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Capoeira Angola Instructor James Simmons on the Art of Afro-Brazilian Dance-Fighting: An interview

James M. Simmons is talking about Capoeira Angola, a mesmerizing Afro-Brazilian martial art that fuses dance, acrobatics, music, and fighting. “Capoeira is a lifestyle,” he explains, “it’s about honor and responsibility.” Though this may sound a lot like what you’d expect to hear about the martial arts of the Far East, Capoeira Angola is very, very different. It stems from the ancient traditions of wrestling, dance-fighting, and warfare native to most African cultures, and it has a fascinating heritage that is both incredibly dangerous and very beautiful.

"Jogar Capoëra - Danse de la guerre" (1835) by Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802 — 1858)
"Jogar Capoëra - Danse de la guerre" (1835) by Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802 — 1858)

The art form emerged in Brazil at the beginning of the 16th century. Developed by enslaved Africans primarily from Angola, capoeira was a way of practicing wrestling and fighting without arousing their captor’s fear or suspicion. Because it was masked as play, but practiced as a form of combat, trickery became a natural part of the game, where each capoeirista aims to deceive their opponent by employing misdirection and evasion. Involving flowing movement, slap-boxing, headbutts and inverted kicks, Capoeira Angola evolved into a legitimate martial art.

But it’s also a spiritual practice that cultivates the capoeiristas’ sense of tradition, culture, and pride. Rich in philosophy and spirituality, capoeiristas use Capoeira Angola to connect with their ancestors and draw strength, inspiration, and guidance from their collective experiences by making contact with the ground using their hands. Not only do they harvest power from the Earth, they harvest the expertise and wisdom of the great fighters that came before them. Once the slave traders finally realized the power of capoeira, the martial art was promptly outlawed.

Painting of Illegal Fighting in Brazil (1824) by Augustus Earle (1793 — 1838)
Painting of Illegal Fighting in Brazil (1824) by Augustus Earle (1793 — 1838)

By the 1920s, the laws prohibiting the practice of capoeira were lifted and its practice began to spread around the world by the 1970s. One of the first capoeiristas to gain international attention was Mestre Pastinha (1889 — 1981) who, in 1941, opened the first Capoeira Angola School, The Academia De Capoeira Angola. “My Mestre, Mestre João Grande, was taught by Mestre Pastinha,” proudly states Simmons,” he is one of the two most prominent teachers of capoeira, the other being Mestre Bimba (1899 —1974).”

Since the 1970s, the art form has become an international sensation. And, as of 2014, capoeira was granted a special protected status as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. This is significant, since an art form that was once illegal is now a protected legacy that will endure for ages to come. ARTpublika Magazine spoke to James M. Simmons to learn about the impressive art and history of Capoeira Angola.

How did you find out about Capoeira Angola?

Well, I am a little on the older side. So, I first saw capoeira in 1975, when I was in college. I was in a class, and a filmmaker came to show us his film. Within the film there was a scene [that showed] capoeira. I was studying martial arts informally, and it really intrigued me because I had never seen a so-called black martial art before. I was very happy to see that, and started to look for it at that point.

So, you were in your late teens or early 20s? Also, what do you mean when you say you were “studying martial arts informally”?

I was about 19. Well, my father used to box and he would show me stuff — and my grandfather was a boxer. It’s funny, because once I officially started learning capoeira, a lot of the stuff my father taught me was part of the art.

Back in 1975, when you first saw capoeira in the film, what made you want to research it further?

The beauty of the movement, the dance-like quality of the training, and the games. I was fortunate enough to study other martial arts informally before I got into capoeira and I could immediately adapt what I knew to the art.

My Mestre’s Mestre, who is famous in the world of capoeira, Mestre Pastinha, is credited with being the Guardian of Capoeira Angola. He said: “Capoeira is everything the mouth eats.” So, you can come into capoeira and discover that you already know certain things and that you can apply them. It’s a very flexible and traditional art; things are done a certain way, but you can also bring your uniqueness to the art.

When you say uniqueness, what do you mean by that?

Almost everything. Some things are standard in Capoeira Angola — there are some very basic moves. Think of primary colors: there’s magenta, cyan, yellow, and black. With these, you can make the other colors. Capoeira is like that. It’s an extremely flexible art, it develops mental flexibility, and the difference between the game part and the fight part of capoeira is also very flexible.

Capoeira is a mix of dance, acrobatics and music. Can you explain the relationship between them?

Most ancient African martial arts forms, like Nubian wrestling, have a wrestling art that incorporates dance in their training within them. Even now, if you can see wrestlers from Senegal, Nigeria, and Sudan, they will train with dance-like moves.

And then you have songs that can convey information. During the games, the songs can touch on history or note events.

My mother is a black woman from Georgia, and so I was exposed to a lot of music and learned a lot of songs when I was a kid, like work songs and prison songs. So, in some of those songs, the rhythms, the manner of speaking, and the call and response found in capoeira are almost identical.

Where can people learn more about Capoeira Angola?

There is an excellent book, Fighting for Honor (2008) by Professor Desch-Obi. It covers the origins of African fighting style in the western hemisphere. I think the book should be more popular, but it’s written in a very academic manner.

In Capoeira Angola, the music is played on traditional instruments to accompany the capoeiristas and set the rhythm, style of play, and energy of a game. Can you explain the relationship between the music and the movement?

This is my own interpretation of what I learned, but when someone is singing a song in capoeira, it’s usually related to something that’s going on in the game or the roda (the circle). So you can sweep someone's legs and they’ll fall down, because the song that’s playing is about a tree falling: My machete struck low, the banana tree fell, the machete struck low, the banana tree fell, fall, fall, banana tree, the banana tree fell...

So, you got interested in capoeira when you were 19 years old, what happened next?

Capoeira, in general, was a very difficult thing to find. I didn’t even know about Capoeira Angola until later — until there were books available for me to read. So, I couldn’t find it. Finally, in 1983, I called a Brazilian embassy and they gave me a number. I went to a class at UCLA, but it was difficult to get to, and it wasn’t the kind of class I wanted, because I was used to very hard martial arts. So, I continued to study martial arts and look for capoeira at the same time. Eventually, Mestre João Grande was in town and I ran into one of his workshops. I’ve been with him ever since 2002.

What made you realize that he was the person you wanted to teach you?

I had a CD by Grupo Capoeira Angola Pelourinho (GCAP), which was run by Mestre Moraes, an exquisite Grammy-nominated songwriter. Mestre João Grande was one of the featured singers. When Mestre João Grande sang I had a physical reaction; his voice and music were so powerful! That’s what I was looking for. I found that he was at the top of the game, one of the best teachers and songwriters around, and when I saw him in person at the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola, Los Angeles, California, I joined the school. As for my personal history, that’s where I consider my training in Capoeira Angola to have started.

How did you start teaching?

I left the Center in Los Angeles and was with another group where we didn’t teach class, but put on conferences and hosted roda, where people from different schools would come together and play. We invited Mestre João Grande to come out and he told me to start teaching. He didn’t ask me, he just kind of told me to start.

My class is all old people. Our oldest is 67 or 68 and the youngest regular student is probably about 35, but we have students as young as 7 or 8. It’s different from what people imagine a traditional Eastern Martial Arts class would be; you’re not standing in formation, you have to bow, and you don’t have someone talking to you for long amounts of time. You have to relax.

Now, a lot of people ask about what they should do to prepare for class. Well, just open the door and walk in. They think they need to do some kind of exercise to start. But you can start anywhere and you go at your own speed. People tend to be very self-motivated, since the teaching is motivation enough. Basically, I answer questions.

So, we start off by learning basic moves: the ginga (rocking step), which is the focal point of the martial art; or the negativa, which is used to negate an incoming attack by lowering the body to the ground on the one side or the other. And then we learn sequences, or how to tie the moves together.

We play Capoeira Angola music throughout the class, and during the last half hour of class we take instruments — ones we’ve purchased or made ourselves — and learn how to play the music and learn the songs.

I really started understanding Capoeira Angola by learning and understanding the songs; there are a lot of illusions to nature, to history, and to proper conduct. There is so much within the songs, and I became a repository of songs.

Is there any song in particular that you have students learn?

Well, one of the first songs that you learn is “Sim Sim Sim, Não Não Não.” You can go to any roda anywhere in the world and sing it with others, it’s so fundamental.

There seems to be a lot of hand usage for balance and stability in capoeira, is that perception correct?

Mestre Bimba said that capoeiristas should have contact with the ground, since the earth is the force. There are songs that talk about the force and how power comes from the ground. A headbutt can be very powerful if done properly, when the capoeirista uses the power of the Earth.

Capoeiristas stabilize themselves using the hands and use the ground as a launchpad and springboard. There’s a Congo proverb that states: The hands are to build, the feet to destroy. There’s also a belief in capoeira that when your hands are on the ground, you’re in contact with your ancestors. So, when you’re on your hands, your ancestors are on their hands only on the other side of the plains. The ground is the border between them and you.

Is there anything you want to share that was not addressed?

I’m an attorney and university professor, and I use capoeira for so much outside of playing capoeira. Even when I’m in court, I use the principles of capoeira. Much like how people study the Book of Five Rings (1643) by Miyamoto Musashi (1584 — 1645) or The Art of War (5th century BC) by Sun Tzu (544 BC —496 BC), I use the principles that I learned from Capoeira Angola in the courtroom and in dealing with things on the streets, because there are times when certain principles prove to be useful in daily life when you have to understand how to deal with situations.

Note* All images are either used with permission or are available in the public domain or for Fair Use.


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