Sekhetneb Amunwah on Capoeira

  "IT’S the name I reclaimed," he tells me coolly, as if people reclaimed African names every day.


"When hear Xing or Yang, it is accepted that that is a Chinese. If you hear Mohammed or Vishnu, you think of an Indian. But when you hear Phillip and Bishop and so on, you’re not sure if it’s African or European. As an African instructor, as an African man, I decided to reclaim an African name. So I chose Sekhetneb Amunwah."


Bearing a name as old as civilisation, Sekhetneb Amunwah has spent more than quarter of his life practising the ancient fighting craft of Capoeira, a fighting technique which originated in the slave camps of colonial Brazil, where slaves from the Angola, Mozambique and Congo regions of Africa practised and taught fighting in the form of a dance in order to disguise their martial art from their white masters. Popular lore recognises Ganga Zumba as one of the fathers of Capoeira, who passed on his fighting skill to Zumbi dos Palmeiras, the capoeirista who would become known as the liberator of the African slaves.


In a martial arts world dominated by Oriental culture, the Afro-Brazilian art of Capoeira (pronounced ka-pway-ra) stands out for being the only popular self-defence technique to incorporate music, dance and song into rhythmic cartwheels, handstands, spinning kicks and spontaneous acrobatics.


For the last seven years, the 27-year-old Amunwah has been a full-time Capoeirista, sharing his knowledge of and love for this unique fighting style. In 1998, he kissed the corporate grindstone goodbye, abandoning his job in a high-society restaurant and opening a Capoeira school in the Barataria Regional Complex. Today, the son of Arima soil uses the Barataria facility as the local headquarters for Grupo axe Capoeira, an international Capoeira school with about 10,000 students worldwide.


Managing the Trinidad arm of Grupo axe Capoeira (Portuguese for "the group that gives thanks to Capoeira") is a full-time responsibility. Amunwah spends his days preparing and running classes in Barataria, San Fernando and in the Student Activity Centre of the University of the West Indies (UWI) for the school’s 60 local members.


Grupo axe Capoeira

teaches both Capoeira Angola and Capoeira Regional, although the two variations of the South American fighting technique have been the source of some division within the world of Capoeira.

"Capoeira Angola is given that name because of the amount of Africans that came from that region of Africa to Brazil," Amunwah said, explaining the difference between the two styles. "Capoeira Regional was created by Mestre Manuel dos Reis Machado, also known as Mestre Bimba, [who] in his wisdom, decided to use more Asian kicks, such as the roundhouse…the sidekick…and the hook-kick, as well as grappling movements and four acrobatic movements…to assist the Capoeirista to lose the fear of falling when thrown by [an opponent.]"


The streetwise moves of the modernised Capoeira Regional are preferred by some instructors over the more traditional Capoeira Angola style, while other schools reject Mestre Bimba’s modifications in an attempt to preserve the authenticity of the original art form. Amunwah says that this division is unnecessary, insisting that Grupo axe Capoeira respects and teaches the history and philosophy of Capoeira Angola while promoting the mastery of practical application, which is emphasised in Capoeira Regional.


Teaching both styles also makes the school more marketable, attracting those interested in self-defence, as well as those more intrigued by the cultural aspects of the African tradition. Ryan Wilson, for example, wasn’t looking for a history or a philosophy lesson when he first joined Grupo axe Capoeira but he’s found that Capoeira’s "hidden" aspects—its philosophy and rich history—have made his experience at the school more meaningful.


"I got to understand that there’s a lot of philosophy hidden within it that you can apply to life," said Wilson, who first came across Capoeira two years ago as an undergraduate student at the UWI Faculty of Engineering. "Initially, I was looking for a form of self-defence. I was drawn to [Capoeira] as I was informed that it was an efficient martial art and this instructor specifically teaches how to defend yourself, instead of…some strange move that you may or may not be able to apply on the streets."


Wilson identified the traditional music which accompanies the rhythmic movements of Capoeira as one aspect of the Afro-Brazilian tradition that enthralled him.


"The drums basically call to me," he said. "[Capoeiristas] outwardly demonstrate a lot of rhythm whereas otherwise you might have to basically pick up a rhythm on your own as a fighter."


Equally entrancing to the 24-year-old capoeirista is "the concept of the dialogue."


"There’s a dialogue between the main instrument, the berimbau and all the other instruments. The music and the call and response between the berimbau player and the other musicians decides the nature of the fight," said Wilson, "Plus there’s the dialogue of the two people playing one another. It really evolves into something that looks like a dance although it’s a fight. We move so much in harmony with the other person sometimes that it’s like a ‘conversation’ or a ‘dialogue.’ It looks like a choreographed dance when really people are just ‘free-styling’, or ‘saying’ whatever they feel to ‘say’ at the point in time."


But the martial art is just one part of Capoeira, reminded Wilson’s instructor, Amunwah, identifying makulele, samba de roda and Condonble as three other fundamental aspects of the Brazilian tradition. Makulele, he said, referred the practical application of the art form, usually in the form of stick-fighting while samba de roda is the dance between male and female Capoeiristas after a jogo de capoeira (game of Capoeira). Condonble (more commonly known as Orisha in Trinidad) was the religion practiced by the Africans in Palmeires, the site of the fortress where many early Capoeiristas converged to perfect the art which they would later use to free other slaves.


"Religion is not a necessary element in Capoeira but is a part of its African history and tradition," Amunwah told me. "Anyone can study Capoeira…A man could be a Muslim, Christian, Hindu, a Condonble practitioner…and still study Capoeira. The instructors do not enforce these values onto the students. It’s just important for students to understand the history of the art form because once you destroy the history, you destroy the philosophy, you destroy the art form."