- The Hidden History of Capoeira: A Collision of Cultures in the Brazilian Battle Dance
In The Hidden History of Capoeira: A Collision of Cultures in the Brazilian Battle Dance, Maya Talmon-Chvaicer proposes to recuperate narratives of capoeira "that have been repressed and excluded from the history books" (3). Her effort to reinsert marginal narratives into the capoeira scholarship is fueled by the belief that the current literature relies too heavily on the point of view of the Brazilian elite, and that "few authors have attempted to demonstrate the connection between Brazilian capoeira and African cultures" (3). Talmon-Chvaicer divides each chapter in two parts: the first part recounts capoeira history from a Euro-Brazilian (which she terms Catholic Portuguese) point of view, while the second part reveals the "hidden" aspects of capoeira, often through symbolic correlations between capoeira and Africa.
Drawing primarily on police records of arrests for practicing capoeira in nineteenth century Rio de Janeiro, Talmon-Chvaicer tells the story of persecution of capoeira in colonial Brazil, making available to English-speaking readers some of the data that until now was only available in Portuguese, mainly through the groundbreaking work of Carlos Eugênio Líbano Soares, whom Talmon-Chvaicer cites extensively. Since "the slaves left no written record to shed light on their beliefs and ideas," (26) Talmon-Chvaicer relies on nineteenth-century travelogues and paintings and on her interviews with capoeira practitioners as well as her analyses of contemporary capoeira song lyrics. Although [End Page 174] Talmon-Chvaicer does allude to her field observations and her interviews with mestres and capoeira practitioners throughout the book, this potentially valuable resource in her quest for the "hidden" meanings of capoeira goes largely underused, and she focuses her search for answers about the past primarily in the past.
Perhaps by trying to cover so much ground (two centuries of capoeira history, both official and apocryphal, in 237 pages), Talmon-Chvaicer's work lacks focus. The symbolic connections between Africa and Brazil, however interesting, begin to read like trivia. In chapter three she draws an interesting connection between the silk scarves worn by nineteenth-century capoeira practitioners for protection and the Kongolese practice of binding the body. However, after the revelation of a hidden secret, Talmon-Chvaicer goes on to the next proposed correlation between capoeira practice and African custom, at the expense of indepth analysis. Does she consider these continuities to be survivals, retentions, reinterpretations, syncretic processes, embodied memory?
When Talmon-Chvaicer does venture into analysis, however, she does so by imposing problematic outside categories onto capoeira practice, despite her overarching goal of offering a truly emic perspective by revealing capoeira's "secrets." In her analysis of capoeira's spirituality, Talmon-Chvaicer refers to the sung praise that precedes the first game in a roda as "prayer" and refers to the roda as a "ritual," without, however, problematizing the concepts of prayer or ritual or explaining why capoeira would be considered a ritual. Talmon-Chvaicer expresses her frustration with informants who did not know how to answer her questions, or even outright refused to answer them (27;110;142). Rather than attempts to conceal secrets, however, these reactions might have been instead a result of confusion caused by the use of categories such as dance, battle, prayer and ritual—categories not commonly used by capoeira practitioners.
Although Talmon-Chvaicer's search for previously excluded narratives as alternatives to histories based on hegemonic archives is a worthwhile endeavor, her framing of these alternative narratives as "hidden histories"—which she sets out to "reveal"—presumes a kind of history that can be objectively "discovered" rather than considering histories, in the plural, as narratives continuously constructed and revised in the present. Her correlations between capoeira and Africa, however intriguing, follow problematic models of passive retention and syncretic accommodation. Furthermore, by placing so little emphasis on capoeira as a contemporary, living, embodied practice, Talmon-Chvaicer misses an opportunity to find her answers about the past in the present.