Balancing the Berimbau

Thunder and the Witch: Skills and Understanding


In this section the authors are briefly introduced with their qualifications to participate in and understand capoeira. The possible characteristics and qualifications are physical ability, language, race and ethnicity, nationality, knowledge of African-Brazilian culture, web-skills, social science skills, musical talent and gender.


Trovao was a successful, skilled practitioner of another martial art from the ages of nine to 21. He has been learning capoeira for two years, and has achieved the second level of competence, the corda azul-marron (blue and brown belt). Bruxa has no physical skills at all. Both are white British Anglo-Saxons, neither speaks Brazilian-Portuguese. Trovao is male, Bruxa female. In Brazil, in the USA and in Europe, women are welcomed in classes, and so there is nothing in Bruxa’s sex that prevents her involvement. However in the classes observed there are usually more men than women, and the majority of the teachers are male. Trovao’s karate background, and its utility in learning capoeira, and developing an explanatory framework to theorise that learning, is explored further below.


Capoeira is practiced and performed to music. Training is done to CDs, performance is accompanied by live music. All students are expected to sing and to clap in appropriate rhythms. Serious students learn to play the drums, tambourines, cowbells, and most importantly, the berimbau itself. Bruxa cannot sing in tune, hold a clapped rhythm, and has never learnt to play any instrument. Trovao can sing, clap in the correct rhythm, play the cowbells and the berimbau. He has musical talent, and this is coupled with an experiential grasp of music based on nine years of playing the guitar, six years of producing electronic music, a summer’s worth of singing lessons in his late teens and two years of playing Capoeira.


Most of the information about capoeira available outside Brazil, both intellectual and practical, is web-based. (3) Histories of capoeira, for example, are easily found on web sites. So too are clothing and other items for sale, and, most vitally, information on the classes that are available in each city. Trovao has good web skills, and can routinely ‘find’ both intellectual and practical material using ICT. Bruxa is repelled by the web, responding like a vampire to garlic or daylight.


Both Trovao and Bruxa are well-qualified social scientists, who have been primarily concerned with the cerebral and the verbal and the intellectual. In their main professional research Trovao has worked on the sociology of knowledge, Bruxa on sociology of education. Neither has previously investigated a primarily physical, musical, bodily activity, valued for its physicality, musicality and bodily pleasures.


Trovao and Bruxa know about capoeira classes in Britain in different ways. Trovao trains twice a week, each time for 1.5 to 2 hours in a class, and practices at home, for

6 – 8 hours on top of time in the class in the summer, much less in winter or when injured. This is supplemented by street rodas, informal rodas in parks, and sometimes demonstrations in pubs or clubs. Bruxa observes a capoeira class at least twice a week for 1.5 to 2 hours, taking ethnographic field notes in situ, and writing them up afterwards.


Trovao has a physical understanding of capoeira, based both on learning what the author Nestor Capoeira (1995, 2003) calls the ‘dance – fight – game’ himself and on thirteen years of karate to a high level. This provides Trovao with a disciplined, educated body (Frank, 1990, 1991). Bruxa has a cerebral, academic understanding, based on reading both about capoeira, other relevant features of Brazilian life such as race, candomble, samba, and slavery, and the ethnographic research itself. Reading on capoeira covers both academic anthropology (Lewis, 1992, Downing 2005, Reis, 2003), through other academic texts (Browning, 1995, Schreiner, 1993) to the books that capoeiristas read (Almeida, 1986, Capoeira, 1995, 2002; Twigger 1999). The two sets of skills and experiences enable a shared ethnography to be conducted.


Dialogic Play


We, Bruxa and Trovao are in a university office seated companionably at a table in a book lined room. It is silent apart from our talk – no music, no traffic noise, no berimbau being strummed. Together we reflect upon how important that embodied experience is, both to Trovao’s ability in capoeira and to his research input.

B. Can you bear it if I read a bit of my fieldnotes – the written up version – where I’m puzzled, but I’m certain you know what was going on?

T. For sure

B. There are four things that happened in a regular class with Achilles that I don’t think I understand at all. One evening in the late spring, I’ve written:


They have been learning moves, and practicing them for about 45 minutes. Achilles chooses Trovao to demonstrate an exercise: a stretching exercise I think, not an actual capoeira move. Achilles stands. Trovao lies on his back with his head at Achilles’s feet, and his hands holding Achilles’s ankles. Then Trovao goes up into an arched, bridge position with Achilles leaning over to support him. Once Trovao is balanced in the bridge position, he raises one leg up into the air and stretches it out at a 75 degree angle. Then he puts that leg back down and raises the other. Trovao can do this: but when they go into pairs to practice the exercise, few of the other students can do it.

T: Well, Achilles has never explained why we do that, so I’ve only got my thoughts.

B: Does it help having the other person there? Does it help to hold their ankles?

T: I must admit I don’t find it helps but I can do a bridge you see.

B: But lots of people can’t, can they? About two thirds of the regular class can’t easily do a bridge properly?

T: Depends what you call “regular class”: the people with the cordas can I think. But you get a lot of people who can’t do it. That and the handstand are – the first kind of hurdles to learning capoeira. They’re discriminating things, that people can and can’t do.


Trovao then explains in detail, at length, the understanding he has, as a player.

The purpose of the stretching exercise. If a person does a bridge alone, their hands can slide: holding someone else’s ankles prevents that. Getting up into bridge is hard, the standing supporter helps the person in the bridge to get up and hold the position. The exercise strengthens the muscles needed to get into and hold the bridge. Lifting one leg strengthens the muscles in the other, and helps the player practice how, in the capoeira game, they will roll out of the bridge into another position. Bruxa could not deduce any of these things from Achilles’s demonstration. Typically, Achilles did not explicitly explain or justify the exercise: he demonstrated it, required the students to do it if they could, and then moved on.

Trovao has escaped from Bruxa’s first challenge. Bruxa moves on.