At a recent exhibit opening for Brazilian photographer Pedro Lobo, Mestre Esquilo and his Charlotte capoeira students mesmerized a large crowd with a physically demanding display of the Afro-Brazilian tradition. The multidisciplinary blend of dance and martial arts movement, chanting and polyrhythm, is a full sensory experience rooted in the history of both the African and South American continents. So is the music captured in these 11 tracks from the Mestre (or Master), a.k.a., Bruno Melo, who recorded alongside his student, ex-Calabi Yau and current Moenda and Bo White Orquesta percussionist Davey Blackburn.
While remaining true to traditional styling and capoeira instruments — especially the resonating ching-ching of the berimbau, a stringed gourd-like instrument at the center of these songs — the music's complex beats are handled deftly by Blackburn.
Capoeira dates back to the slave-trade influx of Africans to Brazil, and shares commonalities with other slavery-based musical traditions. The lyrics often recall the field chants that evolved into the blues here in the States. That's particularly evident in the call-and-response hollers in the up-tempo sea goddess folk song "Pra Iemanjá" and the 2/4 beats of the revolutionary call to arms, "Luta de Libertação." In songs like "Dança Do Nego Nago," you can hear in the syncopated beats parallels to the island rhythms of calypso.
With its simple instrumental palette of hand percussion, voices and berimbau, the music may appear far-removed from the complex textures of today's popular music. But the foundational links to hipster acts from Vampire Weekend to El Guincho lie just under the surface in the songs of Toque O Tambor.