If your idea of a martial arts workout includes a tree branch, tire wire, a hollow gourd and a small skipping stone, then the art of capoeira may be for you.
Capoeira, where two “players” use their bodies to navigate a blend of dance, acrobatics and combat, is orchestrated by a percussion ensemble led by the berimbau, (pronounced “bay-ream-bough”), a single-string, percussion instrument believed to have made its way to Brazil from Africa during the slave trade.
“Capoeira is a martial art … but it has music, so it is a different dynamic,” said Marlous de Milliano, 28, a Ph.D. student from the Netherlands at UNC. He’s practiced other martial arts, but none has ever included learning how to play a musical instrument made with raw materials.
“On good days it all comes together,” de Milliano said, “but I am definitely still working on this.”
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The berimbau, a wire-strung bow the player taps with a stick and modulates with a flat stone, drives the rhythm and tempo of two capoeira players facing off inside an impromptu ring, or roda.
“The terminology is that we’re ‘playing a game,’” said Joe Garay, 33, of Chapel Hill.
Garay and de Milliano each make it a point to practice both the physical and musical sides of capoeira. Garay said that if he was playing inside the roda and heard the “falling banana tree” song, it would mean that the lead berimbau player has decided that the game has reached a “trip or be tripped” moment.
“I would be a little more guarded,” Garay said.
The sometimes lazy rhythms can be as deceptive as the players inside the roda.
“Most beginners focus just on the movements of the game and matching them to the rhythm of the bateria (percussion),” de Milliano said. “Experience will teach you how to respond to certain situations, why a mestre is playing a particular song, and how he or she wants you to respond to this.”
Capoeria is believed to have evolved from organized street fighting between slaves, freedmen and gangsters in colonial Brazil. The practice was frowned upon by civil authorities to the point of being outlawed, until mestres (masters) of capoeira founded schools in the early 20th century.
Duke anthropologist and capoeira instructor Katya Wesolowski, 47, studied the practice in Brazil before moving to Durham.
“A lot of (Brazilian) capoeiristas said it was the music that first called them … to play,” Wesolowski said.
On her first trip to Brazil in 1995, Wesolowski had a hand in creating her own berimbau. After a swig from a bottle of sugar-cane moonshine, the bottle was shattered and handed to Wesolowski for shaving the branch that would become the instrument’s bow. Today, Wesolowski buys only handmade berimbaus.
“I like knowing who made it,” Wesolowski said.
Duke University and UNC have capoeira clubs, and there are fitness-focused outfits scattered around the Triangle. Groups often must divide their time between practicing the physical and the musical sides of capoeira.
“Teaching rhythm is more tiring than the physical part (of capoeira),” said Andres Macias, 38, an instructor who works out of Carrboro.
“It’s sensory overload: rhythm, singing and movement,” Macias said.
On a Monday evenings inside Balance Movement studio in Carrboro, Macias drills his class on the ginga, which looks like a samba step but is actually the foundation for a capoeira kick.
“It’s a dance disguised as a fight … and a fight disguised as a dance,” Macias said.
Macias coaches a young student having difficulty cartwheeling with his legs out straight. He tells the student to continue practicing with his knees bent.
“You shouldn’t aim for grace, because (grace) manifests itself in different ways,” Macias said. “Teaching helps instill these concepts … especially when you have beginners – they’re the most dangerous people in the world.”
Macias had practiced taekwondo as a teenager in his native Ecuador, and earned his black belt by 17. But then came a chance encounter with a video featuring capoeira kicks and Afro-Brazilian rhythms.
“I had to know what that was,” Macias said.
The ideal moment in capoeira is when the musicians are feeding the players, the players are feeding the crowd, and the crowd is feeding the musicians, he said.
“Whenever the music is super-good, the performers in the roda look like cobras trying to bite each other,” he said.
It was in Davidson, N.C., where Macias met his “mestre-mestre,” a person he described as learned in all aspects of capoeira. Macias said he would someday like to invite his students to meet and train with the mestre, who now lives in Brazil.
“Whenever we want to drink water from the source, we go to Brazil,” Macias said.