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    Capoeira: The African Martial Art

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    Capoeira is the common name for the group of African martial arts that originated in West Africa and were modified and mixed in Brazil. These original styles included weapons, grappling, and striking, as well as animal forms that became incorporated into different components and substyles of the art. In the 1500s, the Portuguese, led by explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, arrived in Brazil. One of the first measures taken by the new arrivals was to conquer the local population, the Brazilian Indians, to allow for Portuguese slave labor (for sugarcane and cotton). However, the experience with the Indians was a failure.

    The Indians quickly died in captivity or fled to their nearby homes. The Portuguese then began to import slave labor from Africa. On the other side of the Atlantic, free men and women were captured, loaded onto slave ships, and sent on nightmare voyages that would end in bondage. The Africans first arrived by the hundreds and later by the thousands (approximately four million in total).

    Three major African groups contributed in large numbers to the slave population in Brazil: the Sudanese group, composed largely of Yoruba and Dahomean peoples; the Mohammedanized Guinea-Sudanese groups of Malesian and Hausa peoples; and the “Bantu” groups (among them Kongos, Kimbundas, and Kasanjes) from Angola, Congo, and Mozambique. The Bantu groups are believed to have been the foundation for the birth of capoeira. They brought with them their culture, a culture that was not stored in books and museums but in the body, mind, heart, and soul. A culture that was transmitted from father to son throughout generations. There was Candomblé, a religion; the berimbau, a musical instrument; vatapá, a food; and many other things. The Dutch controlled parts of the northeast between 1624 and 1654.

    Slaves took steps towards reconquest of their freedom when the Dutch fought against the Portuguese colony, invading towns and plantations along the northeastern coast, concentrating on Recife and Salvador. With each Dutch invasion, the security of the plantations and towns was weakened. The slaves, taking advantage of the opportunities, fled into the forests in search of places in which to hide and survive. Many, after escaping, founded independent villages called quilombos.

    The quilombos were very important to the evolution of capoeira. There were at least ten major quilombos with economic and commercial relationships with neighboring cities. The quilombo dos Palmares lasted sixty-seven years in the interior of the state of Alagoas, fighting off almost all expeditions sent to extinguish it. Because of the consistency and type of threat present, capoeira developed as a fight in the quilombos. The birth of capoeira as a fighting style was created in the slaves’ quarters and might not have developed further if left only to that environment.

    Starting around 1814, capoeira and other forms of African cultural expression suffered prohibition in some places by the slave masters and overseers. Up until that date, forms of African cultural expression were permitted and sometimes even encouraged, not only as a safety against internal pressures created by slavery but also to bring out the differences between various African groups, in a spirit of “divide and conquer”. However, with the arrival of the Portuguese king Dom Joao VI and his court in Brazil in 1808, who were fleeing Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Portugal, things changed. The newcomers understood the necessity of destroying a people’s culture to dominate them, and capoeira began to be persecuted in a process that would end with its being outlawed in 1892.

    Why was capoeira suppressed? There were many motives. Firstly, it gave Africans a sense of nationality. It also developed self-confidence in individual capoeira practitioners, created small, cohesive groups and dangerous and agile fighters.

    Sometimes the slaves would injure themselves during capoeira, which was not desirable from an economic point of view. The masters and overseers were probably not as conscious as the king and his intellectuals of his court of all of these motives, but even still, they knew something didn’t seem right. There are many other theories to explain the origins of capoeira. According to one well-known theory, capoeira was a fight that was disguised as a dance so that it could be practiced without the knowledge of the white slave owners. This seems unlikely because when African culture began to be repressed, other forms of African dancing suffered prohibition along with capoeira, so there would be no sense in disguising capoeira as a dance.

    Another theory says that the Mucupes in the South of Angola had an initiation ritual (efundula) for when girls became women, on which occasion the young warriors engaged in the N’golo, or “dance of the zebras,” a warrior’s fight-dance. According to this theory, the N’golo was capoeira itself. This theory was presented by Camara Cascudo, but one year later, Waldeloir Rego warned that this “strange theory” should be looked upon with reserve until it was properly proven (something that never happened). If the N’Golo did exist, it would seem that it was one of several dances that contributed to the creation of early capoeira.

    Other theories mix Zumbi, the legendary leader of the Quilombo dos Palmares, with the origins of capoeira, without any reliable information on it. All of these theories are important when trying to understand the myth that surrounds capoeira, but they cannot be accepted as historical fact according to the data and information that we presently have. Maybe with further research, the theory that capoeira is a mix of various African dances and fights that occurred in Brazil, mostly in the 19th century, will also be outdated in future years. With the signing of the Golden Law in 1888, which abolished slavery, the newly freed slaves did not find a place for themselves within the existing society.

    The capoeirista (practitioner of capoeira), with his fighting skills, self-confidence, and individuality, quickly descended into criminality, and capoeira along with him. In Rio de Janeiro, where capoeira had developed exclusively as a form of fighting, criminal gangs were created that terrorized the population. Soon thereafter, during the transition from the Brazilian Empire to the Brazilian republic in 1890, these gangs were used by both monarchists and republicans to exert pressure on and break up the rallies of their adversaries. The club, the dagger, and the switchblade were used to complement the damage done by various capoeira moves.

    In Bahia, on the other hand, capoeira continued to develop into a ritual-dance-fight-game, and the berimbau began to be an indispensable instrument used to command the rodas (sessions of capoeira games), which always took place in hidden places since the practice of capoeira had been outlawed by the first constitution of the Brazilian Republic (1892). At the beginning of the twentieth century, in Rio, the capoeirista was a rogue and a criminal. Whether the capoeirista was white, black, or mulatto, he was an expert in the use of kicks (golpes), sweeps (rasteiras), and head-butts (cabecadas), as well as in the use of blade weapons. In Recife, capoeira became associated with the city’s principal music bands. During carnival time, tough capoeira fighters would lead the bands through the streets of that city, and wherever two bands would meet, fighting and bloodshed would usually occur. In Bahia, the capoeirista was also often seen as a criminal.

    The persecution and the confrontations with the police continued. The art form was slowly extinguished in Rio and Recife, leaving capoeira only in Bahia. It was during this period that legendary figures, feared players such as Besouro Cordao-de-Ouro in Bahia, Nascimento Grande in Recife, and Manduca da Praia in Rio, who are celebrated to this day in capoeira, made their appearances. It is said that Besouro lived in Santo Amaro da Purificacao in the state of Bahia and was the teacher of another famous capoeirista by the name of Cobrinha Verde. Besouro did not like the police and was feared not only as a capoeirista but also for having his corpo fechado (a person who, through specific magic rituals, supposedly has almost complete invulnerability in the face of various weapons). According to legend, an ambush was set up for him. It is said that he himself carried the written message identifying him as the person to be killed, thinking that it was a message that would bring him work.

    Legend says he was killed with a special wooden dagger prepared during magic rituals to overcome his corpo fechado. Of all the rogues that led the carnival bands through the streets of Recife, Nascimento Grande was one of the most feared. Some say he was killed during police persecution in the early 1900s, but others say he moved from Recife to Rio de Janeiro and died of old age there. Manduca da Praia was of an earlier generation and always dressed in an extremely elegant style. It is said that he owned a fish store and lived comfortably. He was also one of those who controlled elections in the area he lived in.

    It is said that he had twenty-seven criminal cases against himself (for assault, knifing, etc.), but was always overlooked due to his influence on the politicians he worked for. The two central figures in capoeira in the twentieth century were undoubtedly Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha. These two figures are so important in the history of capoeira that they (and the mystery that surrounds them) are the mythical ancestors of all capoeira players. Much of what a modern capoeira player tries to be is due to what these men were or represented.

    In 1932 in Salvador, Mestre Bimba (Manuel dos Reis Machado) opened the first capoeira academy. He started teaching what he called “the regional fight from Bahia,” eventually known as Capoeira Regional (faster, more aggressive than traditional Capoeira Angola style). This was made possible by the nationalistic policies of Getulio Vargas, who wanted to promote capoeira as a Brazilian sport. Although Bimba opened his school in 1932, the official recognition only came about in 1937. The Getulio Vargas government permitted the practice of capoeira, but only in enclosed areas that were registered with the police. With the opening of Bimba’s Academy, a new era in the history of capoeira began, as the game was taught to the children of the upper classes of Salvador.

    Bimba was active in capoeira his whole life. In 1941, Mestre Pastinha (Vincente Ferreira Pastinha) opened his capoeira angola school. For the first time, capoeira began to be taught and practiced openly in a formal setting. He became known as the “philosopher of capoeira.” Unfortunately, government authorities, under the reforming of the Largo do Pelourinho, confiscated his academy. Although he was promised a new one, the government never came through.

    The final years of his life were sad. Blind and almost abandoned, he lived in a small room until his death in 1981 at the age of ninety-two. Capoeira has grown tremendously over the last fifty years. It has finally been accepted by the masses in Brazil. Capoeira competitions and academies are surfacing everywhere. In 1974, it was recognized as the national sport of Brazil.

    This forced the creation of a national federation of capoeira. It was formed to govern, promote and coordinate capoeira since no effort was made previously to unite the various emergences of capoeira throughout Brazil. Capoeira has expanded beyond the borders of Brazil and is growing rapidly in other countries (including the United States). Capoeira appeals to many for many different reasons. First of all, the pure beauty of the art is hypnotic.

    Capoeira is a dance and a fight. It’s not only a combination of gymnastics, dance, and martial arts, but also music, culture, history, and knowledge. The capoeirista must learn to balance the physical with the mental. The capoeirista must play many instruments and sing. The capoeirista may at times be your enemy but is usually a friend.

    The capoeirista is a historian. The capoeirista is all of these.”

    Description: Capoeira consists of a form of dance practiced in a circle called the “roda” with sound provided by percussion instruments such as the “agogo” and the “atabaqui”. The “berimbau” is a non-percussion instrument that is always used in rodas. Capoeira relies heavily on kicks and leg sweeps for attacks and dodges for defenses.

    It is not uncommon to not be taught any kind of hand strike, though arm positioning for blocks is taught. The “ginga” (the footwork of Capoeira) consists of changing the basic stance (body facing the adversary, front leg flexed with body weight over it, the other leg stretched back) from the right leg to the left leg repeatedly. Capoeira also puts a heavy emphasis on ground fighting, but not grappling and locks. Instead, it uses a ground stance (from the basic stance, you just fall over your leg stretched back, flexing it, and leaving the front leg stretched ahead), from which you make dodges, kicks, leg sweeps, acrobatics, etc.

    Hand positioning is important, but it is used only to block attacks and ensure balance, though street fighting “capoeiristas” use their hands for punches. When fighting, it is rare to stop in one stance, and in this case, you just “follow” your opponent with your legs, preventing them from getting close, or preparing a fast acrobatic move to take advantage when they attack. The rest of the time, you just keep changing stances and do the equivalent of boxing “jabs”. Players enter the game from the “pé da roda” (foot of the circle), usually with a cartwheel (au).

    Once in the circle, two players interact with a series of jumps, kicks, flips, head and handstands, and other ritualistic moves. Games can be friendly or dangerous. The music plays an important role in the feel of the game. The type of game being played, whether fast or slow, friendly or tough, depends on the rhythm being played and the lyrics being said.

    Training: After a thorough warm-up, standing exercises are done, with emphasis on the “ginga” and on the basic kicks: “bencao”, a front-stomping kick, “martelo”, a roundhouse kick, “chapa”, a side-kick, “meia-lua”, a low turning kick, “armada”, a high turning kick, “queixada”, an outside-inside crescent kick. Then walking sequences are done, with the introduction of somersaults, backflips, and headstands, in couples and individually. Some more technical training follows, with couples beginning basic and slow, and then the whole class forms and goes for a “roda” game for at least 30 minutes. Capoeira conditions and develops the muscles, especially the abdominal muscles.

    Sub-Styles: Regional style is capoeira in a more artistic, open form, giving more way to athletic prowess and training. Angola style is a more closed, harder style that is closest to the original African systems that came to Brazil. Iuna is a totally athletic and artistic form of the art, where the couple inside the “roda” play together, as opposed to one against the other.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    Capoeira: The African Martial Art. (2018, Dec 31). Retrieved from

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