Unlike other arts, knowing the history of Capoeira is essential for its understanding and development. The origins of Capoeira go back to more than 600 years ago and its evolution is the result of a rich history which is nevertheless troublesome and uncertain. Practicing Capoeira without knowing its origins is to deny its message and to disregard why millions of men and women struggled.
The history of Capoeira is, at present, still open for debate, whether we are talking about its origins, its development, the evolution of its form, and its traditions, or even the introduction of musical instruments that are used today. The point that is without doubt being most debated on, is clearly its origin, even though a majority agrees that Capoeira was a Brazilian creation with African origins.
This art has undoubtedly evolved in the course of centuries and the form that is practiced today is very different from what was carried out in the past. To understand the past of Capoeira is to understand the essentials that make up the art today as it is practiced and possibly its future evolution.
The etymology of the term “Capoeira”, like its history, is still subject to research. The study of the origins of the word may steer towards the study of the origin of Capoeira itself.
There are many hypotheses:
In Tupi Guarani, the word “Caa-apuam-era / Kapu’era” existed which meant “a forest that has been cut / a forest that existed” and it would describe the parts of the forests that had been burnt down or cut to make way for plantations. These lands also surrounded the properties of the land owners and may have been a place where the slaves could meet.
In Tupi Namba, pronounced as “caa-puera”, it referred to the maquis, a short type of grass that would be bending under the wind and it referred to the sacred ritual of a circle of justice: a people’s court in which the representatives of the parties experiencing a conflict would confront each other in single combat, to the great general amusement.
The mythology of Tupi Guarani also evokes a figure whose name was Caipora. This name would come from the word caapora (people who live in the woods) and would like the origins of the word Capoeira to the Quilombos.
Brazilian folklore indicates that Caipora referred to an Indian of short stature, who would be flexible, naked and dark skinned.
The word “Capoeira” in Portugal means a “Chicken coop”. By extension, In Brazil it refers to a large basket used to transport poultry. We can therefore deduce that the origin of the word Capoeira could be associated to the vendors of chicken at the market. To attract customers, they played an instrument (notably, the berimbau). There might have been Capoeiras and Sambistas around these vendors.
The word “Capoeira” may also have derived from the word Kikongo Kipura, a term used in Congo to describe the movements of a rooster in a fight. It also means “floating, flying from one place to the other during a fight “.
According to other sources, Capoeira came from a tradition of freebooters called “O capo era” (the chief is gone), a dramatized musical parody about a legal dual or the judgment of God as it was practiced in Europe in medieval times. This act was initially used by certain pirates on the high seas to resolve their conflicts with minimum loss of human life and material losses, and was later practiced with the Native Americans and the Negroes in hidden ports and the bays of the West Indies. This practice would then become popular in Brazil.
There are probably other hypotheses with regard to this etymology and this illustrates the veritable origin of Capoeira: a mixture of elements with uncertain origins.
After the slavery period, nobody really bothered to distinguish between all the different expressions of African culture in Brazil. So Capoeira eventually became a word with a rather broad meaning, including everything which is African, does have dance-like properties or include some rituals. Capoeira is also called Capoeiragem, jogo de mandinga, jogo de São Bento, cungu, vadiação, brincadeira de Angola…
Like the etymology of the word, the origins of Capoeira are turbid and there is no certainty about this subject since most documents relating to slavery were burnt after its abolition (the Republic which was founded in 1890 wanted to erase the troubled past on which the country had been created …) leaving behind only legends and uncertainty. However, there is a trail of ideas that lead to the possible origins of Capoeira.
The African Trail
Despite the fact that they were forced to speak Portuguese and adopt Christianity, the African slaves who were exported to Brazil didn’t forget their culture, their beliefs and their traditions. One of the traditions that they imported was called N’Golo (which translates as the “dance of the zebra”). Originating from Mocupe (Southern Angola), N’Golo was practiced during the Efundula, a coming of age ceremony. Young men were initiated to adulthood; they would fight against each other to select one of the young women, who would also participate in this ceremony, as wife. Led by the sound of drums, the young men would try to kick the head of their opponent with their foot. The victor would not only win the right to select his future wife but was also exempt from paying a dowry. Even though they appear to have some similarities, the Capoeira that is practiced today is very different from N’Golo.
There are other martial arts, all over Africa. In Congo also existed Kipura, Mousondi and Gwindulumutu. There are people saying that the word Capoeira comes from the Kipura martial art. Kipura (or Kipula) originated by imitating the fights of roosters, Gwindulumutu is only described as a “headbashing martial art”.
Rugendas, when describing Capoeira in the early 19th century, wrote:
“Much more violent is another war game of the Negroes, Capoeira, which consists in trying to knock one another down with head butts in the chest, which one dodges with skillful side jumps and parrying. While they are throwing themselves against one another, more or less like rams, sometime heads run terribly into each other. Thus not infrequently the prank turns real fight and a bloody head or blade put an end to the game.”
The Indigenous Trail
Even though the African population suffered a lot more than any other people, it would be a serious mistake to forget who the first slaves in Brazil were: the indigenous from the country themselves. They may hold the most important key to understanding the origins of Capoeira. After all, they were the first ones who were oppressed and defended against oppression. There are studies which show that the Tupis already practiced an art which is similar to Capoeira:
In 1595, the priest José de Anchieta wrote that the Tupi-guarani natives entertained themselves by playing a game which was similar to what would later be known as Capoeira.
In 1647, the Dutch Gaspar Barleus described in his book ‘Rerum Per Octenium in Brasília’, a fight fought by the Tupi natives, practiced on the Brazilian coast and which was called Maraná, meaning a war fight. This fight was used as a means of defense in addition to the use of bows and arrows. It was a fight and a dance, practiced on drum beats, chocalho and marimbas.
The letters exchanged between Antonio Gonçalves and his superiors in 1735 talk about a fight that the natives practiced without any conflict. They would gather in a circle, two of them would go in the center, and they would use their arms, legs, knees, elbows and full bodies as armor.
These are only two avenues in the origins of Capoeira; the reality of things is certainly more complex and must involve a mixture of different arts and cultural elements. Notice that nevertheless, there are similarities between the Capoeira Ginga and the basic steps of the indigenous dances: one foot in front and one at the back. We also notice that all the expressions related to African culture usually retain their African names, but this is not the case in Capoeira. Lateral movements, high and circular kicks are typical from African fighting arts.
In 1834, Johann Moritz Rugendas described Capoeira as a comparison:
“African fights consist of lateral movements and, the fighters move forward only to head-butt against the chest of the other when they try to bring them down. Their heads can sometime violently clash against each other or the game may escalate to a real fight and knives may be introduced, and things can turn bloody.”
With regard to the musical element in Capoeira, both Africa and Brazil appear to have fights in their traditions practiced at the sound of instruments. Capoeira is without doubt an Afro-Brazilian art, a mixture of indigenous and African movements and culture, driven by the black slaves until our present day, and it is the heritage of a dark period in the history of Brazil. To understand this is to understand the role of each people in the history of the country, i.e. the indigenous as well as the African slaves. Whether it originated from African traditions or not, it grew and developed through these, borrowing elements from here and there.
From the 16th century onward, Portugal began using African slaves in Brazil. For the most part, they came from Angola and Congo and these were mainly people from the tribes Ioruba, Daome, Guineo-Sudanais, Males, Hauça and Bantu. The slaves were forced to work intensively in humiliating conditions; they often worked up to the point of exhaustion and were physically punished if they were not productive enough or when they made a mistake. They were evidently not allowed to possess any weapon, but they were also prohibited from training for any form of rebellion and also, often prohibited from practicing any type of cultural expression. Their lives were controlled and to enforce this control, the masters would mix the slaves from different origins. It’s within these conditions that Capoeira as we know it, was probably born.
The actual reasons for the origin of Capoeira is still unknown, it is subject to various discussions and theories. There is actually a lack of documentation about the subject since the Brazilian government deliberately burnt all documents relating to facts concerning slavery in order not to drag the burden of a troubled past and recognize that the country was built on the suffering of black people. The place, period and reasons are all interrelated and, by analyzing the history facts, we can make logical conclusions with regard to the creation and usage of Capoeira.
There are many theories with regards to the place where the slaves began to develop Capoeira:
In the Fazenda, the place where the largest number of slaves were used but also the place where the slaves spent most of their time,
In the Quilombos, where actual work on a rebellion and revolt took place,
In the streets, where vendors and servants would meet, but also where many old slaves returned after they were freed.
The Fazenda and Senzala
The Fazenda was the petri-dish which gave birth to Capoeira, an art of defense hidden behind a dance form which was able to survive the slavery period because of its appearance and because it looked more like a primitive cultural art form than a fight.
Many elements were involved in its creation. The most important of them was certainly its characteristic of adaptation, which is, until today, one of the principal elements of the art. Oppressed by the slavers, the slaves had to find a tool which would not be seen as a revolt, that would allow them to develop fighting techniques, would allow them to resolve internal conflicts and also, to resolve hierarchy issues.
Capoeira was born from cultural exchanges in the Senzala (in this case, this refers to the slaves’ living habitat, the external area, and in a general context, the space where the slaves lived). The first slaves were from the Tupi tribe, and among the arts that they practiced, there was a ceremony which resembled Capoeira. We are not certain about the exact form of this art or whether it influenced the birth of Capoeira. The African slaves brought the art of N’Golo and other fighting arts with them. The interaction between the natives and the Africans is probably the initial element that gave birth to Capoeira. Capoeira developed side by side with the oppression in the Senzala, mainly during cultural celebrations (that the owners had prohibited at the beginning of the slavery period) when free time was accorded to the slaves, as a form of ritual. Its art form was very different from what is practiced today. Even though they already had a circle, we must imagine it bigger and with a bonfire. There were observers posted around the ceremony area, who would warn of the arrival of any supervisors in the Senzala. The fight would be used as a means to prove oneself, to confront others but also to train in the transformation of something that resembled more of a dance and a ritual. Even if today’s Capoeira argues on the integration of religion, its connection to spiritual life is undeniable in various groups, and it is easy to understand its source. The Capoeira of the slaves, even though it itself didn’t include any religion, was definitely connected to spirituality. In the evening, within the confines of the Senzala, after the long hours of backbreaking work, they would begin training on defense and revolt. They would be on the lookout of any noise that might warn the arrival of a supervisor, and they would train with an aim to escape their place of detention. There were various revolts at the time, and without doubt, the techniques they learnt from Capoeira must have helped some of those who succeeded in escaping, in part due to the martial techniques they learnt, but also by using malice to gain an advantage.
There are certain theories regarding the origins of Capoeira which indicate that the slaves practiced in fallow fields or in open spaces within the plantations.
In any event, the techniques evolved over the years and generations, by travelling from Senzala to Senzala carried over by the slaves who were sold to other plantations and to the Quilombos when the slaves escaped, or other Senzalas when they were recaptured.
Remember that official documents rarely relate the hidden facts of a society. A theory also proposes that the slaves were used in organized combats by the owners, the same way cockfighting takes place. The other slaves would then copy these fighters, or the champions would share their skills within their community and the slaves could practice the techniques within the Senzala in hiding.
There weren’t exchanges between the natives and the Africans only in the plantations and the Senzala. The first slaves who succeeded in escaping had the option to live a hidden life in the forest, by stealing what was required from the cities in order to survive, and they would join the native tribes who would receive them or where they would form stronger independent units which would sometimes be transformed into large cities called: the Quilombos.
It didn’t take long for the fugitive slaves to begin establishing villages which would later be known as Quilombos. Starting out simple, life in the Quilombos gradually became more organized and structured until it was transformed into independent enclaves offering liberty, protection and the possibility of cultural development. Within this context, Capoeira had a space to grow, to flourish and become stronger. It was transformed from a survival art into a militarized defense art. They developed the techniques with a view to be able to defend themselves and also to help the bonded to free themselves. The Quilombos must have played a part in organizing revolts in the plantations. Quilombos were places with the highest blend of ethnicity diversity and mixture. The Quilombo of Palmares had around 70 % of African inhabitants, 25 % of Brazilians and 5 % of Portuguese and other Europeans. This mixture would create a new ethnic, religious and culinary culture… This fusion also allowed for Capoeira to take a concrete form. Note that the majority of inhabitants from the Quilombos spent some time in the Senzalas before escaping to the Quilombos and that some of them returned there once recaptured.
The cities and the streets
Capoeira was not born on the streets but it grew there, was developed there, and the streets were a place of exchange. We are talking about the cities and streets where vendors would buy and sell goods for their masters and for them. The vendors, like in any other part of the world, would often attract their clients by playing musical instruments. The Berimbau may have been one of the instruments used. Once the goods were exchanged, instruments would set the tone for a dance or a game of Capoeira. The slaves from different owners would therefore learn from each other.
First evidence of Capoeira: 1789
In 1780, the word “capoeiragem” appeared in the police records which disturbed the authorities. The reprimands were harsh; whoever was caught doing Capoeira was put into prison, severely mutilated and sometimes even killed on sight.
The following document looks like the first written evidence of the practice of Capoeira in the cities. It was discovered by the historian Nireu Cavalcanti in a judicial archive in Rio de Janeiro and was republished in the newspaper Jornal do Brasil in 1999.
“Adam, the mulatto boy that master Manoel Cardoso Fontes had bought a young lad, grew into a robust, hard-working and very obedient slave in household duties. Manoel decided to rent him out as a mason assistant, a porter, or for any other hard labor. So Adam turned out to be a major source of income for his master. With time, the shy slave who used to be fairly domesticated became more off-handed and independent and began to come back late, much later than the end of his working hours. Manoel asked repeatedly what was it that made Adam change so much — but his answers were weak and inconsistent. Until one day, fulfilling Manoel’s fears, Adam did not come home at all. He had certainly fled to one of the villages [quilombos] around the town. To his surprise, Manoel found Adam behind the bars of the regional jail. He had been arrested with a gang of ruffians who practiced Capoeira. A quarrel had broken out that day and one of them got killed in the action. These were extremely grave crimes under the laws of the time: practicing Capoeira, and what’s more, causing a death. The trial found Adam not guilty of the homicide, but confirmed his guilt on the charge of Capoeira, and condemned him to 500 lashes and two years hard labor in public service. After Adam had suffered the lashes in public and labored some months in the public works, his master sent the king a plea in the name of the Passion of Christ, asking that his slave be released from the rest of his term, on the grounds that himself was a poor man and depended on the income that his slave brought him. He promised to take care that Adam would not join the Capoeiras again. His plea was granted by the Regional Judge on April 25, 1789.”
Within the societies under Portuguese rule, Capoeira was difficult to control. With the growing cities that were forming during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, larger populations resulted in larger communities of slaves in smaller areas. This produced an expanding social culture for slaves, and Capoeira dominated as a popular form of entertainment. While there were examples of it being used for self-defense, many cases were simply competition or for leisure, creating a difficult dichotomy for the ruling class to react to. Despite this, Capoeiras were punished for practicing, but the art form lived on anyway.
Johan Moritz Rugendas was an artist who traveled and went to Brazil in 1821. In his travels, he made drawings illustrating the Brazil of the time. Among those, were the first drawings of Capoeira.
“The blacks practiced another form of warrior exhilaration, which was even more violent: Capoeira. Two challengers would scurry against each, trying to head-butt the opponent’s chest who would try to get him down. They would prevent attacks by jumping sideways and by implementing tactful feints. They would jump into each other a little like small goats; they would sometimes clash their heads. It would start off as a game, but it would often lead to fights with the use of knives and become bloody.”
Capoeira of the maltas: 1800 to 1888
What we do know for sure about slavery and Capoeira has been recorded from 1808 onward when the King of Portugal, D. João VI arrived in Brazil. During this period, the bureaucrats of the King’s court recorded each event, including the police cases, and this has become a large source of information on Capoeira of the 1800s. There were already records on the practice of Capoeira in the cities of Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and Recife, but the large increase in the number of urban slaves and social life in the cities brought about a boom to Capoeira as it spread and became better known. This new era also brought about the beginning of a systematic repression of slave culture.
In Rio de Janeiro, the Capoeiristas ventured to such an extent that an order dated 31st October 1821 stipulated harsh corporal punishments and other repressive measures for those caught practicing Capoeira. The capoeiristas organized themselves in maltas (groups, gangs). Initially the groups were composed only of black slaves but later on (around 1850), free blacks and mulattos were participating. And very soon these maltas had absorbed not only poor whites and the scum of the streets, but also soldiers and all ranks of the military, police officers, politicians, and some of the richer and wilder playboys of the 1870s.
Many have confirmed that Capoeira was a defensive weapon used by the Maltas against the police and the order in general. It also expressed the determination of a group of slaves to dominate during this period. Capoeira was not only used as a weapon but also as a means to settle internal issues and to establish a sort of hierarchal order within the group.
The Maltas introduced the use of weapons in Capoeira. It can be noted that the Bengala and the Navalha (the razor blade) became the weapon of choice of the Capoeiras. Towards the end of the 1800s, the Maltas dominated and terrorized the city. They regularly confronted the police and they would intimidate the vendors and citizens. Each Malta had his own territory. Among them were the Maltas Carpinteiros de São José, Conceição da Marinha, Glória, Lapa, Moura. At the time of proclamation of the Republic, there were two major groups: the Guaimús and the Nagôas.
The Maltas terrorized the city of Rio, confronting police and intimidating “honest” citizens. Each was sponsored and protected by powerful businessmen and politicians who used them as their private street army. They had therefore infiltrated all parts of the Brazilian society at the time and they were often used as bodyguards, assassins, mercenaries… The Princess Isabelle herself had her own Guarda Negra, a member of the Malta clan who took care of her protection and who was funded by the police.
“The major Miguel Nunes Vidigal was a big, strong man, he had the stature of a grenadier (he weighed around 90kg), and was lazy, would speak sparingly, but he was a cold blooded skillful Capoeirista with foolproof flexibility. He was respected by the most reckless henchmen of his time; he was skillful with a stick, a knife, his fist and a razor as weapons. His headbutts and kicks were unbeatable.”
BARRETO FILHO, Melo e LIMA, Hermeto. História da polícia do Rio de Janeiro 1565-1831. Rio de Janeiro: Ed.S.A. A Noite, 1939. V.1, p.203.
“(Juca Reis was a) handsome strong boy, care-free and well mannered, he always dressed with refined elegance. José Elísio dos Reis, better known as Juca Reis, became renowned in the crime world due to his ongoing conflicts and violence, he would regularly frequent prostitutes and was either the culprit or an accomplice in a murder in mid-1888 in the streets of Andradas, along the coast of São Francisco de Paula… he was an elegant guy… his specialty was to encourage conflicts and start trouble in theaters, gambling houses and in other places that were frequented by the members of the Supreme Court.”
Rev. do Arq. Mun., SP, ano XVI, CXXVI: 76, jul-ago 1949; IN SOARES, 1994
The War of Paraguay: 1864 to 1870
In 1864, Brazil declared war on Paraguay with Argentina and Uruguay. The army recruited a large number of Capoeiras, particularly from the prisons, caught from the streets and enforced, but also slaves to whom freedom was promised at the end of the conflict. The aim of this action was to use them as cheap “cannon fodder”, but also to end the notion of criminality that was associated to Capoeira.
There are a few write-ups about the integration of Capoeiras, even in the marines, which was the most aristocratic branch of the army:
“Marcílio Dias (the hero of the Battle of Riachuelo, on board the ship “Parnahyba”) was a black man from Rio-Grande who had been recruited as he was practicing Capoeira in front of a fanfare … Marcílio went to war and died as a legend.” Correio Paulistano, 17/6/1890
The Capoeiras from the Batalhão de Zuavos, by using their weapon handling skills (e.g. machetes and spears), created havoc during the war.
In 1870, the war of Paraguay was ended. The survivors returned to Brazil as heroes. Some of them joined the Maltas, others joined the police force and yet others, became bodyguards.
During the war with Paraguay, the government made use of a large number of capoeiristas – many by free and spontaneous choice and a great number voluntarily constrained. And the efforts of these defenders of the Country were useful in the battlefield, mainly in the bayonet assaults. The proof of this is in the brilliant weapons work practiced by the platoon called “Zuavos Bahianos” during the assault on the fort of Curuzú, where they disbanded the Paraguayans and bravely drove in the national flag. Cezario Alvaro da Costa, a capricious and well-behaved man, was not a professional, but a competent lover of capoeira. He marched from Bahia to the south as a corporal in the squadron of the seventh battalion of army hunters. He began to distinguish himself during the first encounters with the enemy, and was recognized by his superiors. He gradually rose until he reached a high rank. One day, after combat, Cezario da Costa found two Paraguayans and faced them bravely. After fierce battle, helped by what he knew of bayonet fencing, he managed to defeat the adversaries. This act of bravery, together with others he had previously shown, led him to be promoted and given special honors. This officer passed away in Bage, Rio Grande do Sul, in the rank of captain. Antonio Francisco de Mello, a native of Pernambuco, followed the campaign in the position of first cadet sergeant assistant in the ninth battalion of army hunters. He was not just a simple lover of capoeira; he also possessed a pronounced tendency towards a professional fearlessness. This definitely harmed him, delaying his promotion despite possessing certain personal importance and training. The opinions written by the commanders in the biannual records, the book that evaluated the behavior of lower officers, were not favorable to him. Cadet Mello used loose pants, a flashy hat with a band, and had that ambiguous manner of those who understand mandinga. Francisco de Mello was part of the contingent on board the warship Parnaíba, in the memorable battle of Riachuelo, about which the commander of the ship stated: “The contingent of the ninth battalion acted as expected of Brazilian soldiers. Enthusiasm in the act of boarding, valor and brave effort in the hand-to-hand fighting engaged in with the enemy, exceed the highest praise.” After this action, cadet Mello was promoted and received awards. He remained in the campaign until the year 1869, when he returned to Brazil and was added to the fifth battalion in Rio de Janeiro. He used to keep watch at night, making a review every hour. Whoever was lacking in the review marched for two hours on the next day. He was the only official who could restrain the wild soldiers on payday. He was promoted to captain, and passed away in one of the Northern States. I bring these two examples to prove that Capoeira is useful in certain occasions. » From Manuel de Querino’s “Bahia of the Old Days,” written in 1916
At the end of the 19th century, slavery became impractical in Brazil due to various reasons. Among some of the reasons, were the increasing number of slaves escaping and the incessant attacks by the Quilombo militia on the slavers properties. The Emperor of Brazil tried to minimize these problems by implementing the law of “dos Sexagenários” and the law of “do Ventre Livre”. Ultimately, the government officially recognized the end of slavery on 13th May 1888 by passing the law “Áurea”, sanctioned by the parliament and signed by the Princess Isabel.
The end of slavery in Brazil brought a darker era for capoeira, with its martial elements being used once for criminal purposes. Using fake names to avoid identification, and concealing weapons such as razor sharp barber blades, gangs were trained in the art of capoeira and caused problems throughout Brazil. Consequentially capoeira was outlawed nationally in 1890, and those seen practicing it suffered severe consequences, such as death or having their Achilles tendon severed. During this era stories that both romanticized and vilified capoeira masters became widespread; one such figure was Nascimento Grande, whom legends portray as virtually invincible. The more violent forms of Capoeira in Rio de Janeiro and Recife were heavily persecuted. Meanwhile, many newly freed citizens found themselves without homes or income, creating widespread poverty. A lot gained official freedom, but if they wanted work they had the choice to submit themselves into slave-like work, be unemployed and starve to death or find a way for themselves. A lot of former slaves went into the cities where they found work at the docks. In there past-time they did practice Capoeira. But those days Capoeira was much more diverse than today’s, and much more violent. Cultural expressions such as Capoeira rodas were carried out in hidden places or away from people. Capoeiristas had to use various strategies to avoid repression, and so they had sentinels posted around the areas where they practiced and had rodas in order to warn against the police coming. As Brazil’s population expanded in the 19th century, crime exploded within the urban centers and Capoeira was one of the many weapons used by criminal elements.
The beginning of the 20th century
In Pernambouco (Recife), the Brabos who would accompany the carnival parades had Capoeiristas among them. The “Moleques de Banda”, who were violent groups of Capoeira, would have clashes to protect their banner, there were many fights and they were severely reprimanded; the fight was based on Frevo in the form of Passo which was an imitation of the movements and the Ginga of the Brabos Penambucos. Capoeira was being progressively transformed, it was being institutionalized … those who considered it a fight, took it to the fighting arena. It was no longer the prerogative of the Malandros, like Mrs. Satã and João Francisco dos Santos.
Because of this proper recognition, the first manuals on Capoeira were written:
“Guia do Capoeira ou Gymnastica Brasileira”, O.D.C. in 1907 (Rio de Janeiro),
“Ginástica Nacional (Capoeiragem)”, Annibal Burlamaqui (Zuma), in 1928.
After being banned by the political persecution at the beginning of the century, Capoeira Pernambucana and Capoeira Carioca reached the same goal.
In Bahia, during that period, Capoeira was being showcased during significant religious demonstrations (festa de Santa Barbara, festa da Conceiçao, festa de Boa Viagem, festa do Bomfim…). The repression was continuing, Pedro de Azevedo Gordilho, also known as “Pedrito”, became famous for his persecution against Candomblé and Capoeira. In the early 1920, the art had been absorbing elements of dance, ritual, religion, philosophy, playfulness, and music from the different African cultures in the state of Bahia. With this broader and deeper dimension, Capoeira became a sort of “cultural weapon” used by the African slaves and their descendants to reinforce their identity and resist white society’s domination. Salvador’s Capoeira, using this alternative strategy, survived the violent police persecution and continued to develop “underground” and become stronger (unlike Capoeira in Rio) until 1937 when the prohibition finally stopped.
The capoeirista supersedes his rivals in the various styles of quickness and physical skill. He is a talented acrobat. He jumps, he turns his body totally inside out to avoid falling, and gives a head butt. And he does this quickly, calmly, and subtly, without being ostentatious. Two, three, four of his blows – which come continuously and simultaneously – embarrass, confuse, dizzy, and dominate his adversary. He is a loyal enemy, never attacking when your back is turned. He is a brave guy. Also nicknamed capadócio (bum, tough guy) and malandro (street-smart guy, unsavory character), the capoeirista, as evidenced by the name, comes from the Capoeiras of the colonial age. And it is not just the idle vagabonds, the runaway kids, the escaped slaves who are Capoeiristas – it is also journalists, deputies, engineers, and generals. The famous Capoeira played in the early morning hours in Rio at the old Café Londres involves scholars and military men. In Rio de Janeiro of the old days, Capoeira was an organization appropriately divided into teams: the guyamús, the nagôas, flor da gente, fransiscanos, luzitanos, conceição da marinha, conceição da glória, bocas-rasgadas, natividades, monduros, caxinguelês, etc. [All names of Capoeira “gangs” in Rio around the turn of the 20th century] These teams clashed daily in the streets in terrible conflicts, and because they were a serious threat to public security, they were energetically persecuted by a Capoeirista himself: Dr. Sampaio Ferraz, the ex-chief of police. With their numbers lessened, today Capoeiristas are rare and are no longer identified by their groups, but instead individually, by their own names. A Capoeirista’s birthplace, neighborhood, women, physical and/or moral characteristics all influence the name and fame of the modern malandro: “Cardosinho da Saúde” [Cardosinho from Saúde (a neighborhood)], “Hespanholito” [Little Spaniard], “Canella de Vidro” [Glass Shin], “Galleguinho” [From Galicia (in Spain)], “Cabelereira” [Hairstylist], “Mulatinho do Catete” [Mulatto from Catete (a neighborhood)], “Camisa Pretas” [Black Shirt], “Treme-Treme” [Shake-Shake], “Carvoeiro” [Coal-Seller], “Cabo-Verde” [Cape Verde], “Bonitinho do Castello” [Pretty Boy from Castello (a neighborhood)], and “Paulo da Zazá.” The modern Capoeirista, like the Capoeirista of the old days, is unemployed. With his abilities and dispositions, he does the same thing as the fencers of the seventeenth century. He puts his acrobatic talents at the service of magnates, of politicians, and especially of owners of gambling houses, from the elegant clubs to the sordid establishments, from the cabarets to the ranchos. When guarding one of these lairs he is a lion, a domestic lion. He risks his life carelessly and it ends, invariably, in an explosion of tragedy. “Either I’ll go up or go down,” he says, referring to going to prison (going up) or dying (going down). The real malandros are hungry for fame. They consider the job of guarding a gambling house a matter of life and death. They don’t want to damage their reputation or lose face. We erroneously labeled the malandro as a bandit. However, he is not so low. You have to get to know him to see how he is nice, polite, and generous… as an enemy, he is cruel; but when he goes to visit you he brings news and presents: cigars, tobacco, and newspaper, having taken the precaution of tricking the guard. But with the same hand that he offers these generosities, he will kill a man. And, with the same ease, he plays the guitar, the cavaquinho, the berimbau. These little tunes that we sometimes hear sung in the sleeping and deserted streets are composed by him, as a poet. Paulo Várzea Madrid – The chulo, Buenos Aires the compadron, Lisboa the fadista, and Rio de Janeiro the capoeirista (1929)
In the 1930s, Getúlio Vargas became dictator in Brazil and remained in power for the next two decades. He wanted to build a new “Brazilian identity” based on “hard work”, modern technology and industry. Brazil was still an agricultural and cattle-raising economy, and most manufactured articles had to be imported from abroad at a very high price.
Vargas understood that Capoeira could be part of this new Brazilian face and identity. But certainly not Rio’s Capoeira maltas or the scattered few malandros, streetsmarts, that persisted after the maltas were destroyed by the police in the late 1800s. And not even Bahia’s Capoeira of the 1920s and 1930s, practiced by the valentão, always mixed up in streetfights, whoring, gambling, and drinking.
In 1932, Manuel dos Reis Machado (Mestre Bimba) created the “Luta Regional Baiana” with the help of his student José Cisnando Lima. He looked at the Capoeira of the time as a tourist attraction, an art that had lost its martial lure. By incorporating movements from Batuque and other martial arts, and by systematizing the training method, he would create a Capoeira that would later be known as “Capoeira Regional”.
In 1936, after a series of duels in the fighting arena of the Parque Odeon and after defeating the famous Henrique Bahia. He broke into the headlines of the newspapers and became the idol of Salvador. Following his new reputation, Mestre Bimba was invited to showcase his “Luta Regional Baiana” to the President Vargas, in 1937. Impressed by him, the President, during that very same year, authorized the practice of this new style of Capoeira, which, would however have to be practiced in a closed environment, and after obtaining the permission of the police. Capoeira therefore became acceptable under certain conditions. A time of optimism began and Mestre Bimba opened the first academy of Capoeira (O Centro de Cultura Física e Luta Regional). The Capoeira Mestres came out of the shadows of the streets and were turned into educators. Mestre Bimba’s work became socially recognized. Out of the streets, Capoeira was now taught to the political, military, university social classes… Capoeira was removed from the penal code in 1940, and it was no longer illegal.
Not everybody appreciated the popularity of this new Capoeira. Traditional Capoeiristas began a resistance to protect the original Capoeira. A group of Mestres therefore met to choose someone that would represent their Capoeira. Mestre Aberré would suggest Mestre Pastinha, the Mestre who had taught him Capoeira. Mestre Pastinha then created the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola in 1941. The term Capoeira Angola (which was already used at the time to designate Capoeira: brincar de Angola), would soon bring together other Mestres too, who, even if they were not associated to Mestre Pastinha, wanted to confirm their association and bring in their efforts to preserve the “original” Capoeira. The term Angola was used to retain the African heritage of the art.
Along with Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha, other Mestres continued to practice and to develop their Capoeira. And so, in his “Barracao” located in the neighborhood of Liberdade: Mestre Waldemar would organize rodas where Mestre Traíra and other personalities became recognized. In the entire state of Bahia, Capoeiristas such as Tiburcinho, Caiçara, Canjiquinha, Cobrinha Verde, Gato, Bigodinho, Gigante, as well as others became worthy representatives of Capoeira in the middle of the 20th century.
In the 50s/60s, black identity began to be incorporated in the city of Salvador in folk-like traditions, due to the touristic political boost. Afro demonstrations (samba, afoxé, candomblé…) began to be less and less repressed by the police. From 1948 onward, the students of Mestre Bimba began to travel to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to carry out demos of this new form of Capoeira. Mestre Canjiquinha showcased Capoeira in most states of Brazil and took part in many movie shoots. Rituals were transformed into shows. In 53, Capoeira had its first presentation on television, on TV Tupi (Channel 4). In 54, a short film of 8 min. “Vadiação” was shot on 16mm. by Alexandre Robatto, with: Mestre Traíra, Curió, Nagé, Bimba, Waldemar, Caiçara… Jorge Amado, the most read Brazilian writer in the world, creates a plot with the famous Capoeirista Samuel Querido de Deus in his novel in 1961: “Bahia de todos santos”, as a proof of his love for black origins expressions; he financially supports the work of Mestre Pastinha who lived, at the time, in the Pelourinho, the historical center of Salvador. Around 62, the record Curso de Capoeira Regional de Mestre Bimba was produced by Jorge Santos.
Despite the different styles, Capoeira spreads across the country; in 1955, Artur Emidio, a Capoeirista originally from Itabuna (Bahia), moved to Rio de Janeiro. There, he met Leopoldina, who worked side by side with fighting enthusiasts. In the 60s/70s, Capoeira would develop the most within the middle Carioca class. Many groups were created and this would give rise to the form that would later be known as: “contemporary”, a mixture of Capoeira Regional and Angola, characterized by the addition of acrobatics and assimilated to a sport. The founders of the group Senzala (popular at the time) and Abada were among the creators of this style.
In 1963, Suassuna created the first academy of Capoeira Regional in Sao Paulo, followed by Ananias, during the same period, who was another Capoeirista from Bahia, but who was however an Angoleiro. In most states, Capoeira began to be developed.
Mestre Pastinha and his delegation were invited to Dakar in Senegal, for the Festival of Black Arts 1966. João Grande, Roberto Santana, Gildo Alfinete, Camafeu de Oxossi participate in this festival. Despite the intellectual help received from people such as Jorge Amado, Mario Cravo Jr, Carybé, Edison Carneiro (Negros Bantus / 1937 and “Capoeira” /1975), the style of Angola is devalued during this period, and many traditional Mestres forsake its practice …
Global Expansion: 70s & 80s
In the 70s, Regional & Contemporary Capoeira started being exported to Europe and to the United States through a few mestres such as Nestor Capoeira and Mestre Acordeon. In 1972, Capoeira was recognized by the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) of Brazil as a sport. In 1973, after being invited by one of his pupils, Mestre Bimba left Salvador for Goiana. He would die on 5th February 1974, a little after being admitted to the university hospital of Goias.
In the 1980s, Capoeira grew outside Brazil and it gradually spread to Europe and the United States.
This period also marked the development of black consciousness. In Bahia, the Bloco Afro Ilé Aiê was founded in 1974 and the Grupo Cultural Olodum in 1976, which, in addition to becoming famous for its music, would also sponsor education and creativity in the black community. The official date of the death of Zumbi, 20th November, came to be known as the national day of Black Consciousness “Movimento Negro Unificado” in 1978.
Mestre Pastinha would die in misery and solitude in Salvador in 1981.
Globalization of Capoeira: 1980 to 2000
Capoeira Angola took a back seat globally up to the 80s. Mestre Joao Pequeno and Mestre Joao Grande were the symbolical leaders of the revival tour of Capoeira Angola. Along with both of them, Mestre Moraes and Mestre Cobra Mansa contributed in the development and expansion of Capoeira Angola across the world. Capoeira Angola did evolve a lot, has shown many facets of its beauty and has gained its own strength (not depending on its contradiction to Regional, anymore). Capoeira Angola started to show up outside Brazil in the 1980s and only since the 1990s it started to spread around. The Capoeira of this generation is therefore often publicly categorized into two “styles”: Capoeira Angola (strongly influenced by Mestre Pastinha and rallied by the Mestres/groups that support the traditions of the Parent Capoeira) and Capoeira Regional (which include those that practice the Capoeira taught by Mestre Bimba and those that developed the art after him). At that time, any group which was not recognized as being part of Capoeira Angola would also be categorized as Capoeira Regional. Since this decade, many books have been written about the subject by researchers, historians and mestres (1982 – “Bimba, perfil do mestre” / Mestre Itapoan, 1985 – “Galo jà cantou” / Nestor Capoeira, 1986 – “Capoeira – A Brazilian Art Form”/Mestre Acordeon, 1989 – “A capoeira Angola na Bahia”/ Mestre Bola Sete , among others …). The old guard from Bahia (the Mestres that represent traditional Capoeira) once again becomes an area of interest and they receive a number of invitations to participate in national and international meets. In 1986, Mestre Nenel, the son of Mestre Bimba, began working on reclaiming the original Regional style of his father by creating “Filhos de Bimba”, a school of Capoeira in the area of Pelourinho.
Since the years 1985/90, Capoeira, with all its styles confounded, has been experiencing a very large global expansion, with its practice seen in all the continents, whether in its traditional form or not. However, the Southern continents continue to have fewer opportunities. Salvador de Bahia has become the “Mecca” of Capoeira, with a lot of commercial opportunities. In 1993, the Brazilian Association of Capoeira Angola (ABCA) is created in Salvador with the influence of intellectuals and Capoeiristas: Mestres Curio, Boca Rica, Lua Rasta, Boa Gente, Pelé, Bola sete, Barba Branca, Nô… And for a more general prospect, the Brazilian Confederation of Capoeira is created in 1994.
Today’s Capoeira goes beyond the art itself, it exports Brazilian culture. It is practiced in all the continents of the world and it is the leading means of extending the Portuguese language. Thousands of tourists visit Brazil every year to discover the origins of the art that they practice. The export of Mestres abroad has reached its height and nowadays, we even see foreign Capoeiristas becoming Capoeira Mestres. Capoeira is developing and with each Mestre, each student, each culture, it is transforming.
Fusion and integration with other arts
Capoeira is also a fashion trend. Since the 1980s, owing to its media hype and commercialization, it has been integrated and merged with various other arts. There are certain forms of Capoeira that are practiced without Ginga or without any music, called Capoeira fitness played on techno music; there are fusions between Capoeira and yoga or even aqua-Capoeira. The art has also been included in MMA; some Capoeiristas participate in this sport, showcasing the strengths of the art’s techniques and its adaptability.
Even though there is nothing new about this, various Capoeiristas are diversifying themselves, becoming actors, dancers or even historians. A lot of them begin training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or develop a love for the rediscovery of the native arts of Brazil.
Research and history
Each Mestre specializes on certain specific aspects of Capoeira, and since the 1970s, some Mestres have been focusing on the research and history part of Capoeira. Where does it come from? How did it develop during the slavery period? What arts gave it its shape? Today’s Capoeira historians are trying to respond to many questions. Across all this, they have been trying to search for an identity, to strengthen the roots and also commemorate the art to give the rightful dues to those who created Capoeira. Aside from its history, there is also the ritual aspect of Capoeira, its integration and future development that are a matter of interest to the researchers. Whether it is its music, its influence, the mythology… everything is being researched nowadays in Capoeira which makes it the most ‘credible’ as a complete art and also helps to better understand its practice.
Capoeira is found in many medias. Movies like ‘Only the Strong’ with Marc Dacascos, have attracted an entire generation of young Americans to practice the art. There are several documentaries, made by ardent Capoeira followers, by Mestres and by people who are curious or historians. Capoeira instruments, particularly the berimbau, is used in popular music or sometimes even merged with electronic music. There is no lack of Capoeira books. At present, the Internet is one of the medias that is helping the development of Capoeira the most. Platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, and various other Internet sites contain a large quantity of information, videos, music, pictures, thus not only allowing the virtual sharing of techniques and know-how, but also facilitating communication between students and groups. Capoeira workshops or Batizados are also partially broadcast live on the web. All this helps in the learning process, but it also trivializes and sometimes makes the art focus mainly on its physical and spectacular aspect, since the Internet generally promotes buzz more than actual knowledge. This type of media also implies that there is a notion of digitization of contact between the student/teacher, but it is however an inevitable phase in the development of Capoeira.
Today’s Capoeira is modeled around the biggest groups, which are mainly, Abada, Cordao de Ouro, Senzala, Muzenza, Capoeira Brazil… Each of these groups has branches all around the world, aiming at guaranteeing the development of the group and sustaining the knowledge initiated by their founders. With the Mestres having founded these groups becoming old, it is very plausible that the image of Capoeira will change in the next few decades and even be revived; perhaps, Capoeira will become more decentralized and the development of the knowledge will become more diverse. Since a few years, we can see new phenomena springing up. Among these is the ‘o movimento novo’ which allows for personal styles to develop without restriction. It may be Angola, Regional or any other style; everything is mixed to discover an art form that is free and varied. That is, returning to the source, without any appropriate style. Capoeira Angola appears to be going through a reviving phase too, and the new generation of Angoleiros seems to be making a strong comeback with sound bases, a strong tradition and many possibilities in the global universe of Capoeira. Many Mestres from all styles are wondering about the future of Capoeira, some of the Mestres change their style and adapt themselves, abandoning the chord or accepting it. The future of Capoeira will depend on those who are actively involved in its development today.
Along with Capoeira or off-line to it, other arts with similar attributes have managed to develop. Among these, are:
In the Reunion Island, slaves also had their secret fights. It was practiced to the beats of the Djembe, and since 1996 it’s been recognized as a sports discipline, and is called Moring. Some say that it originates from the Malagasy, others from a Breton fighting style or from the Marseille fights with slippers, a fighting style that was imported by the sailors.
After the revolt by the Males, some rebels were sent back to Africa and some to Central America. They would create “Mani” in Cuba and “Ladja” in Martinique, which were also derived from N’Golo.
“The singer spurs on the wrestlers by means of provocative lyrics”. These lyrics are derived from the history of Martinique. They either praise a famous “major” or highlight the qualities of courage, strength or even wickedness of one of the wrestlers.
The Rodas de batuque (batuque circles) – the famous batucadas, which was later confused with the likewise violent capoeira – were prohibited by police. Only the malandros, who knew the rules of dancing and who were considered the bambas (experts), could participate on the circles. After initial performances at hands clapping sound and crying instruments, the several strikes began: