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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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