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.


Aspects of Capoeira in the 21st century

  1. Rio Olympics : 
  • Not every capoeirista is in favour of an Olympic event:  opinions differ according to which capoeira form is practiced: “Capoeira Regional is closer to fighting, or sport. They’re more enthusiastic about capoeira being in the Olympics” vs capoeira Angola: they are less in favour as they believe that “capoeira, which includes music and chanting and does not declare winners or losers, is a cultural rather than a sporting event”

2. Brail’s toursim industry: 

  • Brazil’s tourism industry makes ‘”frequent use of capoeira’s striking visual images, but the day-to-day reality of life for many in the capoeira community is not as glossy, especially in a country as wracked by racial and social inequality as Brazil”.
  • Capoeira presentations, normally theatrical, acrobatic and with little martiality, are common sights around the world.
  • “Lots of people think capoeira is macumba,” said Joselio Lima, the Maré mestre, using a generic term for Afro-Brazilian religions. “Sometimes I have to explain to the parents of my students that it’s not about religion.””
  • Capoeira nowadays is not only a martial art, but an active exporter of Brazilian culture all over the world: Every year capoeira attracts thousands of foreign students and tourists to Brazil.
  • In 2014 the Capoeira Circle was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the convention recognised that the “capoeira circle is a place where knowledge and skills are learned by observation and imitation” and that it “promotes social integration and the memory of resistance to historical oppression”

3. Capoeira in popular western culture:

  • Capoeira can be seen in films such as in Harry Potter and the Goblet of fire (the Durmstrang students), Indiana Jones and the kingdom of the crystal skull. In these films, capoeira is used in a de-contextualised context with no reference to its origins.
  • Capoeira is also seen in Rio2 and in Infinity War where capoeira is one of several African martial arts that T’Challa utilizes in combat.
  • Capoeira is frequently seen in rap music videos as back up dancers, again mostly with no reference to its origins and meanings
  • some have said that breakdancing has some capoeira influences sine the 1970s

Exporting Capoeira

“what started out as a practice of resistance is now a fashionable activity available worldwide” Robitaille 2014

Robitaille, Laurence, 2014 Promoting Capoeira, Branding Brazil: A Focus on the Semantic Body, Black Music Research Journal , Center for Black Music Research – Columbia College Chicago and University of Illinois Press, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Fall 2014), pp. 229-254  

After two years of fieldwork in capoeira communities in USA and Canada , Laurence Robitaille believes that capoeira’s circulation in North American markets and the diverse ways that mestres promote it shift the valuations attached to the practice and modify its meanings with respect to notions of race.

Since the last quarter of the 20thcentury, immigrating Brazillians implemented capoeira out of Brazil by commercializing capoeira. Robitaille believes that this globalization of capoeira had ‘recontextualised it’ in the sense that it has unsettled ‘both its relationship to its immediate national settings and its underlying socioeconomic and racial connotations’. This has led to 4 main points:

  1. ‘the marketing of capoeira and the use of bodies for its promotion seem to effectively move beyond racial and color-based categories because the bodies that market capoeira are the same ones that practice it. These bodies are marked by their capoeira training and represent the diversity, now globalized, of the art form and its practitioners. It involves the embodiment of traits and transformations of the foreigners’ bodies that can unsettle color lines, racial stereotypes, and the limits of national cultures’
  2. However, when capoeira is shown as a diversity of bodies, this brands Brazil as ethnically diverse which is correct but not all races are equal in Brazil. Capoeira is therefore used as a ‘process of obfuscation, denial, and occlusion of differences that remain material and highly problematic’  as the African histories of national cultural forms are still actively silenced. ‘While racial and national outsiders can strategically move in and out of a capoeirista identity, it still remains more difficult for the black Brazilian capoeirista to escape his or her racially marked body’. Moreover, ‘even when capoeira moves beyond the geographical borders of Brazil and circulates transnationally, it never steps completely out of the Brazilian national narrative and its underlying racial politics for it always remains associated with a “place” of origin’
  3. The exportation of capoeira has led to a focus on the physical aspect of capoeira: capoeira’s ‘sculpted body becomes a trademark of capoeira in North American markets and contributes to its commodification by adding sign value to an activity now available for consumption. Capoeiristas use their physicality as a form of symbolic capital that is readily put to use in capoeira’s promotion. the agile bodies on display during presentations entice potential consumers as they are performatively transformed into objects of admiration and desire’ –> In these new performative contexts of representation, the bodies of capoeiristas are decontextualized from the very activity in which they are engaged
  4. Through diverse programs and policies that culminated in capoeira’s recognition as heritage, ‘the Brazilian government sought to elevate the practice as a symbol of the nation—as something essentially Brazilian and only Brazilian’: Aronczyk explains that ‘the process of learning, experiencing, and constantly performing the basic capoeira step, called the ginga, instils in the capoeirista a knowledge that exceeds the movement as and concerns values, attitudes, and strategies proper to Brazil’s broader social life’. This shows that ‘the experience of learning capoeira forces practitioners, even foreigners, to embody these attitudes, which are not only essential for capoeira practice but also prevail in the streets of Brazil’.

–> ‘A multiplicity of bodies can perform and market capoeira as well as “Brazil.” Ironically, though, these diverse bodies seem associated with a limited, stereotyped realm of images that support an official brand image of Brazil as a country of mixed population and un-problematic mestiçagem. It is doubly ironic that capoeira would represent a fashionable, “purified,” brand image of Brazil at large given the practice’s history, its problematic entanglements with nationalist discourses, and its place in the resistance efforts of the Afro-Brazilian population”

Bolsonaro and capoeira

Here is an article I found on Bolsonaro and Capoeira:

The Bolsonaro effect, Henrique Furtado 18 October 2018

  • Bolsonaro ‘has more than once expressed abject political views regarding the rights of minorities. He has condoned rape, stated that African-descendants are useless, and confessed he would rather see one of his sons dead than in the arms of another man’
  • In 2017, ‘more than 60,000 people were assassinated. Between 2003 and 2011, the number of homicides in Brazil (449,985) went well beyond the overall casualties of the Iraq War (251,000)’
  • a series of violent incidents involving far-right supporters have been reported on social media after Bolsonaro’s resounding victory in the first ballot. These range from verbal aggression (including chants that Bolsonaro will order the deaths of LGBT people) and multiple beatings to gruesome episodes’. i.e.: a capoeira master was stabbed 12 times for voting for the Worker’s Party candidate, Haddad:

Research on History of Capoeira

This is the research on the roots of Capoeira that I have so far:

Research on History of Capoeira:

Developed from an Angolan ritual dance that was combative in its moves, but was primarily religious as it was believed to create ties to ancestors in the afterlife

            Had a martial art form that was adapted to use weapons and hand-to-hand combat

Due to it stemming from Angola, this cultural practice was carried across the Americas and other European colonies that used slaves

It only became Capoeira in the instance of its use in Brazil as a form of resistance to slavery and European institutions within Brazil

Slavery narrative of oppression due to them being unequipped for survival outside of plantations and a lack of weapons or equipment if they did escape; the setting for this began in jungles or rugged land where natural conditions were harsher

At this time, Capoeira began to provide options for escape and survival because if slaves were able to escape, if gave them a means to resist recapture

Whilst it began as a practice passed furtively within plantations, once slavery moved into the rapidly expanding cities of colonial Brazil, slaves were given opportunities to practice it more discreetly within the new enclosed spaces in urban environments

Mentions the development of quilombos, communities of escaped slaves outside of cities and plantations that often relied on capoeira as a means of defence against colonial forces’ attempts to breakdown the settlements

These settlements soon expanded from just being ex-slaves to encompassing any people trying to escape the law in Brazil including Europeans and Christians deemed as heretics by the Catholic church

Good quote on “In this kind of multi-ethnic community, constantly threatened by Portuguese colonial troops, capoeira evolved from a survival tool to a martial art focussed on war”

I take from this that whilst it began as form of resistance through defence and escape, it soon became an attack and antagonistic towards colonial powers as a whole once a multitude of practitioners were able to congregate and form an offence as one

This whole section is difficult, as little to no sources on Wikipedia, or the ones they do cite are in Portuguese

Whist the slave-trade continued to bring slaves to Brazil in C.19th, capoeira continued to expand and began to be a form of resistance within the cities against colonial forces

            This led to attempts to supress it

Arrest statistics from the mid-19th century heavily feature the practice of capoeira and escaping from slavery

The main non-Portuguese source I have found is Matthias Röhring Assunção, Capoeira: The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art

It features an entire history of Capoeira from the beginning of the slave trade through until “Contemporary Capoeira” (2004)

First Chapter of Capoeira:

Quote from a journal on capoeira describing it in the slave trade context as “the sport which has been disguised as dance was transformed into a fight”

However, uses this to jump into a discussion on the mythology of capoeira and how our contemporary view of it within a historical context is marred by exaggeration to fit an exciting narrative

First narrative he tackles is it as originating in pre-colonial, native Brazil, which we reject already by knowing that it comes from an African context and was translated across the Atlantic as part of the slave trade

Mentions a film called Quilombo (1984) about escaped slaves using capoeira to resist colonial forces

            Maybe worth a watch if we can find it

Ties many narratives about Capoeira, especially ones pertaining to either its origin or becoming essentialised to slaves in Brazil as being tied into a nationalist agenda from the early C.20th 

Discusses its mutation both in form and its musicality over time

Argues that modern capoeira practitioners look for a unity between their own practice and that of either Central Africa or early slave communities in Brazil

Mentions representations of Capoeira in C.19th art, but due to the nature of engravings at the time, they were not used to capture instances, but instead construct a picture from lots of research into the object and practice they were trying to capture

Pg 8, “When capoeira practitioners therefore emphatically affirm that ’capoeira is-always-resistance’, they fail to consider the complexity of the insertion of their art into a wider context and the dialectics of resistance and betrayal that were so important in both slave and post-emancipation societies’”

Says capoeira is key to formation of various identities in Brazil and its diaspora and this leads to it creating its own mythology to support narratives that these identities want to engender and publish

Still to do:

Need to research the Angolan roots of Capoeira more to trace its lineage. This could require more of a focus on anthropological papers instead of historical papers for me; and from what I can tell, the history of Capoeira becomes quite conflicted at this point

Continue researching some of the historiographical issues with trying to find a definite lineage for Capoeira in colonial slave societies. Often too uncertain in the narrative so people manipulate it for their own ends.

Research on capoeira’s recent history

Based on the article: Capoeiras ? objets sujets de la contemporanéité / Théma « Construction d’un dialogue : la capoeira et les relations avec l’État brésilien en débat » Vivian FONSECA Luiz Renato VIEIRA

  • This article discusses: the relationships developed between the Brazilian State and the Capoeira
  • ‘Since the early Republican period (1889), the posture of the Brazilian State in relation to Capoeira has changed between repression and indifference’
  • History:
    • Folklore intellectuals such as José Alexandre Mello Moraes Filho (1946), Henrique Maximiano Coelho Neto (1928) and Adolfo Morales de Los Rios (1926) upheld a positive view of capoeira from the 1920s onwards: by stressing capoeira’s long history in Brazil, they put forward the possibility of reinserting capoeira as a sport or as a symbol of national culture  
    • Capoeira was viewed by the Penal code as illegal until the 1930s, only became legal under Presdient Getulio Vargas’ government (1930-1945):
      • Getulio Vargas’ arrival to power brought about an effort to reconstruct national Brazilian identity, capoeira was seen as the ideal symbol of Brazil’s mixed cultural identity.  
      • Like Samba, capoeira was viewed as national cultural symbols
    • Military governments (1964-1985):
      • Militaries tried to show capoeira as a sport àthe special capoeira department was created that was linked to the Brazilian confederation of Pugilat (CBP) that was recognized by the National council of sports (CND). Military men were at the heads of these diff councils and thus decided on capoeira’s orientations
      • 1972: capoeira is officially recognized as a sport by public decree by the MEC. A homogenization effort therefore occurred to try and create rules and uniformize the movements etc to create tournaments and levels (a gradation system was created according to the colours of Brazilian flag, this system is still used by capoeira groups linked to the Capoeira federations) 
    • Outside Brazil:
      • 1980s : big spread of capoeira
      • Capoeira is used as an exploitation instrument to attract visitors to BRazil
    • 1990s-2000:
      • Capoerists themselves start politically mobilizing to try to control the teaching of capoeira in the federal and regional councils of physical education created by the law 9696 of 1998. According to these councils, only the teachers qualified in physical education and credited by the CONFEF/CREF can give capoeira lessons. This led to fragmentation in the capoeira world: some were ok with this, others weren’t. In this conflict, the state was the mediator and regulator but ends up being on the side of those against the organisations as capoeira professors now aren’t subject to these orgs.
      • There still is no consensus on the conditions of capoeira regimentation as not all groups adhere to the Brazilian Capoeira confederation (CBC)
      • ‘Le pouvoir, dans le monde de la capoeira, est fragmenté autour de la personnalité de différents mestres.’
    • Lula’s’Government (2003-2007) :
      • Under the culture ministers Gilberto Gil (2003-2007) and Juca Ferreira (2007-2010), capoeira was voted as one of the political priorities aimed at ‘the popular’ cultures and/or black (culturas negras’. 
    • Post 2007:
      • Only very recently, this cultural manifestation became the subject of specific actions of the government. In the Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil (2003-2007) mandate`s and then in its successor, Juca Ferreira (2007-2010), capoeira was elected one of the priorities of policies for popular and/ or black cultures. As a result of these actions, in the mid-2000s, actions were initiated in order to promote and recognize capoeira as an important part of Brazilian cultural heritage, culminating with his registry as immaterial heritage in July 2008
      • The Group Work ‘pro-capoeira’ was created in 2009 and was in charge of the implementation and coordination of the National Program of capoeira safeguarding and promotion
      • In 2007, the Brazilian Minister of culture called for projects on capoeira to be advanced and made possible through the ‘programme Capoeira Viva’

to look up:

ASSUNÇÃO, Matthias Röhrig, Capoeira: the history of an afro-brazilian martial art, EUA, Routledge, 2005. 

DOWNEY, Greg, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from na Afro-brazilian Art, Oxford University Press, Nova Iorque, 2005.