By Joel Warner
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By William Breathes
Baba prefers to materialize. While waiting for him to do so, I look at my watch, then look up -- only to discover that he's gotten into the room somehow and is now waiting on me.
"So, let's talk about my life," he says. "I'll give you the truth, but I'll pick and choose. I'll give you the life of a malandro."
"Malandro" means "thief" in Portuguese. But in the language of capoeira, the Brazilian dance/martial arts/art form, it connotes a revered teacher -- not a thief so much as a charismatic Robin Hood character, a capoeirista who can see what's coming in time to either attack or avoid. It behooves Baba to sound coolly mysterious, because his students expect no less. If they're to consider this man their Baba, he'd better be the big dog, a veteran mestre with twenty years in capoeira and lots of malicia at his command.
"Malicia, as opposed to strength," Baba explains. "It means malice, yeah, but it also means cunning. Capoeira is non-confrontational. We teach people what they don't have to do -- big kicks, for instance. To check things out, to know what's going to happen. For that, you need malicia."
Over the past year, my nineteen-year-old nephew has spent more and more time at Baba's capoeira classes, which are held at the Mercury Cafe. His body has become wiry and strong; he stands around a lot -- on his hands. Last summer he went to Brazil and came back full of wisdom from the old mestres. "Capoeira," he'll say sagely, "is everything the mouth eats."
I don't know what that means, and what I know about the malice thing troubles me a little. In order to understand more, I will have to give capoeira a try -- and that troubles me a lot.
"New moves are made up; we adapt on the spot," Baba says, reassuring me not at all. "There is no structure. It doesn't fit into society. It's more of a lifestyle than a martial art. There's definitely no six-weeks-to-self-defense stuff going on."
Class starts with the genga, a simple movement that gets more complicated the more you know about it, and depends on individual flourishes to succeed. It embarrasses me just the way a modern-dance teacher does when she says, "Let's all just close our eyes and let the movements flow naturally!" Fortunately, I soon become too sweaty and gaspy to care. The African-drum soundtrack is very loud, and at one point I'm saved from total collapse by a young man with a tusk in his nose who helps me complete a sort of one-armed push-up from hell. Yet capoeira manages to be meditative even as it kicks your ass. How this works is beyond me. Malicia, maybe?
During the last half hour, the students form a small circle. Baba plays the berimbau, a one-stringed gourd instrument, with a bow, and pairs take turns "playing" inside the circle, a process that looks like fighting but almost never involves physical contact. To keep them going, we sing capoeira songs in Brazilian Portuguese. Later, I find out that their meanings range widely -- from "Hey, come and play" to petitions to various gods to "Ha! You'll be afraid of me even when you're dead!" My nephew, whose past few years have been troubled, leads the singing in a cracked yet strong voice.
No one knows where capoeira got started. It's thought to have roots among African slaves in the Bahia province of Brazil; it was remarked upon, in print, as early as the late eighteenth century. One hundred years later, it had become popular enough, and threatening enough, to be declared illegal in Brazil. Naturally, this only made capoeira stronger. Capoeiristas banded together in Mafia-like brotherhoods, private militias designed to rescue the little guy from government thugs.
In recent years, capoeira has come up from the underworld and into the public eye. If you go to Brazil, you'll see hundreds of homeless children who survive by performing it for tips. Capoeira schools have opened all over the world -- especially in the United States, where women are as likely to play as men, a total departure from the Brazilian norm. Most well-known teachers adhere to the regional school -- a rigidly codified system of flashy kicks and flips that can be learned in the same way as karate, with its belts and kadas. Baba and his students, on the other hand, consider themselves angoleros: capoeiristas who practice a much older, slower, more improvisational method. Angoleros describe their sport as part of an overall philosophy.
"I began martial arts when I was eight," says the 42-year-old mestre, who was born and raised in New Orleans. "I was into judo and boxing, especially, but I hated it, because it hurt. I was waiting for something."
At sixteen, Baba --who also goes by the name Usamah Zaid -- joined the Army. "I didn't see much more for my future," he admits. Sent to Korea as a combat-arms specialist, he learned kung fu from a local master and plotted -- "as a malandro would" -- to get out. "Anything," he remembers, "to keep from walking around with that rifle."