Monthly Archives: August 2008

African Roots III – Rhythm


“Africa is at once the most romantic and the most tragic of continents. Its very names reveal its mystery and wide-reaching influence. It is the ‘Ethiopia’ of the Greek, the ‘Kush’ and ‘Punt’ of the Egyptian, and the Arabian ‘Land of the Blacks.’ To modern Europe it is the ‘Dark Continent’ and ‘land of Contrasts’; in literature it is the seat of the Sphinx, gnomes, and pixies, and the refuge of the gods; in commerce it is the slave mart and the source of ivory, ebony, rubber, gold, and diamonds. What other continent can rival in interest this Ancient of Days? There are those, nevertheless, who would write universal history and leave out Africa”

W.E.B du Bois in Music: Black, White and Blue by Ortiz M.Walton

Whatever people are trying to hide of the African Roots of so many cultural expressions in America, it will be the hardest to do that with the influence of African music. African music did have an immense influence on the musical scene everywhere where the African slaves were transported. Music as a tool most African were able to transport with them, as a tool for cultural expression and as a tool for communication that was heavily suppressed by the slave masters. Today a lot of people would not believe how strong the influence of African music is on contemporary music all over the world. I will just give a short list of music styles with African roots (or developed by African Americans):

Afoxé, Bachata, Bambuco, Bluegrass, Blues, Bomba, Cajun music, Calypso, Candombe, Cueca, Dancehall, Disco, Doo-wop, Dub, Festejo, Funk, Go Go, Gospel, Haitian music, Hip Hop Music, Jazz, Landó, Lovers rock, Maracatu, Mento, Merengue, Neo Soul, Plena, Ragga, Reggae, Rocksteady, Ragtime, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Samba, Samba-reggae, Ska, Son, Soul Music, Spirituals, Swing, Zydeco… and so on.

So, if I wanted to go into detail, I’d have to write a book. Thus, I will try to concentrate on only few aspects of the African influence on the music in the Americas. I will concentrate first on traditional African music and its concepts, and in the second part I will focus on the musical bow, its beginnings and its branching throughout the world, starting in Africa, and somewhere landing as Berimbau in Brazil. For all those people who will now say that the Berimbau was not always part of Capoeira. You are all right. The Berimbau seems to be involved only in the late 19th century. But concepts of traditional African music seemed to be present long before, like responsive singing and the usage of drums. And since the Berimbau is now the accepted number one instrument of Capoeira and even more, since the use of the Berimbau spreads all over the world through Capoeiristas playing it, it is important and interesting to know where it comes from, right?

The Soul of African Music

First of all: Africa is big. Really big. With an area of over 30 million square kilometers and more than 900 million inhabitants it is 3 times bigger than Europe and has about 25% more inhabitants (and it is still 20% bigger than North America and has 80% more inhabitants). And much more than the latter two continents Africa is highly diverse in terms of languages and cultures. The exact numbers are not known, but there are well over thousand languages and cultures on the continent. All of them have different rituals, arts, social systems and believes. So talking about “African music” is about as sloppy as talking about “European music” and intermixing Irish stepdance with Bavarian Schuhplattler and the Bulgarian Paidushko horo. So every statement being made here is to be seen in this light. I try to be as general as possible and not to specify on a specific music. And I will concentrate on those facets of “African music” which did have an effect on American music.

The most important thing about African music is its usage as tool for communication. This communication is either with the gods, with spirits, between different villages/tribes/nations or between certain individuals of one group. Words are a means of communication, yes, but by combining it with rhythm and performance multiple layers of communication are achieved, only obvious for those who understand all of them. This came as an advantage of the practice of African music in the diaspora.

There were many different types of music, each having a function in traditional social life. The emphasis is on community and involvement of different partners, not on watching a solo artist show her talent (although, yes, there is also  solo music in traditional African societies). And there was different music for about every phase of life and every kind of happening, if it’s the birth of a person, marriage songs, hunting songs, partying songs.

African music was most of the time sacred and secular at the same time. It was not depending on the music, but on the person receiving or participating in the music. Some people were just enjoying the music, the dance and the rhythms, while others saw the spiritual aspects. And most did both! There was no separation of music, spiritual dimensions and the world in traditional African music. Instruments were like persons, they had spirits and were to be taken care of – by specialists sometimes who were the only ones allowed to play it. We have the same in Capoeira, where the Berimbau is treated as “the mestre of the roda” and the Viola “cries” (Chora Viola) and where the falling of a calabash feels to us like a kick into one’s groins.


Traditional African music is often described as rich and colourful. That is, because to Western ears African music does sound complex, polyrhythmic and polyphonic. This is achieved by the use of a large number of diverse instruments and the happening of multiple events within the music. Farspread is the establishement of a relationship between a leader and the chorus. The two parts respond to each other in a rhythmic call-response pattern, with short phrases and a high degree of spontaneity and variation. Together with these elements the element of dance is usually part of African music and adds to the colourful image.

Participation is an important aspect in traditional African music, as they were usually social events. The audience is not bound to only listen, but does take an active role in providing “energy” to the performance.

These attributes of traditional African music did come with the slaves when they were brought to the Americas and they helped the slaves build up codes and the spreading of information and ideas among slaves of the same and of different farms.

An Old instrument

There are thousands of instruments all over the world and also in Africa. And each of them does have a fascinating history – on the other side: there is no way one post could explain the roots of all African instruments which made an impact in American culture. But I will do so with one: The musical bow.

The musical bow is old, reaaaally old. The concept of using a bow to produce sounds is as “instinctive” as using anything hard and resonating as a drum. The history of the musical bow goes back as much as 17 000 years. Cave paintings in southern France do show the use of bows both for hunting and for “fun”. The music bow seems to have originated in Africa, because today the musical bow does have its highest variability and distribution there (there are only few examples of musical bows outside of Africa). In Africa they have thousands of names, like Samuius at the Zulu, Gom-Gom at the Hottentots, Bobre in Mozambique, Zedzi lava in Madagascar, and Hunga or N’ Kungo in Angola. Interesting is that the Hunga does look much like the Brazilian Berimbau, a “bow with a gourd resonator open like a bell tied to its back. The tunes are varied by the amount of opening between the player’s body and the gourd and by moving it over different parts of the stomach. The string is held between the finger and the thumb and beaten with a slender cane.” The Madagassy Zedzi lava is similar, the player has in his “right hand…a small rattle of plam leaf; also a slender stalk of split cane, with which he strikes the string, its note blending with the sound of the rattle.” (both quotes from Geographical Distribution of the musical bow, Otis T. Mason)

On new paths

From Africa the musical bow did start to spread all over the world, most recently through the journeys of Capoeiristas who took the Berimbau with them. Before it was slaves who might not have taken their instruments with them when they were enslaved, but who did know how to build them. And so they did.

All of you (especially those people who know about Capoeira) know that I will come down to the Berimbau at the end of this post. But the Berimbau is not the only contemporary musical bow of the African Diaspora. And the Americas are not the only continent who has experienced a massive influx of Africans and their culture (although the Americas had the strongest influx). Asia was another place where Africans went, via trade, but also sold as slaves.

A side note: slavery always existed in a certain form or another. The Old Egyptians had slaves, the Romans had slaves and there were slaves in the Middle Ages, both in Europe and Asia. Also the Arabians were heavily engaged in the slave trade. And yes, there was slavery in between African nations, too. The difference between slavery in the Colonial era and slavery in the pre-Colonial era were the vast amounts of slaves being transported to the Americas and the the way slaves were treated like animals. In all eras before there were at least several examples of slaves who achieved higher ranks, who could buy themselves free and who became kings or at least high-order functionals of the state.

Anyway, so African slaves, but also African sailors and tradesmen arrived in Asia long before Marco Polo arrived in China. Of course that is first because Africa and Asia are so close together meeting in the Middle East, where there was always intercultural mixing and contact (e.g. between Babylon and the Pharaos, between the Hethits and the Pharaos, between Ethiopians and the Arabs). But Africans did also go as far as India, where commercial contacts were established as early as 1100. Settlers moved from Ethiopia to India and became known as the Siddi, an Afro-Asian population still existent today (although slowly diminishing because of intermarriage). The Siddi are descendants of Bantu speaking nations from East Africa and Ethiopia, but also from South Africa, like Angola. Those came especially in the 17th century, when the Portuguese started to trade in slaves, too.

And of course they also brought their culture and – in this case – also their music bows with them. Here it is called Malunga and is a Berimbau-like bow played with the gourd to the belly and with a rattle enriching the sound of the musical bow. For a sample of the Malunga sound, click here. The Malunga is used in rituals today, e.g. in Ramadan when a responsible person wakes up the people before dawn to eat he walks around the streets calling and playing the Malunga.

An Old Instrument in the “New World”

And finally we come back to the Americas, where, due to the excessive slave trades of four centuries, the African Diaspora is everywhere, in the streets, in the language, in the culture, in the music. And so is the music bow. It is not only present in the Berimbau of Brazil, it is also represented in the Appalachian mouthbow, the gualambau of the Guarani Amerindians in Paraguay and in the burumbumba of Cuba.

And so we come down to the Berimbau, which has become the Capoeiristas instrument since the 19th century. The Berimbau, also called Berimbau-de-Barriga, came to Brazil with the Angolan slaves who called it mbulumbumba (Ngumbi and Handa of Southwestern Angola), humbo (in Luanda), nhungo (Mbunda) or Rucumbo (Congo people). There were a dozen other African musical bows preceeding the Berimbau, the Berimbau itself did evolve into its recent form in Brazil (though the only thing which changed is that it is louder and bigger than most of the African instruments, the concept and details are all African inventions). The African predecessors were also existent in Brazil and only got pushed aside in the 19th century. And in the 19th century Jean Baptiste Depret did paint ‘The Blind Singer’ a picture showing a Berimbau and a Lamellaphone player, that is the picture shown in the beginning of this post. It is either used as a single instrument or in Batuque and/or (who knows how exact the observants were witht their assumptions in the 19th century) Candomblé rituals before, but the usage of the Berimbau in Capoeira though is not mentioned before 1888.

And today? Well, most people who know the Berimbau do automatically connect it with Capoeira. There is also some popular music using the Berimbau (like Max Cavalera) and through Capoeira the Berimbau does spread to places where it was never seen before. And even today people are not used to the sight of the Berimbau in Europe and North America, thinking that it is a kind of alternative proto-instrument, too primitive to be taken serious. Let’s prove otherwise!


Ok, so much for the influence of African music on the Americas, the World and Capoeira 🙂 I definitely know that there is much more to tell, but as usual I tried to keep it streamlined and I hope I managed.

Some Sources:

Geographical Distribution of the Musical Bow, Otis T. Mason, American Anthropologist, Vol. 10, No. 11 (Nov., 1897), pp. 377-380

Music: Black, White and Blue, Ortiz M.Walton

Traditional African Music, Karlton E. Hester (editor in chief)

Rhythms of Resistance, African Musical Heritage in Brazil, Peter Fryer

The Natural History of the Musical Bow, Henry Balfour in American Anthropologist, Vol.2, No.1 (Jan. 1900) pp. 164-166

The Drum and its Role in Yoruba Religion, Ademola Adegbite, Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol.18, No.1, 1988, pp. 15-26

 Picture sources:





Filed under African Roots

African Roots II – Faith

(photo by Emilio Navarinho)


Oxalá que me guie                                   Oxalá who guides me

Por todo caminho                                    the whole way

Nâo deixe na rodaa fé me faltar              Don’t let my faith fail in the roda

Sou vento que sopra eu sou capoeira      I am the wind that blows I am Capoeira

A luta de um povo prá se libertar            The fight of a people to be free

(Capoeira song translated by Mathew Brigham)


The people who were transported to Brazil brought with them the roots of Capoeira. These are not only the Martial Arts who came with them and who are the direct ancestors of Capoeira. There is also a lot of different religions which came to and started spreading in Brazil. It is impossible to mention all the manifestations of African belief in Brazil and it is also impossible to dig into every African religion which had an influence on African Faith in the Diaspora. This is the reason why I will just write about certain parts, just to give people an idea what to look for and as a kind of starter. If you are really interested into this topic you should do a more proper research than just reading this post, but start digging yourself. You will discover a very interesting and fascinating world, believe me!

When you ask a Capoeirista which religion might be closest to Capoeira the first or the second answer will be Candomblé. We all were taught that Capoeira itself does not have a religion and can and should be practised by all, but on the other side there are a lot of songs in Capoeira which actually refer to Candomblé belief and there are a lot of mestres who practise Candomblé. This is because Candomblé is, like Capoeira, an Afrobrazilian Tradition practised despite being outlawed and banned for hundreds of years, a way of resistance slaves practised despite the overpowering rule of their masters. It is a piece of this culture, which was as endangered as Capoeira and which did perceive similar demographic changes in the last 100 years. This is the reason why this post is mainly about Candomblé, its roots and its manifestation in Brazil.

The Yoruba Roots

Today’s Candomblé is strongly influenced by Yoruban traditions. That is why I begin with describing the Yoruban religion. Yoruba religion (or religions, if you dont want to see it as one whole) is the largest African born and developed religion in the world, practised by the relatively diffuse nations influenced by Yoruban tradition in West Africa. In Yoruba faith the world is made of two connected realms, Aye, the visible world we are living in, and Orun, the spiritual world, with its own inhabitants, with ancestors, nature spirits, and most importantly, the Orishas. Orishas are anthropomorphized forces of nature, associate with geographical features, extended families, towns and Yoruba ethnics dominant in these towns. Yoruba religion does know 401 (or, in other sources 601) Orishas, of which some are known and worshipped by all and others are only worshipped by certain families and towns. It is also important that every person is given a particular deity for worship. This is usually the deity the father or the mother did worship to, but it can also happen that a certain god does reveal itself in a dream and thus the believer will worship that particular god.

Among the Orishas there are some with special meaning and function. Olorun is the first Orishato be mentioned as he is the Creator of the entire universe and rules over it with the help of all the other gods, which are his children. He lives in the sky and has no special group of worshippers or shrines (while all the other Orishas do). This is the reason why some scholars do believe that Olorun was “invented” only later in Yoruba religion, being influenced by monotheistic religions like Islam or Christianity. But there are also other Orishas of great importance, like Shango, the god of thunder and fire, Ochossi, the hunter and scout of the gods and the god of those who seek for justice or something else, Iemanja, the loving mother of mankind and goddess of the sea. And there is Eshu, the divine messenger and trickster god. He is the one who connects the world of the Orishas with ours and he is the one everyone worships to, not only to establish the connection to the world of Aye, but also to stop him from tricking and consequently harming people (despite Christian scholars seing Eshu as Satan himself,  Eshu does not represent evil, because a) Yoruban religion does not have a dichotomous good-evil distinction and b) Eshu is merely a chaotic power necessary for everyday’s life and being a warning to those who do not establish a good connection to the Orishas).

Besides the Orishas there is the Egun. They are the spirits of the ancestors who assist and guide the believer through his life. On the other side there is also belief in reincarnation amongst the Yoruba, which does reveal itself in names like “Babatende“, which means “Father returns”. The Yoruba believe that, to lead a good life, you have to know your Orisha to worship and you have to know to align your Ori, which means literally “head” and which does come down to one’s spiritual intuition and destiny. Aligning your Oridoes mean that you establish a balanced character. To achieve this you have to work with the Orishas and folowthe guide of the Egun. To come to know your Ori is to come to know yourself, to achieve inner peace and satisfaction. Another important concept is the concept of Axé, which is the force that gives rise to all pocessesthat define the universe. Without Axé nothing would move, evolve or actually do anything. Roughly you can say that Axé is something like life force, although it is in everything, living and non living objects.

Roots of Candomblé

When the West African Oyo empire collapsed in the 19th century, a lot of ethnic Yoruba were transported to the Americas. Here they had considerable influence on the religious practises of the slave population, which were summarized under the term “Candomblé”. But Candomblé is not merely the Afrobrazilian version of Yoruban tradition. Candomblé exists in Brazil for 400 years, that is since a time when Yoruba slaves were only part of the slave population of Brazil. This explains why “Candomblé” is not a Yoruban, but a Bantu word. It comes from the root “Kandombele” which means something like “prayer meeting”, “festival” and “dance”. Thus, there are Bantu traditions in Candomblé, too. To understand the heterogeneity of Candomblé one has to remember that in the beginning slave masters were not fond of homogeneous groups of slaves on their farms. They feared that this would lead to allying and rebellions, so they took care that the slaves came from different nations and were speaking different languages. So Candomblé did evolve being influenced by many different traditions (thought the Bantu and Yoruba traditions are most visible). One example of this mixture of influences is that you can find Orixas from Yoruban, Vodouns from Ewe and Fon, and Nkisis from Bantu tradition in Candomblé. There is also some influence of Islamic Malés and their traditions, but this one started to decrease since the import of Islamic slaves was stopped after 1835 and the remaining once were forced to change to Christianity. And there is some strong influence of Christianity, which I will come back to later. Important to know is that the mixture of traditions is not causing problems in Candomblé. Some Vodouns, Nkisis and Orixas do have same or similar functions, but nobody does exclude the one or other deity because of this. The deities are recognized as different, but equal beings. And Candomblé is not the only religion in the Americas with mixed influences. Yoruba, for example, did not only have an influence on Candomblé, but also on other traditions like Palo on Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Umbanda in Brazil and the Petro rites of Haitian Vodoun.

Syncretism with Christianity

The Portuguese masters didnt like their slaves practising African rituals and religion. That’s the reason why a lot of slaves were forced to convert and participate in Catholic mess. This was the beginning of the Syncretism which evolved between Christianity and Yoruban traditions influencing Candomblé. Although the word Syncretism is a bit disturbing, as syncretism is “blending of two or more religious systems into a new system”. Christianity was not accepted by the slaves (at least not in the beginning), but forced into their lifes. And the blending of their traditions with Christianity was not because they thought some ideas of Christanity are actually good, but because there was no other way. And here we come to a concept, which every Capoeiristaknows by heart. The concept of “hidden resistance”, of deception and trickery, for the cause of survival (of one self, of one’s traditions, of one’s religion…). A lot of slaves did not accept Christian religion as such, but did use the saints for hidden worship of the Orixas and a camouflaged pracise of Candomblé. They learned names and characteristics of the saints and saw similarities to their Orixas. So they started serving those saints, with the casual hidden relic of the corresponding Orixa on the Christian altar.

O Santa Barbara de Relampué,
O Santa Barbara de Relampua.
O Santa Barbara de Relampué,
O Santa Barbara de Relampua.
E Relampue, de Relampuá.
O Santa Barbara de Relampué,
O Santa Barbara de Relampua.
De Relampue de Relampuá.

The song given above is for example not praising St. Barbara, but Iansá, the cleaning force and goddes of the storm and wind, wielding thunderbolts. Other corresponding saints are e.g. St. Sebastian for Oxossi, the Virgin Mary for Yemanjá, and Jesus for Oxalá. Today this Syncretism goes on. This is not only becauseof the pressure applied by the Christian slave masters, but also because there is a high degree of tolerance in African religious tradition. Believers did’thave problems regarding Jesus and the saints as equal deities. They did the same with Nkisis and Orixas and Vodouns. And they also did include other non-African deities, like Native American deities, which were seen as “Orixas of the Land”.

Candomble in Modern times

Despite being banned by the Catholic church and despite being criminalized by various governments, Candomblé did continue to exist in Brazil for hundreds of years (just like Capoeira). It did not only continue to exist, it did also expand considerably in the late 1800s (just like Capoeira!). This was due to the increased import of Youba and also to the influence of freed slaves and their religious practise. It was three freed African women who opened the first official Candomblé temple (“terreiro“) called Engenho Velho in Bahia. They were called Iya Deta, Iya Kala and Iya Nasso. Bahia was and is the centre of Candomblé belief and practise. Beginning with the Engenho Velho, other terreiros followed. Some did split up after several disputes (just like in… you guess it…) and the new Candomblés did orientate themselves upon certain African traditions. That is how the different “sects”, the “naçŏe“s (nations) of Candomblé did evolve. The traditions leading to the nations were existent before and were preserved by a Catholic Institution, amongst others. How? Well, at a certain time the Church did organized socalled irmandades, Brotherhoods for African slaves of the same ethnicity in the 18th and 19thcentury. This was meant to facilitate preaches in the slaves’ languages, but did ultimately lead to the preservation of a lot of traditions and their introduction into the practise of Candomblé. Today there are the nations of Candomblé de Ketu, Candomblé de Angola, C. de Jejé, C. de Congo, C. de Ijexa, C. de Cabocloand so on, each with a different set of main deities, different music and languages used in ritual. The nation of Ketu (or Queto in Portuguese) is the one with the strongest Yoruba influence and the one with the highest number of believers. Today there is as many as 2 million practicioners of Candomblé throughout Brazil. People from all social classes and all ethnicitiesstarted practising Candomblé in the last hundred years, not only because people believed in it, but partly to find back their roots, to solidarize with the Black people’s fates, partly because it was chic or becauseit was exotic, or as a protest against the Church. The same demographic change happened with other Afrobrazilian traditions, like Capoeira. Other than the 2 million “official” practicioners of Candomblé there are a lot of nominally Christian Brazilians who do occasionally engage in Candomblé rituals. This is because religious practices are not mutually exclusive in Brazil. On the other side there are of course people who do see things exclusively. In Candomblé there is the concept of Pureza which does imply the original African traditions of Candomblé and people trying to apply the Pureza try to cleanse Candomblé from Christian influences, creating a pure Candomblé (reminds me of the Angola movement in Capoeira…).


OK, as I said, this post is meant to be introductory. There is a lot of things I havent written down, just to streamline this post. My best advice is for you to inform yourself, if you are interested, and remember to be critical and remember that a lot of Afrobrazilianhistory was actually burned in 1888. On the other side it is important to say that Capoeira is not Candomblé. They are both expressions of Afrobrazilian culture, both have their roots in Africa and there are a lot of connections between both. And both have to be respected as traditions which grew over hundreds of years and are existent in modern society. But Capoeira is, although it is a lot of other things, not the practice of a certain religion.



Some interesting sources used for this post (by far not all + not sorted according to information richness):


Filed under African Roots

African Roots I – Ancestors

(Jean Baptiste Debret, 1835)

More than 3 million Africans were enslaved in Brazil before the abolition in 1888. The Portuguese did, for economical and political reasons, have only access to certain African people, which is the reason why most of the ancestral nations of today’s Afrobrazilians are known.

In this first post of the African Roots series I want to begin with the uttermost basis of Capoeira. That is: the people who were brought to Brazil. The people which did not just bring their bodies with them, but also their beliefs and their knowledge.

The Portuguese had two major sources of slaves, the Sudan people and the Bantu people. The Sudan people were native to West and Central Africa. Sudan people being a summarizing word for different nations, like the Asante/Ashanti, Mandinka, Yoruba, Igbo, Fon and Adangbe. The Bantu people were natives of South-West Africa, living in the areas which are present Angola, Mozambique and Congo. All of these cultures and nations did add to the diasporic culture evolving in Brazil, the other South American states, the Carribean and North America. Usually because of sheer numbers there are nations which had a bigger influence on diasporic African culture than others. I will now concentrate on them rather than digging up information about every nation which “contributed” slaves to the Americas. The most influental nations were the Mandinka and Yoruba people from West Africa and the Congo and the Mbundu people from the old Southwest African Empires.

As I already posted some information about the Mandinka, I will first start with the Yoruba.

The Yoruba

The Yoruba are a common word for different tribes which are loosely linked by geography, language, history, and religion. In Nigeria, Benin and Togo the number of Yoruba people is about 15 million.


As far as history can say the Yoruba were always there. There is some archaeological evidence that the area where the Yoruba live is occupied since prehistoric times. Other theories say that the primary ancestors, the Odudua, came from Egypt. These are based on the fact that there are similarities between early Egyptian and Yoruban sculptures (though this can also be just an effect of trade or intercultural cross-talk). According to Yorubas myths, the founders of the Yoruba states were the sons of Odudua. The Yoruba still refer to themselves as “the children of Odudua.”  Although they had a common origin, a common language and common believes the Yoruba never had one single political organization. They were more organized into up to 25 different nations with urban centers as the center of political, economical and cultural life. The Yoruba were the most urbanized Africans in precolonial times. Of the urban centers, Ile-Ife is universally recognized as the oldest and ritually most important Yoruba city. The founding of Ife is believed to date to about 850 AD. Its biggest rival, the Oyo kingdom just to the northwest of Ife, was founded about 1350 AD. The Oni of Ife and the Alafin of Oyo are still the most highly respected Yoruba kings in Nigeria. Other major kingdoms were Ijesha, Ekiti, Shabe, Ketu, Egbado, Ijebu, Awori, Ondo, Owo, and Itsekiri. By the 18th century a lot of wars between Yoruba states did add to the slave trade and on the other side, were also affected by the political, economical and demographical challenges of the slave trade. Slaves of Yoruba descent were resettled in Cuba and Brazil, where elements of Yoruba culture and language can still be found.


I will only shortly describe the religion of the Yoruba. Not for the reason that there is not much to tell, but for the reason that a lot of Yoruba will come up in the later posts (actually in the following post) and that I dont want to state here things which would be better in the next post. Important to know is that the Yoruba had a very strong influence on belief systems in South-America and the Carribeans.

In the religion of the Yoruba there are important beings like kings, ancestors and deities. The number and the interrelationship of the vast numbers of gods the Yoruba have (according to the Yoruba it is 401 gods) remindes me of the Ancient Greek with their rich mythology and immense number of stories. These deities, known as Orishas, are also known to Carribean and South-African religions like Candomblé (and yes, the next post will be about Candomblé and other belief systems of the African diaspora).


The Yorubas are famous for their art and craftwork, especially for their wood sculptures, which are important even in modern times. Carved doors, drums, and ritual masks are important articles of Yoruba art. The doors are often covered with carved panels of scenes of everyday life, history, or mythology. The masks are more facial carvings that represent different types of Yoruban religious entities like the trader, the servant, and the seducer.
Other than wood carvings the Yoruba also have beautiful sculpture work in brass, terracotta, and steel.

The Congo

The Congo (“hunter”) people, or Besinkongo or Bakongo, as they refer to themselves, are part of the loosely connected ethnic groups known as the Bantu. There is about 10 million Congolese people living today mostly on the African Atlantic coast between Brazzaville and Luanda.


The word Bantu does refer to over 400 ethnic group in Sub-Saharan Africa and a language diversity similar to the diversity of the Indo-European languages. The Bantu seem to be descendants of a “proto-tribe” which went through a huge expansion phase in the last 5000 years (we have to keep in mind that this expansion was mostly not an active war on neighbouring tribes, but a kind of diffusion of the culture and the language companying the one or other occasional movement of people from one place to the other). Around the year 500 BC the Congo people did arrive at the area of the Congo River. They arrived as settlers and did engage in iron work and agriculture since then. During the 2000 years of pre-Colonial Congo there were a number of kingdoms built up by the Congo people, including the Kingdom of Kongo, Ngoyo, and the Loango kingdom. The Kingdom of Kongo does play a very important role in young Congo history. It was presumably founded around the year 1100, the first recordings being around the end of the 15th century.

First contacts after the Portuguese “discovered” (right, as if the Congo people were lost or did’t know where they are…) the Congo Empire in the year 1482 were respectful (in comparison to later times, not in terms of common decency…) with Congolese nobles visiting European courts (or being presented there). On the other side there were attempts to Christianize the kings of Congo, which seemed to have worked with “Nzinga a Nkuwu” who was baptized as Joao I. in 1491.

When the Kongo people had to defend themselves against the Yaka in the mid of the 16th century, they asked the Portuguese for help, who came and stayed. Congo was officially colonized by 1885. Before then the Congo kingdom did lose his power in long years of bad governing and civil war. During these times a lot of Congo people were sold as slaves to the Portuguese. The starting point for most Congolese slaves was Luanda, which is a place still sung about in Capoeira songs. Luanda was founded by the Portuguese explorer  Paulo Dias de Novais in 1575. Since its foundation till 1836 it was the administrative center of the Portuguese slave trade.


One important subject of Congo religion are the existence of “spirits”, which can be ancestors, but also other spirits, which can inhibit objects. These objects, the minkisi (singular: nkisi) can act as chantments, protecting the person who wears them. Nkisi do also come up in Candomble. Most of the Congolese traditions in African Diaspora can be found in the Quimbanda (Macumba), an Afro-Brazilian religion. Yes, I’ll come to that in the next post 🙂


Congolese art is predominantly focussing on human beings and animals with a lot of sculpture work. Most of the Congo art is wood carvings, thought they ere also doing pottery arts.

The Mbundu

The southern neighbours of the Congo people were another ethnic group with a high importance for Portuguese slave trade, the Mbdundu. The Mbundu count nowadays something like 10 million people and share common traditions and their common language Kimbundu. Like the Congo people the Mbundu also have a disctinct history which changed drastically upon the arrival of the Portuguese. And like the Congo also a lot of Mbundu people were sold into slavery to Brazil and other Southamerican states.


 The oral tradition of the Mbundu does tell us that the founder of the Mbundu kingdom was a person called Ngola Kiluanje, who emigrated from the Congo and founded the kingdom of Ndongo. The kings of the Ndongo were called N’Gola, thus the modern name of the state of Angola. First records of Ndongo are from the 16th century when missonaries and adventurers did write down oral traditions of the Mbundu. In those times the Ndongo was a tribute state of the Congo Kingdom, although in later times the Ndongo did gain power with the help of the Portuguese (for all little Macchiavellists here, there is a classical example of divide et impera). The rest of the history of this kingdom does read like a classical story of the time of Colonialism with the exception of Queen Nzinga. Queen Nzinga was born 1582 to the Ngola Kiluanji. Special about this woman was that, once she succeeded in getting into power she managed to build up a coalition against the Portuguese attempts to gain power in the region. This woman was able to hold back the Portuguese in a time when those were thirsty for new land and new slaves to be sold to the growing agricultural economy in Brazil. This woman, who led the armies against the Portuguese personally, did manage to have a Peace treaty with the Portuguese by 1657 and died peacefully in the year 1663.

She is still one of the most important figures in Angola history and there is a statue of her in the center of the capital Luanda. Sadly soon after her death the Portuguese submitted the Mbundu in the year of 1671 and suffered under the slave trade and under Colonialism till the 20th century. Important about Queen Nzinga might be her role as a woman in Mbundu society. Mbundu society is strongly matrilineal and did have a lot of important female figures in its history.


The belief systems of the Mbundu are based on the interactions, praise and communication with ancestral spirits and nature spirits. Problems and difficulties in life are referred to as problems in the communication with these spirits. To solve these problems there was the Kimbanda, the diviner, who has the ability to communicate with the spirits. These diviners are still referred to when Angolans do have problems, although Christianity did enter the Mbundu society beginning with the very first contacts with the Portuguese.


Seated Woman - example of Mbundu Arts

Seated Woman - example of Mbundu Arts

 Mbundu arts are, when you find sources about them, usually intermixed witht the arts of neighbouring nations, as well as the arts of the Congo. As the Congo nations the Mbundu do have a lot of artwork with carvings. One speciality seems to be the Mbundu masks worn in rituals.


Well, that was the first part of the African roots series. Finally! And it was a lot of work! But I hope with this you have a basic knowledge regarding the question who came to Brazil?. this knowledge is needed to fully comprehend Capoeiras roots, because everything in Capoeiras history and present is somehow related to these people who came to Brazil (with the exceptions of some modern inventions, like cordas). In the next post I will refer about Candomblé, Macumba and – in general – religious believes of the African Diaspora outside and inside of Capoeira. Hope that you people will continue reading this series. If there is anything to comment on, or some information you want to see here, just post it under the comments. And if you are interested in more information, check out the links given at the bottom. They and others were the main sources for this post.

picture source:

Sources about the Yoruba (though this is not a complete list, but most of these sites have links to very good other sites!):

Sources about the Congo:–%20Britannica%20Online%20Encyclopedia

Sources about the Mbundu:


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