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In Conversation with Carlo Alexandre: Capoeira, Music, Resistance and Change

Roar writer Andrew Nunes in (remote) discussion with Carlo Alexandre (Mestre Carlão) about capoeira, his recent music, resistance and change.

Capoeria is a ‘dance-fight-game’ (as Nestor Capoeira titled his 2002 book). It developed in the 16th century by enslaved Africans in colonial Brazil. It is now known as a martial art that incorporates: dance, acrobatics, rituals, music, and more. Capoeira music and its body movements have evolved since its earliest forms, but many of its songs are still an unbroken link to a Brazilian colonial past, that of the senzalas (slave quarters), the plantations, and the quilombos (communities of escaped slaves); places where songs were sung and passed down that remain in capoeira music today. Someone skilled in capoeira is known as a capoeirista. Carlo Alexandre is a Mestre (Master) of capoeira, a title earned in recognition of his immense knowledge and skill in the artform.

Talking from Brazil, I had a discussion with Carlo.

Roar: You started capoeira at sixteen and have seen it all, in what some of us say is the ‘Capoeira World.’ Capoeira has taken you around this world, teaching and more. Capoeira, in the roda (a circle made up of people where capoeira is ‘played’), is a dialogue between two capoeiristas ‘playing’ each other. How does this dialogue, from capoeira, translate into the wider world and day-to-day life? What is the value of capoeira philosophy in the modern world?

Carlo: Yes, in 1981 it was. It has been a long journey full of great memories from people, places, and some amazing stories. But there is no glamour, it’s all hard work. I think, primarily, capoeira can work as a mirror in which you have to face yourself, your limits, and your shade sometimes. But we also face our history. If we think about where capoeira comes from and how it happened in Brazil, it’s not all fun and games. It can be tough and heavy knowing this history, because you discover many false stories about Brazil.

I perceived, with myself, that it serves to transform oneself through practicing a combat art, but this is just the beginning. The surface of another transformation. As capoeira is a multidimensional culture, maybe more than other combat arts, and because capoeira is African at its roots, then there is more to talk because of this. What I mean is, capoeira combines many different categories: dance, drama, music, cultural resistance, craft, ritual, combat, history of slavery, game, and even religion for some. It’s African, so it’s holistic, or more complex than it seems to be.

In my perspective, we need to consider that capoeira cannot just be one of these parts alone. It can, though, for some people. That’s why capoeira is becoming so diverse. People are breaking its multidimensional aspect to develop a very commodified capoeira, something easier to be consumed internationally. I am not saying that’s wrong, or right, it’s just what it is. Maybe this complexity and dynamics should be balanced – it’s the secret of it. This mix, and all these things all together. This weirdness. This is, perhaps, the value that capoeira has somehow developed, and been able to captivate the whole world, peoples of all cultures. It’s the inability to define it.

How to name or define this value? I prefer to leave it to the readers, and other capoeiristas, or I could use the cliché idea that some people say. ‘It’s the community,’ the kind of family you find in capoeira, which is missing in Western societies. However, I think family and small, closed communities can be extremely neurotic, and are complicated, as we all know. So, I am not very keen on this value. Instead, community, the ritual and the complexities which involve it, are better definitions. Ritual is something we are missing in modern societies.

Carlo speaking to me from Brazil.

R: Initially, many people are drawn to capoeira due to its beautiful movements or its music, before they know the actual history of it, and its connection to Afro-Brazilian culture. Although capoeira has long been adopted beyond the Afro-Brazilian population and is practised widely, by peoples of all cultures, like you said, capoeira classes in Europe are still predominantly white spaces. How important is it to stress capoeira’s African roots in relation to its popularity outside of its original place of origin, that of West and Central Africa, and Brazil?

C: Mestre Pastinha (1889-1981, a key figure in Capoeira Angola) once said, ‘Capoeira is for man, boy and woman.’ He said also that it’s ‘the mandinga of slaves longing for freedom.’ And a ‘good capoeirista moves from his soul, not from his body.’ If we understand that from a son of a Black woman and a white Spanish man, who had no formal education, we can be quite impressed. That his sayings are universal, and even philosophical. But where did he obtain this knowledge? He got it from the streets of Salvador, these interactions, and from being a bouncer, painter, mariner, and a capoeirista since a child. His capoeira knowledge is Afro-Brazilian, it came from his African descendants.

There is a lot to talk about Black history in Brazil, and the history of these (capoeira) men: Pastinha, Bimba, Aberre, Waldemar, Norona, Seu Benedito, Traira, Caiçara, and more. All these names should be in books and discussed in schools, not just known to adults. They are the heroes of Brazil. All the men and women, which built our roots and culture towards new manifestations, like the works by musician/composer Tom Jobim, musican João Gilberto, poet Vinicius de Moraes, and others, that have created and promoted bossa nova to the world.

In addition, samba, maracatus, côco, ciranda, bumba-meu-boi, cavalo-marinho, reizado, capoeira of course, and dozens more. All cultures created by the people of Brazil, indigenous, and mixed with Black. The caboclos are the base of my culture; it’s not white, and this shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. Brazil is not Portuguese, it is a Caboclo Nation, a Black and mestiço culture. The importance of this reality, unfortunately, I only discover because of capoeira. It should be taught in schools. This would alleviate many problems, like racism, but also, and it’s very important to understand, that if (these cultures and Arts) that came from Africans to Brazil, these origins, transplanted and developed in Brazil, then it brings with it a lot of suffering. However, because we have surpassed some of that pain and acknowledge this past, we are able to play capoeira today. This popular culture, still here, is because of this saga from Africa, from the diaspora, from the exploitation of Black bodies and souls during centuries. This story needs to be told more and more.

Painting by Augustus Earle of capoeira in Brazil (c. 1820).

R: Your albums – OnçaTigre, Serpente e Marimbondo (2020, retitled: Memorial), Guarnicê – Capoeira Protest (2020), and the single ‘Sabotagem’ (2020) – are more than just capoeira music, that is, the typical canon played in the roda. The music is not only an homage to capoeira’s past, which is common, but there is a political element in it. In many ways, it addresses wider issues facing our world. Why have you gone in this direction with your recent music?

C: There’s a documentary called What Happened, Miss Simone (2015). As we know, it’s about the singer Nina Simone. This film was very important to me, it has some great moments in it. Moments where she imparts some very powerful messages. In one of them, she is talking about her music in an interview: How can an artist not reflect on their time? She tells the interviewer, ‘Fear is the worst thing we can have in our lives.’ Such thoughts from Nina Simone really impacted my life. They are obvious, but many people have been stuck in fear, and many don’t think politics should be involved in the Arts. That’s impossible not to include for me. Simone told me something I always knew but was in fear of before. When I heard that, I decided to speak out my ideas using capoeira music as a platform. Since then, I have already recorded five albums and two singles.

OnçaTigre, Serpente e Marimbondo talks about these heroes of Brazil I mentioned before, their jobs, and their importance needs to be spoken loud and clear to the world. The reason for this is because the Brazilian elite, the oligarchs, most of the politicians, and now the big new Pentecostal Churches, don’t allow Brazil to be changed to a more equal society. ‘Sabotagem’ is a denunciation against all the crimes that Bolsonaro commits when he just opens his mouth! There are some clear evidences that he and his three sons are involved in corruption, and possible involvement in the Rio de Janeiro ‘milicianato.’ My music is touching on this in many ways.

‘Sabotagem’ is to say this in response to the current political crisis which Brazil is sinking in since the Coup to today. The best action to take now would be a popular sabotage, a massive rebellion, or a revolution. One could say, ‘Well, this is utopia.’ Another could say, ‘But I don’t want to have blood on my hands,’ and so on. Revolutions and ‘sabotagem’ are out of fashion, a third person could respond. The fact is, none of this will happen. No ‘sabotagem,’ no old-style revolutions, because there are too many forces now acting to put people like Bolsonaro, Trump or the Tories into power.

R: The single ‘Sabotagem’ is interesting due to this notion of resistance you mention. ‘Jornadas de Junho,’ from the album OnçaTigre, Serpente e Marimbondo, is also interesting in this similar emotion of a popular resistance. As we know, capoeira is intrinsically an art form of resistance due to its origins. With the timing of this release during another surge in international Black Lives Matters activism, was there a conscious effort to relate this song, and the timing of its release, to resistance on an international scale, or just against the historical record of police brutality in Brazil?

C: I think ‘Sabotagem’ and ‘Jornadas de Junho’ are the most straightforward songs I have done alongside ‘Quantos Mais Vão Ter de Morrer’ from the album ContraGolpe (Counter Strike). This last one (‘Quantos Mais Vão Ter de Morrer’) is music I have done to homage Marielle Franco (the Afro-Brazilian politician, feminist and human rights activist, assassinated in 2018 because of her views). Marielle Franco is one of the calluses of the Brazilian establishment since her assassination by the militia. Bolsonaro’s familly has been interfering with the investigation, and we can’t do anything about it. I do, I do music about it. I am not opening any kind of conspiracy; I am just thinking, based on your questions.

It’s a good feeling to be talking about my music, and for people like you to ask me about it. It’s a great stimulus to do more songs about what’s taking place on our planet at this time, because there is absurdity happening. Absurdity such as Bolsonaro, Brazil’s real mafia that was involved in impeaching former president Dilma Rousseff, which will appear in history books. Many artists, writers and thinkers are helping with this work of testimonies. I am also doing my best to register this with my art. I am very proud that we are doing this ‘sabotagem’ peacefully, revolting without blood. If that’s a utopic action, time will tell us.

R: The global pandemic of Covid-19 cannot be avoided in this conversation. Capoeira is a very social activity; training alone is not the same experience as the one you develop from interaction and interpretation with other capoeiristas. Not being able to physically assemble (during the height of the pandemic, at least) has probably been an event that disturbed capoeira in a way not seen since it was outlawed in Brazil, even though Bolsonaro has not really told anyone to not gather or to socially distance themselves. How is the situation affecting capoeira schools, and yourself as a teacher and artist of capoeira?

Carlo singing in the roda de capoeira.

C: I am also amplifying this question, as I think it’s a very important one. As we all know, our reality – not just capoeira – has been shaken. The global economy and society were hugely impacted, and consequently the small systems like capoeira were impacted. I believe that this impact cannot be clearly known – how deep it is, or in terms of its long-term consequences. Not just on capoeira students, but especially on capoeira masters, who used to travel many times a year for big (capoeira) events, visiting their work’s ramifications around the world. Capoeira has become a franchise, in part, and when I say, ‘in part,’ I am talking about the big groups. The main ones, they are very representative, full of power and money. So, this (capoeira) system was directly affected. Many masters from these mega groups started to teach online, and masters and teachers from small groups did, too.

In my analysis, it’s good to put into check many practices that used to happen in capoeira. For example, big events in which people from many places travel to by car, air flights and trains, to meet masters and teachers, which had also travelled far to be there. This system in capoeira is part of the problem, and the problem is systemic. Getting together is the main resource of income in capoeira. It shows its face now more clearly due to the pandemic, and its face is not cute. I am saying this as someone who had also travelled for years due to capoeira. I am part of the problem. I am causing problems towards the planet. As traveling is not cool anymore, going to and taking part in international (capoeira) events is now questionable. It is not because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but because of the sea, the plants, the rivers, the atmosphere, the animals, and finally, because of us. The capoeira community from now on should be more local, less internationally focused. Less event based. Powerful capoeira masters should stop to reflect on this and set an example.

To play capoeira in a roda is to develop very special skills which only the roda can give you. Now it’s time to make it really valuable, to give a lot of importance to our relationships, to people we love and care about. Many people have already died. Some are capoeiristas – Mestre Joel is one of them – and more continue to pass. Bolsonaro, as we already discussed, is part of the problem. He represents those who are not thinking about lives, but about death and how he can make the pandemic something beneficial for his 2022 presidential election. He might win, too. If he wins, his project of destruction of Brazilian sovereignty may be concluded by the end of his second term. The Amazon forest may be severely affected, more than it already is, in its biodiversity and dimensions. Indigenous people will continue to be affected, and even die, from rural militias, farmers, lodgers, viruses like Covid-19, suicide and other kinds of land conflicts. It’s a humanitarian disaster that will not only affect Brazil but also the world. He needs to be stopped! Fires are burning in the Amazon and the Pantanal on the ‘Centro Oeste’ region of Brazil (world’s largest wetlands). It’s not helped by the government. The only way to define it right now is with the expression: State Ecological Crime.

I have gone on, but I will finish this question by saying that our current state of the world and this pandemic have affected me hard. They’re making me question attitudes, myself, my relationships, and my future. I am very affected. I am selling my music and teaching capoeira online, and that became my source of living since March. It’s a rebirth from the ashes online; I don’t know what I would be doing without it, really.

R: Lastly, since my questions do not cover all of your great contributions to capoeira, please say anything more you would like to share. Are you working on anything new? Any future projects we can look out for?

C: I would like to say that myself, with other people, we are about to start a new project. This time it will be in Mexico, though I am still waiting for the news of the funding we applied for. This team is composed of a group of few artists, capoeiristas, botanicists and academics. Soon we will be able to talk more about this new project, but it’s about plants, communication and capoeira.

There is a good possibility of recording one more album in December, too. Maybe, if so, the next recording might happen in Mexico this time, not in London, where we have done all the previous ones with the producer Marc Brown, along with my friends from the international capoeira community in the UK. This new music will be even more revolutionary; we’re going to sing about love and ecology.

Much thanks go to Carlo Alexandre. You can follow him on Instagram @carloalexarts, and you can also listen and buy his music, discussed in this article, and more, by searching for him on: Itunes, Apple Music, Deeze, Google, Spotify, and bandcamp.



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