A Universal Beat

by kangcuzzi

I maintain that one of the world’s most elemental — and beautiful — sounds is that of a beating drum. We’ve all felt our hearts sync to a drumming ensemble, getting faster, getting slower, as our feet tap to a familiarity we didn’t know we had. It’s unsurprising, then, that regardless of language or geography, drums play a fundamental part in the music of cultures all over the world.

Two weeks ago, I joined a capoeira regional group that meets three times a week at the association on my street. For an exchange student like me, possibly one of the most daunting decisions in the world is joining a capoeira family: when everyone seems to be bosom buddies, comfortable and rapid in their exchange of inside jokes (in Portuguese, no less), it’s certainly difficult to squeeze into the in-crowd.

I’ve been fortunate, however, that the members of the group — lovingly called ‘Raizes do Dendê’ — have welcomed me with open arms. If my recent addition to the WhatsApp group (i.e. the paragon of all Brazilian communication) isn’t indicative of my acceptance, then what is?

But I digress. WhatsApp or no WhatsApp, there’s always one thing  in the capoeira roda that makes me feel at home every time, and it is this:

The music. The glorious combination of the atabaque (tall drum), the pandeiro (a sort of tambourine), the berimbaus and the caxixis.

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A useful graphic of the capoeira instruments. (Source: https://s-media-cache.ak0.pinimg.com)

Having spent eight years’ worth of Saturdays playing the janggu and the ggwenggari at Korean percussion class, I can’t help but find endless similarities between the music in the capoeira roda and that of the moon-shaped Samulnori ensemble where I grew up. Obviously, both feature ever-changing repertoires of beats and rhythms that strike up the want to dance. Both are accompanied with song: although capoeira features verbal elements much more frequently than Samulnori, both employ lyrics to transmit stories from the past. Whilst themes of oppression or daily Bahian life are prevalent in capoeira, themes of agriculture and celebration (i.e. thanks for a good harvest) are the norm in Samulnori (or what I’ve learnt of it so far).

“Eu aqui não sou querido, Paraná
Mas na minha terra eu sou, Paraná”

(“I’m not wanted here, Paraná
But in my own land I am, Paraná”)

— from the roda song Paranauê

Most charismatically, however, is the way percussionists engage with their music while they play. My Samulnori teacher always scolded the class of ten year-olds for not being enthusiastic enough with our playing; according to her, looking bored and disinterested with the music would equally dampen the mood of the audience.

Finally, after years of struggling to find said enthusiasm in a room full of tired and moody tweens, I understand what it means to love the music you play — and to express this love uninhibitedly and generously.

When the percussionists in the capoeira roda play their music, the sight is magical: five bodies undulate along with the rattle of the caxixi and jerk at every whip of the berimbau. In our recent roda I was captivated by the lead berimbau player, who played with closed eyes and the most radiant smile. Beside him, our instructor sang the stories of a sailor, a poor boy with no money, and the tales of those who crossed the Atlantic to arrive in Brazil. Each verse was echoed with a phrase that was sung by the entire group, which was instructed to clap along with the instruments.

In anticipation for the annual end-of-year party I also got to learn a traditional folkloric percussion dance called maculelê, which is a dance that tells the tale of a young warrior who defended his tribe against another only with two sticks of wood. Dancing along with my instructor to an insanely quick beat was a flurry of an experience, made all the more saudades-inducing by the internal beat-counting reminiscent of my days performing Korean percussion.

If only I had known earlier how beautiful it is to play as if your entire life force — known in the roda as axé — depended on the music running through your veins. If only I had known that this is the only way traditional, storytelling music should be played, if not to respect the incredible richness of our ancestry than to invoke feelings of closeness with those around you.

Our end-of-year party concluded with a series of speeches delivered by our instructors, who stood, in bright white uniforms, at the front of the roda. After the main speeches had been delivered, Professor Del — a jovial, round professor with a tendency to joke around — asked if I had anything to add.

In the heat of the moment, I was wordless. Flustered yet amused, I simply called out: ‘Obrigada!’ (Thank you!)

At my brevity the other instructors smiled, called my name and gave a series of thumbs up. I had never felt more included in the family than in that moment alone.

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Part of the group after an evening of intense practice!

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