Capoeira was created in the early 16th century by African people enslaved in Brazil. It is a fusion of various martial arts practices from different African peoples who were placed together on plantations, unable to communicate except in the language of their oppressors. People practiced capoeira in secret, disguising the deadly martial art as a harmless dance routine, training to become strong enough to revolt and escape slavery.
After slavery was banned by Princess Isabel of Portugal, some capoeiristas used their talents for evil, becoming mob enforcers called capoeira maltas, and in reaction the Brazilian government banned the practice of capoeira. It continued as an underground sport until capoeira master Manuel dos Reis Machado, also known as Mestre Bimba, started a school to teach a variant of capoeira he called Luta Regional Baiana (regional fight of Bahia). The cultural elite learned capoeira from Mestre Bimba, and capoeira lost its association with organized crime; it became legal in the 1940s.
Since then, capoeira has spread worldwide. Though its roots are in Brazilian culture and Portuguese remains the language in which capoeira moves are named and capoeira songs are sung, practitioners come from all over the globe.
“This is true and not true,” according to Eng Wen Ong, founder of SUNY Albany’s own capoeira club. The history of capoeira is murky, since it was passed down from teacher to student as an oral tradition for many years. The details of the story above may be exaggerated, but most of the history is true. Ong, who also goes by the capoeira name Cegonha, learned capoeira in his native Singapore. Six months before he started school at the University at Albany, the mestre—“master,” an experienced capoeirista who teaches others– who had run the capoeira club left and the club fell apart. Cegonha had no choice but to start a club of his own.
Each meeting of the capoeira club begins with song. The club members stand in a circle and sing in Portuguese, accompanied by handclapping and either Cegonha or his co-instructor Nick Moskwa on the berimbau. This instrument is a wooden bow strung with wire salvaged from a car tire, with a hollowed gourd-like fruit as a resonator. It is played by tapping the wire with a short stick, while holding a metal disk and a small shaker in the same hand. Though the berimbau does not feature in the earliest depictions of capoeira, it has become the official instrument of the dance-like sport. The songs are composed specifically to accompany capoeira; one sung by the group at Albany, “Capoeira Mata Um,” is about the oppression faced by the slaves who invented capoeira and their proficiency with the sport. The title translates to “Capoeira Kills One.”
“The goal of capoeira is to hit your face! The goal of not dying after that is to protect your face!” as Moskwa put it while leading the other students in basic capoeira moves. He joined Cegonha’s group in fall of 2015, and found he was the most advanced student. This led to him becoming a co-instructor.
Currently, the capoeira club has about a half dozen members. Their practice sessions, every Monday at 6 PM, attract a lot of rubbernecking and many people who attend one meeting and then never return. Cegonha and Moskwa intend, if they can, to continue the club over the summer and in future semesters. But to do that, they say they will need more members.
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