Salvador, the fifth largest city in Brazil, is where many traditions of African origin are best preserved: Candomblé, music and capoeira, the martial art/dance for which Brazil is so famous.
While samba was invented in Bahia, the roots of capoeira are less clear but it is certainly an African art form. There are two kinds recognized here, the “Angolan” style and “Capoeira Regional”. Capoeira Angola is dance- like, with deceptive moves, while Capoeira Regional is faster, and more powerful – although both styles overlap.
I first saw this fighting game on the streets of Italy, and I am surprised not to see it performed so publicly in Salvador. I find only one such group, putting on a show for tourists in the Terreiro de Jesus, the entry to Pelourinho, showing off their fluid moves a few meters away from drunken beggars, outdoor cafés and the ladies in traditional Bahian costume selling acarajé, a pancake filled with black-eyed peas and shrimp.
In his basement school behind a gift shop in the center, I find Manoel Nascimento Machado, known as Mestre Nenel, who has been practicing capoeira since he was 15 years old. Now middle-aged, he retains an enviable physique and self-contained bearing well suited to someone who is the son of the late Mestre Bimba, considered the founding father of Capoeira Regional. Nenel now runs an international federation with schools on five continents, and I am lucky to catch him in a break between tours.
While one capoeira historian has told me the lack of public displays or “rodas” is because the city has imposed permits, Mestre Nenel says the reason is there are now so many schools. No one needs to practice outdoors any more. In fact, many say the public exposure pollutes the art, causing it to be about showy moves and acrobatics that are far away from its roots.
Nenel speaks of capoeira as a philosophy of life, almost a brotherhood, a rhythm that is in the blood, typical of Africa. The berimbau, a stringed bow, plays the music that leads the dance, while the songs recall the work songs of African Americans. “It is a complete martial art,” he says. “It is connected to the ancestors and a means of self-discipline. That helps explain its spread around the world.”
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