Not a Woman or Priest Among Them

Long before youtube, great capoeira memories were remembered. In a few rare instances, games were put to paper, and the below is a good example, from the book City of Women by Ruth Landes. The book is a spectacular primary resource about Salvador, Bahia in the 1930s. The language and some of the ideas are dated, but it gives excellent descriptions of Salvador, its people, and the way life was back in the day.

Here is a bit about a capoeira roda that Landes saw in the street with her friend and companion, the anthropolgist and intellectual, Edison Carneiro:

We arrived at the spot where the men were forming for capoeira. Watchers were crowded four deep around a wide circle, and there was not a women or priest among them. To one side of the innermost ring stood three tall Negroes, each holding a berimbau with one end resting on the ground. Two more musicians soon came- one with a chocalho, or metal rattle, and the other with a pandeiro or tambourine. Edison and the others helped push me front, and we were glad of the diversion.

Two capoeirists were squatting there, facing the musicians. One was the champion Querido de Deus (Beloved of God), with the Christian name of Samuel. He was tall, black, middle-aged and muscular, a fisherman by trade. His challenger was the Black Leopard, a younger man, shorter and fatter. They were barefooted, wearing striped cotton jersey shirts, one with white trousers, the other with dark, one with a felt hat, the other with a cap which he later changed to a hard straw hat. Squatting in their hats and bare feet, one had his left arm on his left thigh, the other had his right arm on his right thigh, and the stared straight, resting. It was required of them to keep silent, and the requirement carried over to the audience.

The orchestra opened the events by strumming an invocation, and this monotonous accompaniment too was essential to the occasion. It was a sort of whining, nasal-toned framework within which the men executed acrobatic marvels, always to the correct beat, while the musicians chanted mocking verses:

I stood at the foot of the cross
Saying my prayer
When there arrived Catherine
The very image of the Devil.

Eh, eh, Ah-Rhuanda!
Missy, let's go away!
To beyond the sea!

It's a sharp knife,
Missy, it's for piercing
Missy, throw it to this side
Missy, throw it to that side.

Eh, eh, long live my master
And my mistress, who taught me!
Mester, leave me to the vagrant life!
Missy, to the capoeira life!

Missy, may the earth revole!
Master, may the world go on!"

It was song of challenge and hope and resignation, containing fragments of rebellious thoughts. It did not possess a simple theme well worked out, but it summarized a type of life and of protest, And it opened the fight.

Querido de Deus swayed on his haunches while he faced his opponent with a grin and gauged his chances. The fight involved all parts of the body except the hands, a precaution demanded by the police to obviate harm. As the movement followed the musical accompaniment, they flowed into a slow-motion, dream-like sequence that was more a dancing than a wrestling. As the law stipulated that capoeirists must not hurt each other, blows become acrobatic stances whose balancing scored in the final check-up, and were named and classified. Various types of capoeira had evolved, with subtleties in the forms and sequences of the blows and in the styles of playing ther berimbau.

Querido de Deus was prodigiously agile in the difficult formal encounters with his adversary, and he smiled constantly while the ritual songs droned on:

They told me wife
That a capoeira man had conquered me,
The woman swore, and stamped her foot dowm firm
That this could not have been.

And the berimbaus changed again:

There was I. Oh! There was my brother,
There was my brother and I.
My brother rented a house
But neither he paid, nor I!

Impertintently, with slow, calculated, beautiful movements, Querido de Deus butted his adversary with his hated head, catching him lightly in the pit of the stomach, upsetting his so that he fell on his head. Thereupon the orchestra struck up triumphantly:

Capoeira kills one!

The cutting knife is bad
Prepare your stomach to catch it

The challenging echoes silenced, the round was over, the two men walked and trotted restfully in a counter-clockwise circle, one behind the other, the champion leading with his arms high in the air, the other grasping his wrists from behind while the orchestra played and sang teasingly:

In the days when I had money
My comrade called me kin
After my money was gone
My comrade scorned me as bold.

Gradually, having rested, the one in the front wheeled to face the other one behind, and they parried to the beat of the songs, never still, balancing from one foot to the other, watching for openings.

Comrade, attention!
Capoeira goes at you!

warned the berimbaus. The two faced each other, Querido de Deus swaying, Leopard backing away, always rhythmically. As Querido de Deus advanced, bending from the waist, lowering his head for the telling blow at the other's middle, Leopard curved forward intending to evade him.

Actually he created an opening into which Querido de Deus charged with his right leg, his left one stretched parallel with the ground supporting him. Leopard's arm swung back loosely, and he fell forward over the butting head in a clean arc. Laughing quietly in appreciation, the two rose, loping in circles to relax while the orchestra applauded:

Lo, is a messenger from the king!
He is from Ruanda!
What can one do with capoeira?
He is an African sorcerer
And he knows how to play.

They sparred again, and again Querido de Deus was the one to attack, half squatting as in a Russian dance, swaying, arms curved forward for balance. Instead of following through with his head as before, he worked to one side and suddenly raised up his body. Leopard bent to charge, but Querido de Deus swung his weight to his right leg and cleared his opponent's head with his left, causing him once more to fall sprawling!

Now another insisted upon entering the ring. He had attempted to do so earlier but he had been ignored. Impatiently he pushed Leopard aside, pointing indignantly to the corner where scorekeepers were chalking the points on the ground, points Leopard failed to make. And sulkily Leopard yielded his place.

The hero Querido de Deus wiped his streaming face and back, and bared his head to cool it. Through everything the onlookers remained silent, only shuffling to ease their positions and inner excitement. Soon the bows whined in invocation for the new round:

Who taught thee this good magic?
It was the mistress' boy.
The the boy costs good money.
Good money needs to be earned.

Fall, fall Catarina,
Rise from the sea, come see Dalina.

Tomorrow is a holy day,
Day of Corpus Christi.
He who has clothes goes to mass.
He who has none does- as I do!

Fall, fall

To me this was a performance incongruous and wonderful; to the others it was wonderful and completely absorbing. To then it was right. But the phrases startled me into conjectures about slavery, rebellion and mockery, and I was astounded most at the manner of the performance, which robbed capoeira of its original sting. The police had removed the sting, and the blacks had converted the remains into a weird, poignant dance. Did the songs carry meaning to the people now? Did they recall the struggles that inspired them, or did they merely dramatize black men, as candomblé dramatized black women? The rows of watchers were still, their faces were impassive.

Again, the challenger and the champion began to trot with knees bent, arms swinging loose, Querido de Deus amusing himself with intricate little movements of his feet. Suddenly a boy jumped into the center of the ring flourishing a pot of money. He had just made the rounds with his hat requesting contributions for the fighters; and the orchestra, which rules the occasion, has deiced that instead of apportioning the money, it should be left to a new pair to try for with their mouths, each fending off the other à la capoeira. The boy announced this decision and placed the pot on the ground while the berimbaus teased:

Would you play with a capoeira?
He is a tricky devil…

And Querido de Deus won! But with the heart of a champion he returned the pot to open the struggle again:

Now you can play!

This time the newcomer won. The crowd broke up, painfully uncomfortable under the blistering two o'clock sun…

Learn more about Ruth Landes here.

Have you come across something that you would like to share with the capoeira community? Send it to us: ficadcarchives (at) gmail (dot) com.

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