"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, January 6, 2011

Engaging Black Communities in Capoeira Angola (Pt. 1)

If you have no confidence in self you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence you have won even before you have started. - Marcus Garvey

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   


  1. Very engaging indeed Chike... i was initially attracted the art because of its various layers; the dance, the fight, the songs, the rhythms and more importantly, its history. After a few years of training, I had visions of black kids learning and playing Capoeira with much vigor and grace. I felt that they too would have an affinity for the game. I could see that they would love and thrive in the art... add much needed flavor and soul to it. However, when I began to teach, the interest was lackluster.
    It's so imperative for the youth in the black communities in the U.S. to connect with the cultural relevance of Capoeira Angola. Understanding that common link gives us a sense of ancestral connection with other Africans in the diaspora, whether we speak French, Wolof, Portuguese or Xhosa. However, in my experience teaching at various schools, I found it to be challenging to convey that message as a whole. The youth get inundated with so much nonsense that the essentials don't resonate with them. I also think that the lack of interest stems from lack of exposure and a general fear of things considered "African".
    I was blessed to be brought up with parents who valued the importance of a quality education. From the very inception, I was exposed to geography, language and culture. Growing up in Haiti in my early years gave me a strong foundation that most Black youth growing up in America lacked. After reading your piece, it gave me a lot a strength, knowing that we up-and coming Angoleiros are standing on strong shoulders.
    Special thanks must be given to The Low Country Capoeira Angola Society for their hard work, commitment and dedication. Thank you for teaching me the importance of family and community. I love ya!!!
    Keep banging and burning!!!
    Much love and respect.


  2. Thanks for passing this to me - I might never have read it if you didn't.

    I live in London in the heart of Hackney - probably similar to Harlem - and teach capoeira there. During the 18 years teaching I have only had a few black students mostly Jamaican/Caribbean roots that trained with me. I suppose being a white guy teaching puts some off but more importantly the things that you mention are the reasons why the 80% (if not higher) black population dont engage.
    I like the Lindy hop example a lot and think it would be good to know why it isn't taught by the old guys that used to dance>>> or girl!!!
    Fantasma UK

  3. Interesting point of view on a vital subject. Capoeira Angola can be such a healing art for the Black community in the USA if properly used. Still striving to overcome some of the obstacles mentioned in the article while recruiting new students who are willing to put the work into this strange thing which is neither popular nor easy to understand. This is difficult in popular Black culture where last month's music and dance steps are routinely rejected as outdated and where competition permeates most aspects of life.

  4. Beautiful intro to a needed topic that no one has really been able to address either theoretically and more importantly in practice despite their concern or stance(excluding the author)! Looking forward to reading about the 4 items to be adhered too.


  5. Pra ser sincera, ainda estou apreciando o texto do Chicago, isso porque como tenho uma certa dificuldade com inglês, demorarei um pouco para ler e compreender profundamente o artigo. Mas, de início digo que me surpreendeu a capacidade que o Chicago, além de ser um praticante da capoeira angola, ser uma pessoa que reflete sobre aquilo que faz, isto no meu ponto de vista é maravilhoso. Mais ainda, quando o Chicago consegue relacionar capoeria angola e etnicidade, ao buscar compreender o porquê de uma presença tão forte da capoeira angola nas comunidades negras dos E.U.A. Diria que para mim, praticante e pensadora da capoeira,foi uma surpresa, pois até então, ao me ver focada nos grupos de capoeira do meu país, o Brasil, fiquei surpresa em saber que outros lugares do mundo, no E.U.A, por exemplo, por conta da diáspora africana, apresentam uma significativa prática da capoeira. O que apenas me leva a crer que o ato da capoeria encontra-se em nós, por ser um hábito, um modo de pensar e ver o mundo, advindo justamente do modo de ver o mundo do africano. O que de certa forma acaba nos tornando universais, mesmo com nossas diferenças, há pontos em comuns, que nos torna semelhantes.
    Parabéns, Mestre Chicago, pela reflexão,fico na aguarda da segunda parte!
    Valdenice Portela

  6. Bom, não sei se há nos E.U.A, tal qual no Brasil entidades negras, e como estas entidades negras vêm se mobilizando acerca da necessidade de inserir nas escolas públicas, localizadas nas comunidades de baixo nível sócio-econômico, o ensino da cultura africana. Mas, em se tratando do Brasil, depois de muita luta das entidades negras, foi aprovada a lei 10.639 que trata justamentente da obrigatoriedade dos estudos africanos nas redes de ensino público, justamente para que os indíviduos tenham condições, a partir do acesso aquilo que lhe foi negado, de construir uma identidade. Diria que, a prática da capoeira é um caminho, mas somente ela, sem o estudo da cultura africana, é insuficiente até mesmo para que o sujeito tenha consciência da importância desta prática.
    Valdenice Portela

  7. Thanks for posting on our blog. You are appreciated!
    @ UncleJames: Part 2 will be published next week.
    @ Grupo Abao: Um especial obrigado por fazer um esforco em ler mesmo com a dificuldade que tem com o Ingles.

  8. When can we expect to get more eye-opening articles like this one? This was a great two-part series... a book should be written or documentary be filmed on this subject by the author.

    Thanks for writing such a great article.


  9. Too often in the Angola class city blacks are looking for a black class, and soon as the masters speak.. there's a Caucasian giving u the translation.. then we dont trust what we just heard, also many of the whites participants show no respect to blacks in class, they have a habit of showing love only to the mestre and Contra master and I'm not talking about all whites, I'm saying too many..too many need to be brought up on charges.. punished for violations against blacks. . After being welcomed into black culture they should show love to all blacks, not just the ones speaking Portuguese. That's what keeps alot blacks from staying.. We need to start penalizing whites who abuse the privilage, if you don't love blacks don't join, if you aren't ready to help the black community don't join. Many times Capoeira classes seem like a Caucasian frat party. Like many blacks speak on taking their neighborhoods back. Black Angoleiros need to take Angola back. Take it back into the black community, and every class needs to be doing things to better the community.
    If the group really emphasizes it's blackness the blacks will come and stay. Im not about to re-read and edit.so please forgive any errors. Im a black male Angoleiro from Chi Town

    We're in a position where the fight for freedow is still on. Therefore.. we're in need of people that honestly want to help people black people.. if you don't want to actually create love true love.. let's clean up the world and erase racism,Jim Crow and greed.
    If you see Alice Hazel, show her some love..

  10. I meant to say if you dont want to actually create love, if you dont love all people.. if you dont plan on respecting blacks don't join.

    HoneyBoy Bartlett