Jogo de Palavras: the writer and the malandragem

* this article was reprinted by

Capoeira is a difficult topic to research. It takes many forms and does not invite over-exposure. The more you learn the more you feel lost in the many versions and stories that span a history (like most) that is hard to account for. Its mystery is intensified by the malandragem: the application of trickery and deception and lauded as one of the main keys to this art-form as a fight, a dialogue, a game, a celebration, a friendship and a dance.  

Mystery is part of Capoeira’s unorthodox nature. According to Coruja, aka Chamira, of Grupo Capoeira Uniao, “Capoeira is so unsuitable for any type of regimentation -- they tried holding national games in Brazil and failed. Capoeira is supposed to be 'undisciplined' and 'anti-authoritarian’; it is so individual and personal.”  

“The essential concepts of malandragem and malícia -- how are these going to be taught in a hygienic, disciplined McRoda?” he continued, “Real Capoeira will always be there; people serious about it will just have to find it has been, always, I guess.”

The malandragem is designed on a paradox; it makes the truth, at once, illusive yet inevitable. It can be interpreted as negative and positive, but is, by itself, neutral. Everything is a potential lie and truth. For example: He said this but he meant that. She had me go one way, so I would eventually go in another. Those who wish to find Capoeira’s true nature, whether in the roda or by definition, should expect the very process to involve the malandragem.  

LoboGuara, aka Paul Bielak, of Cordao de Contas (Canada), said: “You cannot write about malandragem without applying some of it in your own research nor can you expect to be unaffected by it.”

Despite my increasing paranoia, the more I studied this strange word, weapon and device, the more it started sounding awfully familiar to me. Well, shoot, I finally said, I’ve been doing this my whole life. Maybe, not well, but nevertheless … writers naturally aspire to a higher form of this. And our mestres? Should be required to have licenses for this stuff. But, of course, our malandragem is in the form of what LoboGuara refers to as the jogo de palavras (a game of words).  

First, let’s hear it from the Capoeiristas:

The Capoerista's Malandragem

According to Mestre Decio of Cordao de Contas (Rio de Janerio): “Malandragem utilizes the Capoeira movements to gain advantage over the adversary. Therefore, who begins to learn realizes that Capoeira is a fight of flight.”  

His student, LoboGuara, added to this comment, “During the game one can observe much emotional feinting. This is what we refer to as malandragem. Showing someone that you can hit them, and choosing not to hit in order to take advantage of the next position they put themselves in. This way, by the time the person moves, you already have the jump and are waiting there with another answer to their movement.” LoboGuara is a Capoeira instructor at the All Canadian Martial Arts in Mississauga, Canada under Mestre Decio's tutelage.

Risadinha, aka Monique Mizrahi, presents a refreshing non-combative look at Capoeira. She defines malandragem as playfulness. “Part of the true beauty of Capoeira is the fact that the creation was an impetus for the eventual freeing of all the slaves in Brazil in 1888. Capoeira for me has the power to let one realize his or her own freedom. Malandragem is a means of achieving this freedom. Malandragem is playing Capoeira; it’s joking, smiling, laughing, and combating slavery all at the same time. It is conversing with your “opponent” in the roda – both listening and speaking.” She began studying Capoeira Angola in Boston, then with Mestre Pudim of Capoeira Soluna (Rome), and most recently Mestre Amen Santo of Capoeira Batuque (Los Angeles).

According to Matamosquito, aka Silver Cruz, of Capoeira Arts Café (Berkeley), “Malandragem for me, in Capoeira, is the art of using seduction and intelligence to accomplish something, be it positive or negative. I don't think there is a way to teach malandragem, however, I think it is something that can be developed and this you do in your own way and pace.” Matamosquito is a student of Mestre Acordeon, Mestre Ra and Mestra Suelly.

A Natural Instinct Made Intelligent

The malandragem comes from a natural instinct in all of us because we naturally want our own survival or best interests. We use it to shroud something in mystery or to draw something to light. There is a form of this everywhere. In Capoeira, in love and in business, they are called players -- the people who set things in motion. Although, we all play not all of us do it consciously or train to be good at it. Even as I have written this article, this information has been set up very specifically. I had to. What writer would I be if I didn’t prepare this wallop of information I’ve been collecting over the past couple of months.  

But is my objective to remain neutral? I’ll leave that to you to decide.  

Negotiations between lovers, business associates, friends and enemies: if we had been a game of Capoeira, where would we have been standing before each other at the end of the game? Did we get that raise? Did we finalize the contract? Did we achieve a better understanding or forgiveness?  

When asked for his personal objective in the roda, LoboGuara answered, “My biggest goal is always to bring the game back to neutral after I have countered and dominated. This is the most challenging part as by this time the person is usually smoking at the ears and I'm now dealing with their ego.”  

This neutrality even applies to when LoboGuara finds himself caught in a bad position. “So you reached a place where you're stuck and the other person surprised you. Piza devagar, piza devagar, piza devagar para nao se machucar. (Step slowly, step slowly, step slowly not to hurt yourself) In other words, CHOOSE carefully.  This is where a sense of neutrality is important. You got caught!! The level of mark is subjective. You could say to yourself, "I'm strong. I can take that kick" and grab the other person. However, you've just cheated your way out of the game. Why not accept it, come back to re-enter the game, or upon accepting it, find a safer space offering the other person the right of way, yielding momentarily in order to celebrate their success. Then, try again, and control their space.”

Deception and trickery can easily be construed as being negative but the malandragem is a neutral instinct for us to make negative or positive.  

According to Mestre Bola Sete’s in his work, Capoeira Angola: Do Iniciante Ao Mestre translated by Shayna McHugh, “I think that every Capoeirista should circle in good and bad environments so that he can acquire the experience and, consequently, the malandragem (cleverness) necessary to his development. To know wickedness and not use it. This is one of our main objectives. That is where merit resides. To have the knowledge of evil and keep it in your innermost, not allowing it to manifest itself.”

Risadinha responded, “Some people are negative people. Recently in Brazil, a guy nearly knocked me out in a roda. It had nothing to do with his gender, race or nationality. This person was not listening to my game and made no attempt at playing Capoeira together with me, his “opponent”, in the roda. This is utterly unfortunate. I feel that our world is ailing because of a lack of listening and an excess of talking. This Capoeirista was basically screaming at me in the roda, with his acrobatics and ridiculously fast kicks.” 

As an untempered, emotional instinct, the malandragem can be as much to our disadvantage despite whatever hopes or ambitions for which we planned. Art-forms, such as Capoeira, make this skill intelligent. We can learn to use malandragem as more than a reaction from fear, ego or anger. We can now check ourselves from unwittingly manipulating our friends or lovers when we know we’re only lashing out from our pride or insecurities. We also realize that the direct approach is not always the best approach for our sake and theirs. At the same time, in business and conflict, we can check ourselves from being so manipulative that we forget sincerity and morality.

Here is another paradox. In Capoeira and life, it seems that the more one learns about the art of brutality or manipulation the more one is required to learn restraint and respect. When we strike, physically or not, if we knew better the exact effect or damage we can inflict, we would, hopefully, bear a heavier conscience when we do.

Mestre Decio said, "When I apply my malandragem, I pretend to attack to draw a response and when the response makes the other player vulnerable I can hit, but choose not to. This is my malandragem."  

His student, LoboGuara, provided an extension to this comment. "Choosing not to attack is as much part of the malandragem as luring is. I feel that malandragem has much more to do with awareness, than anything else. I like to call malandragem: 'The highest choice'." 

As a writer, I think the malandragem and Capoeira are not games where 'winning' is the primary objective. In a street fight, yes, but in the roda the objective is more to understand your opponent. And the opponent is not necessarily your enemy but somebody who challenges you to identify your weaknesses or strengths.

Mastering this raw instinct is the ultimate reward -- being able to flow with this tumultuous world of information, opportunity and chance by relying on the one thing that should remain a constant vigilance: a sense of self.  

While the malandragem is not directly taught in North America (even discouraged), it is certainly well-applied. Every piece of information you receive is set up for us to read in a certain way be it in advertisement, politics, law or history. The set up may not always be a conscious act (sure) but this doesn’t make the effect less powerful.  

If every conversation was a game of Capoeira, where would you be standing at the end of the game? Did you even touch each other? Did you even get within a foot of each other? Did your words, your message, sink deeply or barely skim the surface? Did you even want them to? 

LoboGuara said, “In Capoeira we want to let the movement come as close as possible without being hit. This will open the door to many counter attacks. You need anticipation, and calm awareness. At the same time, you must realize that your so-called "advantage" can be the place the other person wants you to go.” 

"Sometimes the appearance of weakness is part of the strategy. One may take a hit in order to lull the opponent into a sense of superiority. One example I can think of is a master of Kali (Philippino knife, and edged weapons fighting) who allowed his partner (in practice) to kick him in the stomach in order to be able to cut his archilles tendon with his knife (plastic). The question at this point is not of who got hit first, but of who survived. If this was real life, one person would have a pain in the gut, and the other would never walk again."  

The objective in the roda for Risadinha is, “To share an intense moment in the roda, to have a meaningful conversation, to have fun and sweat, and to combine energies to enter a fourth dimension void of time and full of freedom.”  

Can a simple thing like a conversation do this as much as the physical game of Capoeira? I assure you, words can be as flexible and sharp as physical movements. The effects can last much longer, too. Unfortunately, words tend to be more ambiguous making the truths run deeper and the mysteries multiple. 

How does Capoeira teach us to defend ourselves against somebody else’s malandragem?  

“By listening,” Risadinha responded. “Both inside and outside of the roda, listening is a crucial skill which is often left by the wayside in our uber-independent society.”

LoboGuara answered, “A powerful Capoeira does not need to worry about the other person's malandragem because being a student of it he/she has enough awareness to recognize it. My personal rule: "Don't fight fire with fire. Don't fight the weapon, fight the attacker.” In other words, I am not about to indulge in trying to figure out the other person's malandragem. Otherwise, I may figure it out and get caught simultaneously. Dealing with it is not necessarily a conscious process but a reaction born of experience.” 

Matamosquito responded, "The really beautiful thing about Capoeira is that it teaches you both sides, the one where you are the winner and the one where you are the loser. When you first start practicing Capoeira, it is the time that you are totally exposed to people with more experience, and it is there when you start to develop your own malandragem. First you will get hit, or taken down, but with some practice you will learn how to defend against others' malandragem and also you will learn to accept that to get a hit or taken down is part of Capoeira. In order to be a good Capoeirista you have to learn how to fall. That's what my mestre says. This, for me, is one of the best life lessons that Capoeira teaches."

The Jogo de Palavras

In the jogo de palavras, hits and wins are not tested in a sensual world. The writer’s only ‘opponents’ are her own fears that keep her from seeing the true patterns of her own malandragem. I convince people to believe something one day, when tomorrow I may think the same is untrue.  What I wanted today, I may want something else tomorrow. What do I believe? What do I want? Do I accept that these two things constantly change, at random, or are these changes part of the process towards finding what I truly believe and want? 

The physical practice of the malandragem through Capoeira movements brings our weaknesses and strengths to the surface; the last place most people are prepared to deal with them. People who don't engage it physically can afford to keep these more buried and hidden.  

“Physicality makes things quantifiable,” LoboGuara said. “I have found it easier to understand malandragem through its effect than by talking about it. However, the malandragem is a mental device. Even when we fight it unfolds from our minds. If we do not fight, the wisdom is still there, and transferable. I talk about the physical aspects mainly because they make example easy. I mainly express my malandragem in the physical aspect, but I strongly believe that the more we think about the concept, the more it becomes a part of our subconscious mind and becomes applied to everything else. Did you ever notice how aware Capoeira mestres can be? You simply cannot fool a true Capoeira mestre. They can see right through and into people's true intentions.” 

“When the mind becomes free of the clutter of strategy, and technique, all of its energy can be applied to awareness. This is where you can engage in an "honest" negotiation. The body will do its thing on its own just like it doesn't require your thought to keep the heart beating.” 

At the same time, the physical game makes it too easy to discount a weakness that manifests itself physically, as just that – a physical weakness. For example: He was faster than me. She was stronger than me. 

In the jogo de palavras, I invite hits. If your argument is so strong as to change me then it is an argument worth hearing. A good idea or argument can withstand any hit and inevitably the only way to prove a good idea is to take many hits.  

As a writer, I must understand that while I may manipulate a situation to get something I want, what is more important is to understand the root of that desire. For example: I got him to admit he was wrong. What I really wanted was proof that I was right. Did I achieve this by getting him to say he was wrong? Or did I just pull one over my own eyes? 

The fiction writer then recreates what she learns into an interpretation, story or myth. Why would a writer value fiction over non-fiction? Why do Capoeiristas value the ability to trick or deceive? 

Fiction writers are just elaborate liars. The objective, however, is not deception. All lies are based on a truth. In fact, when somebody needs to lie or manipulate, they magnify the truth by making it a hidden treasure. When a writer chooses to lie it is to set up the inevitable truth about the only thing that matters when you have one set of eyeballs; one perspective to see this world through: yourself. I understand that even how I choose to lie and fake is a reflection of myself.  

LoboGuara responded, “The body only moves in so many ways, and physics doesn't care about style, or technique, so objective physical study makes things less ambiguous for me.” 

You may be able to force a person to move or not move in a physical way, but to apply the malandragem to a person’s way of thinking or perspective? Is this possible? You can suggest. You can influence. You can attempt to brainwash. But the human mind ultimately and always has only a very specific set of eyes to see through. They can say, ‘yes, I agree with you entirely,’ but that acceptance is limited. The truth is, when we help, hurt or manipulate each other we struggle to understand each other and therefore understand ourselves: a paradox. 

Matamosquito added, “Yes, we use malandragem in our everyday life. I say "we” because it is a natural ability that we all have, but some people develop it more that others. This is a very simple example but I used malandragem to get a free meal. I used to visit the restaurant where my friends work and initiate some conversation. At some point I would ask for food, and it would be free or with a big discount. I knew before getting to the restaurant that I would get food in some way, for free or really cheap.” 

According to LoboGuara, “One important thing to remember is that malandragem is a means to something. With that in mind, it either works, or doesn't. There is no recipe for defence, and the only thing that will work is an honest reaction at a moment when one is under "negotiation".  

“The more one exhibits malandragem, the less likely it is to work. That is its nature. For example, when people use a lot of malicia during a game, I read it, and sooner or later, intercept it. Imagine how someone must feel when they try to feint and they get hit at that exact moment. They start to question the worth of their own malicia, and that is my malandragem. So as much as I value it, I reserve it for the right time. The biggest mistake anyone can make is to use it like a jab. That is a sure way to render it useless.” 

Writers learn very quickly that those who own history are the ones who record it. Similarly, whenever a Capoeirista agrees to play the game, that person's game adds to the Capoeira story. If there was only one book of Capoeira ever written and something in the oral tradition broke down, fifty years from now, that book, even if it was poorly written, could become the Capoeira bible. If there was only one game of Capoeira ever played, that game would own Capoeira. This is part of the writer’s malandragem: our words take part-ownership of our subject matter – interpreted and set-up through our perspective - then, re-interpreted by the reader. Good writers can try to be as fair and objective as possible and remove themselves from the subject. Better writers also realize the truth, as Coruja said earlier: “Real Capoeira will always be there, people serious about it will just have to find it it has been always, I guess.” 

Simply, if there was any real truth in Capoeira that was ever lost in translation, we would eventually stumble upon its mystery again. It is inevitable and our nature to do so. 

If this article was a game of Capoeira where would we be standing before each other right now?  

© lyw


From the United Capoeira Association website: "Capoeira is an art form that involves movement, music, and elements of practical philosophy. One experiences the essence of Capoeira by "playing" a physical game called jogo de Capoeira (game of Capoeira) or simply jogo ... During the jogo, the Capoeiristas explore their strengths and weaknesses, fears and fatigue in a sometimes frustrating, but nevertheless enjoyable, challenging and constant process of personal expression, self-reflection and growth."

jogo de palavras: game of words

malicia: trickery/deception

malandragem:  application of trickery/deception.

roda:  the circle where the game of Capoeira is played.

mestre: Master or teacher.