Last Saturday, for the first several hours I participated in ASMP’s Portland Squared project I struggled to find any particularly interesting scenes or activities in my little zone of the square mile I was helping to document. I made a number of images capturing everyday life in square G6 with varying degrees of success, but honestly wasn’t feeling very good about my output.
Finally, as I was making my last pass along each of the streets in my area before heading back to edit my take, I came across something truly unusual and interesting.
On an otherwise dead block of SE 6th, I could hear music coming out of an open door across the road. As I walked up the steps of the building labeled “Center Space” I could smell sweat, so I knew something was up. Stepping inside, I saw several people in white pants moving around in an inner room. I cautiously went through that doorway to find … capoeira!
I’d heard of capoeira before but never seen it, and had no idea that it existed in Portland (although I’m not surprised). Capoeira is a Brazilian form of martial arts that, from what I’ve seen, is more like improvised, high-speed (relatively speaking), interactive tai chi than karate. Or maybe it’s like slow-motion, non-contact jujitsu. Contra Mestre Pedro Cruz, who founded the Portland branch of Grupo Raça, explained the sport to me after their session had ended but I have to admit that I still don’t really get it! But it was really cool. I hope I get the chance to look into it more.
What I can tell you is this: A group of about two dozen men, women, and children sat on the floor in a circle called a roda. Two capoeiristas face off against each other in the middle. After performing a brief ceremonial handshake, they start “fighting.” Except that it looks more like an unscripted dance. One might try a foot sweep that the other jumps over. Perhaps he counters with a slow roundhouse kick that the first person ducks. Then they do cartwheels. Eventually, a third person cuts in and displaces one of the “combatants.”
Meanwhile a band of unusual instruments is playing, and the spectators sing and clap along, often in call-and-response format. The band (which has, I’m led to believe, a fairly specific instrumentation) is centered around three berimbaus. The berimbau is a simple, one-string instrument, where the string is struck with a wand. It only makes two notes, about one full tone apart, plus a “buzz” sound. The rest of the players use a variety of percussion instruments including bongos, cowbells and tambourines. And they rotate in and out with the rest of the capoeiristas.
The participants wore different colored belts indicating their skill levels, but there didn’t seem to be any segregation in who squared off against whom. I have no idea if or how they keep score, but there weren’t any winners or losers. Not that I could tell, anyway.
I’m really glad I stumbled across the group, it was easily the coolest thing I saw that day. I’ll have to keep my eye out for it again.