Capoeira Community and Spiritual Practice
For the first time at Tallahassee Capoeira during a Friday night roda (or “wheel,” the circular formation within which participants play capoeira) there was enough people to have a full bateria ensemble of three berimbaus, an atabaque drum, and pandeiro to accompany the games that were about to be played. I could sense the excitement rippling through the room as I stood alongside my fellow capoeira players in the roda, waiting for the games to begin. Professor Taz, a Florida native and co-owner of the academy along with his wife Instrutora Texuga, ran through the rules of roda for the kids, the first rule being “Don’t blast your buddies!” followed by the second, “Always pay attention.” Building off of the energy already in the space, Taz started the roda with the academy’s greatest hits—“Tamos juntos,” “Santo Antônio quero água,” “A hora é essa,” “Ô dendê,” and “Cajuê”—so we would all be singing and clapping along, loudly.
With her determined eyes locked on her partner and a wicked grin planted on her face, Biscoitinha was set on taking down the higher-ranked players like Instrutor Salamandra, Monitor Morcego, and Graduado Raptor. Though she was unsuccessful, it was exhilarating to watch her long limbs move nimbly around the circle formed by the musicians and other participants. Once Salamandra and Pensador entered the roda, my anxiety rocketed from watching their rapid-fire exchange of spinning kicks and near misses. Taz managed the pacing of the evening’s roda with his berimbau-playing directing the games. His high energy was never-ending as he called song after song, shouting, “Iê!” during various games and making faces when there were some close calls between the capoeiristas playing inside the ring.
The physical movements of capoeiristas’ bodies moving deftly around a roda like the one I have been describing have captured the global imagination as this Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance form has spread extensively around the world in recent decades. Widely believed to have developed as a disguised form of slave rebellion during Brazil’s colonial period, capoeira has survived multiple periods of prohibition and marginalization over the course of centuries. In recent years, however, its status as a cultural symbol of Brazilian identity was elevated by UNESCO’s designation of capoeira as a form of Brazilian intangible cultural heritage. Many of capoeira’s traditions have been sustained throughout these repressive periods, including the Afro-diasporic spiritual energy known as axé. Rooting themselves in capoeira’s history and its ties to Yoruba beliefs, capoeiristas around the world cultivate axé through the ritualized games of the roda.
Winter 2021, Volume XX, Number 2
Toward the end of the evening, Taz called “Uma volta só” to bring the energy up even more. In this part of the game, anyone can enter to play at any time, so games between two players became shorter and faster. Taz switched over to the academy’s traditional finale “La la é” after sensing the energy dwindle. The final game dissolved into a dance party as everyone, including the bateria members, gathered in the center of what was once the roda, jumping up and down and pumping their fists back and forth into the air, breathlessly chanting the response, “La la é, la la é, la la é a la é la.” After the last note of the berimbau was struck to end the roda, we huddled up to listen to Professor’s take on the evening and then stacked our right hands, one on top of another, into the middle of the huddle to begin the academy’s closing ritual. “UM, DOIS, TRÊS!” Taz yelled, to which everyone enthusiastically responded, “AXÉ, CAPOEIRA!” as we threw our hands up into the air.
Today, capoeira academies like Tallahassee Capoeira may be found worldwide in cities large and small, especially throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. Such academies retain diverse types of relationships to their Brazilian counterparts, yielding provoking issues for the transnational study of this Afro-Brazilian art form. Within this framework of capoeira, I will focus on this capoeira academy located in Tallahassee, Florida, and explore how participants negotiate their ties to notions of Afro-Brazilianness through the spiritual energy known as axé that is inherent to capoeira. How is capoeira translated and heeded by non-Brazilians learning from non-culture bearers? Can Tallahassee capoeiristas, who are primarily young, white, middle-class families, respectfully practice this tradition and adhere to its values? What meaning does axé hold as it is practiced by this capoeira community? I investigate some of these issues through my fieldwork conducting interviews and participating alongside other capoeiristas in order to understand how the Afro-Brazilian tradition of capoeira adapted to become relevant for Tallahassee capoeiristas. Considering Tallahassee Capoeira within the various expressions of capoeira practiced around the world, I see axé as a metaphor of potentiality, fluidity and adaptability that binds capoeira’s diverse community together.
Axé, or aṣe, as dance scholar Barbara Browning defines it in her book Samba: Resistance in Motion, is a Yoruba word meaning “pure potentiality, the power-to-make-things-happen” (1998, 177). This malleable force is expressed in many Afro-diasporic practices in Brazil like candomblé, samba, and capoeira that have roots in Yoruba spiritual practices following the violent displacement of millions of Africans to Brazil during the Atlantic slave trade. Capoeiristas, or capoeira players, often invoke the term as a form of salutation or to describe the energy of the space. The success of the capoeira roda, or ring, formed by participants in which two capoeiristas play the game accompanied by music, is ensured through axé. Capoeiristas manipulate the axé of the space by being completely engaged in the movements within the game, supporting one another’s endeavors, and fully participating in the singing and clapping along to songs.
Axé is simply defined as “energy” or “spirit” by Tallahassee Capoeira members, many of whom had limited background on Brazil or the Portuguese language prior to their engagement with the academy. Pensador, one of my fellow capoeiristas in Tallahassee, cited the need to be fully engaged in the present to have axé, describing it as “a component of love and respect for the game and enjoyment of what’s happening in the moment—everyone’s clapping, everyone’s singing, everyone’s watching.” Viking, another capoeirista I interviewed, further explained, “Capoeiristas have their own axé they bring to it, but then the crowd, it’s their job to pile it on so that within the ring it just builds. It produces a high quality, meaningful game, or set of games as a group, so everybody is important.”
Their descriptions of axé parallel those illustrated by Barbara Browning in Afro-diasporic practices and by Margaret Thompson Drewal in Yoruba rituals in southwestern Nigeria. In her classic study Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency, Drewal notes that the agency of ritual performers among the Yoruba is implicit in aṣe, a generative force or potential present in all things. In her detailing of the features of aṣe, Drewal lists various forms like “spontaneous interpretations, recontextualizations, drumming, dancing, chanting, parody, ruses, reconstitutions of conventions, competing interests, and individual interventions” that it assumes (1992, 27). Exploring the expression of axé in candomblé, a syncretic, Afro-Brazilian religion based in Yoruba belief systems and Roman Catholicism, ethnomusicologist Gerard Béhague observed that it can diminish or grow according to the ritual activity and the behavior of candomblé initiates (Latin American Music Review, 2006).
From this give and take, axé becomes the fuel for the improvisatory dimensions of the capoeira game. Capoeiristas are able to engage in bodily dialogues with each other while using personal agency to shape the flow of the game for their own advantage. In her dissertation on transnational capoeira communities, Laurence Robitaille states, “[C]apoeira only really comes to its full materialization in the roda where the games are improvised, the outcomes are uncertain, and the balance of power is unstable and always potentially changing. Only in those conditions will capoeiristas come together to play, compete, and collectively create energy – axé – all of which then drives the roda and the interactions therein” (2013, 52).
While axé is manipulated through the improvisatory physical dialogues between participants, music ultimately drives the energy of these interactions. The power of transformation relies on musical sounds. Through his research in candomblé rituals, Érico de Souza Brito found that axé is irrevocably tied to sound. “[S]ound emitted by the practitioners, both through speech and through instruments, becomes strength, axé. To produce axé, the sacred force, the energy of the orixás, sound is necessary…Sound needs axé, and axé needs sound” (Ponte Urbe 2018). As with candomblé, the participatory aspects of capoeira’s music ensure mutual, focused attention on the actions in the roda that add axé to the game, resulting in a successful outcome of the ritual. However, axé’s more overt connections with Yoruba and Afro-Brazilian orixás, or spiritual deities, have been lost in translation as axé is practiced by capoeiristas outside of Brazil.
In all contexts, axé is a malleable force—it can be present or not and either good or bad, depending on the individuals creating and manipulating that energy. Capoeiristas strive to accumulate good axé within the game of capoeira through collective music making. It can take considerable effort to build good axé, and capoeiristas are not always effective. During one roda I participated in, Taz was recovering from a cold, and his voice was beginning to crack as he called songs. The group’s responses, in turn, became less and less concentrated. He eventually paused the game to sternly instruct us to sing and clap louder to build up the energy. After starting up the roda again and with everyone enthusiastically singing the responses now, the wire on his berimbau snapped. Taz joked that it was too much axé and began to call a new song, inserting improvised lyrics like “a corda quebrou | the cord broke.”
Practicing an Afro-Brazilian Tradition
Axé in the context of U.S. capoeira academies is not always viewed in a positive light. For ethnomusicologist Ashley Humphrey, axé represents the disconnect between the Brazilian and U.S. knowledge base of the influence of the African diaspora in capoeira. During her thesis fieldwork at the Michigan Center for Capoeira, Humphrey observed, “A problem arises when American capoeira academies and their students attribute axé and other concepts within capoeira as only relevant to capoeira, inadvertently omitting spiritual contributions of Afro-Brazilians from the African-diaspora” (2018, 52). Through her understanding of Afro-diasporic cultural values within American capoeira academies, students do not consider capoeira history or contributions of Afro-Brazilians to be the most important aspect of their interaction with the art form. “This is not because of ignorance or lack of access, but because of a shift in values within the capoeira community which is a result of the migration of the sport” (2018, 53).
With the increasingly rapid globalization of capoeira, issues concerning the importance of nationality, racial identity, tradition and authenticity have proliferated. But it is important to remember that traditions like capoeira and axé are not static objects stuck in the past—they grow and adjust according to the values of the people practicing them, responding to new situations and experimenting with new ideas. Capoeiristas at Tallahassee Capoeira are mindful of their participation and contributions to capoeira’s roots. Considering the academy’s approach to discussing capoeira’s history, Careta said, “I think when we’re singing the songs, that’s where it is emphasized. But it’s not emphasized in an academic way. If you know the lyrics in the verses and what they mean, the translations, that’s where it comes in. The main things I’ve learned though from the songs that I didn’t know, is how much capoeira is not just about slavery. A lot of its history is after slavery with Black communities in cities.”
I asked Careta what traditional aspects of capoeira he believes are still being practiced in the United States. “My sense of it is that it’s like an oral history. I think there are discussions and debates about this, at least what little I could pick up on social media, about what’s authentic and what’s not. I think what’s passed down is—it may not be authentic in the way that it’s just like the past, but in a different way. Maybe this is a debate, but there’s an authenticity about the fact that it’s still a community, it’s still practicing the same moves, the same rituals, but maybe in a different form.”
Reflecting on Tallahassee Capoeira within the various manifestations of capoeira practiced around the world, the Afro-Brazilian spiritual practice of axé endures as a metaphor of potentiality, fluidity and adaptability that binds capoeira’s diverse community together. Axé effectively sustains the cultural memory and values of capoeira’s creators in today’s global community of capoeiristas. As the meaning of axé was displaced from Africa, from Brazil’s plantations to maroon communities, from favelas to city centers in Brazil, and then spread around the world, capoeiristas have imbued its essence with multiple layers of meaning that reflect, embody, and inform their diverse identities and more specific Afro-Brazilian cultural values. Capoeira in Tallahassee has not lost its history or its core aspects like axé, embedded into the experiences of enslaved Africans. Through these violent, forced displacements, practices, like capoeira, that are highly malleable and adaptable have endured. The energy of axé is rooted in displacement, lending itself to varied interpretations, and many practitioners of Afro-Brazilian diasporic traditions find its potency in improvising, in surviving, and in expressing collective freedom.
A note on name usage: The names used for the capoeira players Rehard interviewed in this article refer to their apelidos, or nicknames, to maintain their confidentiality. In some cases, she also uses their mastery-level titles (e.g. Professor, Instrutor(a)) out of respect as I would in our everyday conversations. According to Mestre Poncianinho, capoeira players assumed nicknames to avoid detection from the police. This custom is still used today when capoeiristas receive their capoeira nickname, usually at their first batizado, or baptism (Essential Capoeira: The Guide to Mastering the Art, 2007).
Abby “Dendê” Rehard is a Ph.D. student in Musicology at Florida State University. Since she first encountered the sounds of the Portuguese language and samba drumming in 2010, her research interests have centered in Afro-Brazilian movement and music forms like capoeira and maracatu.
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