Interviews

Interview with Capoeira Instructor Dennis Eckart

Written by Xavier Murphy

This month we intervew Dennis Eckart a Capoeira instructor who lives in Jamaica. Created in Brazil by the slaves brought from Africa, Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian art form that involves movements from martial arts, and dance. It was created some time after the 16th century in the regions known as Bahia, Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Q: Tell us about Capoeira? How is it different from other Judo or Karate? 

Unlike Judo or Karate – two martial arts that originated in Japan – Capoeira is considered to be an Afro-Brazilian martial art, developed by African slaves that were brought to Brazil. Capoeiras’ distinctive – often acrobatic – movements of attack and defense are performed with much agility and flexibility in a continuous flow rather than abrupt. Maybe the major difference between Capoeira and most other martial arts is the unique blend of music, dance, fight and acrobatic movements along with its playful yet deceiving and cunning nature. Capoeira is seen as a culture rather than only a sport. Disguising its combat effectiveness the Capoeira ‘game’ often appears to be a harmless mock fight which can be transformed into a fierce struggle in an instant.  To train Capoeira also means to learn to play the specific instruments, sing Capoeira songs as well as have an understanding of the cultural background and history of the art. Capoeira is a form of non-verbal communication as well as a struggle against oppression , a extremely social activity trained by slaves in the few spare moments they had

Q: What are the main benefits of this form of Martial arts?

The physical benefits of training Capoeira include a full-body workout with basically no musclce group remaining unaffected by the practice. Endurance as well as agility, flexibility, swiftness, balance and dexterity are further results of regular practice which also ensures cardiovascular fitness. Capoeira furthermore challenges students to develop social skills, self-respect and respect for others as well as discipline. Friendship, playfulness and the ability to interact in a harmonious way with other students – and in a broader context ones, intire social environment – are important benefits of this martial art. Due to its many facets Capoeira empowers its students physically, culturally, socially as well as emotionally.

Q: How did you get involved in Capoeira? How did you learn about this Brazilian form of Martial arts?

I believe I first saw Capoeira on TV at a martial arts demonstration and was quite impressed. Then I would start to look for someone who taught this art in my hometown Nuremberg/Germany. When I found my master,  Mestre Paulo Sorriso and started to train with Grupo Cativeiro Capoeira I soon developed much love for the art and decided to abandon my intensive Karate training in order to dedicate myself fully to Capoeira. Since then I must say my life has been completely transformed.

Q: Do you travel to Brazil often?

I travelled to Brazil 4 times already and spent between 4 and 6 months in the country during each trip. The visits took me throughout Brazil from Amazon to Sao Paulo and I experienced many adventures in this amazingly beautiful country. Since I first came to Jamaica in 2004 I dedicated myself to the development of Capoeira in Jamaica and have not returned to Brazil. I am confident though that in the ner future I will be able to refresh my memories by visiting Brazil yet another time!

Q: What are some of the shared traditions you have found between with Afro-Brazilians and Jamaicans?

The colonial past and African heritage deeply influenced Brazilian as well as Jamaican culture and tradition. In Brazil the state of Bahia and its capital Salvador are one of the areas were this heritage is preserved proudly up to today and present in every aspect of the daily life. Food preparation, the love for music and even religious practices are just some examples for similarities between Brazilians and Jamaicans. The Afto-Brazilian religion ‘Candomble’ for instance shows many common aspects of the Jamaican ‘Kumina’. Another shared tradition is the Maroons movement which is present in both countries. Called ‘Quilombolas’ in Brazil the ancestors who escaped slavery and oppresion and fought bountyhunters and armies sent after them are well remembered until today.

Q: Are you documenting any of these shared traditions and links?

At this point I am not actively documenting these links although there is much to write about indeed……
It is very important though to pass this knowledge on to Jamaicans and we pay attention to teaching these facts even to our young students. I believe that it is essential to be aware of ones culture and past. My master often says: ‘ A people without culture is like a car without an engine – it doesn t really go anywhere.’ Many young Jamaicans are heavily influenced by the north-american or english culture and feel ashamed for their own background. Capoeira can help here as it confronts practitioners with an african-influenced form of culture, music and physical expression. Thus so far these shared traditions have not been documented in written form but are reflected in the growing awareness of Jamaicans of their cultural heritage.

Q: Tell us about the program you do in Jamaica with inner city children?

Since I decided to come to Jamaica my goal has always been to teach Capoeira to children and youths in the inner city areas of Jamaica and to use the art to positively influence and transform the lifes of people. Having lived in one of Kingston’s garrison communities myself and experiencing the difficulties many Jamaicans face every day further inspired me to be part of the solution by contributing with what I best know to do: Capoeira.
From teaching Capoeira in New Haven/ 6miles area to local boys and girls in 2004 to managing our NGO ‘Capoeira Alafia’ and organizing classes and workshops in various communities and schools today has been a challenging, but nevertheless rewarding and successful experience.
The program teaches Capoeira to children and young adults from various inner-city communities with the goal of promoting peace and non-violence. The art is being used to engage the participants in a healthy afternoon activity which empowers them physically as well as socially, culturally and psychologically. We organize workshops, regular classes and also inter-community meetings and trips for students. Our scholarship programm seeks to train Jamaicans to become instructors and allows talented youths to participate in trainngssessions at different locations in Kingston.
We have been collaborating with many local and international organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the Young Americas Business Trust (YABT), the government of Brazil through its Embassy to Jamaica, the National Housing Trust (NHT), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP),the Blue Star Jamaica Organization, the Young Womens Christian Association (YWCA), the Womens Research and Outreach Center (WROC), and many others.
Together with the OAS and the Brazilian Embassy the ‘Capoeira for Empowerment and Peace Programme’ (CEPP) was initiated in 2005 and impacted on the lives of many Jamaicans.

Q: Can you share some of the positives you have seen this program do with children in the inner city?

I have seen our program impacting in many positive ways on our inner-city students. As instructor I can often observe behavioral changes within little time in the students. They become more calm, especially after the training as they can release their energy and often also anger during the workout. Afterwards they are much more accessible and able to listen or share their thoughts and visions. There have been cases where students had to use their Capoeira skills to literally defend themselves from attackers at school or thieves on the road. Many parents report positive changes in their children and support the program. The fact that we are able to unite students from different age groups and different communities during inter-community meetings is exciting and very positive at the same time. New friendships are made with students from sometimes ‘hostile’ communities and Capoeira offers a new ground of interacting in a respectful way with each other.
There also are cases where some of our adult students actually could find employment – or within the programm – or through contacts with other students and parents. They are now able to sustain themselves and their families and serve as positive role models for others.

Q: Is there a Jamaican Capoeira team?

Yes. We have a team of advanced Jamaican students who – together with our Instructors – offer private and/public demonstrations and shows.

Q: Have they participated in competitions? What is their best showing so far?

We have not been organizing Capoeira competitions in Jamaica so far. Every year we host our graduation ceremony called ‘Batizado’ during which new students are initiated in the art and advanced students are awarded with the respective belt.
Rather than competing we have been focusing on uniting students during workshops, trips and meetings.

Q: Have you made any progress in combining Capoeira it into a nationwide program in Jamaica ?

We have been teaching the art at many venues all over the island sporadically but not as yet in a regular program.
We have submitted a proposal suggesting a ‘Capoeira at school’ program and hope for a positive response. That would enable us to incorporate the art in the after-school activities in several inner-city schools of Kingston in the first stage.

Q: Has it been easy training Jamaicans in Capoeira?

As a german I grew up in a totally different culture, so adapting to Jamaica and the Jamaican way of doing things was a challenge, especially in the beginning. So on one hand it took time for me to understand how to talk, teach and relate to Jamaicans on the other hand there is such an amazing talent and ease of getting the specific movements and techniques for Jamaicans. It has been very easy to engage children and young teenagers into our program and they are excited and show much talent. It is more of a challenge to engage older youths and adults in our program. The fact that we also have been promoting the art in private schools and gyms as well as on TV and during shows is helping to create more interest among adults though.

Q: Are you still training the Reggae Boys team in Capoeira? Are you training any other Jamaican teams?

We are not training the Reggae Boys team at this stage or have been approched by any other teams so far.

Q: You are originally from Germany ? What drew you to Jamaica and how long have you lived here?

I first came to Jamaica in 2004 to find out if Capoeira had been established on the island allready. My vision was to help others through Capoeira and teach it in the inner-city communities. I love reggae music and after reading on Jamaica, its history, culture and colonial past I realized the many similarities to Brazil. I became very interested in the Maroons movement as well as the reggae culture – which actually shares many aspects of the culture and philosophy of Capoeira. Looking at the impact Capoeira had on my own life I thought it would be so much easier for any Jamaican to relate to this art, due to the similar historical and cultural background to Brazil. So I hope that my work can ultimately create a positive change not only on a personal level but even on a broader social scale.

Q: I hear your Jamaican patois sound pretty authentic for someone who has lived here less that 20 years. What do you attribute it to?

lol thank you so much! As I mentioned, I lived in the inner-city for a while and also spent much time on the road or teaching. These experiences combined with my love for languages and the will to adapt and assimilate to Jamaica motivated me to try and catch on as much as possible to patois. After studying english at school for 9 years I was terrified after having just arrived in Jamaica as I could hardly understand anyone. Also I’m of the opinion that it is very important to talk and preserve Patois as an expression of Jamaican culture. Since I came to Jamaica and not to England or the US and Patois is the people’s language I thought I better try to learn it. Maybe it’s like saying to those Jamaicans who try to hide their accent or talking in a fake US or english accent: coodeh! if even dis yah german youth a try fi chat patois how come me fraid fi chat Jamaican?

Q: Where do you see Capoeira in Jamaica 10 years from now?

I see a Center for Capoeira and Peace being established which offers programs for inner-city students as well as private classes, workshops and income opportunities for Jamaican instructors. I envision the art being present around the island in communities, schools, gyms and during shows at hotels, theatres and festivities. I also see an exchange program between Jamaican and Brazilian students and Jamaican Instructors teaching at their communities and earning a living from what doing what they love most. I see Capoeira being recognized on the streets as well as in gyms and schools. Also there will be a blend of Reggae-Dancehall music and Capoeira music. We ll have a national Capoeira Federation and will keep national and international competitions.

Q: What do you enjoy doing when you are not teaching or training Capoeira?

As a nutrition and personal trainer I enjoy working with private clients and helping them to achieve their goals.I started a business last year called NULIFE and offer holistic lifestyle consultancies. I m very interested in nutrition especially in Raw and Living Foods and like to read on that subject as well as on success training, personal development and natural building. I enjoy nature, reggae music and calling my family in Germany. Also I like to prepare raw food dishes and listening to audio books. I started to practice Yoga and seek to meditate as often as possible.

Q: Thanks for the interview. Do you have any final comments?

Thank you so much for your interest in my work and the opportunity to present it at this community! I would like to guide anyone who is interested in Capoeira or our projects to our websites www.capoeirajamaica.org and www.capoeira-alafia.org.

About the author

Xavier Murphy