CNN learns about capoeira from Brian Owengo

On this week’s episode of African Voices CNN International meets Brian Owengo, a Kenyan passing on the art of capoeira to people in his country. Capoeira refers to a 400 year old Afro-Brazillian martial art that was created by African slaves in Brazil.

Despite originating in Brazil, Owengo argues capoeira also has a cultural significance to Africa: “It was mostly developed in Brazil but did the capoeira movements that we see, the ludic aspect, musicality, did it come from Africa. Personally, I’m very much of the opinion that, it’s completely African but has strong roots in Brazil, because that is where it was developed.”

Owengo’s first memory of capoeira was as a child, watching TV at home in Kenya. He says: “I had seen capoeira when I was about 9 or 10 years old. We used to have two channels in Nairobi, there was this program called Trans World Sports International. In my household, we used to spend a lot of time in the evening waiting for my Dad to come back for dinner, so I was just puttering around the house and this feature came on and I remember being completely transfixed you know just watching all this amazing movement and feeling the energy of the music you know.”

Owengo moved to Brazil to learn more about capoeira. In South America, Owengo’s love for and understanding of the art deepened as he tells CNN: “People who were taken from Africa as slaves to South America and specifically to Brazil are the people who created capoeira for us… This is the thing I say that transcends the beautiful movements in all this sort of emotional music. This is capoeira. These are people who survived all that: who had their culture taken away from them, their identity, their names, their families, everything taken away from them. And this is one of those things that live through that.”

In 2005 Owengo moved back to Kenya where he opened the country’s first capoeira school – Capoeira Balanço Negro. “Balanço Negro means black swing or the way of the black man. It is important for everybody to understand that our style of capoeira lives in that name. So, one of the things that you will see in our capoeira community, the people who comes through our doors is that we have always had African dancing classes, it’s very important to have a connection to where we come from in order for us to know where we are going.”

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In addition to weekly sessions at the dance centre, Brian also teaches in one of Nairobi’s many informal settlements. He says: “It was astonishing that a bunch of kids in Eastlands, in Nairobi, were so in tune with the spirit of capoeira music… It started, what was a one-day thing, a sports day uh turned into ten years, no? Ten years of a very deep relationship and the creation of a capoeira family… You know I think the kids who practice… I found that there are different things gleaned from capoeira, different things you know come as a benefit to each individual child, you know. And a sense of belonging I think is a big one.”

In order to further spread the joy of capoeira in Kenya, Owengo also organizes an annual Tandawazi Festival on Kenya’s Swahili Coast. He explains to African Voices why the event is important in increasing engagement: “What started as a tiny capoeira event that grew to this artistic platform where everybody can come in and learn from an internationally renowned artists has now also evolved to a drive for domestic and international tourism. So, get this, you actually have people flying from Spain, France, Greece, to come and do the capoeira part of the festival.”

On the future of capoeira in Kenya, Owengo hopes it can continue to flourish without his help: “The next phase of capoeira is definitely to have a more structured work. I would say that our first 13 or 14 years of our existence were a labour of love. I want to create something that’s going to transcend the ages… A school that runs without me. A culture within the school that is understood by many people… Capoeira is like life because, it’s one of the few places that you get to look at yourself in the mirror and it’s one of the few places that you get to interact with somebody at their core. The true essence of that person comes out during capoeira.”