Brazilian martial art fuses music, dance and acrobatics

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Three nights a week, Tarzana Karate’s dojo transforms into a place where Afro-Brazilian rhythms playfully bounce around the room as capoeira students, or capoeiristas, do cartwheels, flips and other gravity defying stunts.

There are no set moves; everything flows smoothly with live music in the background, played by the capoeiristas themselves.

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art form with roots that can be traced back to Africa. Practitioners say the musical element is one of the things that makes capoeira unique.

CSUN student Julie Ritchie, 22, began studying capoeira two years ago, after seeing an on campus demonstration and enrolling in a capoeira class offered at CSUN at the time.

“As far as I know, capoeira is the only martial art where music plays such an integral part,” said the senior English major. “Music gives energy to the game, and the game gives energy to the music, so it’s a give and take.”

Ritchie said she also likes the community part of capoeira.

“I like this aspect of training where everyone is sharing ideas and trying out different things and helping each other out and giving advice to each other,” said Ritchie, who stayed late after practice to work on playing the berimbau, a Brazilian instrument used in capoeira, as she watched other students perfect their skills.

“As a female, I learned how to hold my body weight and sustain it in movement,” Ritchie said. “Before, I was never strong enough to do that.”

There are many theories on how capoeira evolved into what it is today, but it is believed that it developed among African slaves from Sudan, Angola, Congo and Mozambique when they were brought to Brazil to work on Portuguese plantations beginning in the 16th century.

Capoeira then went through different phases where its reputation was tarnished by criminal gangs who were using it and eventually led to it being outlawed in 1892.

Eighty-two years later things changed, and capoeira was recognized as the national sport of Brazil. Around the same time, capoeira teachers, or mestres, traveled outside of Brazil and opened capoeira schools around the world.

In 1986, mestre Amen Santos brought capoeira to Los Angeles and founded Capoeira Batuque, followed in the San Fernando Valley by Valley Capoeira, led by Santos’ student Neal Rodil, 27, also known as professor Xingu. Rodil received the name Xingu after a native Brazilian tribe that he resembles. Rodil’s older brother first introduced him to capoeira when he was 11 years old.

“I was doing Kung Fu before, but I always used to get in trouble because I couldn’t stand still, so capoeira was better for me,” Rodil said.

Valley Capoeira has about 30 students between ages 12 to 60.

Chris Delarmente, 26, is one of those students. He has practiced capoeira for two years and said what he likes most about capoeira is the unity and positive atmosphere it brings, especially at Valley Capoeira.

“If you fall, people will help you up,” Delarmente said. “If you mess up, no one’s going to laugh. But, at the same time you have to let go of your ego and be able to laugh at yourself.”

Compared to other martial arts, capoeira is a more playful martial art form with two distinct styles: Angola and Regional. Angola is slower in terms of tempo and played closer to the ground, while Regional is faster and more acrobatic. The point of the game is not to injure the person you are playing with, but to have a dialogue without words that creates a cohesive flow of body movements that can display both explosiveness and grace.

“The point of capoeira is to play a game and have an interaction,” instructor Rodil said. “It can be an argument or a nice conversation, but it’s about the interaction.”

A game of capoeira is played by two people inside a circle of capoeiristas called a roda. At the foot of the roda (pe’da) is where the people playing the music are located.

The group of people playing the instruments is collectively called the bateria. In a full bateria there are eight instruments: three berimbaus, two pandeiros, one agogo, one atabaque and one reco-reco.

A berimbau is a one stringed bow-like instrument, pandeiro is Portuguese for tambourine, agogo is a bell, atabaque is a Congo drum, and reco-reco is a hollow wooden cylinder-shaped instrument with ridges on top where a small stick is dragged back and forth to make sounds.

The capoeiristas not playing instruments clap their hands to the beat, creating another component to the music.

There is also singing in capoeira.

The three people playing the berimbaus take turns as the lead vocalist and sing a verse that the other capoeiristas repeat in the chorus. All the songs are sung in Portuguese.

“The songs are talking about bits and pieces of history of capoeira, people that are involved in it and how it came about,” Rodil said.

Angola rodas start with a Ladainha, which is a prayer, salutation or story. The berimbaus and pandeiros play while everyone stands quietly. As the Ladainha comes to its end, all other instruments start playing and two people enter the game from the pe’da roda and the interaction begins.

Like most other martial arts, capoeira has belts to determine the experience of the practitioners. Capoeiristas receive their belts at a belt ceremony called the batizado. At their first batizado, participants get a capoeira name.

“They base it on your character, how you look, how you move, how you play,” Rodil said. “Sometimes it’s a funny name, and sometimes it’s a cool name. It depends.”

For the past few years, in music videos, print advertisements and even car commercials, capoeira has subtly left its mark on Hollywood and the entertainment industry.

Mazda used the song “Zoom Zoom Zoom,” in a recent commercial.

Movies such as “Ocean’s Twelve” and the upcoming “Aeon Flux,” starring Charlize Theron, have also incorporated capoeira. Rodil trained the Academy Award-winning Theron in capoeira for that film.

Rodil also produces films and capoeira shows and tries “to educate people in capoeira through all forms of media and word of mouth.”

When a person sees capoeira for the first time, it is hard to imagine learning the kicks, flips and other stunts, but Rodil said the physical aspect of the sport will come while playing the game.

Capoeiristas, he said, must concentrate on two things: “To have a good understanding of everything, and to be open to the art.”

Johan Mengesha can be reached at web@sundial.csun.edu.