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Capoeira takes a new turn in Seoul

When he first started to practice capoeira in the basement gym of the SK 2 Tower, Munair Simpson concedes it must have been an odd sight.

“It looks kind of weird ― you’re up on your hands, you’re spinning around, jumping in the air ― it was like ‘is he crazy?’” he says.

But after a colleague plucked up the courage to ask him what he was doing, and Simpson invited her to learn, a Capoeira group began in the company. Simpson still works for SK, but his group has grown to include members from outside the company and relocated twice. It now has its own gym in Jongno in central Seoul that Simpson runs in his spare time.

Simpson’s branch of capoeira, Cordao De Ouro, is fairly new to Asia, and although there are other branches in Korea, his is the first CDO group in the country. It’s a very international one ― there are members from New Zealand, the U.S., Dubai and the Ukraine as well as Korea ― and Simpson enjoys the social aspect he says is integral to the martial art.

“I did this Okinawan martial art called gohu,” he says. “It was great when I studied it when I was younger, but you can actually become a master of that art by practicing on your own. In capoeira, it’s impossible.”

He explains this by pointing out that the moves are essentially a communication between players.

“A game of Capoeira is like a blank sheet and you’re going to write on it, and when you write on it you want to do it using your unique expression ― who you are and how you feel in that space and time,” he says.

Simpson was first drawn to capoeira through Tekken character Eddie Gordo.

“I thought that he was the coolest thing ever,” he says with a smile. “He was dancing and beating everybody up. And I thought if you’re going to fight that’s how you should fight.

“I’d done Asian martial arts before, but there’s a certain rigidity to that style, and capoeira doesn’t have that rigidity so I was really attracted to it.”

This fluid, dancing-like style leads some other martial artists to dismiss capoeira.

“But we are a martial art and if we kick you, it will knock you out,” says Simpson. “I like to express capoeira as a continuum. At one end there’s pure dance, and at the other end is pure fight. I believe capoeira is supposed to be right in the middle.”
Munair Simpson vies against a rival capoeirista at an event in Seoul. (CDO Seoul)
Munair Simpson vies against a rival capoeirista at an event in Seoul. (CDO Seoul)

Indeed Simpson clearly values the Afro-Brazilian musical aspect of capoeira. He speaks enthusiastically about the rhythms for different capoeira games and the instruments used to play them.

One class a week is dedicated to the music and Simpson has flown in capoeira masters, known as “mestres,” with expertise in the musical side of the martial art.

But he says capoeiristas vary. His teacher mestre Chicote, who came last year, prefers the combat side. Mestre Tico, whose workshop in Seoul starts Sept. 30, prefers beautiful movement, spinning and acrobatics, Simpson says.

This is another reason Simpson asks CDO masters to come and instruct ― to give his students the chance to see different takes on capoeira.

“We’re not that different because we’re all under the same group and we all studied under mestre Suassouna,” he says.

“But there are some things that because of his age and his youth (Tico) can focus on that I wouldn’t necessarily focus on. So that movement where he spins on his hands, I will teach that class but I won’t put that sequence in there because I can’t spin 10 times on my hand.”

If the names sound informal, it’s because capoeiristas get a new name when they enlist. Simpson got the name Zumbi, the name of a great Brazilian warrior who resisted the Portuguese during the slave era. He likes it, but he says it comes with a catch.

“When I first got the name it bothered me a little bit because as capoeiristas we’re always a little self-conscious because when you get a good name you immediately feel a lot of pressure to live up to that name.”

Others aren’t so lucky. Zumbi says there are “Little John” type ironic nicknames, as well as taunts about facial or other features. Animals are good ― he mentions “Esquilo,” or squirrel, as a name that implies nimbleness ― but not all animals. One of his friends was named “Prea” ― Portuguese for guinea pig.

“At first it was deserved because in every class he’d be like ‘try it on me’ ― basically he’d be beaten up all the time.”

“To this day he really doesn’t like using it. But I tell him sometimes I wish I was called Prea because then people wouldn’t expect anything of me.”

That’s quite modest from someone who has been teaching capoeira for five years ― he taught it in San Francisco and at the University of Pennsylvania before coming to Korea ― despite starting in his late teens. He’s not a master yet, though ― that takes 25 years ― but it’s a process that Simpson believes builds quality into the system.

“Being a master means that you have mastered the movements and you have taught other people to master the movement,” he explains.

Simpson insists that capoeira does not require a lot of athleticism. He says anyone who can play cricket can do it ― hard to believe given that one of the games involves capoeiristas vying for position to pick an orange off the ground … with their teeth. But he concedes it takes dedication and a lot of work, including outside the class.

Beginner classes take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30-10 p.m. Intermediate classes are on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. to noon. The music class is at 9 a.m. on Saturday and there is a free open class on Sunday at noon.

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By Paul Kerry (
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Korea Herald daum