What began as a conversation about knives versus guns on a social networking platform, transformed into a debate about legitimacy in Capoeira. A non-traditional Capoeira instructor posted a video of himself using Capoeira against a gun attack. He was promptly attacked by a Contra-Mestre of Capoeira Angola who declared him to be a fraud. While the back and forth was somewhat interesting to watch, I suspect that there are bigger issues at play, issues that I am hoping we can address here.
The core issues are as follows: 1) the rationality of training Capoeira for self-defense, 2) the legitimacy of individuals teaching or popularizing seemingly unconventional approaches to the art, 3) the combat tradition that Capoeira emerges from and its relevance to practitioners today, 4) and lineage as a measure of legitimacy.
With respect to number one, there seems to be a great deal of allegiance to the idea of Capoeira as a non-contact, dance-like, acrobatic sport. So much so that many have declared that A) Capoeira is not meant for fighting, or B) that Capoeiristas who are concerned about self-defense should train in other martial arts like Muay Thai or Jujitsu. This perspective fails to account for the historical accounts of Capoeiristas as proficient and deadly fighters. In this sense, this position seems both ahistorical and non-critical in failing to reflect upon how the political-economy of Capoeira in Brazil has influenced the expressions of the art over time. This means that the legal status of Africans, the legal status of Capoeira, and its commodification are all factors that have shaped its outward expression in quite deliberate ways.
The second issue suggests that Capoeira is a traditional art that can only retain its authenticity if it retains a specific kinesthetic form. While I agree that Capoeira is a collection of physical techniques, theoretical/philosophical orientations, histories, and non-combat elements (such as music, the game, and so forth), I do not agree that tradition is static. Thus, if Capoeira is a traditional fighting art, then its survival has most likely been occasioned by constant adaptations throughout its history in southwestern Africa, Brazil, and so forth. This suggests that if we were to observe Capoeira’s Angolan predecessor in the mid-15th Century, the art might look quite differently from what we have come to know. Also, if we were to observe it in the context of 17th Century African resistance to enslavement in Brazil, it would also, quite likely, look very different from its present form. These are not differences that would be evident simply based on the proclivity of the practitioners, or simply matters of inheritance of a supposed static tradition. Quite the contrary, their art would look different based on the context, its role, and their objectives in each time and place.
The third issue is a natural outgrowth from the second, or rather it is one for those who consider Capoeria a fighting art, and who seek to adapt Capoeira to their spatial, geographic, and cultural contexts. Moreover, these are individuals and/or collectives who have designated Capoeria as a technical asset that appreciably contributes to the art or science of combat. Finally, they have decided to employ Capeoria in this regard for defense, the education and training of other mashujaa (warriors). In fact it might be argued that these practitioners are not merely creating a novel approach to the art, but are instead reclaiming an earlier and possibly lost tradition. This is not to suggest that the relationship between their combative Capoeirista forbears is a lineal one—most likely today’s practitioners learned Capoeria in a non-combative norm, as is the common practice—but they are, one might argue, reclaiming an ancestral tradition.
Lastly, this question of lineage is directly related to issue number four, not with regards to whether today’s aspirants of a combative form of Capoeria are situated within the large historical and methodological arcs of Capoeria’s tradition, but whether they are transmitting an interpretation of the art that was taught directly to them by their teachers. Capoeira, like many or most fighting traditions, follows a path of transmission from teacher to student. Teachers are typically former students, who with their approval of their teachers take on students of their own. One of the criticisms that has been levied against non-traditional instructors, that is those who teach without the approval or certification of a Capoeira master or association, particularly those who have sought to practice and teach Capoeira as a fighting art, is that these individuals are defying tradition, or worse, are fraudulently engaged in the practice of something else that they are deceptively calling Capoeira.
While I think that this tradition of intergenerational transmission matters in Capoeira, and that teachers of any art should begin as students of that art, I would like to propose that the viability of this process is contingent on the exigencies of one’s context of practice. For example, how would the reality of war impact upon the conceptualization and practice of Capoeira? Would training processes be adapted during a time war so as to emphasize both speed of preparation and competency of practice? Would all aspects of formal preparation be adhered to, or would new standards be devised? Finally, would prospective instructors of the art be recipients of a different training process than their predecessors? Would those who had proven their ability in combat be recognized as candidate instructors even if their own training processes were expedited by necessity? Ultimately, how would Capoeiristas be trained during a time of war? And how would Capoeira be taught if it were the primary fighting method of a contingent of askari (soldiers)?
Wafrika ni penye vita! Africans are at war! This war has taken many forms, however one of these forms, perhaps the most potent, has been the assault on African culture and African social systems. Our systems have been assaulted to such a degree that when one observes the limitations of today’s Capoeira, it is no wonder given the suppression of Africans in Brazil. Should an African who is conscious and aware of this condition submit to the instruction of a mestre (master) who may not posses, value, or teach this knowledge? Is our culture outside of our collective purview, meaning is Capoeira strictly within the domain of traditional teachers, not those who may be non-traditional, yet seek to both uphold and restore Capoeria’s rich warrior tradition? Further, should these so-called non-traditionalists cede the name Capoeira to those who have been deemed authorities in the art, and instead call their art something else similar to how Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do borrowed heavily form Wing Chun, but diverged from the tradition of Wing Chun enough to be called something different?
These are all questions related to our present moment, one wherein the very idea of Capoeira is being contested and/or expanded.