The Inner Circle - The Unwise Decision to Define the Undefinable - Malícia

The Unwise Decision to Define the Undefinable - Malícia

Parts of this post excerpted from The Capoeira Guidebook – Investigations into the Culture, History, and Philosophy of the Afro-Brazilian Art by yours truly

Out in the real world, when I’m not wearing abadas, I spend a lot of time riding bikes.  Cycling is, for me, predominantly a solo activity and a good antidote to capoeira’s relentless social scene.  However, the other day I bucked my usual routine and went out for a ride with two friends.  Both are serious cyclists who train just about every day, eat distressing amounts of kale, and track their power-to-weight ratios with all the fervor of trader eyeing her stock portfolio.  In capoeira, getting stronger means doing queda de rins; in cycling, getting stronger means riding uphill, so upwards we went.  I live against the Rockies, which makes it easy to find places where the road is steep and the oxygen scarce.  Gasping along, my friends chanced on the subject of capoeira, something they’re vaguely familiar with as my evening job, but have never actually seen in the flesh.  Haltingly, in between inhalations, they asked a question I hadn’t really considered before: is capoeira harder than cycling?  Cycling, after all, can be awfully hard.  The simplicity of it makes it easy to drive yourself into the ground—find a road and pedal really hard.  Rinse and repeat with occasional breaks to vomit.  Once you can balance on the thing, there’s barely a learning curve.  Just go out and hammer as much as you like.

Despite all that, the short answer is yes, capoeira is harder than cycling.  Physically, there’s nothing like the whole-body (holistic?) tiredness a batizado gives me.  Even a short roda can be a ridiculously anaerobic affair, all kicks and dodges and flips and oxygen debt when you’re trying to sing.  But beyond the obvious physical aspect, capoeira is hard because it’s more than just a recreational activity.  For the unwary, it can very quickly become an obsession and even a way of life.  And for those of us who’ve been sucked into that particular whirlpool, grappling with capoeira’s paradigm is par for the course.  This now-global Afro-Brazilian art is tied to the Portuguese language, which means us non-Brazilians are at a serious disadvantage until we acquire some Portuguese.  The songs, the commentary, and the roda’s subtext are out of reach for someone who doesn’t speak the language.

Moreover, a lot of capoeira’s philosophy rests on several words/concepts that are difficult to translate: malícia, malandragem, mandinga, vadiação.  Anyone looking for an overarching goal needs these few signposts to begin their search.  Until we know a little about malícia and vadiação it’s pointless to ask, “What’s the point of capoeira?” 

So let’s try to shine a light into the murk.  Let’s talk a little bit about that elusive word, malícia.           

Malícia is the ocean in which capoeira lives.  Every action flows with, adheres to, and is guided by malícia. The word itself shares the same root as the English word “malice,” but it’s larger and more nuanced than simple ill-intent.  It lives on the boundary of capoeira’s principal ideological struggle: the urge to completely control one’s partner and the urge to maintain the fragile détente of dance-fight.  Exercising control in the roda takes many forms, but it always uses malícia to achieve its best self (this implies the malícia is a necessary for the best capoeira, which is indeed the case).   In a more self-defense-minded martial art, controlling your opponent often means subduing him in one way or another.  Because the pervading issue is one of safety, there’s no wiggle-room; it’s the very definition of the ends justifying the means.  But in the roda, the question of domination morphs.  It’s not enough to bulldoze my partner, there’s a question of style.  How can I control my partner without appearing to directly control him?  I must use malícia.  Sneakiness, improvisation, cunning, unpredictability.  Great capoeristas may have vastly different styles and modes of play, but they all share this fusion of qualities—they all share a talent for deception.  If ballet were more Machiavellian, it might mirror capoeira.

Greg Downey, author of the book Learning Capoeira, remarks that, like life, capoeira is not an equal playing field.  Nor does it claim to be; players are matched at whim with no formal preservations made for age, weight, or skill.  Disadvantage is inextricable.  Malícia allows a smaller, weaker, or otherwise less-able player to get the better of a stronger player.  Guile overcomes force, on occasion.  As Bruce Lee wrote about the advice his master gave him, “…preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere.  Remember never to assert yourself against nature, never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but control it by swinging with it.”

Malícia means not only swinging with obstacles, but also cultivating innocence throughout.  To act questionably, even meanly, and get away with it.  Let’s suppose that in the roda, you give me a problem (e.g. a vingativa).  Instead of solving it head-on (bearing down and freezing in place to defeat the takedown with force), I re-frame the situation so that now the problem is in your lap (hook your foot with a calcanheira as you step in).  I shake my head, saying, just look what you got yourself into.  Your takedown has ultimately led to your own fall.  Somehow, even though you’re the one on the ground, the whole thing is your fault.    

Perhaps the best, shortest way to describe malícia is to call it a “cheerful cunning.”  An adept, malicioso player can dominate without injuring, can humiliate her partner and have him chuckle over it.  It is the wink and smile of a friend as she places a “kick me” sign on your back—while you smile in return and allow it to happen so you can steal her wallet.  It is the ability to drop into a sticky situation, make your partner look a fool, and exit with the air of innocence.  It is a very particular approach to solving problems—a mental jiu-jitsu.  It is a fierce awareness hidden behind a relaxed, sleepy smile. 

For most capoeiristas, malícia is not limited to the roda.  It is a useful philosophy for approaching the practice of life.  Capoeira’s Afro-Brazilian roots guaranteed that most capoeiras found themselves at a systemic disadvantage no matter which direction they faced.  Most capoeiras were poor blacks, the cultural descendants of African slaves, who couldn’t afford to take life for granted.  Every piece of luxury and independence had to be earned.  Finding themselves on the wrong side of the socioeconomic and racial fence, they adopted a sensible attitude towards authority.  Covert resistance disguised as overt compliance.  The dance within the fight, as more than one mestre has described it.  The realization that, if you don’t play by the rules you will be punished, and if you do you’ll lose anyway.  If you want to win—in any capacity—delicate manipulation of the game is required. 


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