Capoeira itself

Our project focuses largely on what capoeira represents and how it has been decontextualised and fragmented over time. Having said that, it is important to be as clear as possible about what capoeira actually is, in order to fully engage with the terms used in articles etc. This post is just to lay out an understanding of what capoeira entails, so as to make the rest of our work more meaningful.

Capoeira is most commonly referred to as a martial art and it’s practitioners tend to use the word ‘jogo’ [game]. However, it might be described as a ‘blurred genre’ [Downey 2002] comprising elements not just from martial arts and sport, but also dance and ritual. Historically a practice outlawed and persecuted, it is now used in diverse contexts: from cultural celebrations to modern gym classes.

Traditional manifestations of the practice involve capoeiristas forming a ‘Roda’ [ring] within which two, or occasionally more, participants partake in demonstrating their abilities. This roda is constituted of people waiting to take part, as well as bateria [musicians] who often initiate ‘call and response’ singing with those waiting to enter. When the roda is formed, the most senior mestre [recognised master of capoeira] present often sings a ‘chula,’ which praises God and his own mestre.

The game itself incorporates an extremely wide range of movements, however blocks are typically frowned upon for impacting the fluidity of play. However, they are not often utilised anyway due to the fact that capoeira encourages it’s participants to show attacks, but not to actually follow them through to fruition. It is understood that there is often more skill and control in freezing the attack right before it connects, than there is in completing the movement. That being said, it is still a contact sport and ‘rasteiras’ [take downs] do occur.

Capoeira also does not have fixed rules and there is no way to determine a winner or loser as such. Extent of aggression naturally varies, where some games are almost teamwork to create the most intricate dance and others resemble far more of a martial art as the term is commonly understood. However overall, the roda allows the game to continue between players, as they swap in and out, for as long as they wish.

There is no universal way of grading a capoeirista’s ability, and individual groups approach the education of it’s members differently. The above pattern outlines some of the basic elements of capoeira as it was practiced traditionally, but the fragmented nature of it’s history and evolution means that this cannot be taken as a comprehensive guide.

Music of capoeira

Berimbau: a chordophone played with a wooden bow, capable of three different sounds (open string, high note, buzz). The instrument is associated particularly with capoeira but also candomblé, making it a large part of the culture for many slaves located in Brazil. In certain areas, during the period that capoeira was illegal, even carrying a berimbau in public was thought to be sufficient grounds to justify arrest and legal prosecution [].

The music of capoeira substantiates its subversive nature. Not only does the choice of ‘toque’ (literally ‘tolling’ but roughly translated to ‘song’) establish the pace and energy of the game, many of the lyrics are direct references to slavery. Examples of this include ‘na Roda de Capoeira / nêgo joga para valer’ [Vamos Trabalhar], which states that slaves might play the game to prove their worth. Another example can be found in ‘A Manteiga Derramou,’ which speaks of classic acts of sabotage [Scott 1985].

The music was also used as a form of communication. Not only did specific beats delineate the need for a change in players or incite more energy, it also served as a warning. Given that slaves were not permitted to practice any form of martial art, capoeira had to be hidden from the Portuguese officials. By playing a syncopated rhythm (akin to the sound of galloping hooves), a berimbau player who was stationed as a lookout could alert the capoeiristas of incoming officials. This would result in the players of the game switching to a purely dance-based form of movement, so as to avoid confrontation with the law.

In this sense, the music also contributes to the ‘malandragem’ (cunning) of capoeira, which is considered an integral part of the art. One mestre in Rio stated that “Malandragem is survival, it is surviving the fight that is every day life” [Wesolowski 2015]. This cunning is perceived to be an effective technique in dealing with societal constraints.

Fragmented Origins of Capoeira

As far as I can see, there are four strands within the history of Capoeira, a brief outline of which is provided below. Debates concerning the ‘purity’ and heritage of Capoeira styles began in the 1930s and groups tend to align themselves with one of these schools of thought. 

  1. those who espouse an Afro-centric vision (claiming capoeira originated in Angola among free men) see Downey 1998, 2005. Some critics have suggested that the name capoeira has Bantu roots, which supports this viewpoint. Neves e Sousa suggested in ‘Da Minha África E Do Brasil Que Eu Vi’ that similarities are evident between Capoeira and Jogo de Angola, Bassula (a traditional fishermen’s fight in Luanda) and N’Golo (a male dance performed for female puberty rights in the Mucope region).
  2. Bahian capoeiristas claiming that capoeira first appeared in Salvador. Salvador was the first slave port, alongside the economic centre of the colony. It is argued that capoeira developed in senzalas, the dance-like aesthetic acting as a facade for the study of martial arts. Parallels have been drawn between Capoeira and the syncretic religion Candomblé, which linked African deities to Catholic saints, allowing slaves to worship their gods while maintaining the appearance of Catholicism. 
  3. The artistic/martial expression of capoeira was developed in the quilombos, and the name comes from the Tupi language. The most famous figure in this narrative is King Zumbi, the leader of Palmares, the largest and longest enduring quilombo in Alagoas. It is suggested (though no physical documentation exists to corroborate the fact) that Zumbi trained an army of foot soldiers in a form of capoeira martial art. Whether or not this is accurate, today King Zumbi is a popular symbol of Afro-Brazilian pride and resistance.
  4. The earliest and most extensive documentation of Capoeira’s origins suggests it emerged first in Rio de Janeiro. By 1821, Rio possessed the largest urban slave population in the Americas (46% of the total city – Holloway 1993:26). The first visual representations stem from this environment, the most explicit reference being an engraving by Johann Mortiz Rugenda entitled ‘Jogar capoëra ou danse de la guerre’ (1835).

It is worth noting that many practitioners acknowledge the dubious validity of stories surrounding Capoeira’s heritage. However, such narratives are often taught to initiates as they begin to learn, continuing to circulate as a way to contextualise Capoeira within the history of slavery and slave resistance in Brazil.