Capoeira is the common name for the group of African martial arts that came outof west Africa and were modified and mixed in Brazil. These original stylesincluded weapons, grappling and striking as well as animal forms that becameincorporated into different components and sub styles of the art. In 1500’s thePortuguese, led by explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, arrived in Brazil. One of thefirst measures taken by the new arrivals was the conquering of the localpopulation, the Brazilian Indians, in order to allow the Portuguese slave labor(for sugarcane and cotton). The experience with the Indians was a failure.
TheIndians quickly died in captivity or fled to their nearby homes. The Portuguesethen 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 nightmarevoyages that would end in bondage. The Africans first arrived by the hundredsand later by the thousands (approximately four million in total).
Three majorAfrican groups contributed in large numbers to the slave population in Brazil,the Sudanese group, composed largely of Yoruba and Dahomean peoples, theMohammedanized Guinea-Sudanese groups of Malesian and Hausa peoples, and the”Bantu” groups (among them Kongos, Kimbundas, and Kasanjes) fromAngola, Congo and Mozambique. The Bantu groups are believed to have been thefoundation for the birth of capoeira. They brought with them their culture; aculture that was not stored in books and museums but in the body, mind, heartand soul. A culture that was transmitted from father to son, throughoutgenerations. There was candomble’, a religion; the berimbau, a musicalinstrument; vatapa, a food; and many other things. The Dutch controlled parts ofthe northeast between 1624 and 1654.
Slaves took steps towards reconquest oftheir freedom when the Dutch fought against the Portuguese colony, invadingtowns and plantations along the northeastern coast, concentrating on Recife andSalvador. With each Dutch invasion, the security of the plantations and townswere weakened. The slaves, taking advantage of the opportunities, fled into theforests in search of places in which to hide and survive. Many, after escaping,founded independent villages called quilombos.
The quilombos were very importantto evolution of capoeira. There were at least ten major quilombos with economicand commercial relationships with neighboring cities. The quilombo dos Palmraeslasted sixty-seven years in the interior of the state of Alagoas, fighting offalmost all expeditions sent to extinguish it. Because of the consistency andtype of threat present, capoeira developed as a fight in the quilombos. Thebirth of capoeira as a fighting style was created in the slaves’ quarters andmight not have developed further if left only to that environment.
Startingaround 1814, capoeira and other forms of African cultural expression sufferedwere prohibited in some places by the slave masters and overseers. Up until thatdate, forms of African cultural expression were permitted and sometimes evenencouraged, not only as safety against internal pressures created by slavery butalso to bring out the differences between various African groups, in a spirit of”divide and conquer”. But with the arrival in Brazil in 1808 of thePortuguese king Dom Joao VI and his court, who were fleeing Napoleon Bonaparte’sinvasion of Portugal, things changed. The newcomers understood the necessity ofdestroying a people’s culture in order to dominate them, and capoeira began tobe persecuted in a process, which would end with its being outlawed in 1892.
Whywas capoeira suppressed? There were many motives. First of all it gave Africansa sense of nationality. It also developed self-confidence in individual capoeirapractitioners. Capoeira created small, cohesive groups. It also createddangerous and agile fighters.
Sometimes the slaves would injure themselvesduring the capoeira, which was not desirable from an economical point of view. The masters and overseers were probably not as conscious as the king and hisintellectuals of his court of all of these motives, but even still, they knewsomething didn’t seem right. There are many other theories to explain theorigins of capoeira. According to one well known theory, capoeira was a fightthat was disguised as a dance so that it could be practiced without knowledge ofthe white slave owners. This seems unlikely because when African culture beganto be repressed, other forms of African dancing suffered prohibition along withcapoeira, so there would be no sense in disguising capoeira as a dance.
Anothertheory says that the Mucupes in the South of Angola had an initiation ritual (efundula)for when girls became woman, on which occasion the young warriors engaged in theN’golo, or “dance of the zebras,” a warrior’s fight-dance. Accordingto this theory, the N’golo was capoeira itself. This theory was presented byCamara Cascudo , but one year later Waldeloir Rego warned that this”strange theory” should be looked upon with reserve until it wasproperly proven (something that never happened). If the N’Golo did exist, itwould seem that it was one of several dances that contributed to the creation ofearly capoeira.
Other theories mix Zumbi, the legendary leader of the Quilombodos Palmares with the origins of capoeira, without any reliable information onit. All of these theories are important when trying to understand the myth thatsurrounds capoeira, but they cannot be accepted as historical fact according tothe data and information that we presently have. Maybe with further research,the theory that capoeira as a mix of various African dances and fights occurredin 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 newlyfreed 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 andcapoeira along with him. In Rio de Janiero, where capoeira had developedexclusively as a form of fighting, criminal gangs were created that terrorizedthe population. Soon thereafter, during the transition from the Brazilian Empireto the Brazilian republic in 1890, these gangs were used by both monarchists andrepublicans 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 doneby various capoeira moves.
In Bahia on the other hand, capoeira continued todevelop into a ritual-dance-fight-game, and the berimbau began to be anindispensable instrument used to command the rodas ( sessions of capoeiragames), which always took place in hidden places since the practice of capoeirahad been outlawed by the first constitution of the Brazilian Republic (1892). Atthe beginning of the twentieth century, in Rio the capoeirista was a rouge and acriminal. Whether the capoeirista was white, black or mulatto, he was an expertin the use of kicks (golpes), sweeps (rasteiras) and head-butts (cabecadas), aswell as in the use of blade weapons. In Recife, capoeira became associated withthe city’s principal musicbands. During carnival time, tough capoeira fighterswould lead the bands through the streets of that city, and wherever two bandswould meet, fighting and bloodshed would usually occur. In Bahia, thecapoeirista was also often seen as a criminal.
The persecution and theconfrontations with the police continued. The art form was slowly extinguishedin Rio and Recife, leaving capoeira only in Bahia. It was during this periodthat 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 tothis day in capoeira, made their appearances It is said that Besouro lived inSanto Amaro da Purificacao in the state of Bahia, and was the teacher of anotherfamous capoeirista by the name of Cobrinha Verde. Besouro did not like thepolice and was feared not only as a capoeirista but also for having his corpofechado (a person who through specific magic rituals, supposedly has almostcomplete 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 writtenmessage identifying him as the person to be killed, thinking that it was amessage that would bring him work.
Legend says he was killed with a specialwooden dagger prepared during magic rituals in order to overcome his corpofechado. Of all the rouges that led the carnival bands through the streets ofRecife, Nascimiento Grande was one of the most feared. Some say he was killedduring police persecution in the early 1900s, but others say he moved fromRecife to Rio de Janiero and died of old age there. Manduca da Praia was of anearlier generation and always dressed in an extremely elegant style. It is saidthat he owned a fish store and lived comfortably. He was also one of those whocontrolled elections in the area he lived in.
It is said that he hadtwenty-seven criminal cases against himself (for assault, knifing etc. ) but wasalways overlooked due to his influence of the politicians he worked for. The twocentral figures in capoeira in the twentieth century were undoubtedly MestreBimba and Mestre Pastinha. These two figures are so important in the history ofcapoeira that they (and the mystery that surrounds them) are the mythicalancestors of all capoeira players. Much of what a modern capoeira player triesto be is due to what these men were or represented.
In 1932 in Salvador, MestreBimba (Manuel dos Reis Machado) opened the first capoeira academy. He startedteaching what he called “the regional fight from Bahia,” eventuallyknown as Capoeira Regional (faster more aggressive than traditional CapoeiraAngola style). This was made possible by nationalistic policies of GetulioVargas, who wanted to promote capoeira as a Brazilian sport. Although Bimbaopened his school in 1932, the official recognition only came about in 1937. TheGetulio Vargas government permitted the practice of capoeira, but only inenclosed areas that were registered with the police. With the opening of Bimba’sAcademy, a new era in the history of capoeira began, as the game was taught tothe children of the upper classes of Salvador.
Bimba was active in capoeira hiswhole life. In 1941, Mestre Pastinha (Vincente Ferreira Pastinha) opened hiscapoeira angola school. For the first time, capoeira began to be taught andpracticed openly in a formal setting. He became known as the “philosopherof capoeira”. Unfortunately, government authorities, under the reforming ofthe Largo do Pelourinho, had his academy confiscated. Although he was promised anew one, the government never came through.
The final years of his life weresad. Blind and almost abandoned, he lived in a small room until his death in1981 at the age of ninety-two. Capoeira has grown tremendously over the lastfifty years. It has finally been excepted by the masses in Brazil. Capoeiracompetitions and academies are surfacing everywhere. In 1974 it was recognizedas the national sport of Brazil.
This forced the creation of a nationalfederation of capoeira. In 1974 it was recognized as the national sport ofBrazil. It was formed to govern, promote and coordinate capoeira since no effortwas made previously to unite the various emurgances of capoeira throughoutBrazil. Capoeira has expanded beyond the borders of Brazil and is growingrapidly in other countries (including the United States). Capoeira appeals tomany for many different reasons. First of all the pure beauty of the art ishypnotic.
Capoeira is a dance and a fight. It’s not only a combination ofgymnastics, dance and martial arts but also music, culture, history andknowledge. The capoeirista must learn to balance the physical with the mental. The capoeirista must play many instruments and sing. The capoeirista may attimes be your enemy but is usually a friend.
The capoeirista is a historian. Thecapoeirista is all of these. Description: Capoeira consists of a form of dance,practiced in a circle called the “roda”, with sound backgroundprovided by percussion instruments, like the “agogo” and the “atabaqui”. The “Berimbau” is a non-percussion instrument that is always used onrodas. Capoeira relies heavily on kicks and leg sweeps for attacks and dodgesfor defenses.
Is not uncommon to not be taught any kind of hand strike, thougharm positioning for blocks is taught. The “ginga” (the footwork ofCapoeira), consists in changing the basic stance (body facing the adversary,front leg flexed with body weight over it, the other leg stretched back) fromthe right leg to the left leg again and again. Capoeira also puts a heavyemphasis on ground fighting, but not grappling and locks. Instead, it uses aground stance (from the basic stance, you just fall over your leg stretchedback, flexing it, and leaving the front leg stretched ahead), from which youmake dodges, kicks, leg sweeps, acrobatics, etc.
Hand positioning is importantbut it is used only to block attacks and ensure balance, though street fighting”capoeiristas” use the hands for punches. When fighting, it is rare tostop in one stance, and in this case, you just “follow” your opponentwith your legs, preventing him from getting close, or preparing a fast acrobaticmove to take advantage when he attacks. The rest of the time, you just keepchanging stances and do the equivalent of boxing “jabs”. Players enterthe game from the pe’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 ordangerous. The music plays an important role in the feel of the game. The typeof game being played, whether fast or slow, friendly or tough, depends on therhythm being played and the lyrics being said.
Training: After a thoroughwarm-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 lowturning kick, “armada”, a high turning kick, “queixada”, anoutside-inside crescent kick. Then walking sequences are done, with theintroduction of somersaults, back flips and headstands, in couples andindividual. Some more technical training follows, with couples beginning basicand slow, and then the whole class forms and goes for “roda” game forat least 30 minutes. Capoeira conditions and develops the muscles, especiallythe abdominal muscles. Sub-Styles: Regional style is capoeira in a moreartistic, open form, giving more way to athletic prowess and training.
Angolastyle is a more closed, harder style that is closest to the original Africansystems that came to Brazil. Iuna is a totally athletic and artistic form of theart, where the couple inside the “roda” play together, as opposed toone against the other.