Downtown Rio and Leblon

Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Leblon Beach and Downtown; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cultural Spotlight – Capoeira

Capoeira is a very unique cultural aspect of Brazil and one that while it has its origins elsewhere has become very Brazilian in its customs, history, and usage. With different elements of dance mixed in with parts of martial arts, Capoeira is unlike any other form of movement in the Western Hemisphere. Not only is Capoeira based on dance and martial arts, it is also formed from a foundation of acrobatics and music to accompany the many movements. The amount of exercise involved in becoming a true Capoeira artist means that you will definitely break a sweat while getting physically fit if you intend to practice this unique art form on a daily basis.

Capoeira is known for having its origins in different parts of west Africa but was developed after the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade in the 16th century. After enslaved Africans were first brought to Brazil by the Portuguese settlers, it became a way for the slaves to stay physically fit and strong if they ever decided to flee and run away from their slave masters. If they wanted to collaborate and rebel, they could use their capoeira skills to help defend themselves from possible attack or capture from the slave masters as well.

Capoeira uses the full body and so you can use both your arms, hands, legs, and feet to do a large number of movements. The movements are acrobatic, complex, and fluid and based often off of the music and rhythms that are being played for the dancers. Hands often stay on the ground as inverted kicks are flown in the air. The ginga is the focal point or main focus of any capoeira movement and is usually the beginning of any fluid kick or handstand to come.

The capoeiristas’ are those martial artists or dancers who perform the movements often with other capoeirista while being surrounded by a group of observers who are either playing music or encouraging the capoeiristas on to continue their rhythmic movements to match the other participant. The origin of the word ‘capoeira’ comes from the Tupi language words of ka’a (forest) and pau (round) referring to the low-lying vegetation areas where fugitive African slaves would hide from their masters when they would try to make an escape. Most of the African slaves who started capoeira in Brazil were originally from Angola.

After the end of slavery in Brazil in 1888, the new republic outlawed capoeira throughout the country. If you were caught practicing capoeira anywhere in public, practitioners would be thrown in jail, tortured, or even killed. This prohibition continued throughout most of the 20th century even if it was sometimes tolerated in universities and in private places during times of both democratic and military rule in Brazil. Still though, the Afro-Brazilian communities especially in the Northeast kept capoeira alive during these forbidden times and even renamed capoeira to be called ‘Luta Regional Baiana’ which means the regional fight of Bahia in order so that practitioners could practice their form of capoeira without outside interference.

In the recently enslaved communities of Quilombos who had liberated themselves to be free and self-reliant in parts of Brazil during the 18th and 19th centuries, capoeira became a way of defending themselves in case of war or conflict with Portuguese colonial troops or Brazilian soldiers. By using the martial art to dodge potential attacks and/or captures, the Quilombos were a formidable fighting force who used capoeira to defend their communities and their land at often great cost.

The key to capoeira from my own observations in Brazil is to never stop your movements and to always be thinking of how to dodge, kick, sweep, and even take down your opponent. The ginga movement of being fluid is both an attack and defense mechanism to make sure you are constantly ready to either take your opponent by surprise or to evade their own attack. Most attacks in capoeira are done with leg sweeps, swirling kicks, or knee strikes but can also involve the elbow or head. However, most forms of capoeira today are done as simulations and to train for a game or a competition rather than war or actual combat.

To the public who view capoeira in a non-violent lens, these presentations in the roda or circle are just for show and involve games of aerial acrobatics rather than being more about striking or deflecting physical attacks. The circle involves musical instruments specifically for the game between capoeiristas and there is singing, and dancing involved with everyone in the circle participating at some point. Capoeira instruments include the berimbau, which can be played from very slow to very fast depending upon the rhythms requested as well as other instruments such as pandeiros, atabaques, agogo, and the ganza. The row of musicians in the roda (circle) is called a ‘bateria’ and the touch of the berimbau instrument in particular fuels the speed, aggressiveness, or style of the capoeira game.

Similar to Carnaval and Feijoada, Capoeira is one of Brazil’s most famous and impressive exports to the rest of the world. Every year, thousands of tourists come from around the world including serious non-Brazilian practitioners travel to different parts of Brazil to practice its most famous martial art. The capoeira masters (mestres) often teach the Portuguese language in addition to the movements of capoeira so the foreign student can really immerse themselves in the cultural background and history of this traditional martial art. The capoeira demonstrations are perhaps more acrobatic than physical when in public but in private, you would have to guess that it is much more intense and much more serious in terms of displaying physical prowess than what is shown to the public.

After the 1970s, this unique part of Brazilian culture was on its way to not only being accepted by the people but being embraced and taught to the next generations. A powerful way of resolving conflict, promoting social cohesion, and learning about physical fitness, capoeira is great at bringing the community together in a positive way while showing how important it is to recognize and value past traditions. From the roots of West Africa to groups of escaped Afro-Brazilian slaves whose cultural practices were almost extinguished over the centuries due to subjugation, maltreatment, and neglect, capoeira like their rights to human freedom and basic dignity made a powerful comeback which is still being fought for and advanced to this day.

Cultural Spotlight – Carnaval

No one country does the festivities of ‘carnaval’ quite like Brazil. A festival that is just more than ‘Fat Tuesday’, it has become more than a month of celebrations beginning in early February and ending in early March even after ‘Ash Wednesday’ has passed by. The word ‘carnaval’ or ‘carnival’ comes from the Latin word ‘carnelevare’, which means to remove or to raise meat signifying how Roman Catholics would give up meat or poultry during the 40-day period of Lent before the Easter holiday. Because of the significance of Lent and not just for giving up meat but for other earthly pleasures as well, ‘Carnaval’ is a chance to enjoy some of those pleasures before the time of Lent and to revel in both culinary and cultural traditions.

Nowhere are these cultural traditions more proudly represented than in Brazil where the whole country has some form of celebration or observation of the Carnaval holiday. From the state of Pernambuco in the North to Bahia in the Northeast all the way down the Brazilian coastline to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, each year there is an informal competition to see which city can put on the best Carnaval and whose parades are the biggest.

Each city is different regarding how they celebrate Carnaval in Brazil but there are some similarities such as having huge street parades where crowds can dance and march to the bands and drum groups assembled as they go through the city. There are a huge variety of costumes, music styles represented but the most common one would have to be ‘Samba.’ In Brazil, Afro-Brazilian culture is heavily apart of Carnaval celebrations from the music being played to the design of the costumes. There are a number of variations of samba represented and they are all represented in the popular ‘samba schools.’

These small groups of performers sometimes prepare for the whole year before carnaval begins and are competing against each other in the ‘Sambadrome’, which are huge parade grounds and spectator events where these groups are being judged based on a number of factors against other schools. The biggest Sambadromes are in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador along with Sao Paulo and these competitions take places over a period of four nights at the height of the carnaval celebrations. Not only are these groups being judged on their music style and quality but also their coordination, their rhythm, the theme of their performance, and the costumes, which can be quite elaborate and also quite expensive.

While there are different types of samba music involved, there are also lesser known music styles that are represented in Brazilian carnaval. They include ‘Frevo’, which is originally from Recife and Olinda in the state of Pernambuco and ‘Axe’, which is originally from Salvador in the Bahia state which combines different popular Afro-Caribbean music genres together such as calypso, marcha, and reggae. All of these popular music types mentioned have their roots in African cultures and diaspora influences.

In the 19th century, it was quite difficult for Afro-Brazilians to dance, sing, or even parade through the streets of Brazilian cities during Carnaval to express their cultural heritage but today, these forms of song and dance are the heart of the Carnaval celebrations. To put it simply, you cannot have carnaval without samba or costumes or drumlines. In a way, Carnaval is not just a celebration of indulgence and pleasure but of expressing your culture and your heritage. I found Brazilian carnaval to be also about celebrating the diversity and unity of the country itself and how that can bring people together despite past historical injustices.

In order to celebrate Carnaval in Brazil, one does not have to go to a Sambadrome or to march in a formal parade or even wear an elaborate costume. You do have to sing, dance, and even drink or eat a little more than you normally would. The easiest way to celebrate especially as a foreign visitor is to check out some of the ‘blocos’ or block parties. They take place each and every day during Carnaval in different neighborhoods at different times. Each ‘bloco’ has different themes ranging from a celebration of ‘The Beatles’ to ‘R&B and hip hop.’ The blocos can also have ‘electric trios’ which are large trucks with huge sound systems where musicians on top of them sing famous samba or forro tunes to the crowd who often sing along with them as they cruise down an informal parade route.

These ‘electric trio’ trucks or floats can also include drum line groups or instrumental bands who walk down the parade route with these musicians. Each bloco has supporters who have specific shirts or costumes on to represent the theme of the block party as well. The trio truck or float is another symbol of Carnaval in Brazil similar to the block parties themselves, which can last from early in the morning until late at night.

While there is endless debate about where to go to celebrate Carnaval in Brazil, my hunch is that you won’t be disappointed if you go to either Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, or Recife. The great thing about Brazilian carnaval is each city is likely to have a different feel to it as well as different types of music as well as different kinds of blocos represented. Rio de Janeiro’s carnaval is the largest in the world but you may want to go with the carnaval in Salvador to see unique forms of samba and other music styles represented. If you want a somewhat more subdued carnaval experience, going to Sao Paulo may be what you’re looking for.

Carnaval in Brazil is not just about coastal cities as there are celebrations that are lower key and smaller in the state of Minas Gerais, located in the interior as well as in smaller cities such as Manaus, Porto Alegre, and Florianopolis. This month-long celebration has something for everyone and while I have celebrated carnaval before a few years ago in Colombia, I have never seen such a unifying event that brings a whole country together as it does in Brazil. If you are expecting to see a lot of tourist sites and enjoy some museums here, you may want to wait until after Carnaval to do just that. Instead, bring your best costume, study up on your Samba moves, and get ready to buy those tickets way in advance if you want to see the Sambadrome in all of its glory when you visit.

Experiencing Carnaval in Brazil is a really unique experience and opportunity that I would recommend to everybody who enjoys dancing, singing, listening to good music, and experience one of the most joyous celebrations in the world.