard for how Capoeira Angola should be played by Black communities throughout the United States. I personally have sat at the feet of each of these angoleiros to learn, and hope to do so again.
Finally, there are elders within the Black communities of the United States that have worked over the past two decades to bring Capoeira Angola to Black communities. Mestre Themba Mashama in Oakland, Mestre Terry Baruti in San Francisco and Mestre Jaimy Brown in Atlanta. All of these men have committed their time, their homes, and families to Capoeira Angola. They have had successes and made mistakes. Most importantly, they are willing to share their experiences with younger angoleiros that are hoping to stand on their shoulders. Now is the perfect time to plant the seed of Capoeira Angola in the Black communities of the United States. Desire, commitment, development, and wisdom are the attributes which will root Capoeira Angola within these communities. However, I believe there are four things we should keep in mind and adhere to....
--- Written by Chicago of the Low Country Capoeira Angola
--- Written by Chicago of the Low Country Capoeira Angola