Balancing the Berimbau

At the end of that class Achilles had a samba roda. I wrote:

Achilles drums a samba rhythm, and they all form a circle and dance on the spot. Trovao takes a girl into the roda, and some other men go into the circle alone. Achilles stops playing and says: ‘When we have dancing, you have to dance with a girl. A guy can’t dance with a guy’. He then demonstrates something, which is hard for me to see: but I think it is how a man ‘steals’ a girl from her current dancing partner.


Trovao explains: the reprimand during the samba incident was understood by Trovao, not merely experienced by him. In a samba roda, only one mixed couple dances in the ring. This is different from a dance teacher’s demonstration, where everyone practises moves in lines, or from dancing at a party or in a club, where everyone can dance at once. If another man wanted to dance in the roda, he did need to cut in on Trovao, and Achilles was, indeed, teaching a ‘couple of strategies that can be used to do that’. He then amplifies, by contrasting Achilles’s self confident use of these techniques with that of the students.


T: Achilles always does it the same way. He walks in, he has this big smile, and holds his shoulders in this sultry, masculine, dancey way. In Tolnbridge, which is not Brazil where I guess they’d be closer, the guy and the girl are dancing about a foot away from each other, and Achilles can fit in the gap: or he will come up behind the bloke and remove him out of the way.

B: Can you do that?

T: When it’s become the normal activity to me I think maybe I’ll have been there too long.


Much earlier in that lesson, Achilles gave a small demonstration of capoeira rhythms, and how to clap them. Before the samba roda Achilles gave the class a lecture on the importance of his authority: students must not organise events or performances: he is their teacher, he is Brazilian, he is the knowledgeable person, his reputation could be damaged by unauthorised performances and displays. As Trovao and Bruxa reflect on these incidents, the embodied experience is rendered explicit through the dialogic discourse. By talking, by sharing two perspectives on the events and their embodied, dialogic, and social meanings, the ethnographic account is strengthened and deepened.


Trovao understood the need for the clapping lesson, teaching the classes to clap in the correct rhythms, following the berimbau, better than Bruxa did. He explains:

“I’d say the importance of clapping is firstly the combined role of inclusion and music in creating axe. If everyone claps everyone is involved in the roda and the music is louder. Secondly, I can see how the clapping rhythm correlates to how you’re meant to ginga in time with the music. In its strictest sense I think the back leg should go back to complete the second position of capoeira on the third clap beat. In fact, the leading rythmical element is the ‘dong’ of the berimbau, and both the clap and the back foot are led by that. Perhaps this is more noticeable not by watching the third beat but instead the fourth missed beat of the clapping, as this should be the moment the player doesn’t make an explicit step and is instead shifting their momentum from swinging their leg back and bringing it forward again.”


Trovao understands the lecture on discipline and the instructor’s honour and reputation as a discipulo: he is subject to that discipline, and when there are performances his abilities reflect well or badly on Achilles’s teaching. Trovao reflects that:


- there’s a kind of a reputation thing going on but we’re not that good. Compared to people that normally demonstrate capoeira we’re probably pretty rubbish. I – I don’t think Achilles wants an audience to go around watching people not being very good at stuff and it – it representing him. Achilles never said this but Raksha told me that when we did this show in The Maldives [a world music café bar] when Achilles was away some time ago, Achilles wouldn’t be happy if that was known – so it’s never been mentioned to him. Raksha and Phao didn’t realise at the time. But – but Raksha told us we weren’t allowed to wear our club uniform abadas [trousers]? Or anything that said the club on it. So that people wouldn’t know – 

B: Which club you were in, yeah.


T: Yeah. Yeah. Achilles had said if we perform, we will represent him and we will represent the lineage. If we go out and start doing stuff in the streets so he wanted it to be good and proper. And it’s never going to be that good and proper if we do it. – I was thinking you’ve got to be good at karate to do a public show and there, people who’ve been doing it a year, that would be red belts, the idea of red belts doing a public demonstration, it would be outrageous ‘How could they possibly be good? They have only been doing it that short amount of the time?’ Well, obviously the two are related. Achilles wants to okay things to ensure that they’re – they’re going to uphold his reputation and the reputation of the group.

Here Trovao unpicks the complex reputational issues that lay behind Achilles’s outburst, in the light of his karate experience, the history of the Tolnbridge class and, the complex awareness contexts in that class. Bruxa had never been told about the “secret” performance at The Maldives. Here again Trovao’s experiences, especially his student role, subject to the discipline, is different from Bruxa’s. Bruxa’s behaviour does not effect Achilles’s reputation in the same way, because he is not training her in the physical skills of capoeira.(4)