No Place for Women Among Them?

Capoeira is done to music: in the UK to tapes or CDs and to live music from the berimbau, and its accompanying drums, tambourines, cowbells and rattles (3), plus clapping and singing. The music is one of the attractions of capoeira for students. The axe is raised by the music in classes, and many students collect CDs and download music from websites for their personal use. Putting on a CD in my office creates instant saudade (nostalgia) in any capoeirista within earshot. Reis (2003) quotes one young Pole, Francisco, as saying: ‘When listening to a CD of capoeira at home, sitting and hearing the rhythm, there is a desire for going outside and to jump’ (p.158). To progress in capoeira a person needs to learn songs in a mixture of Brazilian Portuguese and Yoruba or other African languages, to be able to clap correct rhythms, while singing, and preparing mentally to play/fight/dance, to play at least a tambourine and if at all serious about the sport, the berimbau itself. I cannot sing in tune, have great difficulty keeping a rhythm, and have never played any instrument. I cannot clap and sing at the same time, even if I put my notebook away.


The language of capoeira is Brazilian Portuguese, infused with African languages which have mutated in Brazil since the slaves were taken there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of the teachers (4) in Europe have very limited, or no English, and rely on the students copying their physical movements without much explanation. When they need to speak, to teach about etiquette, history, philosophy, or tradition; or to urge greater involvement or commitment; or to announce future events, they use interpreters. Participants who are bilingual, or have learnt Portuguese (perhaps as their degree subject), or speak fluent Spanish and can make informed guesses about the Portuguese, or are themselves advanced enough to be able to explain in English what the teacher wants to convey are all used. A teacher might say ‘you can practise your kicks with a’ - pause, point to a chair, look at a trusted student who says ‘chair’, and then say ‘with a chair’, and demonstrate the practice routine. If the teacher wants to lecture about Yemanja (the sea goddess) or Quilombos (the fugitive slave communities set up in the forest) he needs an interpreter with knowledge of the topic and good Portuguese. These problems are compounded when a visiting mestre comes to Amsterdam from Poland, speaking no Dutch, or from Barcelona to Birmingham speaking only Catalan and Portuguese.


It is not unusual to see two or three students conferring about the English word for a body part (heel, elbow, ankle) or colour or expression before giving the teacher a translation. On one occasion the teacher meant ‘well integrated’, or ‘close knit’ or ‘tightly knit’ and it took two students who were native Portuguese speakers, an undergraduate reading Portuguese, and then the researcher, to find the phrase ‘tightly knit’ for the class. Fieldnotes show me offering ‘predict’, ‘elbow’, ‘evangelical’, ‘protestant’ and ‘doubts’ into such discussions, all accepted by the student doing the translating or by the teacher. I have no Portuguese, Brazilian or otherwise, and a poor ear for spoken languages: especially spoken at high speed with very loud music playing. Given these linguistic barriers, it is hard to envisage wasting the time of busy teachers, or visiting mestres, trying to interview them, unless there is a fluently bilingual student who wants to be my translator.


Given all these obstacles to participant observation, the whole project seems doomed to failure. I have so effectively attacked my own competences that I am sprawled on the floor defeated. But as I want to do the research, as capoeira classes in Europe are such fun, as the axe is so good, there has to be a way forward. I have to escape the attack I have just mounted upon myself.


Esquiva and Ataque


One central feature of capoeira contests, when two players face each other in a game (roda) is deception. Fights are won not only by skill, but by malicia (malice) and trickery. It is a mind game as well as a physical contest. All the defensive and escape moves can be quickly transformed into attacks; all the attacks have to be potentially switched into escapes (esquivas) or defences (defesas). That is why Lewis’s (1992) subtitle is Deceptive Discourse in Brazilian Capoeira. In this section of the paper I am going to adopt the skilful approach of a mestre, metaphorically, and escape from the attack I mounted on myself and my own body in the previous section. Like a good player I will deploy an esquiva and turn it into an ataque.


Good ethnographic fieldwork is characterised by ruthless, relentless, continuous self-critical reflexivity (Coffey 1999). Good ethnographic writing is also reflexive, and plays with paradox. (Atkinson, 1990, 1992). And, of course, the whole point of fieldwork is that the ethnographer learns new things, develops new skills, masters novel vocabularies, proxemics and rhythms, as well as doing the research (Delamont, 2004). There is plenty of scope for participant observation of capoeira in Europe, and many young energetic social scientists, ethnomusicologists, and students of dance and drama will probably follow Lewis (1992), Browning (1995) and Downey (2005). The simplest solution to my problems is to learn Brazilian Portuguese, to take music lessons, practice salsa to develop body rhythms, lose eight stone, get fit, and practice capoeira moves from a book (Capoeira, 1995) or one of the many websites, in private until reaching an acceptable level of incompetence at which point I could actually join a beginners class. The deceptive, and perhaps the more ‘authentic’ solution, is to practice the much advocated reflexivity and think hard about the nature of the project, the research questions and the methods. This escape (esquiva) is a generalisable lesson for all qualitative researchers, and can even be seen positively, as an attack (ataque).


There are many research projects that can be done by non-participant observation: and may even be improved by non-participation. The styles of the teachers, their rhetoric, their strategies to create axe, and their ability to build up a loyal clientele of disciples (discipulos), are visible from the sidelines: and are easier to observe the right way up. Focusing on the rhetorical strategies of a teacher when both you and he are upside down, and you are concentrating on balancing there, exhausted, and dripping with sweat, could even be seen as disadvantageous. After some months of reflexive thought I have decided that the nature of the project and the research questions I can answer which are useful and legitimate do not depend on me doing the capoeira cartwheel (au) and scissors attack (tesouras) myself. I am interested in how the teachers structure the sessions, on their bodily style, their rhetoric, the mixture of physical, musical, ‘intellectual’ and ‘social’ content and the economics of their whole enterprise. These men and women are teachers, or instructors, and there are many parallels and some differences between capoeira and other teachers I have observed over the years (Delamont, 2002). Then there are the students:(5) their motivation, their learning, the waxing and waning of their enthusiasms. Many students value the axe as much as the physical exercise and skill acquisition or the musical training or the intellectual content: a host of research questions arise about what produces the axe they value.