By DeShawn “Quiabo” Robins
The first time I saw capoeira performed, it looked like magic. I saw people moving in ways that I didn’t think possible. But they were doing it, so it was somehow possible. I felt like it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I was 17, growing up in inner city Detroit. I was used to seeing negative images of African Americans in the media. As an African American kid, to see that such a beautiful art existed and was created by Africans really impacted me.
That first class was extremely difficult. I could barely walk after it was over, but it was fun. I think the most exciting thing about it was the roda, when I got to see the older students play. That was just amazing.
In a capoeira roda, you have a circle of spectators or players. We call the activity a game and the participants players. The game represents life, so when players practice capoeira they’re practicing life. The master or teacher usually leads the music, and the music tells the players what game to play. The rest is up to the players. As in life, there are many different situations. Some are fun, some are scary, some require you to defend yourself. There’s a game for every situation.
An essential part of the roda is song. Capoeira songs are sung in Portuguese. For Brazilians, it’s easier to learn new songs because you recognize the words. But if you don’t speak Portuguese, they’re just sounds. I find the site Capoeira Song Book really helpful because if you learn what the words are and what they mean, then the songs start to make sense.
Capoeira songs sometimes tell stories of great masters who have long since died. Sometimes they tell us about the struggles and triumphs, the heroes and the villains of capoeira. The songs are important for understanding history. When we understand the history of capoeira, we understand the circumstances that have contributed to the art. We can see situations, choices, and outcomes. We can learn from the past. And the history of capoeira is not just a history of Brazil, but also a history of Africa, a history of oppression, and a history of triumph.
One really popular capoeira song is called “Paraná ê” or “Paranuê Paraná.” When I hear and sing this song, I feel comfort. It’s one of the first songs I learned, and virtually everyone in the capoeira community is familiar with it. When you search for “parana e” on the Capoeira Song Book website, you can hear it performed, and read the lyrics in Portuguese, English, and French. The site also has a glossary, where they explain some of the common words that aren’t translated.
The songs of capoeira are an essential part of the art. You can’t have a roda without them. If you know the most common songs, you can join a roda, singing along while watching the magic of the game.