INTERCULTURAL JOURNEYS PRESENTS THE MANDINGA EXPERIMENT
By Lechelle Barron
Intercultural Journeys featured The Mandinga Experiment at International House’s Ibrahim Theater in Philadelphia on March 11, as a part of their concert series, The Artistry of Identity and Transformation, the performance pays tribute to the legacy of the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira.
The concert featured performances by Alex Shaw and other Afro-Brazilian and American musicians, dancers and capoeiristas, accompanied by live vintage visuals. “The idea behind this project is to take these songs and reimagine and reinterpret these songs in a different context, and present them in a contemporary American performing space in a way that not only pays tribute and maintains a certain integrity of these songs, but also spins them in a different way that embraces a certain cross cultural dialogue,” said Shaw, percussionist and vocalist of the Brazilian band Alô Brasil. “Several of these songs came out of the practice of Capoeira or folkloric songs, and some of the songs were original creations by me that developed over time. Even though, the music is in Portuguese, I wanted it to have a more of a hip-hop feel, blend lyrically Portuguese but having American based rhythms or having an American chord progression typically but having more a Brazilian percussion tradition, some of the songs that I sang were songs that are traditionally a part of the Capoeira repertoire, there are hundreds of songs in Capoeira music, these are just some that I picked that I thought would work well as medleys, the idea was to blend dance music with Brazilian Capoeira music.”
“The vintage live visuals were a visual representation of what I was doing with the music, footage that has been accrued from different places some of it was online on YouTube, some of it was from archives from a colleague of mine’s who did some research for another documentary,” he adds. “I wanted to create an aesthetic using this older footage from the 50’s, from the 60’s, I wanted to capture Capoeira as it existed at that time, and how could it be manipulated in a performance in a very contemporary context. We actually had somebody who was manipulating those images, putting special effects on the images, blending them, mixing them almost like a DJ would do. Some people refer to it as a VJ, a Video Jockey, and based on the energy of the song he pieced the footage together and manipulated it in real time as we performed.”
The title Mandinga derives from the West African “Mandinka” ethnic group. “Somebody who has mandinga has mastered in a sense the game of Capoeira or is able to deceive the person who they’re playing in a certain kind of way, it’s a trickery and a magical quality to it, in order to achieve something, it’s almost like somebody who has “swagger” there is an element of “coolness” and kind of ease, but at the same time there is a deception behind it,” said Shaw. “The idea of mandinga is not based on you just know to kick somebody at the right time, but how much are you able to control and manipulate the space in that way. People refer to mandinga as a form of survival, a form of resisting the oppression.”
The Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira is a sport that combines elements of dance, acrobatics, and music, and is usually referred to as a game. “Capoeira is a martial art form that developed in colonial Brazil as a form of cultural resistance, as a form of liberation,” said Shaw. “These Africans that were enslaved in Brazil, were able to pull upon this tradition or an element of these traditions and they developed a form of self-defense, cultural resistance called Capoeira, to resist not only in the physical sense of the term like fighting for maintaining liberation, but also in terms of strengthening a sense of community, and strengthening a sense of identity. I think Capoeira continues today to help build communities and to help strengthen a sense of self and sense of identity for those people who are engaged in Capoeira.”
However, “Capoeira was not always allowed to be practiced,” Shaw added. “Capoeira became something prohibited by the Brazilian government to practice. There was a lot of effort to mute or stifle the African presence, and Capoeira was something that was very strongly linked with African culture, but there was this notion that Capoeira was being used by gangs and for criminal behavior and so Capoeira was outlawed. If you got caught doing Capoeira, you would be punished, and taken to jail, it wasn’t until the late 30s that Capoeira then became recognized by the Brazilian government as something that could be appreciated as a martial art or sport, today, it’s more present in whiter Brazilian society. I think people underappreciate the complexities of Capoeira, the relationship between the music and the movement, and some of the more complexities about its legacy against oppression,” said Shaw.
“I want people to get from the performance a certain appreciation for the legacy of Capoeira, to appreciate the ongoing intercultural dialogue that’s happening between these forms that’s sort of embodied in my own journey, I’m not of African descendant, my mother is Chinese and my father is White, but I’ve had a personal artistic practice of being engaged in Capoeira for 18 years,” said Shaw. “Through the practice of these traditions I’ve come to develop a profound appreciation and respect for this narrative and these stories, and I wanted to offer that to the public in a way that felt like it was responsible but also creative. I’ve learned and practiced these songs over the years in that context, so I felt like I had a pretty good sense of how to maintain a certain amount of cultural integrity with the music, but also take my own creative liberty, freedoms within the project. I wanted to present it in a way that was entertaining but also with educational content that had historical and cultural significance.”