Jun 20

How I learned to like capoeira songs

When I first got into capoeira, I excitedly looked forward to learning the music. I had heard that capoeira songs represented an important oral tradition, that they were a treasure trove of historical knowledge, philosophy, and wisdom. But when I started looking up lyrics and their translations, I was somewhat disappointed.

Jogo de dentro, jogo de fora / Jogo bonito esse jogo de angola
(Inside game, outside game / This game of angola is a beautiful game)
…well, that’s nice, but nothing terribly profound…

Vai você, vai você? / Dona Maria como vai você?
(How are you, how are you? / Ms. Maria, how are you?)
…nothing earth-shaking there…

Oi sim sim sim, oi não não não / Olha a pisada de Lampião
(Oh yes yes yes, oh no no no / Look at the footprints of Lampião)

The more songs I learned, the more frustrated I became – their messages seemed simplistic, silly, inane, even nonsensical. I just didn't see anything meaningful in a song about a canary that flew away (Xô xô meu canário), a boat that overturned (A canoa virou marinheiro), or butter that spilled (A manteiga derramou). Sure, I'd read about choosing a certain song to comment on the game – "A bananeira caiu" (the banana tree fell) if someone got taken down, or "Dona Alice não me pegue não" (don't grab me, Ms. Alice) if the players were grappling. However, that gave me a mental rather than an experiential understanding of how the songs were used in capoeira, and I remained unimpressed. So I sort of shrugged, accepted the letdown, and moved on. I still made it a priority to learn songs and sing them enthusiastically in the roda; I did see their importance in contributing to the energy, even if I thought their meanings were rather stupid.

Time passed – a few years. In those few years, two things happened that turned my view of the songs around 180 degrees: 1) I learned Portuguese; and 2) I gained more time and experience in capoeira, and particularly in capoeira in Brazil. First of all, knowing the language enabled me to hear and understand the songs much better. And I found that as I played in more and more rodas, I came to see and more truly comprehend – in a sense that I couldn't get from just reading about it – the awesome cleverness of choosing exactly the right song at exactly the right moment. It would be pointless for me to describe here any of the countless examples I've witnessed, because reading about it doesn't do it justice. Capoeira is most meaningful when it's lived and experienced, not examined and studied on paper.

Another thing I realized was the reason why most of the traditional songs only have a few simplistic lines – this allows the song leader freedom to improvise the verses. I've heard some incredible improvisations within "simple" songs – everything from giving a play-by-play commentary on the game to honoring the group's past three generations of mestres. I've heard some improvised verses that made me laugh and others that were so touching I almost cried. But this whole element was totally and completely lost on me before I learned to speak Portuguese.

More experience in capoeira also improved my ability to physically and mentally multitask. In the beginning, I couldn't even clap and watch the game at the same time – much less sing! When I was in the roda, so much was going on at once that I couldn't even pay attention to what song was being sung. But today, I find that the verses "reach" me in the middle of the roda, even when I'm very focused on the game. I can hear it if the lead singer is praising me, instructing me, mocking me, or warning me. It has added a new aspect to my game as I try to modify my play depending on what the song is telling me.

One final change. For my first couple years in capoeira, I compiled song-sheets. My computer had several hundred pages of documents of capoeira songs, and I even experimented with writing songs on index cards and keeping them in a little alphabetized filing-box. However, nowadays I find that I rely much more on my memory and my ability to improvise than on written records of the lyrics. If I hear a new song or hear someone make up a cool new verse, I make a mental note of it but I no longer go write it down. Capoeira music is, after all, an oral tradition… you can bet that the generations of illiterate capoeiristas didn't preserve the tradition of the songs though alphabetized index cards.

Interestingly, it seems that my brain has its own filing system. The songs tend to get clumped into categories in my mind: I've got the "bird songs" (Xô xô meu canário, Pomba voou, Canarinho da Alemanha, Sabiá cantou, Apanha a laranja no chão tico-tico, etc.), the "sailor/sea songs" (Maré maré, Marinheiro só, Saia do mar marinheiro, Beira mar, A canoa virou marinheiro, etc.), the "songs-with-a-woman's-name-in-them" category (Sai sai Catarina, Dona Maria como vai você, Dona Maria do Camboatá, Idalina, etc.)... I even have the category of "ai ai ai songs," which consists of Ai ai Aidê, Ai ai ai ai São Bento me chama, and Ai ai ai ai doutor. It works surprisingly well… and it's much easier to keep track of, as I don't have to worry about losing my filing-box!

So if you're frustrated with the songs because you just don't "get" them or see their point – have patience! Give yourself more time to experience the use of the songs in the roda, and definitely learn Portuguese. These two things, for me, opened up a whole new dimension of capoeira.