Balancing the Berimbau

In this way, in a small gym in a working class neighbourhood in a university city, this paper was conceived.


Learning to Balance the Berimbau


The paper reflects upon a project to study capoeira conducted by participant and non-participant observation and explores what Coffey (1999) calls the ethnographic self. The berimbau is a stringed instrument, consisting of a wooden bow, strung with wire and with a polished gourd attached which produces an eerie sound. The player has to balance it on one finger, and it is both heavy and an unweildy five foot high, while playing it with a small thin stick and shaking a rattle. Trovao plays the berimbau, and the title comes from his comment that the first skill he had to acquire was ‘balancing the berimbau’.


There are two authors, two capoeira enthusiasts, whose dialogue is the heart of the paper. Because capoeira was illegal in Brazil for 200 years, had its origins in the African-Brazilian culture of the slaves, and was then associated with a semi-criminal urban underclass, adherents are known by nicknames or war names, bestowed by their teacher. Many students know the capoeira names of their coevals, but not their real names. Trovao’s use of ‘Sandy-Ikki’ in the opening vignette where he gives both the man’s real name, Sandy, and his capoeira name, Ikki, to ensure Bruxa recognises a specific person is typical. When Bruxa was in Longhampston one Saturday two of Achilles’s Cloisterham students visiting Perseus’s class introduced themselves to her: 

‘Hi – I’m Hamish–Toomai’ and ‘I’m Bagheera–Ilya. We saw you at the Batizado in Cloisterham, didn’t we?’ Here one man gave his real name then his capoeira name, the other did the reverse.



This paper is a dialogue between a player, Neil Stephens who has a ‘real’ capoeira nickname, but is present here under the pseudonym Trovao (Thunder); and an observer, Sara Delamont who does not play, so does not have a ‘real’ nickname, but has adopted the nickname Bruxa (witch) for this paper. Both nicknames are Brazilian Portuguese, the core language of capoeira. Neil Stephens is better known in capoeira by his ‘real’ capoeira nick name, so we have used a capoeira pseudonym to simulate the original purpose of such names. Bruxa has a honorary capoeira nickname too, and that has also been replaced by a pseudonymous one for symmetry. The capoeira teacher who has instructed Trovao regularly and been observed most frequently by Bruxa is referred to by the pseudonym Achilles, to convey his heroic character in this narrative. We have used pseudonyms for all the capoeira teachers, but Achilles chooses to be named, as do the teachers in Lewis’s (1992) monograph. He is Claudio Campos, of the Beribazu School of Capoeira, and has been a capoeirista for fifteen years.

The paper locates itself in reflexive ethnographic writing, explores the skills of the two researchers, contrasts their roles, presents some of the findings and insights from the shared project, and makes the dangers of their collaboration explicit. The central argument is that when the focus of a research project is an embodied activity, two researchers, operating in different ways, can make explicit what is, more usually, an individual researcher’s inner dialogue between experience and knowledge, between participation and detachment, between embodied participation and reflexive contemplation.


Two-handed ethnographic projects are not unusual. They have a long history in social anthropology, from Bateson and Mead, through the Corbins (1987) and the Colliers (1997) in Spain, Murray and Rosalie Wax (1971) among First Americans, or George and Louise Spindler (1988) in Germany. In anthropology the two-person team has frequently been that of husband and wife. A sociological example is Patti and Peter Adler (1999). There are also collaborations at the boundaries of the seventh moment, such as Ellis and Bochner (1996), or Richardson and Lockridge (1991, 1994, 1998) with a focus on understanding and text production. These latter pairs have been much more explicit in their publications about the interplay(s) between their relationships and the social field.


We see our collaboration as different. We are not a couple in any sense of that word. We have been teacher (Delamont) and student (Stephens), and we are now colleagues in academic life. In capoeira the old teacher-student link is reversed: in capoeira Trovao is the teacher. The ethnographic partnership is an inversion of the former teacher-student relationship. Where Bruxa was once Trovao’s teacher, he as the skilled capoeirista is now her instructor. He is the participant with his body in real time, as the intellectual interpreter recollecting in tranquillity. Bruxa is the student, with an observer’s intellect in real time and a body that is only an impediment. Gender is not relevant – age, physical skill and musical talent are.



The research processes themselves, the settings in which the data are collected and contested, the fieldwork roles, the embodiment, the experiential understanding and the intellectual exploration, are all mirrored in the dialogic interplay of Trovao and Bruxa, and are vividly present in the paper, where two textual styles of representation confront one another and the reader. These shifting dualities also represent for the reader unfamiliar with capoeira the janus-faced activity itself, in which trickery, deception, quick-wittedness, humour, playfulness and sleight-of-hand are valorised as much as physical skill (Lewis 1992).