The Fabulous “Feather Game”
Speaking of cultural commentary, I was solicited in June 2006, via e-mail (what else?), by the program events coordinator of Exploris, a local interactive museum devoted to world cultures, to give a lecture on, and show my long-dormant “skills” with (ha!), something called peteca, as part of the museum’s focus on “inspiring interest in our ever-evolving global society and how it touches [our] lives here at home.”
The peteca talk and live demonstration would be concurrent with that of a visiting capoeira troupe, the Abadá Capoeira Raleigh, run by a large, muscularly built fellow called Fabiano Cunha (nicknamed “Mago,” in accordance with capoeira tradition), a native of Paraná State in southern Brazil.
What is peteca? Peteca (pronounced peh-TEH-ka) is a traditional Brazilian game of “hand shuttlecock,” which is probably the best way to describe the activity to someone unfamiliar with its origins or the obscure-looking object of everyone’s desire, the peteca itself.
My brother and I learned to play peteca not on the streets and byways of our native São Paulo, but on the concrete pavement of the South Bronx, where we both grew up. Our citified friends were suitably intrigued by peteca. They used to call it the “feather game,” mostly because of the way it looked. Briefly, the peteca has a flat, rounded, and weighted leather base around three-to-five inches in diameter, depending on the type of peteca used. It’s topped off with a flowing crop of stiff, brightly colored feathers — somewhat like the headdress of a Guarani Indian chieftain (you get the idea).
Whether on a tennis court or a playground, at the beach or in the park, inside the office (don’t let the boss catch you) or outside during break time, peteca can be played practically anywhere and by almost anyone, regardless of age or physical condition.
One strikes the flat part of its base with the palm of one’s hand. No feet are allowed, which in my case, as a former juvenile player of street soccer, was pretty hard to resist. The trick was to steer the peteca towards your partner without ever letting it touch the ground, ergo its similarity to badminton in that respect, but without the net or racket.
There are professional peteca leagues and federations (with standardized rules and regulations) not only all across Brazil, but also in such remote regions as England and France, and as far away as The People’s Republic of China. Perhaps the peteca sprouted invisible wings (to go with the aerodynamic plumage) for it to have reached such great distances on its own.
In any event, the program was set for a Saturday, on the afternoon of November 4, 2006, right after the capoeira exhibition in the Global Village Square, or great hall, of the museum.
Capoeira by Way of Peteca
Arriving early in order to beat the traffic, I left the car in the street with my wife and quickly went inside to ask about parking privileges for the museum’s invited guests.
“Parking privileges…? Oh sorry, we don’t have a specific parking area,” was the attendant’s rapid response to my query. “You’ll have to find one of those two-hour parking spaces outside in the street. Good luck!”
“Thanks a lot!” I grumbled through semi-clenched teeth, hoping the police at least would show this ignorant novice some much-needed sympathy and not tow my precious vehicle away (with my all-too precious spouse still in it). As I was leaving to go tell her the good news, I noticed a bulky, dark-colored van that had previously pulled up to the museum’s curb. On the sidewalk was what appeared to be drums, pandeiros (tambourines), exercise mats, and a foreign-looking contraption I knew to be a berimbau, which is used exclusively to accompany capoeira sessions.
“These must be the guys,” I thought to myself. “Now we’re really in for a good time!” Much relieved at this familiar sight, since I wasn’t all that worked up to begin with about giving a boring lecture to some bratty preteens when a real, interactive demo was clearly within the museum’s reach, I waited for the appointed hour (after having finally stumbled upon a convenient location for my car).
Moving on to Global Village Square, I introduced myself to Fabiano, who was even bigger close up than I expected but exceedingly friendly and approachable nonetheless. He mistook me at first for a publicist he had talked to earlier in the week, but after the ice had thawed between us he spoke animatedly about the abiding Abadá Capoeira culture and philosophy — in 30 words or less:
“Abadá is the oldest capoeira school of its type in Brazil,” he explained in southern-flavored Portuguese (he also conversed in pretty decent English). “There are Abadá Capoeira schools in almost every state in the U.S., and all over the world as well.”
“Wow, I didn’t know that!” I replied in amazement. And to hook up with a paranaense right here in downtown Raleigh was even more of a welcome surprise for me personally.
Soon a modest but well-behaved crowd of middle school children and their parents shuffled their way in, while one of the museum’s assistants — a sprightly lass with the appropriately labeled moniker of Ariel — came by and handed off to me a small, unassuming contraption I correctly deduced to be a fairly worn peteca.
Unfortunately, this pathetic little fellow had seen better playing days, for it was now held together with safety pins instead of the original leather stitching. What was left of the damaged “feathers” wouldn’t withstand a mosquito bite let alone a decent whack on its weightless bottom. So much for my aborted peteca talk!
Oh well, on to capoeira. As my wife and I hugged the sidelines, instantly Fabiano and his group (made up primarily of a few African-Americans and some intermediate non-native practitioners) straddled forth and began their timely display, to the off-key plucking of metal strings on the berimbau, the smacking of pandeiros (“tambourines”), rhythmic hand clapping, and a heavily miked CD of classic capoeira songs.
“Pa-ra-na-weh, Pa-ra-na-weh, Paraná,” they chanted in unison and in typical Northeastern Brazilian communal-singing fashion.
“This is capoeira,” shouted Fabiano to the startled assemblage, as he proceeded to show to the spectators some of the standard moves and fancy footwork common to the sport. “It comes from here,” he cried out, bending down and pointing to a conveniently placed, hand-painted outline of Brazil on the museum floor. “Capoeira is from right here, from Bahia, and is both a martial art and a dance. It’s not from Africa but from Brazil.”
He then called on each of his troupe members to demonstrate their capoeira “chops.” In no time, Fabiano, with his outward-going personality and charm, was able to ignite a high degree of interest among the onlookers, many of whom I am certain have never before seen capoeira in action. He even got some of the shyest ones to come out of their shells and move onto the museum floor to practice the steps involved — no small feat, I don’t mind telling you.
Afterwards, the parents of those same kids were busily engaged in getting directions to Fabiano’s school and arranging with him for some future lessons. So what happened to peteca? Well, as I forlornly told the fleet-footed museum assistant, nothing I could say or do would be able to top the performance we had just witnessed. And that was the end of that.
We’re All Connected
While Fabiano and friends were getting the boys and girls together to join in the capoeira chants and ritual “baptism,” I seemed to recall a recent TV special broadcast in my area not too long before this live exhibition took place. That special, which was shown on the Discovery Channel and transmitted in a wide-screen, high-definition format, was part of the Discovery Atlas series of programs devoted to different countries and their respective cultures.
The show I had in mind, “Brazil Revealed,” was an excellent two-hour excursion into various aspects of the country’s social and professional life, among them an all-girl soccer competition in Manaus, an elaborate Carnival presentation in Rio, one of the few women helicopter pilots in São Paulo, a Brazilian-style Easter parade in the city of Pelourinho, and, of course, a local capoeira school in Salvador da Bahia.
What grabbed me most about the capoeira segment was that it started off telling the story of Jackson dos Santos, a bright but troubled thirteen-year-old who had lost his father in a drug shootout and was himself tempted to deal drugs on his neighborhood’s meaner streets.
At his estranged mom’s insistence, the sullen and directionless boy, who now lives with his grandmother, was taken under the wing of a robust senior citizen named Boa Gente (“Mr. Nice Guy”), a decent and protective soul more interested in the welfare of the wayward youth placed under his care than the ever-present danger of drug lords he, too, once had to fight off.
“I’ve been asked to sell drugs, to use drugs,” Boa Gente confided to the camera, “but I had the chance to take different paths.” These paths, he explained, ultimately led him to capoeira, and to the discipline and stamina required to successfully achieve his goals in life, and in this uniquely Brazilian dance and martial art form.
In no time as well, Jackson’s confidence in his own capoeira abilities were kindled, as we watched him evolve from a dour street-dweller (with the dead-end potential of another Pixote-in-the-making) into a normal, smiling teenager, full of eagerness and hope in a better future for himself and his family, thanks to Boa Gente’s firm-but-gentle guiding hand and his active involvement in the cultural and social life of his community.
Looking at how Boa Gente — on television and in Bahia — and Fabiano Cunha — in the flesh and at a North Carolina museum — were able to so quickly take their charges’ raw energy and organize them into something constructive and sound, while at the same time giving these kids a structure and foundation in an activity as socially distinctive as capoeira, drove the message home that we are indeed living in marvelous times, where people can be truly connected to one another by more than just Ma Bell.
As an end-note to the story, one of the persons involved in the post-production work on “Brazil Revealed” turned out to be former DJ and radio announcer Julinho Mazzei, Marjorie Mazzei Raggo’s brother and the son of the late soccer legend and ex-New York Cosmos coach, Professor Júlio Mazzei.
Talk about a small world, this planet’s shrinking by the message unit. ☼
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes