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© Irene Nobrega - Wikimedia commons - Peça de teatro, Besouro Cordão de Ouro - 21/01/2017
capoeira4 - irene nobrega from Brasil

Music to fight to 

All over the world, com­bat sports and music are clo­se­ly lin­ked, dra­wing on tra­di­tions and spi­ri­tua­li­ty. A quick over­view offers three examples : capoei­ra in Bra­zil, moringue in Réunion and tai­ko drum­ming in Japan. 

Because mar­tial arts have their roots in ances­tral tra­di­tions and spi­ri­tua­li­ty, it should come as no sur­prise that they use one of the most obvious means of spea­king to the gods and higher powers. From Japan to Indo­ne­sia, Thai­land to Réunion, figh­ting is backed by a musi­cal sound­track, brin­ging mea­ning to these arts of war, giving strength to the figh­ters, regu­la­ting their bouts and orga­ni­sing the chaos.


Capoeira : a bridge through time between the living and their ancestors

Our first stop takes us to Bra­zil, a coun­try where music is like an inces­sant heart­beat, accom­pa­nying one of the world’s most well-known com­bat sports : capoei­ra. The streets of Pelou­rin­ho, the his­to­ri­cal centre of Sal­va­dor de Bahia – a net­work of alley­ways com­bi­ning colo­nial archi­tec­ture and pas­tel houses – echo power­ful­ly to the sound of the berim­bau, a musi­cal bow from Afri­ca played by sto­ry­tel­lers and hun­ters, and the ata­bak, a drum that is the basis for can­dom­blé, the ani­mist Afro-Bra­zi­lian religion.

In the middle of a circle (the “roda”), figh­ters twirl in front of the per­cus­sio­nists and sin­gers, sket­ching out their spec­ta­cu­lar blows, taking flight… Pedro Abib – a pro­fes­sor of popu­lar culture at the Fede­ral Uni­ver­si­ty of Bahia, who researches capoei­ra and is the author of Conver­sas de Capoei­ra* – has been prac­ti­sing this sport for thir­ty years.  As far as he is concer­ned, the role of music in this spar­ring is clear : “It builds a bridge through time bet­ween the living and their ances­tors”, he says, “like eve­ry­thing that ori­gi­na­ted in Afri­ca, music is part of the game”. Capoei­ra, an art inhe­ri­ted from slaves, a com­bat sport dis­gui­sed as a dance to evade the wat­ch­ful eyes of their mas­ters, is thought to be des­cen­ded from Ngo­lo, the “zebra dance”, a rite of pas­sage for the Ban­tu people of Ango­la. But, accor­ding to Bam­ba, a capoei­ra ins­truc­tor in Paris : “Slaves were mixed so capoei­ra is the result of a blend of influences from all over Afri­ca”. This heri­tage is car­ried by the tra­di­tio­nal songs that accom­pa­ny the rodas. Seve­ral cen­tu­ries old, they des­cribe the sugar­cane plan­ta­tions, their mas­ters, moments of rest and dreams of escape. They refer to reli­gious rites, conjure up the bars of Luan­da and the per­se­cu­tion of this art in Bra­zil. They also cite the 17th-cen­tu­ry queen of Ango­la Njin­ga, who gave her name to the “gin­ga”, the basic movement.



The songs of capoei­ra are also backed by pre­cise per­cus­sion-based ins­tru­men­tals. First­ly, its sym­bol, the berim­bau, of which there are three in a roda : the “gun­ga”, the bass line, which has autho­ri­ty and pro­vides the basic rhythm ; the “medio”, which responds to it, with a slight varia­tion ; and the “vio­la”, the treble, which “speaks” and launches into joy­ful digres­sions. There is also the pan­dei­ro, the typi­cal Bra­zi­lian hand drum ; the sacred ata­bak, a large woo­den drum with ropes that pro­vides the tem­po… Then there are the ago­gos, bells made from Bra­zil nut shells or metal, and the reco reco, stria­ted bam­boo scra­ped with sticks. But, as Pedro Habib tells us, old pho­to­graphs also revea­led the pre­sence of gui­tars, cava­quin­hos. “We some­times find other per­cus­sion ins­tru­ments such as the mara­ca or she­kere”, the spe­cia­list adds.

Most impor­tant­ly, this music is clo­se­ly inter­t­wi­ned with the figh­ting : it creates a dia­logue with the figh­ters, giving them direc­tions. Bam­ba explains : “These are the ‘toques’ (the rhythms) that set the rules : ground bouts, aerial or ath­le­tic, mar­tial or thea­tri­cal. The figh­ters have to adapt”. Pedro men­tions the two best-known of these “toques”, São Ben­to Grande de Ango­la and São Ben­to Grande da Regio­nal, as well as “Apan­ha Laran­ja no chão, tico-tico” (“Catch the orange on the ground, lit­tle bird”), games that consist of figh­ters cat­ching money in their teeth. Capoei­ra figh­ter, direc­tor of the docu­men­ta­ry Capoei­ra, un art de vivre (2007) and pro­du­cer of the record L’art du berim­bau, Valen­tin Lan­glois (Heli­co Music) explains : “If the ‘gun­ga’, played by the most expe­rien­ced, speaks, the figh­ters obey. If it beats a pre­cise and easi­ly reco­gni­sable rhythm, the fight stops. Like all mar­tial arts, capoei­ra is poe­try in per­pe­tual motion, a living tradition”.

But is music in capoei­ra sole­ly a pre­text for the game, or does it exist in its own right ? Valen­tin was refu­sed a grant for his record on the grounds that “it was not music”. Even now, he’s still pro­tes­ting : “This music, which is also stron­gly connec­ted to sam­ba, conceals won­der­ful trea­sures, songs from ano­ther gene­ra­tion, full of emo­tion”. In the 1960s, “folk” capoei­ra shows went on stage tours. The names of great capoei­ra musi­cians have left a power­ful mark on their coun­try : Mestre Wal­de­mar da Paixão, Mestre Caji­quin­ha, Mestre Bigo­din­ho, Mestre Gato, Mestre Boca Rica, Mestre Moraes… In 2006, the French label Buda Musique even relea­sed, as a pre­cur­sor, the Sen­za­la de San­tos album, which became one of its top sellers.

Modern reso­nance

Capoei­ra and its music reso­nate with the contem­po­ra­ry world. As Pedro explains, many of the cur­rent song lyrics convey femi­nist sta­te­ments and take issue with modern Bra­zi­lian socie­ty. Are they also rebel­ling against Jair Bol­so­na­ro ? “Recent­ly, a capoei­ra mas­ter died as the result of fas­cism”, says Pedro. “In the song that pays tri­bute to him, we are indi­rect­ly figh­ting our far-right pre­sident”. Above all, capoei­ra has pro­vi­ded the life­blood of all Bra­zi­lian music, with par­ti­cu­lar ins­pi­ra­tion found in that of Nana Vas­con­ce­los, Baden Powell and Vini­cius de Moraes (Berim­bau), and Mar­tin­ho da Vila. In France, Ber­nard Lavilliers and Nou­ga­ro have given us Capoei­ra and Bidon­ville res­pec­ti­ve­ly. Final­ly, a men­tion must go to the won­der­ful work done by the Argen­tine Rami­ro Musot­to, who died in 2009, hero of the tri­bal elec­tro­nic music of the Nor­deste and a revo­lu­tio­na­ry with the musi­cal bow…



The Moringue, the fight of Indian Ocean

Our second stop leads us to the very heart of the Indian Ocean, to the Reu­nion Island. There, in the green east­side of the Island, at Ste Suzanne, David Tes­tan manages Odas, a group of Moringue, the com­bat sport of the island, which was for­bid­den by the colo­nial autho­ri­ties and then by the exis­ting govern­ments, for a long time. There too, music plays a most impor­tant part in this art (also present in Mayotte), inhe­ri­ted from the mala­ga­sy slaves, whose roots are sup­po­sed to be from Mozam­bique. If, in Mada­gas­car, the “morain­gy” is played with the tra­di­tio­nal music of the Great Island, the Salé­gy, in Reu­nion the “Moringue” has adop­ted the Maloya and its cere­mo­ny-songs. David Tes­tan explains : “Accom­pa­nied by the rou­lèr, the sati, the pikèr, the kayamb, these songs are about sla­ve­ry, connec­tion to your ances­tors… Besides, as in the ‘ser­vis kaba­ré’, during the fights, some people may go into a trance. As in capoei­ra, music leads the fight. There are some codes to begin, to change direc­tion, to stop. The music orders the ener­gy of the fight : violent, mischieous, war­like…



Nowa­days, the Moringue has adop­ted, as its cou­sin the capoei­ra, the berim­bau, this musi­cal bow named “bobre” in the Reu­nion. And the music that accom­pa­nies the Moringue – now consi­de­red as a sport-mat­ter – has evol­ved towards more afri­can rhythms with dum dum, djem­bé and pikèr. The Moringue which had disap­pea­red from The Reu­nion, has come back on the island during the eigh­ties thanks to Jean-René Drei­na­za ex-cham­pion of kick boxing. Today, it is a real “must” in the island. Koz­man­Ti Dalon is proud of its par­ti­cu­la­ri­ty being both a com­pa­ny of the com­bat sport moringue and a group of music ! As for the maloya explo­sive band “Lin­di­go”, it doesn’t hesi­tate to invite wrest­lers on stage… In Paris, at the mar­tial arts-fes­ti­val of Ber­cy, moringue was present besides famous musi­cians from the Paris Tai­ko Ensemble.


The Taiko Drum : a music similar to a martial art

Where does our third stop leads us ? To Japan. In the coun­try of the rising sun, if the Tai­ko ­ – the art of playing drum – is not pro­per­ly a mar­tial art, it is howe­ver close to the bud­dhist and shin­toist dis­ci­pline and phi­lo­so­phy of asian com­bat sports. Mari­ko Kubo­ta-Sal­landre, exi­led in Paris, mas­ter of japa­nese tai­ko and also mana­ger of the Wadai­ko Mako­to school explains : “Our school, quite phy­si­cal, works on pos­ture and move­ments, well before spea­king of rhythms .That’s why three years at least are neces­sa­ry to unders­tand the pos­ture. And just as for mar­tial arts, some basic know­ledge is essen­tial. It is neces­sa­ry to repeat again and again, to come back to what is fun­da­men­tal, even though it seems tedious”. Her dis­ci­pleand the foun­der of the Paris Tai­ko Ensemble, Tul­ga Yesi­lal­tay from Tur­key, tells us more : “Tai­ko requires an extreme pre­ci­sion in the move­ments. They are quite codi­fied. Eve­ry­thing has to be mini­ma­list, without the least unne­ces­sa­ry ges­ture. The beat on the drum must fol­low a given tra­jec­to­ry, from A to B. As well as iaidō, the mar­tial art from Japan that consists in unshea­thing the sabre to strike with a unique ges­ture, the tai­ko needs the ‘only good way’ to strike, and it all depends on the rhythm, the inten­si­ty, etc.”



Nowa­days Tai­ko often accom­pa­nies mar­tial arts cere­mo­nies even if, ori­gi­nal­ly, it wasn’t its func­tion. Here is the proof that they have the same roots and philosophy.

Then Tul­ga explains that before tai­ko com­man­ded the armies. It was also present in bud­dhist and shin­toist temples where it cele­bra­ted the coming of Spring …”It was use­ful for praying Gods, to make war, or to give the right time ; more, in the shō­rin­ji kempō mar­tial arts-dojos, there always was a tai­ko to indi­cate the begin­ning of the trai­ning. The tai­ko is used to give the rhythm of life !”, Mari­ko says. And Tul­ga adds : “In shin­toism which is an ani­mist reli­gion lin­ked to sha­ma­nism, people com­mu­ni­cate with the drum where Gods are living”. Today, Japan has an abun­dance of drum-schools and of known groups, for ins­tance Kodo.



Without any doubt, mar­tial arts are connec­ted to earth and hea­ven, to past and future thanks to music. We could also explore the ram muay, a ritual dance accom­pa­nied by a small orches­tra playing around the ring of thai boxing ; then the Dan­myé in Mar­ti­nique, a moringue-cou­sin, played with gwo ka rhythms ; or the Pen­cak silat, from Malay, accom­pa­nied – in its tra­di­tio­nal form – by music played with drums, gongs, oboe. Maybe the oppor­tu­ni­ty of other trips…


Trans­la­tion : Fran­çoise Lemancel


Anne-Laure Lemancel

© Anne-Laure Lemancel


After literary and musicology studies, Anne-Laure Lemancel has been a music journalist for fifteen years, in various media: RFI, Les Inrocks, (ex) Mondomix, La Terrasse, etc. She has collaborated with Tracks (Arte) and is about to produce her first feature-length documentary about the festival Jazz in Mariciac. She has played Brasilian percussions for fifteen years and practiced martial arts for more than twenty years.

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