Brazilian martial arts with a touch of dance and acrobatics

100 students, teachers celebrate 10 years of Capoeira in China.

In mid-June, nearly 100 students and teachers from 14 countries came together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the arrival in China of capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines dance, acrobatics and music.

The venue was the International Cultural Capoeira Encounter at the Sands Cotai Central. It was held on June 13-15 and organised by the Capoeira Sports and Cultural Association of Macao; it included workshops, folk dances, dance and percussion workshops led by professional instructors and masters from around the world.

Among the countries represented were Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Russia, U.S., England and the ‘mother country’ Brazil.

Capoeira was created by Brazilian slaves, probably in the 16th century. It is known for its quick and complex moves, using power, speed and leverage for a wide variety of kicks, spins and highly mobile techniques.

The slaves used it as a form of self-defence; but, since this was forbidden as they were merely the property of their owners, they disguised it as a form of dance. It is always accompanied by the berimbau, a single-string percussion instrument.

Today it has become a symbol of Brazilian culture, its ethnic amalgam and resistance to oppression. It is a source of pride for Brazilians and is considered part of the country’s intangible cultural heritage.

From the 1970s, capoeira masters began to emigrate and teach it to other countries. It has attracted thousands of foreign students and tourists to Brazil who come to study under teachers and improve their techniques.

Arrival in China

The man who led the event in Macao was Eddie Murphy, whose real name is Edilson Antonio Almeida. It was he who brought capoeira to China.

Eddie was born in Sao Paulo. Until he was eight years old, he had symptoms of epilepsy and his metabolism was slow, making him a very small boy for his age. When he was nine years old, he started training in capoeira and his health problems stopped. His metabolism went back to normal and, after training for one year, his body structure changed.

He started with a design business but soon discovered that he would prefer to dedicate his life to capoeira; he started as a teacher and later represented the art outside the country. The first challenge was Spain, then China.

When he arrived in Hong Kong in 2004, he found that no-one had heard of the martial art, except for some expats.

“I remember arriving in Victoria Park. I starting doing some exercises and jumps. Many Chinese approached me and asked: ‘What is he doing? Is he dancing? Is he fighting?’” he recalls.

After Hong Kong, he worked in Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen; he did shows in Brazilian restaurants.

In 2009, he came to Macao, almost by chance. “During my whole stay, I never heard about Macao, not even in Hong Kong,” he said. He was invited to teach at a yoga gym here; but it closed its doors without any notice some time later. Eddie was left without a job but he was able to continue with help from his new friends and students, especially the Portuguese community.

“I had never met any Portuguese in my life. I had to come to Macao to get to know the Portuguese people. Most of my close friends now are Portuguese. Capoeira is something that no one expects in China and I am sure that this [introducing capoeira in Macao] was only possible thanks to the Portuguese community who has supported me from the first minute.”

Eddie now leads several different classes each week. About 100 people, 70 of them children, attend a session on the third floor of Ocean Plaza, in the Ocean Garden complex. He and his associates have founded the first Samba School in Macao and have dance and Brazilian fitness classes.

“Every Friday we have free percussion lessons, because Macao can be very stressful. These classes are designed to help people to relax after a long week of work and before the weekend,” he said. “My goal is to contribute to Macao’s development and give back the acceptance and support that I have received from the city.”

Over the past five years, his Axé Macau group has collaborated with the Cultural Institute in many events, including the Fringe Festival, Macau International Arts Festival and “Parade through Macao, Latin City.” They also have a regular presence in the annual Lusofonia Festival.

They also have social projects in Ka Ho village and at the Problem Gambling Treatment Centres. “Because capoeira is solidarity, when you help someone, you help yourself.”

Among Eddie’s regular students is Vasco Lopes, who was 40 years old when he started taking Capoeira classes five years ago. “Age never stopped me from doing anything in capoeira.   I started because of my kids, just like any other sport.

“But soon I learnt that capoeira is not just a sport. It’s culture, it’s a set of knowledge that is passed from one generation to another. It makes us know about history and the rope exchange (a form of graduation) is not about being the strongest or the toughest physically but about knowing the berimbau notes and techniques,” he explained. “Capoeira opened a whole new world to me at 45 years old.”

Vasco also added that capoeira filled an important gap in Macao’s education system. “I know that local schools lack this kind of activity and capoeira has everything. Apart from physical exercise, it passes on the idea of respect for one another, respect for your family, values that nowadays are not that easy to find. It’s an alternative in Macao, absolutely.”

Multinational event in Macao

The Macao event was led by Eddie Murphy. He was especially happy that day. Why? “Because it’s the most important event of my life in capoeira”, he said. “This is my 38th year doing capoeira and it is the most important event of my life because it’s 10 years since I’ve introduced capoeira to China; and it is the first time that I am side by side with my master to show him what we’ve done here.”

His teacher was Mestre Barrao, or Marcos da Silva, who was born in Recife in northeast Brazil. After participating in many training sessions and championships, he had the opportunity to teach in schools, community centers and universities throughout Brazil; he founded Grupo Axé Capoeira in 1982.

Mestre Barrao Barrão emigrated to Canada in 1992 and began teaching. He started The Annual International Capoeira Encounter and opened Canada’s first Academy of Capoeira. The Axé Capoeira now counts schools in 37 countries, including the United States, Mexico and Colombia to Ukraine, Serbia, Azerbaijan, France, Angola, Turkey and Japan.

“We are ambassadors and take this art all over the world, to show that Brazil is not only the violence you see in television but the beautiful things the country has,” he said.

The group’s development has been supported by world-wide releases of music albums and VHS and DVD performances. It now has over 12,000 members around the world. It has become famous as a traveling group which promotes the history, music, art, and culture of Brazil in inter-active and educational demonstrations.

The Macao event included a traditional “batizado” (baptism), the ceremony where the capoeira students are recognised with a “corda” (belt) that symbolises self-development and diligence.

“For me, it is amazing to be here,” said Mestre Barrao. “This is not only because of the event that is wonderful but also because of master Eddie Murphy. It brings glory not only to our group but also to capoeira in Asia and worldwide. It’s not easy to organise something like this; you have to be truly passionate and fight to make people believe in capoeira.”

Among the group were 15 practitioners who flew in   from Russia. Gazela was one of them: “I am very happy to be here, I’m here for the capoeira and to meet the rest of the family,” said the young blonde student. “We have cold weather there and we are a bit closed and capoeira give us the feeling of freedom, it helps us to express in different ways.”

Eddie Murphy has given up the idea of returning to Brazil and has his mind focused on Macao: “the mission is not yet accomplished.”

He plans to take capoeira to more local schools, in addition to the D. José da Costa Nunes kindergarten where they give classes. “We already have the government’s support for this project. In Singapore, schools have capoeira classes, classes that can be a way of integrating the Portuguese language and in the case of Macao to preserve it.”

After the event, the Macao Axé Capoeira family flew to Kazakhstan to celebrate the 10th anniversary of capoeira in that Central Asia country.

Dramatic history

If football is king in Brazil, then capoeira is queen. It was created by African slaves during the colonial period. It was a way for them to resist their oppressors; they secretly practiced their art and transmitted their culture, lifting their spirits at the same time.

It is marked by deft, tricky movements; it has a strong acrobatic component in some versions and always played with music.

It does not focus on injuring the opponent but on emphasising the skill and performing a rocking back and forth movement with the knees bent named “ginga”; this makes the performers look as if they are dancing.

Played with the berimbau and percussion instruments, the rhythm can be fast or slow and the songs sang are about a wide variety of subjects. The Axé Capoeira Group is launching their eighth album, including songs about famous “capoeiristas” and one about Nelson Mandela.

After slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, the slaves moved to the cities and the practice continued; but it became associated with anti-government or criminal activities. Criminals and gang chiefs used practitioners as bodyguards and hitmen. Social conditions in Rio de Janeiro were chaotic. So capeiro was outlawed in 1892.

Practitioners invented ways to escape the authorities in case they were caught and gave themselves nicknames to avoid being persecuted, a tradition that continues to this day. This nickname is given at the “baptism” ceremony.

It was only in 1937 that a man called Mestre Bimba was invited to demonstrate his capoeira skills in front of Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas. Afterwards, he gave him permission to open the first capoeira school in Brazil; from that time, it has been officially recognized as a national sport and spread around the world.

By Filipa Queiroz
(Issue N. 23, July 2014)

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About Filipa Queiroz

Jornalista. Nascida em Coimbra, criada em Braga e a viver em Macau.

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