by J. Cassar Scalia
Masters don’t teach the truth; there is no way to teach it. It is a transmission beyond scriptures, beyond words. It is a transmission. It is energy invoking energy in you.
-quote framed and hung on the wall at Ache Brasil Capoeira studio Vancouver, Canada
A brief word about the title of this section: ‘Ginga’ is the fundamental movement in capoeira, meaning swing or sway. The title, ‘Ginga Mundial’ roughly translates to ‘World Sway’.
In the fall of 2007 I studied for a semester at Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA) in Salvador, Brazil and had the opportunity to observe and practice capoeira at the university, at famed capoeira schools and on the streets and beaches of Salvador. Collaterally to that, I heard and participated in much talk, both inside and outside of the classroom, of positive and negative effects and potentials of globalization and new technologies as they relate to local and national politics, education, social justice and economic opportunity in Brazilian society.
Within some of this discourse I came to learn two distinct, yet intimately correspondent Portuguese terms: globalização and mundialização. Globalização translates into English easily, meaning globalization carrying macroeconomic, corporate, capitalist and geopolitical connotations. Mundialização requires a bit more explanation. Literally, it could be translated as worldization, but its connotations are cultural and communal, of people at the grassroots level that form local groups and networks that grow like vines intertwining along the industrial/digital channels of communication of an advanced, neo-liberal global society, connecting to diverse communities in other parts of the world. This is the wider mundial context through which I’ve come to look at the phenomena of capoeira, and of which the Ache Brasil Capoeira studio of Vancouver, where I conducted ethnographic fieldwork, is a constituent part.
But where did capoeira come from and how did it come to be what we know today? It is generally considered to have emerged in 16th century Brazil having grown out of a mixture of West African traditions- ritual combat games and competitive dances practiced by West Africans who were captured and brought across the South Atlantic on Portuguese slave ships to be sold into slavery. It was there that capoeira’s evolution really took form, adapting and incorporating new influences within a culturally mixed demographic of Portuguese, enslaved West African peoples and indigenous South Americans, who were also widely enslaved. Demographics notwithstanding, it was a decidedly Afro-Brazilian phenomena. The terms of its initial development were defined by enslavement on Portuguese plantations, but subsequently it was also sustained and carried forward by Quilombos, African settlements established by escaped slaves hidden in Brazil’s vast interior (Assunção 2005).
Most Brazilian scholars have argued that capoeira emerged as a way to conceal the fact that slaves were practicing a martial art (which can be understood in part as discipline and training for slave uprising and revolt) by combining the practice with dance, music and singing, thus giving it an innocuous appearance. J. Lowell Lewis’ has described it during slavery as “hiding in the open” (Lewis 1992). It was in its emergent form a flexible, subversive declaration of cultural agency that subsequently drove a broader movement of Afro-Brazilian resistance against Portuguese colonialism, tyranny and enslavement.
Some scholars, such as Matthias Röhrig Assunção posit that the rapid development which has led to what we know as capoeira today did not really begin maturation until the 20th century and is thus more a product of Afro-Brazilian modernization than an old colonial relic (Assunção 2005). This was where the alternatively modern trajectory of capoeira began to really advance. I say “alternatively modern” in the sense that Bruce M. Knauft has used it, describing its processes as the juxtapositioning and articulating of “dominant and subaltern notions of propriety and development” (2002).
The modern maturation that Assunção refers to was preceded by a mid to late 19th century where the practice of capoeira surged primarily in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro. In Rio de Janeiro it was largely a practice by street gangs and was repressed by police and, seen as a threat by the ruling white elite, it was eventually officially outlawed by the Brazilian government early in the 1890s (although one could receive 400 lashes if caught practicing Capoeira long before this official outlaw), subduing the rising power of gangs and their political patrons (Willson, 2001). Though, these strategies of hard power suppression did not last. By the 1930s capoeira’s alternatively modern recasting would begin to be negotiated and absorbed into the national Brazilian narrative.
It was a young capoeirista known as Mestre (Master) Bimba who catalyzed this new era of capoeira. His new brand was called ‘Capoeira Regional’ and it was an attempt, that eventually proved successful, to legitimize capoeira, emphasizing it as sport, encouraging middle class participation and minimizing its slave origins and African spiritual and ritual aspects.
The other major strain of Capoeira that emerged in the 20th century, Capoeira Angola, also strived for wider recognition but was more traditionalist, seeing itself as the pure form. It emphasized preservation of the old way, kept the Afro-Brazilian cultural elements of the practice and did not cater to the Brazilian middle classes (Willson 2001).
Over the following decades, this legitimizing process was so successful that capoeira would eventually be regarded as a true Brazilian sport and a symbol of national pride. But there are those within the capoeira community that have continued to highlight, nationally and internationally, the hypocrisy of Brazil’s racist, imperial history and institutional campaign that aimed to completely demolish and erase any trace of capoeira, as well as other Afro-Brazilian cultural traditions, while today decontextualizing and recharacterizing capoeira as ‘Brazilian’ as opposed to ‘Afro-Brazilian’. This anti-colonial criticism began in the Capoeira Angola camp with criticism of Bimba’s introduction of new movements, minimizing the more playful aspects of the art and his training of white and middle-class students.
Professore Camara, my chief informant at Ache Brasil, explained it thusly:
[Bimba] basically wanted to take capoeira away from the lower class… He wanted capoeira to gain respect in the Brazilian community and he wanted to end this stigma against capoeira. One way he saw that is he didn’t want vagabundos [vagabonds] in his academy. He didn’t want anyone stupid, or any vagabonds or guys that didn’t have any education. It’s really sad… people didn’t really have education because it was difficult to come by… He kind of alienated himself from the rest of the Afro-Brazilian community, because they’d be like oh Mestre Bimba thinks he’s so much better. People who did Capoeira Angola started saying ‘Oh, Capoeira Regional is just for white people.’ Only white people did it because they were the only ones that could afford to go to school.
The Capoeira Angola camp also accused Bimba of lending credence to Brazilian dictator Getulio Vargas and his authoritarian populist government, by allowing Vargas’ government to claim the art as part of a Brazilian nationalist legacy and further advancing the myth of Brazil as a kind of utopian racial democracy. It was Capoeira Angola’s strict adherance to the Afro-Brazilian cultural elements of the art under the charge of the traditionalist, Mestre Pastinha, that later enabled it to occupy the intellectual and moral high ground in disputes over capoeira’s Afro-Brazilian historicity (Rosenthal 2007).
In recent years, as the stock of cultural commodities has risen, especially those that are symbols of a culture’s noble resistance against oppression, Capoeira Angola has gained political capital, relying on its historical moral high ground enabling it to, by degree, challenge the mainstream Capoeira Regional. While both forms of Capoeira are recognized the world over today, Capoeira Regional, still receives much more national and international attention, and is the dominant form of capoeira as practiced around the world.
Circles of Influence: Micro/Macro-narratives and Alternative Cultural Capital
In Modernity at Large, Arjun Appadurai discusses the “megarhetoric of developmental modernization” which is the state’s macronarrative about “economic growth, high technology, agribusiness, schooling, militarization” and how this mega-rhetoric is increasingly “punctuated, interrogated, and domesticated by the micro-narratives of film, music, television and other expressive forms which allow modernity to be rewritten as vernacular globalization and less as a concession to large-scale national and international policies” (1996). Brazil’s 20th century macro-narrative on Brazilian sports tried to revise and contain capoeira and still continues these types of narratives as all nation-states do, in ever more sophisticated ways.
It is in this Gramscian sense that powerful political and business elite attempt to secure and legitimate ideological domination over subordinate classes through a process that addresses subversive expressions and actions of the subordinate through a combination of coercive and consensual negotiations. When coercive disciplinary force begins to generate more ‘trouble’ than it suppresses then a consensual (read softly coercive) negotiation will likely be enacted. Consent then may be achieved through a process that attempts to both influence and incorporate the vernacular sensibilities of subordinate classes into the dominant ideology. Ideological apparatuses, a la Althusser, must periodically be retooled for the hegemonic enterprise to endure. The consensual component is the key to securing the endurance of power ensuring the reproduction part of Althusser’s “reproduction of the relations of production” (1971).
It is the vernacular globalization or, as I have elected to anglicize the Portuguese term for this paper, mundialization, formed by mass mediation, transcultural and transnational mobilization that has influentially altered the consensual component of the hegemonic enterprise, or as Appadurai puts it, “has broken the monopoly of autonomous nation-states over the project of modernization” (1996).
Though capoeira has been exploited and co-opted by hegemonic interests it cannot be restricted to the definition given by the Brazilian state nor can it be solely defined by the Brazilian people. Diverse peoples interested in capoeira all over the world are continuously affecting and expanding on the present discourse and historicity of capoeira; what it was, what it is and what it may be. In discussions with Professore Camara, who is an American born Canadian of mixed (white and African American) heritage, he expressed his own small but real share in not only the evolving discourse but the development of the physical practice, illustrating the agential minutia of capoeira through its personal therapeutic qualification:
I learned that capoeira had been changed so much over the years since Pastinha, since Bimba. Since the 1980s, the 1960s. Capoeira has changed so much and I thought well, that must mean that capoeira is still changing. Capoeira is completely different even since the times of slavery. I don’t even know if that’s ginga. I saw pictures of capoeira in the times of slavery. Guys didn’t look like they were doing anything like ginga. I realized hey capoeira can be changed. If capoeira can be changed it can be improved. So I started learning all the techniques that I could. I started doing capoeira in a more efficient way in terms of anatomy.
Nation-states are adjusting their mega-rhetoric to harmonize with mundialized definitions of modernization in effort to maintain power throughout the processes of globalization by relinquishing, or at some points, appearing to relinquish to massive cultural and transcultural tides. Mestres, teachers and advanced capoeiristas like Professore Camara are on the frontlines of this mundial network of micro-narratives.
The biggest shift with regard to the influence of these sweeping mundial tides have caused the Brazilian state’s macronarratives to shift markedly over the past fifty years. This is true particularly as it relates to racial and cultural identity within the greater discourse about Brazilianness. As Carey Million writes, “Capoeira’s modern celebration, its promotion by the state, along with that of Carnaval and Samba, assert pride in the ‘black’, assumedly African, contribution to Brazil. It is a ‘blackening’ to match centuries of ‘whitening’” (2005). It is this ‘blackening’, which was a shrewd new campaign by the state that took note of trends of mundialized currents that through the latter half of the 20th century began celebrating in a Brazilian blackness in a new respectful way. This came as a challenge to the status quo’s traditional, ideological discourse on race and was met with strategies that sought to capitalize on black culture by nationalizing and commercializing it in a new way that would be beneficial to the political and corporate elite.
A circle of influence is occurring here between the global, the mundial, the politico-corporate elite and the afro-brazilian local. The steady progression and proliferation of electronic and digital technologies of macro-level globalization over recent decades would become the fertile ground for vernacular globalization to grow which saw local Afro-Brazilian culture brought to a world of other localities, specifically in the West (North Atlantic), and would push the state into a more progressive stance on racial, cultural and national discourse which, in its dash to capitalize on progressive sentiments (which it has done very successfully), would unintentionally create a kind of alternative cultural capital for the Afro-Brazilian community. (It is this circle of influence that in the 1980s and 90s really thrust Capoeira Angola into a greater national and international position, it having all of those cultural attributes that were cutout [whitened] of Capoeira Regional throughout the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s). I say alternative cultural capital to explain an alter of Pierre Bordieu’s famed coinage, ‘cultural capital’ which he defined as the knowledge, experience and/or connections one has had through the course of one’s life that enables one to succeed more so than someone from an impoverished background (Bourdieu 1986).
As new and traditional alternative cultural practices (especially those symbolic of the resistance of historically oppressed peoples against tyranny and imperialism) become popular and are sought out and demanded by masses of educated, culturally disillusioned, and mobile middle-class youth throughout the West, these traditions are suddenly charged with a new kind of cultural worth, a kind of alternative cultural capital that originates from knowledge, connections and experience not of privilege but of poverty and oppression from which springs something phenomenal and now marketable, like capoeira, or hip hop in the United States. This is not to say that alternative cultural capital is a kind of equalizer which it clearly is not (but for a few talented and fortunate standouts) but there is a certain reciprocal mechanism that engenders a kind of severely reduced, counter capital. While this alternative cultural capital has a smaller effect on the social structural arrangements of hegemonic powers, its influence on the level of discourse and narrative, micro and macro, can hardly be understated.
Deterritorialization and Cultural Commodity
Appadurai defines these transcultural and transnational flows as products or symptoms of deterritorialization which cause the “loosening of the holds between people, wealth and territories [and] fundamentally alters the basis of cultural reproduction.” All of this physical shifting in space causes shifting in cultural identity and loyalty to nationality, ethnicity and territory.
Over the past several decades, capoeira has been a chief vehicle for the de-territorialization of aspects of Brazilian identity and culture as it has exploded onto the world scene largely in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan, but also in parts of Africa, India and more recently in China, where Professore Camara has taught. Brazilian mestres have increasingly left Brazil to found capoeira schools overseas in all of these regions. It is particularly strong though, in cities of the global north like New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, Oslo, Berlin as well as here in Vancouver as represented by the Ache Brasil community.
This deterritorialization has led to a significant decline in the amount of the most talented mestres in Brazil for the simple fact that the economic opportunity for a talented Brazilian mestre is so much greater in a place like Oslo, Norway than it is in Salvador, Bahia. In this way, robust Western economies, in tandem with the West’s insatiable appetite for Brazilian capoeira, have steadily drained Brazil of its most gifted mestres and capoeiristas.
Professore Camara traces the origin of this draining to the students of Mestre Bimba:
Because [Bimba’s students] were so well connected, from higher society, they had connections in other parts of the world not just Brazil, and they were some of the first people to actually leave Brazil and they first traveled to Europe and Africa and North America. They were the first to travel out and spread capoeira.
Predictably there was a major upsurge of capoeira’s profile at home in Brazil through this emerging global commodification, which some believe reflects a certain diminishment in its quality. There is a cadre of brazilianist scholars that reflect the sentiment expressed by brazilianist, José Luis Falcão, that we have entered an era where the capoeira practiced outside of Brazil, especially in Europe, is often more disciplined, of a higher quality and in a strange sense perhaps a truer, more authentic capoeira than much of what is being practiced and taught in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro (Falcão 1996).
Camara is not totally aligned with such pronouncements but he comes close:
You look at the capoeira in Europe, the level is so high. It’s almost- I could never say that it’s better than Brazil but it’s definitely pretty close. You’ll see guys that go to Europe, Brazilian guys that I met in Brazil that were like ‘capoeira in Europe is just like crazy! Some of the guys are like way better than the guys here.’ And the reason is that, part of it is that the best people traveling to those places so capoeira can be best represented- what do you get? All the good guys in one place outside of Brazil.
In the meanwhile, locally capoeira has brought on spikes in tourism, and a whole new tourist demographic has emerged. Brazilian and international travel agencies have seized onto capoeira in their advertising campaigns which is now a staple of the Brazilian experience alongside, samba, bossa nova and carnaval. Beyond that, capoeira has popped up throughout Western media in video games, movies and commercials for sports drinks, ipods and cell phones. This influence was evident in a conversation I had with a young Canadian capoeirista named Pinheiro who practices at Ache Brasil. He explained to me that he’d first learned of capoeira through a Playstation video game called Tekken, a mixed-martial art fighting game in which each character in the game has a unique fighting style. One of the characters in the game is called Eddie Gordo who is a dreadlocked Afro-Brazilian capoeirista. Eddie Gordo has become enormously popular and achieved a kind of cult status in ‘videogamer’ subculture. But Ray also had been to Recife, Brazil on an Ache Brasil trip, which is led annually by Mestre Eclilson, the founder of Ache Brasil in Vancouver. The Recife trip is an opportunity for Ache Brasil’s Canadian students to have an intimate ‘on the ground’ experience of capoeira and Brazilian culture.
This touristic experiential exchange is the norm for capoeira schools throughout the West, and is a significant contributor to the market value associated with capoeira that is capitalized on throughout the Brazilian and international tourism industry. The capoeira tourist traffic that has resulted from this has spawned tourism alters locally in Brazil. This has created a space for a very active cultural meeting/exchange between working and subworking class Brazilian capoeiristas and middle-class westerners who arrive in Brazil in search of the ‘true capoeira experience’.
This touristic experiential exchange is the norm for capoeira schools throughout the West, and is a significant contributor to the market value associated with capoeira that is capitalized on throughout the Brazilian and international tourism industry. The capoeira tourist traffic that has resulted from this has spawned tourism alters locally in Brazil. This has created a space for a very active cultural meeting/exchange between working and subworking class Brazilian capoeiristas and middle/upper middle-class westerners who arrive in Brazil in search of the ‘true capoeira experience’.
Camara discusses the savvy of Brazilian capoeiristas and various levels of teachers, formal and informal, that he encountered in Brazil:
Brazilians really took [malicia] and put it into what they do. For me I think of it as a Brazilian aspect, aspect of Brazilian personality in society but it’s not necessarily Brazilian it’s just what comes from learning how to take care of yourself. Every single moment of your life you have to be aware. That’s why I think they don’t respect foreigners as much because they see that they’re kind of slow in terms of that aspect. And they associate that with that person’s ability to learn capoeira and that person’s ability to overcome obstacles.
Some of these young Brazilian men have applied this savvy beyond the roda as they hustle to make a living on the streets of cities like Salvador and Recife on the edges of the officially recognized capoeira schools and tourist circuits. Some of them are legitimately advanced capoeiristas, some of them less so. All of them have seen a growing market that they can get in on too. And so there are street mestres who offer cheap classes to Westerners and middle-class Brazilians alike. Additionally, there are working class artists and entrepreneurs of all kinds who create capoeira-related works of art and vend in the tourist filled sections of town.
The industrialized tourism complex and its orbiting alters coexist relatively harmoniously. The alters, never of any real economic threat to the industrial giants, spice up the atmosphere at the edges of the tourist experience and create a more wild, ‘culturally authentic’ environment. There is of course much grey area in the spectrum where alters merge to varying degrees into the greater economic complex.
Transcultural Mimetics and the Ultranarrative
In Mimesis and Alterity, Michael Taussig talks about “magical mimesis” and “miming the real into being” in the context of his study of the Kuna people of Colombia. He states that “through detailed description, power is gained over the thing described.” Thus, the copying or miming of an alterity or otherness, thoroughly done, gives power over the alterity and perhaps transforms the mimer into this otherness or a new otherness that controls or transcends the original otherness. For the Kuna, these mimetic peformances were often used as folk magic treatments for all sorts of medical conditions and ailments, both physical and psychological (Taussig 1993). These mimetic prescriptions entailed mimicry of aspects of certain spirits, animals or human beings. The intention was, through miming or mimicking, to overpower, channel, or wield the magic of the entity (spirit, animal or human being) when that entity’s magic is perceived to be either the cause of or solution to the ailment of the suffering subject. Taussig calls this spirit-copying (1993).
Subtler in its broad stretch across time, space and the innumerable people and societies that inhabit it, there is nonetheless a kind of reciprocal mimesis, a spirit copying happening with capoeira, across cultures and through the interrelation of local, global and mundial forces. It is what I will call transcultural mimetic reciprocity. In this sense, upper and middle-class Westerners, through dedicated mimesis have become successful spirit-copies of Afro-Brazilian capoeiristas and as this mimesis has gotten stronger, the original Afro-Brazilian alterity has in a sense gotten weaker, as its highest energies (expert Brazilian mestres) have wholly invested themselves in assisting this mimesis outside of Brazil rather than carrying on its original, Afro-Brazilian-contained flow.
As I’ve indicated above, some have argued that capoeira has already been re-authenticated in the West through this process, in its transcultural, practical sense. In turn, mimesis is occurring in Brazil as well with regard to this transcultural exchange, but it is a political-economic mimesis, a reflection of capitalistic entrepreneurship, yet it’s a mimesis that is too ill-equipped to ever mime its way to any real power over or through its elite Western alterity. This is at least the case for local Afro-Brazilian working class and sub-working class ‘would be capoeira entrepreneurs’ who just barely surviving under such a global politico-economic regime within which capoeira as commodity is situated. But there is also another kind of reflexive mimesis occurring.
The Afro-Brazilian street mestre, the capoeira artist and musician may engage in a kind of auto-mimesis- an interpellative miming of their culture’s own traditions (mining their reserve of alternative cultural capital) in a political economic mimesis of global capitalism. In this way people put themselves on display marketing themselves to Western tourists as an ‘authentic’ cultural product. These entrepreneurial alters have shades of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s ‘Otherwise Modern’ paper as he discusses entrepreneurial business practice of slaves in his study of the Caribbean in the 19th century saying that it “gives us various glimpses at the production of a modern self – a self producing itself through a particular relation to material production – even under the harshest possible conditions” (Trouillot 2002). It is under unfavorable social and economic conditions that the street mestre carves out a space for himself and his sliver of capoeira’s alternative cultural capital on the edge of tourism’s cultural commodity marketplace.
This assymetrical exchange is an advanced, contemporary and not at all atypical example of what Knauft calls “the oxymodern”. This is the combining of “discordant or contradictory elements- the global and the local, the cultural and politico-economic.” He goes on to say thay “focusing on the relative nature of modernity connects our understanding of global forces to our understanding of local responses; it brings hegemonic and subaltern directly together and prompts us to view each in the context of the other’s so-called development” (2002).
Capoeira in its present form(s) is one strand among the vast and diverse mundial strands that are interweaved through the “local, global, cultural and politico-economic”. These force relations have an extrinsic multi-dimensionality based in a more fundamental bidimensionality; that being, as Knauft indicates, between subaltern and hegemonic forces. Because of the nature of these processes occurring within an advanced neo-liberal era of globalization and democratized social mobility at higher levels, this fundamental hegemonic/subaltern interrelation is made more difficult to tease out, as the interplay of these forces have affected a more complex and diversified spectrum of internationalization and socio-economic stratification. The grey area of the hegemonic/subaltern spectrum is certainly denser and murkier than ever, at least on the spectral surface.
Further, through consensual neo-liberal strategies, extrinsic socio-cultural distinctions (representational forms in discourse and narrative) have been loosened, and are morphing, multiplying and moving in all directions across the socioeconomic spectrum and around the world. Through blending and overlapping across the globe, a multiplicity of sociocultural expressions of identity has arisen in much the same way as Foucault’s notion of a “multiplicity of discourses” arose around human sexuality in the West through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Foucault saw that growing freedom around what people in society could say about sex and sexuality and how they could say it, as inversely and reciprocally correspondent to tightening restrictions around sexual behavior and expression, and the movement and comportment of the body in public space.
The growing freedom, expansion and diversifying of sociocultural and ethnic expressions of identity is similarly partnered with a contracting force. The loosening, multiplying process that produces an extrinsic diversity and freedom at the level of cultural representation occurs simultaneously with, and really through, a deeper uniformity of global political economy. It is the representational effect of enduring forces of power that have deployed ever more sophisticated strategies that attempt, with great success, to garner consent from a relatively mobile and diversifying pool of ordinary people, who find themselves caught in the mix, consciously or not, of largely unspoken negotiations between hegemonic and subaltern forces.
This advancing hegemonic trajectory is toward an absorption and at a deeper level, a dissipation of the subaltern through a degree of appeal to its terms of representation and discourse. It is a desire of hegemonic power to sustain and secure itself through strategies that are intended to continually fashion and refashion something like a universal ultranarrative, simultaneously accommodating and dictating the terms of a multiplicity of alternative subaltern narratives that the hegemon folds or attempts to fold into the larger socio-political economic order.