The date, November 20th, was chosen to commemorate the death of Zumbi, one of the icons of resistance against slavery in Brasil. Zumbi was the last leader of the Kilombo (or Quilombo) of Palmares, a community of over 10,000 people (at its peak) that resisted incursions by the Portuguese for over 80 years. More recently, people have also been focusing on the figure of Dandara. Zumbi was Dandara's husband. She is understood to have participated in the defense of Palmares both by helping the plans and by fighting directly with against the Portuguese Army.
To commemorate this day, we'll read an abridged version of the document below.
FROM WIKIPEDIA: A griot is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician. Griots are a repository of oral tradition and are often seen as a societal leader due to their traditional position as advisors to royalty. According to the book Savannah Syncopators, "Though [griots] have to know many traditional songs without error, they must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. Their wit can be devastating and their knowledge of local history formidable". Although they are popularly known as "praise singers", griots may use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political comment.
Once I read that in past, in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, one of capoeiristas favorite pastimes, aside from challenging the police and showing the elites who should fear and respect who, was to climb up on bell towers and ring the bells. Some interpreted this very dangerous behavior (which resulted in grave accidents and even death) as purely exhibitionism, like the behavior of a street child. It was more than this. Street kids, who love exhibitionism, were enchanted by the capoeiristas and considered them almost superhuman. The capoeiristas reputation and their aura of invincibility made them the stuff of legends. Add their in their elegance, their smooth behavior, their easy smile always on their face, their incomparable cunning, their mandinga, and their “closed body”, and you can see how they would easily be described as godlike. The racist society in which they lived however painted them as devils. And this portrayal as devils is what has been sustained in the history books. We get fuller picture of why capoeiristas were considered supernatural beings when we consider that their exhibitionism pushed them to often would demonstrate their abilities in public. It’s interesting that, whether they were considered half-god or half-devil, they were perceived as more than human.
But let’s focus on the bell. A bell is an instrument to tell the official time. Those who control the bells are those who have the power to announce the important moments to the entire group. The Church, which the official institutions in Brasil recognize as the representative of God’s will, holds the monopoly over bells that keep time publicly. Having bells means having power. And capoeiristas like to give demonstrations of power. Therefore, in the same way in which they went to subvert the public order by challenging the elites, in the same way in which they challenged the police over the definition of public order, they took on the power to tell the time and they made the bells ring. In a structure that was designed to make them the least important people in society, they would laugh in everyone’s face and make themselves the most prominent. The dominant social institutions wished to stomp on their head, they placed themselves in a position of power. Capoeira is an exercise in self-determination, in freedom. And for Black people, freedom cannot be exercised without daring, without subversion. Black folks were not born to follow rules – we were born to break them. Because the reality is that in Brasil [and in the United States], rules were made against us, they were designed to oppress us, capture us, kill us. Look at the statistics about mass incarceration, poverty, vote suppression, police brutality. Those who believe that this was true in the past, but no longer, are fooling themselves. The need to challenge society’s norms is still present. Challenging the structure is Black people’s law. We can only exist so long as we continue this challenge.
Once again, let’s leave the conversation about the essence of Capoeira to the side for a moment and focus on the bell. The bell has the power to capture people’s attention and to announce that the time has come. The bell signals the moment of connection. When church bells ring, they remind people of God, of spirituality. Many [catholic] people do the sign of the cross. Church bells announce the beginning of Mass. It is almost impossible to remain indifferent to the sound of a bell, even for those who were not raised in the Christian faith. The berimbau has the same properties, it fulfills all of these function. The berimbau captures people’s attention, no-one can ignore it, people crane their necks to see what it is. The word gunga itself, which comes from the Bantu languages, means “bell”. And if the berimbau is our bell, then the roda is our Mass.
The Gunga bears the voice. The Gunga is king. The Gunga is God. The Gunga is the one who controls the roda. It calls some people to come to “Mass”, and it invokes the ancestors to the ritual. It announces the time to meet our ancestors, to work on our spirituality. The Gunga holds great power. In our current society, this power is being suffocated, just like the power to challenge the system is being suffocated. Our society obscures the fact that Black people are descendants of great civilizations, of glorious lineages of kings and queens. Whiteness hides anything that might bring pride or power to Black people. If today we don’t identify all of the greatness that exists in Black people and in Capoeira, this is because of the culture of whiteness. Some people believe that Black Brasillians are ‘descendants of slaves’ and that Capoeira is only a form of street fight. They want us to believe that they are the ones who freed the slaves, and freed Capoeira from the clutches of street thugs. They sell the idea that Black people should be happy with their current conditions because ‘things were much worse.’ This is how it works: choose the worst possible term of comparison, and everything can be portrayed as an improvement. We should distrust every part of this official narrative, and look beyond the curtain. Our mission should be to subvert this narrative. We must refer to what Black people had before the intervention of whiteness in history.
See what power there is in being the bearer of history, the holder of the voice. In Capoeira, the Gunga is the one that tells our stories, the guardian of the voice. The Gunga is power. The person who receives the Gunga holds – or should hold – the role of the griot. The oral tradition is fundamental, because the griot’s voice carries history. Words form a connection that is the basic principle of connection to the ancestors, to spirituality. Words are Axé. They connect us to one another, to the future, to the past, to the entire world… If you close your eyes an think to griots fulfilling their duties, using the instrument called kora, which also has certain similar features to a berimbau, you get an image similar to a roda, in which the person with the Gunga is in the center, as a reference to all the others. Our society however wants to leave this correspondence between the Gunga and the griot in the past. The oral tradition is neglected. It’s common these days, at the end of the roda, to simply acknowledge the Mestres and guests who are present and to list upcoming events. No history. It almost seems like a commercial, and it is, in some ways. But it should be a commercial for our history, which has few other means to be spread in our society.
The death of the oral tradition is the killing of Capoeira itself. Killing the griot means breaking the main channel for the distribution of the oral tradition. This is one of the main reasons why Capoeira has been growing further away from its origins. This is in large part a reflection of the process of whitening. When we pass the Gunga and Capoeira itself to someone who represents the opposite of the history of Capoeira, the roda serves an opposite purpose. Without an intense amount of previous work, white people don’t have the minimum prerequisites to fulfill this role. First, because the history of Black people is erased by society’s institutions. Since this is the case, without having an interest and expending great effort, it cannot be accessed. And how can you tell a story that you don’t know? Secondly, because the “official” history of white people, (the ‘master narrative’ of history) is taught and reinforced everywhere. Even if they wanted to talk about their history, what would there be to talk about? There is no need for a griot to tell the “official” master narrative of history for white people. Even more than this, the stories told by a griot would denounce and challenge the master narrative of history, calling into question the narrative that “I deserved what I worked for, no-one gave me anything”. The society would be confronted with the huge historical debts that it owes to Black people and Indigenous people, among others. This is reason enough why whiteness must erase those stories. Therefore the function of griot in Capoeira gets set aside, because this is how whiteness works: it promotes the idea that you should take what you like, and eliminate the rest.
However, Black culture cannot allow this, it is fundamentally holistic. Either you respect everything or you have nothing. We are taught that, when you enter into someone’s home, we behave according to the norms of that home. For those who are respectful, you dress in white on the days in which you are expected to dress in white. It doesn’t matter if you feel better wearing other colors. It is necessary to make sacrifices to be part of a community. If you only follow the community when it is entirely convenient to you, then the community serves you and not the other way around. The community establishes a relationship of solidarity and you don’t reciprocate. It is necessary to learn how to sacrifice in order to maintain the tradition. Imagine if each individual demanded that a community adapt to each of their personal preferences. Things would get lost – there would be no essence preserved. Identities would disappear. A culture of resistance is a culture of preservation. We have to make an effort for a community, give this respect. The community decides the direction, and the individual should accept the decision. This doesn’t mean to lose oneself entirely, but find one’s place. This is the meaning of the word ubuntu.
The problem is that there is a radical difference between Black culture and the culture of whiteness. Individual white people are not the problem. The problem is the culture that they learn. They must re-educate themselves. Their individualism is in direct opposition to a sense of community. Whiteness, colonialism and capitalism push people to use and discard, to exploit the resources, exhaust them, and leave. To take the parts you like and throw away the rest. Once you begin to operate like that with Capoeira or with any other cultural artform, you change its essence. Imagine someone asking for a bacon cheeseburger without bacon and without cheese.
Without a griot, without an oral tradition, you close the channel to the ancestors. Without ancestrality, there can be no Black culture – if for no other reason that without the ancestors we wouldn’t be here, neither ourselves nor our culture. Therefore we have to reestablish the link Gunga-griot-oral tradition-ancestors. The Gunga is a responsibility – a big responsibility. Being the bearer of the voice is not for everyone. The bearer of the voice cannot remain silent. The bearer of the voice must share this voice. How can you use the Gunga to call everyone together, those here and those who have passed on, and not complete the connection? Let us cultivate the oral tradition – it is the basic element. This is for everyone, both for Black people and for white people. However, white people have to be extremely more careful since, as I said above, they did not grow up in this culture and in fact were exposed to the opposite values. Beyond this, they bear some historical debts that they should stop trying to avoid, most of all if they wish to participate in Black culture and be among Black people without being in the way.
Starting from the moment in which we give the berimbau in a white person’s hand without guaranteeing that they have understood the function of a griot, and that they have taken up the responsibility that it entails, starting from the moment in which we give them the power to tell our stories, we are setting ourselves up for the loss of some things. However, it’s worth remarking on the fact that we don’t do this spontaneously, out of our own will. In this country, we were never allowed to have our own will. We always had to struggle to exercise it. And we always confronted terrible repression when we did so. Either we bury our will, or we are buried along with it. Therefore, rather than dying, better to give some things up. So that in the future, when the opportunity presents itself, we may re-establish ourselves and re-enter the game.
We are accustomed to celebrate those who died for us, but we sometimes forget those who, perhaps even while preferring to die, did not do so that they could secure the continuity of our history, passing the baton to the next generation, in the hopes that they might be avenged by their descendants who, under better circumstances, might be strengthened by their culture and rewrite the history. It might be difficult to understand that for some people, sacrificing their lives meant to live on. Live on in the name of the community of the lineage, becoming a bridge. Equally important to those who died, they lived to tell their tales, taking on the role of the griot, taking care that those who died didn’t stay dead, guaranteeing that our group doesn’t decline but grows in number. When the time comes, we’ll need everybody. And when the time comes, the bell will mark its arrival. But the bell has to ring. It is necessary to make the gunga speak. In order for this to happen, the person who plays the gunga must become a griot. Through the oral tradition, we must elevate our spirituality and access our ancestrality. Knowing where we’re going is crucially related to knowing who and where we came from. Our future will be written by answering the questions that were not addressed in the past. Sankofa is the philosophy that must be practiced more and more. And Sankofa is also Ubuntu – very much so! When we say “I am because we are,” we must remember who we are now and who we will be in the future must be built starting with who we were.
[arranged and translated by Matteo Tamburini. NOTE: the ability to read the entire document in the original is one more reason why you should learn Portuguese.]
For a reference to Capoeiristas climbing Church Towers, see: Capoeira: A History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art, by Matthias Röhrig Assunção
For the original, see https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1941102539507671&id=1921597918124800