Some History

Components of Capoeira

The history of Capoeira does have its begin somewhere in the second half of the 16th century. The Portuguese, having an urge for cheap and reliable work-force, start importing African slaves to their South American colonies. They tried to use indigenous people first, but those were either running away, hiding deep in the jungles of the Amazonas, or were dying away like flies, because they were not resistent against “Old World” diseases. Africans were immune to them, and ripped away from their homes several thousand miles across the ocean, they seemed to be more feasible work-force.

In less than 300 years, 3 million Africans were “imported” to Brazil. This being the number which survived the long and inhuman trip. The number of Africans which died during the trip is not known. These people were of different descent, you had Ashanti, Yoruba, Igbo among other tribes. Bantus and Sudanese tribes. Tribes with different development, different rituals, languages and cultures. But with these all the components of Capoeira were brought together. Different African martial arts, mating rituals like the N’Golo (the Zebra dance, one of the believed direct ancestors of Capoeira), rhythms and music. Even musical instruments, or at least their concepts, came together with the slaves. It is unavoidable that some kind of creole culture started to develop, in different places, some ritual dances more dangerous than others. But none of them was Capoeira, yet.

Quilombos and Resistance

Slavery and Oppression will always lead to resistance. And slaves did try to resist. First they just fled. One by one or in small groups slaves tried to run into the woods and survive in an unknown environment. Some did, and started settlements. And once having settlements, they started to grow. With growth comes strength and at a certain time former slaves started acting with self-confidence, fighting and trading with slave-owners. Those settlements were called Quilombos, the most prominent and biggest example being the Quilombo of Palmares, existing for about 100 years until it was destroyed by Portuguese troops in 1694. The people living in the quilombos established guerilla tactics to deceive and  defend themselves against those who did want to extinguish them. Quilombos did exist till the 20th century and there are still some cities which have been Quilombos originally. But the important times were the times of the Quilombo dos Palmares. Traditional Capoeiristas see themselves as true heirs of the legendary heroes Ganga Zumba and Zumbi (the leaders of the Quilombo dos Palmares), although nobody does know if they did do something similar to Capoeira. But their will to resist against a seemingly too powerful enemy and their will to live their way – those elements are still remaining in today´s Capoeira.

The birth of Capoeira

When did they mention Capoeira the first time? The problem here is that a lot of official documents were burnt after the abolition of slavery in 1888. First mentions date back to the 18th century. There is a famous work by Rugendas ‘Capoeira-or the Dance of War’ showing two opponents being watched by several people. It was made 1825. The opponents on this picture are in a kind of fighting position. The presence of drums tells us that this is not only a very interesting fight, but part of a ritual, involving music, fight and more.

Rugendas “Capoeira”

Though it is not clear what people meant with Capoeiras. Nobody really bothered to distinguish between all the different expressions of African culture in Brazil. So Capoeira eventually became a word with a rather broad meaning, including everything which is African, does have dance-like properties or include some rituals. Later Capoeira became synonymous with ‘criminals’ . But at some time Capoeira did become rather close to today´s forms.

After the abolition 1888 the status of the former slaves did not change much. A lot gained official freedom, but if they wanted work they had the choice to submit themselves into slave-like work, be unemployed and starve to death or find a way for themselves. A lot of former slaves went into the cities where they found work at the docks. In there past-time they did practice Capoeira. But those days Capoeira was much more diverse than today´s, and much more violent. This and the fact that people did not like poor Blacks to become competent fighter led to Capoeira being outlawed by Constitution in 1890. Even before people did not like their slaves to practise a martial art. After 1890 police did heavily cut down on Capoeiristas. Especially the more violent forms of Capoeira in Rio de Janeiro and Recife were heavily persecuted. Even those practising a more dance-like form of Capoeira in Bahia did have problems with the police. But they had, seemingly, the least problems with the police, because by 1930 there were not many Capoeiristas left, and those that were were mostly in Salvador, Bahia.

The Legalization of Capoeira

In those years, a Capoeira Master named Mestre Bimba, did have several concerns about his Capoeira. He did not like the efficiency of the heavily dance-influenced Capoeira. On the other side, violent forms of Capoeira were openly disliked by the government. In giving Capoeira a ‘regulation’, getting it off the streets into his school, Bimba did save Capoeira. The new sport he named “Luta Regional da Bahia”, now known as Capoeira Regional. Only this form made it possible to have Capoeira accepted officially. Only with Bimbas idea Capoeira was legalized in 1937, when a heavily impressed president Vargas did see a ‘truly Brazilian sport’ in Capoeira. Vargas was heavily influenced by fascist ideas, so one might ask if it is really a good idea to get his blessings for this. But MEstre Bimba had no choice. First of all, he was personally taken by the police to the president and they wanted him to perform his ‘ Luta Regional’ and second, Mestre Bimba was most possibly fed up with the shadow existence a Capoeirista has. He did introduce Capoeira into those parts of the population, which were not poor or/and Black. The white people, the richer middle- and higher class boys.

The marginalization of Capoeira and Mestre Pastinha

After this Capoeira Regional did gain huge popularity in Brazil (though even today there is still some prejudice against Capoeira as being something for A) guys B) rough boys C) Blacks D) poor people). Schools popped up everywhere and in the 1960’s a group of young teachers founded the Senzala group. Capoeira in these times did gain a regular and standardized training system, a cord system and a lot of students. But it lost a lot by this. It lost a lot in terms of its rituals, its playfulness, its mucic, its malicia, its Africanity in general. It became a more and more European sport. As there were more Mestres other than Mestre Bimba, Mestres who did know the old Capoeira, a inner-Capoeira resistance movement did start. Mestre Pastinha is something like the head figure of this movement. He was not the oldest of the traditional Mestres, he may also not have been the best, but he had the right combination of knowledge, skill, intelligence and charisma to gather and teach some of the best Capoeiristas. And he did, in comparison to his colleague Bimba´s Capoeira Regional, call this Capoeira Angola ‘because it comes from Angola’. Till the 1980s and until the death of Mestre Pastinha this traditional Capoeira was a shadow of Capoeira Regional, gaining most of its strength from its contradiction to Capoeira Regional, being teased by Regionalistas as the slow, old men’s capoeira.

Modern Capoeira

This all changed since the 1980 with the efforts of students of Mestre Pastinha. With the two great Capoeiristas Mestre Joao Pequeno and Mestre Joao Grande. They were the symbolical leaders of the revival tour of Capoeira Angola. Those who did invest a lot of work into this were definitely Mestre Moraes and Mestre Cobra Mansa (among others, and believe me, I would like to count them all, but I know that every list will be incomplete). Since then Capoeira Angola did evolve a lot, has shown many facettes of its beauty and has gained its own strength (not depending on its contradiction to Regional, anymore).

Together with this development Capoeira started to seriously go international. Of course the first groups being set in the U.S. and Europe were Regional groups in the 60´s and 70´s. Capoeira Angola started to show up outside Brazil in the 1980´s and only since the 1990´s it started to spread around.

By this modern Capoeira started to evolve as an own form. Modern Capoeira is heavily influenced by the Senzala style (which is influenced by Mestre Bimbas teaching methods), but did incorporate more acrobactics, other martial arts and also Capoeira Angola techniques. Thus leading to a highly diverse scene of different groups all practising something they call Capoeira Contemporeana. So today there are three Capoeiras (at least): Capoeira Regional (like it was taught by Mestre Bimba), Capoeira Angola (heavily influenced by Mestre Pastinha) and Capoeira Contemporeana (which is the Capoeira most people know).

Postmodern Capoeira?

And this is the big question. What will happen to Capoeira? I – as an Angoleiro – am mostly concerned about Capoeira Angola. As Capoeira Angola is not depended from its opposition to the modern forms of Capoeira anymore it will continue to exist in future, too. The question will be, how it will develop. It is in a process of contant change and today it is different than it was a hundred years ago. The main concern then should not be that it changes (cause there is no way we can stop that), but  that it does not loose it´s Africanity. Modern Capoeira will develop into even more directions. As modern Capoeira gets more and more exploited by media I see difficulties arise. More and more people will give Capoeira classes out of pure grudge, having a marginal knowledge in Capoeira, calling themselves Mestres, teaching their students a Capoeira which is no Capoeira anymore. And so on…

But although there might be a lot of really cruel examples of a marginalized, soulless capoeira, the whole art has resistance in its heart. Its ancestors survived about 300 years of slavery and 50 years of abolition and presecution. And in the last 70 years it might have suffered a lot from commerzialisation, but there are more really good Capoeiristas (Angoleros and modern Capoeiristas) out there than ever. So today we might be living the cenith of Capoeira. And all this makes me believe that Mestre Laercio from Filhos de Angola in Berlin is right when he says: “Never forget: Capoeira continua! Capoeira continues!

4 responses to “Some History

  1. Pingback: My favourite Youtube-Clips! « Angoleiro’s Blog

  2. isaac!

    I really liked this blog and info about capoeira! I really feel sometimes some people ( practioners of capoeira that are not of African descent) really don’t like to acknowledge the fact that Capoeira was developed by Africans and African descendants. I agree that a lot of Capoeira schools have really taken the Africanity out of Capoeira. Many teachers try to make it all about kicks, takedowns, florieos etc…when I see capoeira as being so much more. I believe that the study of any art includes the study of the whole art itself and not just one one particular area. I think a good capoeirista teacher should have a knowledge of all three so called styles of capoeira!

  3. Hey Isaac, thanks for your contribution. It is true that the African roots of Capoeira are usually downplayed. On the other side, you cant expect from everybody to dive into Capoeira deeply and embrace the whole culture, although that would be the ideal case. If that doesnt happen, some people get promoted to teachers who have no idea about Capoeira. There you are right. What do you mean with knowledge about all 3 styles of Capoeira? Being able to play in all? Being accepted as teacher in all? Being mestre in all of them? I am asking because some people say it is actually not possible (aka very hard) to achieve knowledge in all three and be an all-around capoeirista…

  4. Nvubian

    I say thank you very much. Your information has been most helpful. I as of yet have only dabbled in capoeira, but I have a full Afrikan appreciation for it. I’m personally partial to Angola as well. Three quick points, 1) after the spirit is gone it is only a dance 2) often times we see as Afrikan people the same thing with Afrikan drumming, if there is no interest from Afrikan people others will have to do 3) “if your politics don’t dictate your economics than your economics will dictate your politics.
    I must say much thanks to Mastre Bimba for keeping capoeira alive, however “food that is grown in the field, is best served in the house” Nubian Malik

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