"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."
Back in the States, he lived first at a mosque and then in a Sufi dormitory, building up a store of usefully shadowy references. One day, he sat down in a San Francisco coffee shop next to a capoeirista. "It was all history after that," he says. "I was used to doing physical things, but this changed everything."
"It's not just some physical thing to do," my nephew agrees.
"That's right. You gotta hang out with it. You do it till you die. Myself, I'm living the Brazilian experience," Baba observes. "I'm gonna die penniless on a park bench, singing, 'Oh, I miss Bahia.'"
"I did karate, but I didn't like it," my nephew remembers. "It wasn't really me. It was more like the Army. People yelling at you and intimidating you. This is a fluid, artful thing. It's a spiritual thing," he says, trying a new explanation. "I guess I felt crazy and dead, and when I did this, I started to feel things again."
After class, eight or nine disciples gather around Baba to gain what malicia they can from regular conversation.
"Not thievery," says Alfredo Corona, a personal trainer and security guard who's practiced for the past five years. "It's more about getting someone to feel defenseless. Cat and mouse. You get this close and pull back. Also, it's a real good workout. Your butt is the source of all the movement."
Like many of the other people at the table, Alfredo discovered capoeira in Only the Strong, a low-budget film with a familiar story line: badass martial-arts guy reforms incorrigible inner-city kids with self-esteem-building activity -- bad guys defeated, girl acquired, rap music prominently featured.
"That and Tekken 2...."
"It's PlayStation! All martial arts, and Eddie...."
"He's so cool; he's this capoeira guy...."
"I started because of Eddie, too," someone else says.
"It looks slow and easy," says Julie Nutter, who's been coming to Baba's class for only a few weeks. "But it's hard, and there's a lot more to it. To me, it's learning to stop fighting."
"Well, it's dance-like, but it's fight-like. You can take it either way."
"Check it out," another student says. "I keep hearing that the only way to gain malicia is not learning-specific. It just...happens."
Through all of this, Baba just nods.
"I admit, I was looking for self-defense," says a girl named Sprite. "It was not what I expected. It was harder. It took a lot of upper-body strength, and it helped me. I was going through a slight depression, a marriage annulment thing. But now I'm focused. I'm slightly able to do headstands and handstands. And the group are a bunch of enlightened people."
"I used to have a short temper," Laura Jamison, a college student, explains. "Maybe it came from living with an abusive cop? Anyway, now I'm much calmer. It's the best martial art, and I used to be in the kung fu side of things. You size people up; you figure out what they are. When someone confronts me, I can smile. I can use my malicia and think, 'Why are you so mad?"
"We're hooked," says Makai, the guy with the tusk. "It's that simple."
In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.