By Njoli Brown
An Interview with Contramestre Kamau Blakeney of the International Capoeira Angola Foundation – Philadelphia
Capoeira has become more and more popular worldwide over the past couple of decades and the U.S., as one of the first recipients of that legacy outside of Brazil, has a developed a pretty profound history and community of its own. It’s been a question that’s come to me and one that I’ve pondered many times, “what is it about this practice that affects us so deeply?”
Now, I can’t even say how long it’s been that I’ve know Kamau. I mean, we’ve both been running these circles together for at least 15 years. But I was glad to finally have a chance to sit down and ask him some questions after having put my thoughts together. Kamau, one of the founders of FICA Philadelphia in 1998, was recently promoted to contramestre, but long before that he was holding the role of story keeper.
CMK: So what’s up man?
Nj: Nah, man. I just wanted to get at you and see where you were in your thought process nowadays. I was thinking just the other day that I didn’t know how you came to capoeira or how you came up in it. Not knowing how you got exposed or came into contact with Mestre Cobra 1 Mansa.
CMK: Ha, well you know, stuff just gets kinda, kinda blurry. I don’t know if it’s just me. Maybe I’m just kind of blurry now, just older and blurry. I don’t know, but Atlanta, that was a real strong channeling point or centering point for me.
Nj: Wait, you were down in Atlanta?
CMK: Yeah man, yeah ’cause you know I was in undergrad down there at Morehouse and before I finished I was training a style, well it was kind of a combination of styles, with a group of brothers called Kupugani N’gumi. They were some older brothers and they had put together something almost like a little monastery where they had several disciplines and they all rotated and trained together. Some kats were focused more on the internal martial arts like Qi Gong and Tai Chi and breath work and you had some other guys who were really strong on bone conditioning and that kind of thing.
I remember this one elder who used to wear these big brass ankhs around his wrists and he would flip them around and they would hit on top of his hands and he would use that for conditioning. He had two for his legs that he would swing around in kicks and they would swing back to hit the shins. I mean, this dude, man, rough dudes. Old guys, 50 and up, just rough. I don’t know if you’d call it a system or what but it was like, peace in one breath and they could take your life in the next.
There was another kat who I was training under at the time , his family was part of one of the old black circuses. So in the context of what they were doing they used a lot of acrobatics in their martial arts. The family name was Vita I think and his sons, they used to do a lot of these balancing routines. Like man on top of man-high, on top of another man-high, going like three or four guys up. So, you know, the bigger the son, the lower the position, hahaha.
Nj: Right, right, haha.
CMK: So you know you got this big linebacker son on the bottom, mad cock-diesel, thick necked dude. One diesel on top of the next until you get that last one on top balanced either hand on top of the head or feet on shoulders. I mean these guys are like superheroes, and all the sons are talented.
Nj: Dude, we are suckers! Why are we not doing that in Capoeira? Hahaha.
CMK: That’s what I’m sayin’! But the thing was, when you talk about it and get into how did I first get interested in some Capoeira, those were the first dudes that had me doing handstands.
Nj: Ah, okay…
CMK: The thing was though, these guys had that training that was all about going from that two hands to one supporting the balance. So it was from them that I learned the balance line from one hand to one opposite leg. I was still quite new so I wasn’t doing it in the middle of the floor but I have some photos from back in the day. some quote/unquote “selfies.”
Nj: Back before they even had “selfies…”
CMK: Yeah, man. I’d have the bulb in one hand, other hand on the ground, upside down, and take these old black and whites. Dreads down on the floor and all that.
But you know, really, that period was my first quality time with martial arts. That’s what really got me started. 6am trainings out in the forest, doing a lot of Tai Chi and a lot of breathing work, a lot of discipline work. Some of the styles were very much like Kung Fu but they focused in a way that felt related back to the continent of Africa. A lot of the styles they were using had these similar constructs but somehow they were centered around animals found in Africa.
Kamau’s daughter, N’daia, comes into the room and crawls up onto his lap. She’s got this winning smile and radiates this special kind of sincere magic. It’s got some old soul and young soul tied up in it. She’s coming in from playing out in the most recent Northeast snowstorm. Father and daughter have this special kind of connectedness that’s so far past language, it’s a pleasure just to observe it for a moment and remember why Kamau sometimes gets the nickname, AngolaBear.
CMK: Now, around ’94 capoeira was starting to kick off in Atlanta and I met Mestre Cobrinha and was seeing the capoeira because Jamie (Brown) 2 was down in Atlanta gettin’ it in.
Nj: Was Jamie down with Mestre Cobrinha in the beginning?
CMK: Yeah, Jamie knew Cobrinha because of his relationship with Themba (Mestre Cobra Mansa’s 1st contra mestre in the U.S.) from their time playing Capoeira Regional. Now, I don’t know about the transition for Jamie but at that point Themba was already a contra mestre or mestre in Regional. I think Jamie might have known Cobrinha from his time out in Cali and somehow by the time he came back out east he had decided to train Angola.
He built a really strong base out in Atlanta and, you know, it was definitely that really African centered model. It was clearly a closed type of situation. In some ways really similar to the thing we had when we started out in Philly out at Ausar Auset 3. I mean, really, the same thing was going on in DC. Things were different then.
Nj: And when you say closed off, meaning, the focus was much more afro-centric and the people who were getting involved with it were those who were more down with a deep kind of African or African-American activism?
CMK: Right, right, and you know, that’s what it was. I remember they used to train at this one facility they had that was set up for parties and social gatherings, had this large stage and there’d be like twenty kats in there and they’d be training strong. I mean, they weren’t doin’ any bobo movements either. You know, they were on their macacos 4, armadas 5, bananeiras 6, all that. I mean the movements, they were looking crazy strong. The singing was beautiful and strong, although they did have a lot of challenges with staying on beat and that kind of thing and, also, that Brazilian Portuguese. You know, it was coming outta that element of “Why do I need to speak Portuguese? What’s the point?” which has, at times, had a contingent particularly among African-Americans in the game.
But, you know, my father had passed in ’95 and I had to move back up to Philly right away. And at that time, I wasn’t looking for Capoeira specifically but I was looking to reconnect with the community, ’cause the African activist community in Atlanta was extremely strong.
Nj: So, you were involved with Capoeira down in Atlanta all the way until you moved back up to Philly.
CMK: No, no, not really. I just found out about it down there. Because I was down there doing photography. I was dancing and all of that. Some of the guys who were dancing were getting into that Capoeira thing on a more “open background” tip. You know, you’d see them doing there thing and then do that… what’s that movement called? That handstand movement. That dancey, where they go up on one hand and kick their legs over to one side like…
Nj: Oh… Amazonas.
CMK: Yeah, yeah, you’d see people rockin’ that and it’d be like “Aww, what you doin’?” “Aww, you don’t know nothin’ about this.” Hahaha.
Nj: Hahaha, yeah yeah yeah.
CMK: Yeah, man, a couple of dudes would be out there battling and throw in some Capoeira moves and then be back to dancing and everybody’d be like “Wooah! What what!”
I’ll never forget this kat I used to go to school with. He was a poet, this kat, Saul. He’s like a legend in Brooklyn now, this kat, Saul Williams.
Nj: Yeah, man. I know Saul Williams from a whole bunch of time he used to spend out in the Northwest. He’s friends with my boy, Ezekiel.
CMK: Yeah, we went to undergrad together and I’ll never forget, I’d been away for a little while up in Philly and hadn’t seen him in a minute, came back down to Atlanta and he and I were at this club and he was like “Yeah, wassup, what you know about this?” and he did some movement and, you know, I’d been training at Ausar Auset for a little while. So, we’re out there in the middle of the dance floor doing our thing and I think I caught him with a little rasteira or something and he was like “ooooh…!”
Nj: Right right right
CMK: But I mean, this was way back in the beginnings of everything. You know, those good times. So, but really, I didn’t get involved with the Capoeira scene down in Atlanta ’til I’d been playing for a while up in Philly and had come back down south on some visits, ’cause Atlanta was really like my second home, especially post high school and I missed it terribly.
Nj: But let me take you back to Philly for a minute. So, you’d headed back up there after your father passed and…
CMK: Yeah, and actually Akin was the first kat I saw doing Capoeira up there, and that was at Ausar Auset. He was actually just out there by himself. You know Uraua had been (and is still) the head of Ausar Auset in Philly and had also been a student of Joao Grande for a while. So, he was teaching a class in Philly. I had just come by, not even for Capoeira, but because there was an Ausar Auset in Atlanta and I wanted some good vegetarian food, and the one in Atlanta was a kind of market as well.
Meanwhile, I just see this dude in the back practicing with a chair. He’s doing his negativas 7 and roles 8, you know, and it was Akin. So, I was like “yo, what you doin’?” But you know Akin, tryin’ to be all “secret squirrel,” humble-style. He was like “yeah, there’s supposed to be class but there’s no class happening, so I’m just doing my thing.” Anyway, I just kept bothering him about it and he told me about class and I was there, next time they had class, probably a week later. And that’s how I started, sometime late that year in ’95.
Nj: And so he was already connected up with Mestre Cobra Mansa? And was that how you made that connection with him?
CMK: We didn’t really make that connection with Cobrinha ’til about, maybe, a year later, ’96 or ’97.
Nj: Ah, okay. So how was that? How did that happen?
CMK: That happened because originally we were getting support from Mestre Joao Grande. Because, again, Olua had been a student of his. So, Olua would bring or invite down Joao Grande and some of his older students, like Gordon and Eric and some of those guys and they would come do workshops with us. It was a good relationship but there were two main challenges: Mestre was already starting to feel his age a little bit, feeling the cold weather, the coldness of New York and all of that, so he didn’t really like travelling that much or travelling that often. Also, the cost was expensive. It was majorly those two things and that slowed our progress.
Also, as capoeira started getting more momentum in DC and in New York, it started to open the door for more people. And, by more people, I mean more non-Africans and I think at Ausar Auset they were progressively becoming more uncomfortable with that kind of open door policy because they were wanting to maintain a more corpo fechado 9, espaco fechado 10 type of vibe. Opening up that door, politically, it was just a lot for them to deal with combined with the fact that Africans here in the states didn’t have the same sense of what it meant to be black or African in Brazil. And the Brazilian mestres were approaching things from a perspective that was relevant to their own experience.
Nj: So you’re saying it was an unfamiliar kind of complexity, not more or less, but… unfamiliar
CMK: Right, and those complexities around race and culture, they began to bump heads, particularly through the late ’90s and early 2000s. Anyway, Uraua had other responsibilities which left us to cultivate the group he had started and around this same time Cobrinha came in.
I don’t even know how this happened but somehow we were informed there was an event going on, like when Cobrinha was first starting up FICA (Fundacao International de Capoeira Angola). They had an international event, this was ’96, in DC.
Nj: So this was FICA and not GCAP (Grupo Capoeira Angola Pelourinho)
CMK: Nah, this was FICA. By this time it was FICA, ’cause that severing I think happened during the year before in ’95 or ’94.
Truth be told, at that point I was pretty oblivious to all that. I mean, my portuguese was on some old O sim sim sim, O nao nao nao type joint.
Nj: Right, haha
CMK: I got Camujere under my belt and I’m just tryin’ to make a dollar outta 15 cents, haha. I barely had my first berimbau 11 by this event. So, and you know, I’m crackin’ up right now because our classic joke was… well… you know Jamal?
CMK: Yeah, we were in DC for tht first workshop/conference thing, walking up New York Ave., trying to find Howard (University) and we saw this dude, this whino, and we’re walkin and I’ve got my berimbau. I think I got it from Mestre Themba and it wasn’t in the best of shape. I mean, I got it for like $40 and it was playable, it just had some small cracks, but I mean, I could barely arm it. But we were walking with ’em like walking sticks, had the cabaca 12 in my bag, and we kinda startled this whino dude and he jumped up “Yo! Hold up! What y’all doin’, Jesus and Moses?” Hahaha!
CMK: Ask Jamal when you see him next time and see if he doesn’t just crack up. It was classic. And, you know, we looked at each other, ’cause at that time the events were in the summer, like June… July. So, you know, we both had our sandals on, some canvas bags, the dreadlocks…
Nj: Yeah, you were comin’ on some old Good Times: Black Jesus type joint.
CMK: Anyway, ’96 was the first event that I went to and it changed my life, clearly.
There were a lot of mestres here. A lot of kats who you don’t see around much. I remember seeing (Mestre) Angolinha and he was just runnin’ through people. He was being his kind of crazy self and rollin’ that whole “oh, you’re too good for me. I don’t really know what I’m doin'” thing and then just smashin’ kats up. Then, my man (Mestre) Rosalvo, I’ve only seen that dude maybe once or twice, I remember seeing him play and, I barely knew Mestre Cobrinha, but thought that he played just like him. Mestre Braga was there and a lot of other hard core dudes. This might have been the first big event that they did, if I’m not mistaken. I’m not sure but I remember this one was high powered.
Nj: So, that was a big turning point for you.
CMK: Yeah, I just made a commitment to see Cobrinha more, to have him see my face and decided to connect with FICA Bahia. That was huge in terms of flipping the switch on and having me deal with Brazilian Portuguese. When I got down there in ’97 there wasn’t aaaanybody! I mean, very few foreigners and no English, like none, and it was hot! Ridiculous! They didn’t have the space that they have now. They were actually at the place that N’daia goes during the summers, Casa Via Magia. (Mestre) Boca do Rio teaches over there now. They had class outside at night, I mean… it was wild, man. It was wild.
The first two years were really my groundbreaking, my time for getting a sense of what this was really all about.
Nj: Were there times outside of this that you would recall as pivotal in the development of your relationship with Mestre Cobra Mansa? I mean ’cause, Cobrinha, Mestre Cobra Mansa is who you’d consider your mestre, right? Or am I wrong in this?
Nj: I ask because in FICA we do have a few mestres who frame the story for us and, for some of us, we still have a particular mestre who we trained with, who we learned from and who we would consider our reference. So, I’m curious if you see a moment or epoch that really established this relationship between you and him.
CMK: I mean, yeah, I guess it was about that time in DC, DC and Philly.
Nj: So, you were going to DC really regularly?
CMK: And he came to us. I guess where I had dropped off for a second was where this relationship with Mestre Joao Grande started fading and, all of a sudden, entered this kat. I mean, it was kinda like “enter the cobra.” This kat came in, this “tumbleweed” kat like “I’m down! I’ll sleep on the floor. Just gimme a hummus sandwich and I’m good.” You know, ’cause Mestre Joao Grande comes with a little entourage and there’s a lot to take care of but Cobrinha’ll just roll up on the bus. He’ll have his falafel sandwich and he’s good. So I think we developed a relationship really early because I could see right away that he was going to do whatever it took to get you to understand what this was all about. He’d come up a lot, staying two days, one day, a few days and we would regularly travel down to DC to get smacked around by those dudes down there. He would invite us for weekends that he would call “special trainings.” It’d be like this intensive like a little mini-conference where we would spend the whole time training together, eating together, talking together. You know the kind of thing we’ve done. Those were the kinds of things that let you know that this kat was giving you the best that he could possibly give of himself. That’s how we cemented that relationship.
The flip side of that though is that, I spent so much time with Cobrinha here in the states but spent very little time with him in Brazil. Most of my time in Brazil has been spent with Mestre Valmir. Al these things that Mestre Cobrinha was talking about I couldn’t see them, couldn’t visualize them, even while he was trying to give me background. But when I got down there (Bahia) that’s when Valmir would be like “oh yeah, that’s so and so and such and such.” And I’d be down there at these events and seeing people who were comparable to Mestre Cobrinha. Because, you know, for a while when you’re in the states you get to thinking that…
Nj: You’re like “that’s it.” That’s the top of the top
CMK: That’s it. These guys are the baddest. Period. The point is though, that they’re still the baddest and… there’s other people who are the baddest too.
Kamau gets a call from somebody who’d weathered the storm to get to class. I mean a foot deep snow in Philly! Who does that?
Nj: So it’s interesting, you talking about these ideas that were expressed to you by Cobrinha, and then seeing them manifest in Brazil. You also talked a bit earlier about how some of the racial encounters that were going on in the states were very different. You know, we recognize that concepts on race relations are diverse, whether you’re talking about from the perspective of African Americans, Africans, Brazilians or any of us descendants throughout the diaspora because of our varied histories and experiences. So I’m curious about how you felt about the different roles race has played in your Capoeira experience, whether that means in the context of FICA or Capoeira Angola or whatever.
CMK: Well, my foundations were and are in activism and Africanist thoughts and theory. I grew up with that and it got even stronger when I got to undergrad. Coming up here (Philadelphia), the community, it’s not as large and the culture is more… northern, not as connected, not as… friendly. So it’s much easier to cultivate oneself down south. Here, you can still feel isolated, can feel like there’s beef between organizations that actually look like or seem like they’re supposed to have the same motives. You don’t have that so much down south. Up here you grow into a kind of aesthetic of toughness. People don’t share space as much. There’s kind of a different vibe.
I remember our first years playing Odunde, ’95 or ’96. It was black people, playing Capoeira , black folks, and I remember there was one year that Cobrinha came and he had some guests with him and some of them were white. It shook a lot of people, there was a kind of embarrassment. I think people were caught up in this idea that maybe the crowds not feeling us this year, some old “Oh, I thought this was this. Why you got them with that?” The challenge was a fear that we wouldn’t have this feeling of being at home anymore or of having a community that would support us. After you’d do some demo, your hope was that people would want to come learn more about Capoeira and that year maybe the thought was we would finish and people would be like “I don’t want anything to do with that.”
It was a difficult transition and I know in my own group we had a separation of thoughts and ideologies. There were people who thought that kind of integration was a threat to a kind of African centered thought and people who wanted to make sure that anyone could train, white, black, whoever. Those two camps became very polarized and, the truth is, none of those people are training now. For me, when I looked around I realized that no one was left. It ended up being a big transition for me, realizing you can spend all kinds of energy worrying if all the people in your group look the same or acts the same or has dreadlocks or eats the same food or any of that. You just have to make sure you have quality people that can stay committed, can make sacrifices without complaining and can be consistent and can be depended on. That’s how you figure out your go-to people.
Clearly, I’m an African and this is an African Brazilian martial art and it’s only right that you have people who share that lineage, culture and connection and spiritual energy in your circle. I’ve always wanted that and I still want that but that’s not the only component to creating a positive and workable energy and it took me a lot of time and thought to gain the maturity to recognize and understand that. That was a big thing for me.
From another perspective, in Brazil, nationality is very important. But here I am, here you are and we both teach Capoeira Angola. So, someone can flip the script and ask a similar question. “How do you feel being from the states and teaching Capoeira?” I know exactly how that feels and have had the experience of some Brazilians looking at me like “watchu talking about Willis?” and not understanding what right I have to connect with Capoeira on any deep level.
Nj: You know, when you talk about this question of why people choose to get involved with Capoeira, I think one of the things that’s distinguishing about this art is the diversity of people who come to it. There’s this question that often gets asked of me and I want to put it to you. Some people decide to get down because they’re just really interested in music, or they’re dancers and think the movement is really dope. Some are just down with the anthropological aspects and think that as a cultural activity it’s really engaging. But in addition to all of that I think we often express that it is equal parts, cultural device, music, dance and martial art. I’ve heard our mestres and others remind that if it loses it’s martial aspect (or any of its others) it stops being Capoeira. One of the things that often seems obscured or abstract is this martial aspect.
So how do you go about conveying that martial spirit and what are your thoughts about Capoeira in terms of practical relevance? In a world that is very much inundated with martial arts that are focused on physical practicality, how does Capoeira fit into that?
CMK: Well, in regards to the first question, when you’re in the middle of teaching, a quick martelo to the neck will reinforce the martial spirit of the thing.
Nj: Hahaha! Yeah, I guess so!
CMK: If you didn’t know what you were signing up for… we’ll remind you, hahaha. You know. But I mean, I’m joking but I’m not. You have to know that this is very important and it’s not to be played with. When I’m with my students and it’s all jokey-joke this and that… sometimes you gotta put somebody on their behind. We (teachers) have a lot of responsibility and you have to do it the right way. But you have to put people on their behind sometimes. That might be with a chapa 13 or a rasteira 14 or boca de calca 15 or cabecada 16 that reminds them to pay attention. It reminds them that as much as they like beautiful movements and taking notes, and they like to learn about kinship and lineage and all of that, that’s not going to stop someone from kicking you in the chest. You don’t train ginga with your pen and paper. The expectation is no different for you as a dancer or a musician or an academic or a martial artist…
Nj: Because you have to be all of those things.
CMK: Right. So I think letting people know that we need all of those elements or else it stops being Capoeira. I couldn’t agree with you more on that. You have to make people to play people they don’t go to dinner with after class. Let them play someone that doesn’t know them or someone that has very different intentions than them. Provide opportunities for people to deal with difficult situations without just walking out of the roda. Have to set up challenges so that they have the chance to meet them.
And on that other point…
Nj: Yeah, on that relevance point. Because I feel like that’s a real particular mind, being able to translate things into real world application, particularly if that’s part of what their intention is, a martial art.
CMK: I think within Capoeira Angola there’s a smaller skill set that relates to that street application, self defense type aspect. It’s not all of our movements. It’s not macaco, it’s not relogio 17. It’s the understanding of the balance of a person, knowing where their weight is and being to throw them off with a kick or a or even a push. But we don’t have a whole bunch of movements that you want to spend a lot of time thinking this is going to be your bread and butter in the street. We have some very effective movements but you have to really know what you’re doing and be in the right situation. You have to have some level of mastery.
Nj: I know that Mestre Moraes did a lot of work to distinguish Capoeira Angola as a relevant martial art particularly during a time when it was the common view in Brazil that Regional was the only one with any practical usage and Angola was just purposed for older people or cultural demonstrations. So being able to speak in terms of martial arts, this question/conversation comes up.
CMK: I think Capoeira is something that people have to be able to see, feel and taste. They have to be able to push up against it and push back on it to have a real sense of it. Part of it comes from witnessing, part comes from pushing your boundaries and part of it comes from conversation. I mean, in a confrontation, you’re not going to limit yourself to just one thing. I mean, we don’t use our hands (in Capoeira) but in a conflict, once you do that cabecada, hey. You know, people are not looking to respect the “rules” of your martial art, so you have to shake your students into recognizing that.
But that’s definitely something to think about it.
Nj: Yo, man, thanks a lot for making that sit down time and you know we’re gonna get up real soon.
CMK: Yeah, brother.
Nj: Stay up.
1. One of the Founding mestres of the International Capoeira Angola Foundation, Student of Mestre Moraes of GCAP 2. Jamie Brown has had training with M. Cobrinha/ and M. Moraes and at one time led a very strong Capoeira Angola group in Atlanta. Many of Jamie’s former students are teaching or still training Capoeira today. 3. The “Ausar Auset Society” is a spiritual organization that incorporates cultural practices that relate to principles from ancient Kemet ( the original name for Egypt- meaning “land of the Blacks”) Philadelphia has a chapter along with D.C., Atlanta, and N.Y. 4. Macaco – re: Capoeira = monkey jump, back handspring 5. Armada – re: Capoeira = back, spinning kick 6. Bananeira – re: Capoeira banana tree, handstand 7. Negativa – re: Capoeira = escape movement 8. Role – re: Capoeira = rolling escape movement 9. closed body, protected body 10. closed space 11.traditional bowed instrument played in Capoeira 12.bowl shaped resonator made from dried gourd 13.Chapa – re: Capoeira = push kick 14.Rasteira – re: Capoeira = leg sweep 15.Boca de calca – re: Capoeira = grabbing the pant cuffs to initiate a throw 16.Cabecada – re: Capoeira = head butt 17. Relogio – re: Capoeira = clock, spinning flourish movement
this was a joy to read. I had no idea you made it to contre-mestre level Kamau. I’m so very proud of you!