Category Archives: African Roots

Respect Your Berimbau!

The first time I heard and saw the Berimbau, I was amazed. Some other people were not used to its sound and did not understand it. And while learning more about Capoeira, a student does understand that having a Berimbau and learning how to play it and that listening to the sounds and the orders of the Berimbau in the Roda is of uttermost importance in Capoeira. I always accepted this as a fact and did not waste energy to think about it, until the first person asked: “why?”

When we thoroughly study the sources, we see that Capoeira was not always associated with the Berimbau. When Rugendas was describing Capoeira in 1825, there were drums. When Debrét was drawing the black street vendor with the Berimbau, there was no Capoeira. In the few first-hand sources we have about Capoeira of the 19th century, there is just no Berimbau. And still, today all our Mestres and teachers do emphasize the importance of the Berimbau. The Berimbau started to become a symbol of Capoeira. When I see somebody walking around with a Berimbau here in Europe, I just assume he is a Capoeirista. So, what happened in the last 100 years? Why is the Berimbau so important to Capoeira, while it was just not associated with it just 110 years ago?

Let’s try to track it back.

Out of Africa – the Berimbau

The Berimbau is an African-derived instrument. Recent and past indigenous tribes of Brazil did not have musical bows, the Europeans neither. But in Africa around the 15th century till today there was a huge diversity of different musical bows, of which I have given an overview in another post of mine. The ones who played these bows and built them in Africa were shipped over to Brazil and there they started making Berimbaus and playing them. We find the first historical documentation of the Berimbau in the early 19th century. Especially travellers from Europe were fascinated or curious about the musical bow which was described as being used by street vendors and beggars. And it was especially an instrument used by Blacks, not by the mestizoes, not the poor whites, it was the African Brazilian people who used the Berimbau.

The first times the Berimbau was mentioned together with Capoeira, was in the early 1880’s. One document of this time (about 1891) is a description by Joao Silva da Campos, whose description was published posthumously in 1941:

The excited dark crowd performed Batuques. Samba. Capoeira circles. One heard pandeiros, cavaquinhos, violas, harmonicas, berimbau and cadential hand clapping. It was  pandemonium (Campos 1941:131).

This description, which does not seem to be the description of an insider, does definitely show us that Capoeira and the Berimbau were already in the same happenings, but maybe not specifically linked to each other. It was still mainly poor African Brazilians who practised Capoeira, and who played the Berimbau. But in one expect there is an important difference between Capoeira and the Berimbau. While Capoeira was practised in different places, the Berimbau seems to have survived in only few places. Especially in Salvador. In Rio Capoeira was practised without the Berimbau (and without the Ginga and so on), but was associated with war songs used by the Guiamos and the Nagoas. In Recife Capoeira was associated with the city’s principal music bands, but they also had no Berimbau.


In the 1930’s the Berimbau was nearly extinct in Brazil. It was only played in Salvador, and here most of its players were Capoeiristas or associated to them. And then, when Capoeira did suddenly increase in popularity thanks to Mestre Bimba and the legalization of Capoeira Academies by Getulio Vargas, the Berimbau did start to be used more and more. And today, only 70 years later, the Berimbau is a symbol of Brazil, but more of Afrobrazilian culture, and, of all, of Capoeira. It is still most intimately connected to Capoeira, but has now its existence in performance and entertainment outside of it as well. Without Capoeira, the Berimbau would never had experienced such an increase in popularity in the world. And maybe, though this is speculation, it would not have survived.

But there is also the other side of the coin. Would Capoeira have survived or gained so much popularity without the Berimbau? Mind, that the Capoeiras of Rio de Janeiro and Recife, the ones without the Berimbau and stripped from many parts of Afrobrazilian culture, did not survive. Alright, this is all speculation, because, in fact, Capoeira and the Berimbau did survive. My opinion is still, that without each other, both would have been much weaker nowadays than before. They are in a symbiosis: a situation, where two different entities are closely associated gaining mutual benefit from this. Already this is a reason to respect the Berimbau and keep it in your Rodas and in your trainings.


There is more to the Berimbau. The Berimbau is the Master of the Roda. Of course, yes, there are other Mestres, but in every Roda, in modern Capoeira Rodas and in traditional ones, the Berimbau does control speed and style of the game. That’s why there are different rythms, different toques of the Berimbau. That is why the Berimbau is the first instrument to play in a Capoeira Roda. That’s why every instrument can miss in a Roda, but not the Berimbau. And that’s why Capoeiristas can walk through any street and will react on the sound of the Berimbau, usually making him attent and making him search for the Roda. That is why there are all rituals around the Berimbau, why it’s at the Pé do Berimbau where we enter the Roda.

Mestre Bimba did modernize Capoeira, but he did leave the Berimbau, because it is the controlling instance in a Capoeira Roda. It is the Berimbau and the bateria of Capoeira, which did keep Bahian Capoeira under control, so that it could be playful in the first, beautiful in the second and deadly in the third game. That’s the big difference of Bahian Capoeira to Capoeira Carioca or Capoeira of Recife. That’s why it did survive.

Everybody has to listen to the Berimbau, if he does not, he doesn’t have any idea of Capoeira.

And us?

I have to admit it. My Berimbau skills are far less than my playing skills. I might play some toques and be able to keep up a Roda, but whoever calls my Berimbau play beautiful has never heard a good Capoeirista play the Berimbau. What I am gonna do is learn to play the Berimbau. Training it as regularly as your Capoeira skills is something most people do not do – and when your teacher doesn’t give music lessons (or only rarely) than your music will be horrible. Until you start learning it yourself. We should understand that the Berimbau is as important as the Ginga in Capoeira. When you are a longterm Capoeirista and you have no Berimbau, the question is: why? Get yourself a Berimbau, start playing it till there is no feeling in your pinky and then: play more!


Filed under African Roots, Philosophy

African Roots IV – Fight

The slaves who were transported to the Americas were not weak. At least the probability was high that weak people were not bought on the coast of Africa. Young men were interesting, especially the strong ones. Of course they were in chains and of course they did not have much to resist against European firearms, at least not in the beginning. But their martial arts came with them. And they made use of them.

The first thing to know is that Martial Arts seem to have evolved everywhere on the world. Most people are quite ignorant of this fact, mainly because East Asian arts like Kung Fu or Judo come into our minds when we hear the word Martial Arts. But French fencing, Turkish oil-wrestling, Zulu stick fighting and Indian Kalarippayat are martial arts, too. Martial arts evolve efficient fighting patterns, rules and rituals, because most of the martial arts are meant to be practised and you cant practise a martial art when your partner gets severely injured or killed every time. That’s what makes them arts, apart from pure violence. Also in Africa martial arts exist,and someof them belong to the most ancient fighting systems there are on Earth.

African Martial Arts

Sadly there is one problem when researching about African martial arts: they are very poorly documented. To find written information is about as simple as to nail a pudding to a wall, and finding video footage is about impossible. The best way to find information would be: go there and see it. That is what TJ Desh Obi did and does and his new book which came out this year (“Fighting for honour”) should give some new insights into this not-so-clear chapter of African history. In this post I just want to spotlight some martial arts of Africa and show that a) there are actually a lot of African martial arts out there and b) that these did influence several martial arts in the Western Hemisphere. This would then be the last thing I want to do for this African roots series. Yes, people, although there is a lot more African’s did contribute to the Americas, after having described the people, their believes and their music I will finish with this, describing the martial arts of the African Ancestors.

The first martial art I want to mention is Nubian wrestling. That is because it is so unbelievably old. The picture above is, as you might have recognized, Egyptian, showing men who engage in a clearly martial art. The picture is to be found in the temple of Ramses III. in Medinet Habu and is, yes, over 3100 years old. That is older than East Asian Martial arts, which are only just above 2200 years old, by the way. A modern historical view of Ancient sports does see Nubian wrestling as a predecessor of Graeco-Roman wrestling, eventually, of modern wrestling. Why is that? The Nubian people had times when they were pretty dominant in Africa.

Nubia was home of various empires and states as early as 3500 BC and was for long times under the rule of Egypt, but there were also times when the Nubians did rule over the Egyptians (during the times of the Kush Empire, which existed between 1000 BC till 300 BC). So there was a 3000 year long cultural interdependence and cultural exchange. So Nubian wrestling started to get known to the Egyptians. And the influence of the Egyptian culture on Ancient Greek culture was quite strong and is well documented… But is Nubian wrestling just history? No, as the picture above shows clearly, Nubian wrestling is still a tradition among some people in Nubia. The Nuba people for example still practise it. Some hardcore readers will now say “So, but that’s clearly not Capoeira’s predecessor, right?”. There you might be right, but look at this description and try to imagine it and then try to find similarities to Capoeira. The description is from Oskar and Horst Luz and their article “Proud primitives” (National Geographics Magazine 130, 5: 672-699; published 1966):

A wrestler dances into the ring, looks challengingly around, assumes a fighting
stance, elbows on his knees-and waits. Whoever accepts the summons enters the
ring. . . . Now the two men take measure of each other, crouching, wary, flexing
bulging biceps. To over awe the opponent, they whirl with springy steps, shake
arms and shoulders, limber up, and ripple their muscles. One wrestler darts
forward, taps his head, feints probingly, backs away, flicks his tongue in and out,
advances again. The easy graceful movements resemble advance. The adversary
springs forward, reaches down, tries to seize his opponent’s legs. The two
grapple, arms coiled around each other. One lifts his opponent and attempts to
throw him to the ground, but the other, catlike, lands on his feet. It is only a
momentary reprieve. A quick fake, a rush, another clinch, another lift-and this
victim is slammed on his buttocks to the ground. Next match!

But there are other martial arts, all over Africa. Let’s go closer to the origins of most Afrobrazilian people, for example the Congo. For the Congo I found the mentioning of at least 3 martial arts, although most of them are poorly described (as always). There is Kipura, Mousondi and Gwindulumutu. There are already people saying that the word Capoeira comes from the Kipura martial art. As I am not an etymologist I won’t comment on that. Much more interesting is Gwindulumutu which is only described as a “headbashing martial art” (and I didnt find anything else on this martial art except this 3-word-description, would come in handy if somebody knows more details about it). I am kind of interested in that because there was the mentioning of Rugendas when he was describing Capoeira in the early 19th century where he write “Much more violent is another war game of the Negroes, Jogar capoeira, which consists in trying to knock one another down with headbutts in the chest, which one dodges which skilful 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.” For the German original of that text click on this link.

And then there is the N’Golo or Engolo, which is often cited by Angoleiros as being a direct ancestor of Capoeira. This theory came up in the sixties where the Angolan Neves e Souza stated that the N’Golo is Capoeira. The N’Golo is a dance ritual of the Mucupe people in Southern Angola. It is a passage to adulthood and the champion of the N’Golo ceremony is allowed to marry the girl he wants, without paying the prize for her. The dance is believed to be derived from the way Zebras fight, it is also called the Zebra dance. In memory of this history a lot of Angola groups do have a Zebra in their logo and the one or other mestre does wear a zebra belt while playing in the Roda.

There is still a lot of doubts considering this version, especially as there are only few people who have seen this N’Golo. As far as I know Mr. Desh Obi does have video footage of the N’Golo and it is said to be very similar to Capoeira Angola. But this is only hearsay. If somebody can come up with some solid information, he/she would make me a very happy man 🙂


Capoeira d’Angola, Ladja and Jailhouse Rock

Now we are going over the Atlantic Ocean and try to see if there are African Martial arts and since when they are there. The problem here, as everywhere, is that the documentation is poor and that the African people (or those of African descent) were able to hide parts of their martial arts as ritual or dance. On the other side, the European slave masters were not stupid, so they found out. And when they found out, sometimes they documented. And one of the earliest documents I found about an African martial art in the Americas is actually about Capoeira. I found this document on two pages, on the Capoeira Connection page (who by the way just posted some brand new info on the Capoeira community!) and on the French Capoeira Palmares site. This document is from the year 1789 and the first documented evidence of Capoeira. Of course we dont know if there are older ones or if they were all burnt after the abolition. That is something we will see in the future. What this document shows is that Capoeira seems to be a known phenomenon back then. So it didnt just come up in 1789, but was around for a while already. How many years was that? Nobody knows. Here the text I copied from the Capoeira Connection site:

The capoeira

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 laboured 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.

But Capoeira is by far not the only African martial art which came and developed in the Americas. There is for example Ladja. Ladja (or also Danmye or Ag’Ya) is a martial art which is practised on Martinique. Also here, drums and singing do give the competitors the energy they need for the fight. And like in Capoeira there is no easy distinction between fight and dance here. Just watch the video beneath and you will see what I mean. Capoeira and Ladja might be brothers, or at least cousins, coming from the same region or even from the same ritual. But there is no evidence for that. So maybe Ladja did develop it’s dance properties and it’s delusiveness because of the same needs Brazilian slaves had: Deception. There is no proof for both arguments, so this is the point where you believe this or believe that. For me the video footage clearly shows a martial art which is related to Capoeira and might have come from the same people.


But there are also other martial arts, also in the U.S. Here you’ll find the mentioning of Jailhouse Rock. Interestingly there is also very poor information on this martial art. Jailhouse Rock does go under many different names like 52 Blocks, peek-a-boo or Stato. It is believed to have been developed in the American penal system, spreading from jail to jail and – due to the very special circumstances in jails – quickly developing into “regional” styles (the regions were the different jails). Oral tradition says that Jailhouse rocks originates in the 17th and 18th centuries when first African people were put into jail. Today Jailhouse Rock is more a collective term trying to summarize very different Fighting Systems which are nowadays strongly influenced by boxing. Only few people believe that Jailhouse Rock does still have much of its old traditions in it. So the videos you find for that are oviously not that flashy or dance-like as Capoeira is. But the agility and dance-like stance of African martial arts does come through sometimes. For example in the following video footage, showing the martial art called 52 blocks.


So…that’s it. This was the last post of the African roots series. That does not mean that I wont come back to these topics once I have some nice things to share with you (for example an N’Golo video footage!), but for now I think everybody has enough overview over the African influences on the Americas, especially on Brazil. And maybe I have convinced some people to see that Capoeira does have so many African features, that you can call it an African martial art. Yes, it did evolve in Brazil for the last 500 years and that’s something which has to be recognized. But even there the influence of Africans did dominate till the 19th century.

But as you also have seen, documents about the African Diaspora are extremely hard to find, especially documents which are not biased. I hope together with these posts I can persuade other people to research about African diasporic culture and make them publicly available.



Some Sources used for this post:

Journal of Sport History 15, No.2, Summer 1988 – Ancient Nubian Wrestling

Library of Congress for an interview on Ladja

An article about Ladja/Danmye (how reliable this is I dont know)

Capoeira – A Game-Dance-Fight for Life by Edward L.Brough Luna

Picture sources:

San Diego County Office for Education

Capoeira – A Game-Dance-Fight for Life by Edward L.Brough Luna


Filed under African Roots

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):


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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:


Filed under African Roots

African Roots – series on Angoleiro’s Blog

Ié!                                                    Ié!

Capoeira é uma arte,                       Capoeira is an art,

Capoeira é uma arte,                       Capoeira is an art,

Que o negrou inventou.                   which the negro invented.

Foi na briga de duas zebras              In the brawl between two zebras

que N’Golo se criou.                         the N’Golo did evolve.

Chegando aqui no Brasil                  As it arrived here in Brazil

Capoeira se chamou.                       it was called Capoeira.

Ginga e danca que era arte              The Ginga and the dance, which were an art,

em arme se transformou                 did transform into a weapon

Para libertar o negro                        to liberate the negro

da senzala do senhor.                      from the Senzala of the lord (slave owner).

Hoje aprendo essa cultura               Today I learn this culture

para me conscientizar.                     to increase my awareness

Agracedo ao Pai Ogum,                    Praise to Father Ogum,

A forca dos Orixás,                          the power of the Orixás,

Camará!                                           Comrade!

(Ladainha from Grupo Capoeira Angola Pelourinho*)


Starting aound 1550 the Portuguese started to import millions of Africans into Brazil. Over three hundred years, Black men and women were robbed and bought in Africa, treated like animals, transported over the Atlantic under unhuman conditions and had to work hard for essentially nothing. They were slaves.

Regarding those slaves who were imported there is one quote I read somewhere (I really dont know anymore where) and that is: “Those slaves might have come empty handed, but they did not come empty headed.” What came with them is their complete belief systems, music, rituals, world view, traditions, knowledge, language, arts, willpower and so on. And one thing which came with them is a form of dance/fight combining different concepts like beauty and strength, acrobatics and music, dance and violence.

Today’s Capoeira Angola does have a lot to do with awareness. Being aware of Capoeira’s roots, being aware that the African element in this art is of utterly high importance. Without it’s Africanity, Capoeira would degenerate into a fancy but soulless martial art. Capoeira, and especially Capoeira Angola, does live from its rituals, it game, its music and its history. In a discussion** I read and participated in on the Blog Mandingueira I realized that this awareness has to be maintained and increased in the present Capoeira Community.

But: Writing about Africanity in Capoeira is a mammoth task. Actually you could write a book about it and still would not have described everything there is to describe. 400 years of Capoeira practice mainly by Africans and Afrobrazilians did lead to the situation that every facette of Capoeira does have major African influences (admittedly there are European influences, too, since Portuguese lower class and sailors did start playing Capoeira in the 19th century and since Mestre Bimba started teaching white students). This is the reason why I will start the first cohesive series of posts on this Blog: African Roots. I hope that I will at least be able to give an overview about Africanity in Capoeira and I hope that there are people out there willing to add to the upcoming posts their knowledge about this topic, thus making these posts a richer source for people who make their first steps in exploring the roots of Capoeira.

Have an eye on this blog in the next few days. Cause then the first posts of the African Roots series will be published.


*if there are mistakes in the translation it is because of my lack of Portuguese. Corrections are welcome!

**special thanks to Kimbandeira for starting that discussion on Mandingueira


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A small lesson in History: Mandinga

The other day I read a comment of a person called Kimbandeira on the Mandingueira blog. One question she asked in there was: “Do you actually know what Mandinga means?” When I saw this I thought “well, I do have an idea about it” and then I remembered that I actually had gathered some information of the word Mandinga but never put it together for a blog post.

So, now you think “oh, again some lessons in the meaning of the word Mandinga!”. No. I think the word Mandinga is quite well explained. If you dont know yet what it means, just check this post and the links in it. What I want to show you people is where it comes from!

The Mandinka

Mandinga is a word of African origin. In its form “Mandinka” or “Mandingo” it is the name of a huge ethnic group in West Africa(Mandinkas are one part of the Mandè ethnicity).  They have a common language, which is called Mandinka, and common traditions and history. Today there are about 11 million Mandinka scattered in the nations of Sierra leone, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Gambia and more states of West Africa. Most of them are of Islamic belief though they kept a huge amount of their old traditions.

Mandinka history

Mandinka history as it s known begins in the Middle Ages. It is the story of the Manding Empire, or better known as the Mali empire. The empire existed from the 13th century till the beginning of the 17th century, where it collapsed under the power plays which happen in every kingdom at a certain time. It was founded by the magician Sundjata who belonged to one of the noble Islamic families who existed in West Africa. During its time the empire had a huge influence on culture and traditions in West Africa. It had a high standard of civilization and was one of the most urbanized areas in the world! One of its famous personalities is its king Mansa Musa (about 1300 to 1330), who was so rich that the value of gold dropped during the time he and his caravan visited Cairo (on his journey to Mecca, the Hajj).  

After its collapse different tribes among the Mandinka did engage in war with each other. During this war there was a lot of people driven to the Atlantic coast. Some willingly, a lot of them were caught and were made slaves. And just during those times the trans-Atlantic slave trade started to flourish. Today, a lot of the Afroamericans in North America are descendants of the Mandinka. But the slaves were transported not only to North America, but also to South America (especially Brazil).

The Malè Revolution

In Brazil Mandinkas and Mandés were known as Malé (which comes from a Yoruba word for “from Mali”). What was known about them was, they were Muslim and they were able to read and write, although it was ‘just’ Arabian script, but that was actually much more than most African slaves were able to. The theory says that this was a reason for the Malé being highly respected by other slaves. The Malé did in fact build up something like credibility in Brazil and were having an effect. Especially on one day: On January 24th 1835 a group of a couple of hundred muslim slaves and ex-slaves did several attempts to get hold of key positions in Salvador. Although this “revolt” was only one day and did end in the revolt being devastated and the number of the slaves decimated (and 9 Portuguese soldiers being dead) the revolt became a symbol for resistance of slaves in Brazil. It is not the first and not the only revolt in the New World and also not the most important example in Brazil, but it has its value in modern history. This is because it was just the endpoint of a long years resistance of Male slaves against their owners (the troubles happened during the years between 1807 and 1835). And it lead to a ban on import of Male slaves – they were just too dangerous. And during those times, when Malé slaves did cause trouble in the slave-driven society of colonial Brazil, the word Mandinga comes up, meaning much more than just “people of the Mandinka”, but meaning something like magician, priest or scholar.

To get a more detailed view of the history of the Mandinka and the Malé, just check these sources I have put together (and used for this post). The first two resources are highly recommended (and sometimes a bit hard to read, especially the second one). Anyway, enjoy!



Filed under African Roots