“I'm Your Teacher, I’m Brazilian!”

Three authors’ contribute to the text: Achilles the teacher, Trovao (Thunder) a student, and Bruxa (Witch) an ethnographer: to make it polyvocal. (These are pseudonymous capoeira nicknames contextualised below). Our academic voices are sociological - focused on the entwined ideas of habitus and embodiment drawn from Bourdieu (1977) – and are an analytic reflection of the voice of Achilles. The paper uses ethnographic and interview data to explore the field, habitus, cultural capital and practice of a capoeira teacher. First fieldnotes are used to take the reader into capoeira classes, and then the interview material explores Achilles’s cultural economy.(2) The voices of Achilles and Trovao are heard directly in extracts from interviews, and indirectly in the text Bruxa has produced based on their ideas and experiences. Bruxa’s voice is heard in the ethnographic excerpts, and as the interviewer in the transcripts. The sociological voice of Bruxa and Trovao is an overlay on the data. The paper opens with the field notes from a class that was simultaneously exceptional and typical, in which several of Achilles’s goals were made manifest. We then outline some contextual features of capoeira in Brazil and the UK and of Achilles’s biography and identity. The core concepts from Bourdieu are briefly sketched, and then the main part of the paper focuses on Achilles’s goals.


Achilles’s Birthday Bicycle

 

In May 2005 two things worth celebrating occurred in the Tolnbridge capoeira class: the second anniversary of the club, and Achilles’s birthday. The students had bought Achilles a new bicycle, to replace one that had been stolen. A year before Achilles had said ‘I’m your teacher, I’m Brazilian’ when he learned that a few of his students had also been going to other classes. He continued ‘Trust your teacher or leave’. Those students who stayed – all but four of the class – formed the core group who, a year later, collected enough money to buy a bicycle. The fieldnotes recorded a mixture of normal, and abnormal, events.

 

When Achilles begins the class, about 8.10, with the usual stretches to warm up the students, there are 27 people in the small kickboxing gym. It is very crowded, and so Achilles gets six of the students to play the instruments, and divides the rest into two sub groups. Each of these sits in a circle, a roda, singing and clapping, while a pair of students (discipulos) train in the middle. Every couple of minutes the pairs training are rotated into the seated circles, every eight minutes or so, the musicians (the bateria) are rotated into the circles and replaced by others. During the training, individuals are told in whispers by fellow students to slide down to one end of the room and sign the birthday card for Achilles which is concealed near the door. They do so, and so there is more coming and going than usual.

 

As nine o’clock approaches, Trovao, Luckannon and Shere Khan arrive. All three are injured and are not training. The lesson ends and the students pay. Achilles urges them to go to Cloisterham on Saturday for a master class with Perikles, and on Sunday for a Bumba meu boi parade.(3) Then there is a roda: a very good one with lots of axe.(4) At the end of the roda, around 9.40, the students give Achilles his birthday card (one they had made themselves with a picture of girls in scanty carnival costumes), a  voucher for a bungee jump, and then the new bicycle which Luckannon had brought in his van. Achilles is clearly thrilled – he rides the bike round the gym beaming. In his ‘thank you’
speech he says that the Tolnbridge Club ‘has his heart’. To celebrate there is a samba roda.

 

In a samba roda the class form a circle, all singing and moving in a basic dance step, to a drum beat and a song led by the teacher. One couple start to dance in the centre, and then individuals of either sex shimmy into the ring and cut in on the couple. Men frequently push or trip the male partner out of their way, women usually cede their place gracefully when another female cuts in. Because the samba is danced in an erotic way, participation is not only fun, but demonstrate that students have lost their European inhibitions, and their inflexible bodily style (literally their ‘hard waists’ or cintura dura) and are comfortable with their bodies ‘like Brazilians’. The core group dance in the centre of the circle, newcomers, unless Brazilian, do not dance.

Luckannon drums a samba rhythm and Achilles sings the verse of the song while everyone sings the chorus. Achilles starts to dance with Aconite (the young woman who is the best dancer) then Lunghri cuts in and Achilles takes over the drum. Jagai replaces Lunghri and dances with Aconite until Foxglove cuts Aconite out. Dekkan slides between Jagai and Foxglove to dance with her. Fuchsia removes Foxglove and Shere Khan replaces Dekkan. Once these long established discipulos have all danced, the class ends and everyone, except Bruxa, goes to the pub.

 

These are the most significant extracts from the notes taken during a two hour fieldwork period. The stretching, the overcrowding, the rotating bateria, the pay break at 9.00, and the roda, are all ‘normal’. Even the arrival of injured players at 9.00 to watch and play in the bateria for the roda, and go to the pub with friends is not unusual. However the card signing, the presents, and the statement by Achilles that ‘Tolnbridge has my heart’ are not. It is not coincidental that this event occurred a year after his dictat ‘I’m your teacher, I’m, Brazilian’: indeed it confirmed how seriously that statement had been taken by his Tolnbridge students. The birthday gift was not only the replacement of a bicycle stolen from him, and celebration of his birthday, but also a concrete show of appreciation for two years of capoeira classes in Tolnbridge. For 45 weeks a year, Achilles had travelled by train and bicycle from his base in Cloisterham, every Wednesday and Friday night, to teach them. The bicycle symbolised both personal affection for Achilles, and the social cohesion he had built in Tolnbridge.

The next section is a brief explanatory account of capoeira and of Achilles’s particular group, Beribazu, followed by a sociological interpretation of them.

 

Capoeira
 

Capoeira has a disputed history (Assuncao, 2005), but it is generally accepted that its origins are African. It is always done to music, and the instruments are all African: drum, tambourine, agogo, wooden scraper and the berimbau. This is a long piece of wood, pulled into a bow shape when strung with wire, which has a hollow gourd attached that is held against or away from the torso to change the note, while the wire is struck with a small stick. Capoeira is played by two people who face each other in the centre of a roda of spectators and musicians. They move in time to the music,