In 2008 I began a new journey into the study and training of the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira. It was only fitting that I take the opportunity to delve deeper into the historical and cultural understanding of Capoeira and its roots as part of my Pacifica course in the African and African Diaspora Traditions. Please be sure to review the Works Cited for profound resources from prominent researchers and Mestres.
Annette Williams, Ph.D.
African and African Diaspora Traditions, MS 506
Spring Quarter 2017
The Afro-Brazilian Art of Capoeira: Myth, Legend, Ritual, and Game
A unique and diverse cultural practice traces its origins to the African slave population in Brazil in the early 19th century. This practice is unique as a martial art fighting style, as a means of rebelling oppression, as a community in which to find strength and support, and as a tradition honoring ancestors, all creatively hidden within the structure of music, dance, ritual, martial arts, and game. This practice is called Capoeira.
Capoeira has largely been an oral tradition, and because of this, scholars have been challenged to unearth accurate records. The majority of written records found have been left by the white and Portuguese authorities who possessed an incomplete and biased perspective on Capoeira and the people who practiced it. It is largely agreed upon that Capoeira traces its roots to Rio de Janeiro and Bahia and originated with the African slaves who found Capoeira a means of liberation.
I began my Capoeira practice in 2008 under the guidance of Mestre Boneco (Beto Simas) who was one of the primary contributors of Capoeira to the United States. I had studied the Chinese and Japanese martial arts of Kung Fu and Aikido previously, however immediately upon experiencing my first Capoeira roda I felt as though I was part of a cultural anthropological assignment to learn about this foreign tradition.
Roda means circle in Portuguese. The circle carries symbolism cross-culturally relating to the universe, the soul, the seasons, the sun and the moon, and eternity (Talmon-Chvaicer 144). The meaning in Capoeira is no exception. Participants, aka players, aka Capoeiristas, form a roda with the orchestra of musicians at the top of the roda. The music is vital to Capoeira; it is the foundation to the practice in a multitude of ways. Spectators constitute the circle, creating the space where two Capoeiristas will “play the game” of Capoeira.
Capoeira has been coined many terms such as the dance-fight style due to the fact that the movements may appear dance-like, in synchronism with the music, the players with each other, and with the spectators. The agreed upon explanation for this is to hide the fact that a fighting art was being practiced. However, there is also a deeper explanation that relates to connecting with the ancestors by crossing the boundary of the physical into a higher level of consciousness (Talmon-Chvaicer 144).
To elaborate on the first explanation, Capoeira is documented as having originated with the slaves. Consisting of members from various tribes and regions in Africa, this art offered a means of community, connecting with their ancestors, and maintaining a sense of cultural identity. Capoeira also represented an act of rebellion, and as such, the spectator circle hid from the slave masters (and later authorities when Capoeira hit the streets of Rio), the aggressive fighting movements. Connecting with the music connected them with each other and the musical lyrics sang of anything from honoring their homeland, the dangerous trans-Atlantic journey, and devotion to nature and to their deities. Consistent with West African cultures is that dance and music are ways to appease the gods and ask for their help (Talmon-Chvaicer 148-149).
To witness a Capoeira game appears to observe a choreographed dance. Capoeira is not, however, choreographed. The movements complement each other, as a basic premise is to align and synchronize the energy (axé). To do this is to be successful in one’s Capoeira practice. To elaborate deeper, one’s Capoeira practice is a reflection of their personality, their outlook on life, and how they tackle life’s challenges.
Mestre (master in Portuguese) Acordeon (Bira Almeida) states it is in the jôgo de Capoeira (game of Capoeira) that one employs their strengths, confronts their fears, and aims to improve oneself (11). “For Capoeiristas, the jôgo de Capoeira transcends each occasion of its actual performance and translates to every moment in the life… We [Capoeiristas] regain the freedom of ourselves only when cooked in the cauldron of Medea which is the jôgo in the roda” (55).
Sometimes personality traits are recognized in the nicknames awarded to Capoeiristas; Boneco (handsome one) and Acordeon (accordion) are nicknames for Beta Simas and Bira Almeida, respectively. The use of nicknames is another ritual in the art of Capoeira, presumably to hide the identities of the practitioners historically from authority figures, since Capoeira was a banned practice resulting in imprisonment, fines and lashings to those caught.
Ritual and tradition are honored the moment the roda begins. The circle forms and the music begins to play. The initiating instrument is the berimbau, a stringed type of instrument that is considered the heart of the roda. The berimbau guides and dictates the mood or dynamic of the roda and can change based on the energy of the players and spectators. Typically there are three berimbaus of different sizes, the sounds of which complement each other: one holds the bass, one keeps the rhythm, and another plays rhythmical variations (Acordeon 75). The other primary instruments to the orchestra are the atabaque (a large drum) and pandeiro (tambourine). Additional smaller percussion instruments may be implemented as well.
Sometimes the roda will begin with a ladainha which is seen as “an appeal to the gods” (Talmon-Chvaicer 128). When the leader of the roda gives the signal, two players will kneel down in front of the leading berimbau. Typically the players will cross themselves for protection as they prepare to enter a potentially dangerous situation; they may draw protective symbols in the dust; they may touch the base of the berimbau as a blessing and kiss their lips. Whatever the action may be, there is no particular structure and the intent is to honor the gods, respect the memory of ancestors, and seek courage and fortification in the roda.
The spectators clap and sing in a call-and-response pattern reminiscent of Bantu and Yoruba traditions (Talmon-Chvaicer 160). The axé builds. Everyone contributes; there is no passive observation in the roda. The two players then acknowledge each other and typically perform an au or cartwheel into the center of the roda. Again, the circle is symbolized with the action of the au and Talmon-Chvaicer relates this action to Kongolese culture of moving into another state of consciousness (144).
Depending on the rhythm the berimbau has set forth, the Capoeiristas may play a game that is slower and focused on deception, or they may play a flashier game consisting of jump kicks and fast action. Mestre Acordeon elaborates that the Banguela rhythm involves evasions, trappings, and contorted movements; the Iuna rhythm involves acrobatic movements; and São Bento Grande de Regional employs fast and powerful movements (54). Personal expression and experience are employed here. No two movements will be alike. The offense/defense game will shift with each second.
The players will become fatigued and upon concluding their game, step to the outside of the roda out of breath. However, they integrate back into the spectator circle, singing and clapping and find their energy reignited. The berimbau guides and infuses players with “energy, vigor, and magic.” The sounds give strength (Talmon-Chvacicer 132-133).
During my first roda, I was easily influenced and excited to be involved in the spectator circle. The energy is undeniably contagious and even though at that time I was not familiar with the Portuguese lyrics of the songs being sung, I was encouraged to “fake” what I could and sing along. There was no judgment, as Capoeira historically has always embraced people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. The tradition behind Capoeira has been freedom and expression and camaraderie.
I was very nervous to play my first game but again, was encouraged, and I was partnered with one of the instructors, nicknamed Amazonas. A tremendous amount of thought was going into remembering the basic movements, and I was not yet at the point of “seeing” the game: recognizing the openings for attack, understanding my vulnerabilities, nor how to truly connect with Amazonas’ axé in the game. This was to be expected from a beginner. Amazonas was skillful in guiding the game, drawing out the offensive movements I had been taught, and giving me time to respond to her own kicks and attacks.
Also during this roda, Mestre Boneco led a hauntingly beautiful Angola rhythm, which is slower, does not employ clapping, and typically offers great reverence to our Capoeira ancestors and history. At this point, the lights were dimmed and the spectators sat in a circle, rather than stand, in order to accommodate the dramatic shift in energy. I recall goosebumps on my arms as Mestre sang and we offered a response to the chorus. I am fortunate in my Capoeira training to be student to a powerful and knowledgeable Mestre whose presence is undeniably forceful and intense. His passion is very clear and he has dedicated his life to the preservation and advancement of this incredible art.
Rhythm served another purpose historically. When slavery became abolished Capoeira was practiced on the streets, typically by the criminals – or so Portuguese documentation has established. It was an outlawed practice, seen as dangerous and disruptive and Capoeiristas were considered to be some of the most dangerous criminals (Talmon-Chvaicer 9). It was not uncommon for knives and blades to be incorporated, such as razor blades being held between the toes. The whirling kicks, already powerful and deceptive, now were capable of slicing the throat of the opponent. When authorities were approaching and the game was lethal, the rhythm was changed to a cavalaria, which resembled a horse gallop. This was a clear signal that the nature of the game needed to be subdued or completely disbanded. A few years ago, my Capoeira group decided to take advantage of the flash mob craze, and in a publicity stunt, we congregated on Hollywood Boulevard near Mann’s Chinese Theatre. Mestre Boneco began playing the berimbau and we slowly came together to form a roda. Because performance permits are required in Hollywood, we soon attracted the attention of the local authorities. I immediately noticed Mestre changed the rhythm to the cavalaria and knew to be on the lookout for the police. This was an incredible example and connection for me to our ancestral roots and to the connection we had with each other in this particular roda.
The berimbau is a powerful instrument and, as a Capoeirista, the sound and the calling are very recognizable when approaching a public roda. It draws forth an energy, an anticipation, and excitement to experience the roda. “The berimbau can pacify the soul when played in melancholy solos; the rhythm is black and strong, a deep and powerful pulse that reaches the heart. It inundates mind, space, and time with the intensity of an ocean tide” (Acordeon 71).
Three primary qualities exist in the spirit of Capoeira: valente, malandro, and Pombagira. Valente translates as courage, bravery, fearlessness; malandro refers to a sly, street-smart quality; and Pombagira is an orixá (deity in Candomblé) that speaks to the feminine power within the art (Nestor Capoeira 45). Valente is critical considering the potential dangers of the roda and the need to assert oneself in the game. The presence of valente can also be linked to the orixá Ogum who thrives on combat and is praised by courage (46). For the advanced and experienced and intuitive Capoeirista, valente submits to malandragem, which finds its basis in seduction, charm, cunning, and intelligence. This is the sly tenet of the game, oftentimes working in sync with malícia, a quality summarizing the ethics of the Capoeira spirit.
Pombagira is an orixá linked to her male counterpart Exú, the messenger god in the Candomblé traditions. “Exú is unpredictable, chaotic, and amoral, doing good and evil without differentiating between the two.” He is also a protector, a spiritual bodyguard of sorts as he travels between the world of the gods, the world of mortals, and the spirit world (Nestor Capoeira 58). This feminine energy in Pombagira finds her place in Capoeira as the “inside strategies” while the outward movements are representative of the masculine (23-24).
The foundation of Capoeira speaks to liberation and rebellion from oppression. As can be common under these circumstances, certain hero archetypes are formed as inspiration and symbols of hope. One such character in Capoeira is Besouro (beetle in Portuguese). Documentation so far is incredibly limited on Besouro, but scholars have estimated Besouro was a real person by the name of Manuel Henrique Pereira who was killed by a piercing to his abdomen in July 1924 (Omulu Capoeira Guanabara).
There is an expression in the spirituality of Afro-Brazilian traditions called corpo fachado which translates as “closed body.” It was believed that this could be achieved with the aid of protection amulets, patua, and made the body impenetrable to harm. The legend of Besouro Mangangá includes this divine medicine. Besouro was regarded as an archetype for freedom; he was a vigilante. Already an accomplished Capoeirista, he was said to have defeated multiple opponents and have the ability to escape difficult situations by taking flight like a beetle, hence his nickname. He is said to have enjoyed taunting and defeating authorities in fighting and was always protected by his patua.
However, the magic, the mangangá, had restrictions: Besouro was forbidden from passing under barbed wire and from sleeping with a woman the night before a fight; lastly if he lost his patua he lost his magical protection. Knowing this, an enemy of Besouro devised a plan. The enemy was Douter Zeca and he called for Besouro to deliver a message to an acquaintance. Besouro was illiterate and unable to read the letter, which instructed the recipient in killing the famed Capoeirista. Besouro was told to wait the night upon delivery for the recipient’s response the next morning. During the course of the evening, a woman was hired to have sex with him and steal his patua. In the morning men attacked Besouro and it was Eusébio Quibaca who stabbed him in the abdomen with a knife made of a special type of wood that killed the legendary Besouro. Nestor Capoeira comments that had Besouro utilized malandro, perhaps the story would have had a very different outcome (48).
Capoeira offers a way of life that applies outside of the roda. This quality is malícia, speaking to a certain cunning, alertness, readiness, flexibility, and adaptation to circumstances (Talmon-Chvaicer 166). These characteristics can certainly be seen as valuable within the game of the roda and as important attributes with which to conduct oneself through the challenges of life. In a recent event, called a batizado, a high ranking Capoeirista by the nickname Ninja said “It is through the art of Capoeira we find our identity” (Capoeira Batuque Batizado, July 2, 2017).
Mestre Acordeon categorizes one’s Capoeira journey into three stages. The first he calls “playing in the dark” where the student simply learns the movements, unable yet to “see” the game. The second stage is “playing in the water” where the student becomes more aware of the movements and of attacks but still lacks the experience and skill to truly play and connect in the game. The third is “playing in the light”, where movements, timing, and rhythm have reached a level of proficiency. I relate this to having the ability of slowing down movements in the mind. With training and practice, attacks can be more easily identified before they launch and openings in the opponent achieve a new clarity. The final stage is “playing with the mind”, which assumes the mystical state of being such as with Besouro Mangangá: the Capoeirista seems to possess the corpo fechado, extraordinary skills and healing that seem to defy rational explanation (144-150).
Batizado, translated as baptism, is an initiation given to all students of Capoeira. My school, Capoeira Brasil, celebrates batizado annually. This is a weeklong event of workshops with guest Mestres, instructors, and professors from around the world, nightly rodas, social meals and parties, and capped at the end of the week with the ceremony. During the batizado ceremony students are recognized for their training and knowledge and awarded the next cordo, a cord similar to the belt systems in Asian martial arts. Oftentimes the beginning student will receive their nickname during their first batizado. The ritual and axé of the roda are only amplified with the presence of these highly recognized Mestres. Knowledge flows freely, consistent with the oral tradition. Due to the advantages of modern society, Mestres now write books reflecting their expertise, and release musical CD’s of their own compositions as well as their interpretations of traditional songs. Students are encouraged to ask questions and engage in conversations with Mestres to learn and understood the philosophy, history, and culture of Capoeira.
Capoeira earned its freedom in Brazil through the efforts of Mestre Bimba, (Manuel dos Reis Machado) in the late 1920s. Mestre Bimba gained acceptance of Capoeira as a beneficial physical style and effective martial art. In 1937 Brazil’s president Getúlio Vargas released Capoeira from the imprisonment of the system and recognized it as a national sport. Shortly after this achievement Mestre Pastinha (Vincente Ferreria Pastinha) developed a style of Capoeira he named Angola, asserting the importance of the African roots and preserving teachings from the former slaves and old masters (Capoeira Brasil Los Angeles).
Capoeira gained popularity in the western world largely through the movie “Only the Strong” in 1993. In fact, Mestre Amen of Capoeira Batuque in Los Angeles was an important participant in the movie. My group, Capoeira Brasil, was founded by Mestres Boneco, Paulão Ceará and Paulinho Sabiá, who continue to promote the art and have established affiliated groups worldwide. Brazil released the movie “Besouro” in 2009 which has been subtitled and released in the United States.
Capoeira today is fortunate to exist in a free society and to be practiced around the globe. We still have access to students of the founders of Capoeira, although these resources are becoming more limited and scarce due to age. Folklorists and cultural anthropologists have expressed interest in Capoeira, however, to truly understand the art requires the researcher to experience the roda. One needs to endure sweat, the mental discipline and the magical experience of kneeling under the berimbau (Acordeon 6-7). Additionally, it is important to understand the Portuguese language, the history, the cultural traditions surrounding Capoeira’s birth, as well as the African roots, particularly relating to the spirituality of the orixás. A Capoeirista must play berimbau, atabaque, and pandeiro with proficiency and be able to lead others in song. These are requirements beyond knowledge of the movement and the game within the roda. A Capoeirista must also apply the ethics and qualities into their daily life: meeting challenges with the same vigor, dynamism, malandro and valente.
In moments when life is presenting certain challenges and emotions surround sadness, anger, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, etc., I have found Capoeira to be a healthy release. It is well known physical activity promotes endorphins and increases energy. Additionally, Capoeira movements with their martial arts basis offer a viable release of aggression and frustration. These movements can also translate playfully and more dancelike if the mood calls for such. The music can also offer comfort. The lyrics of many songs are reminiscent of the suffering of the slaves and repressed in Brazil who found solace in the same cultural and artistic form of expression.
The Afro-Brazilian art of Capoeira spans cultures, carries deep roots, an intense history of a fight for freedom and liberation; Capoeira incorporates the mysticism of the orixás and legendary mythological archetypes such as Besouro Mangangá; it can be a playful or violent interaction; it is rich in ritual and symbolism and is adaptable to any person who wishes to experience this diverse tradition.
Almeida, Bira. Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form: History, Philosophy, and Practice. 2 edition. Berkeley, Calif: Blue Snake Books, 1993. Print.
Capoeira, Nestor. Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game. Berkeley, Calif: Blue Snake Books, 2002. Print.
Talmon-Chvaicer, Maya. The Hidden History of Capoeira: A Collision of Cultures in the Brazilian Battle Dance. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007. Print.
“The History of Capoeira.” Capoeira Brasil Los Angeles – Mestre Boneco. Web. 5 July 2017.
“Legend of Besouro Mangangá | San Francisco Capoeira.” Web. 4 July 2017.