Tag Archives: tradition

O menino quem foi seu Mestre?

Mestre Pastinha

Menino, quem foi seu mestre ?
Quem te ensinou a brincar
O teu mestre foi Besouro
Aprendeu com Manganga

Eu aprendi com Pastinha
Quero contigo Brincar
A capoeira de angola
A africano quem mandou

Na capital de Salvador
Foi pastinha que me ensinou
Na roda de capoeira
Reconheço esse valor

(M.Joao Pequeno)

At the 13th November 1981 Vincente Ferreira Pastinha, known to the world as Mestre Pastinha, died at the age of 92. Today that is 27 years ago. The only reason why I write this post is to remind everybody of one of the biggest and most important Mestres of Capoeira. I wont go into the details of his life. When he was born, who did teach him capoeira, why, and when he started to teach Capoeira. There is enough sources for that, and everybody who is interested will find the information. Important is what Mestre Pastinha stands for.

Mestre Pastinha stands for the tradition of Capoeira Angola. He is the Mestre of Capoeira Angola. He was not the only one around and not all Angoleiros are from his lineage. But he did do for Capoeira Angola what Mestre Bimba did for the recognition of Capoeira. Both Mestres were not the sole reason for the re-collection of traditions (Pastinha) or for the social integration (Bimba) of Capoeira. But both of them gave these specific processes a face. A name and a point of reference.

What Mestre Pastinha did was keeping up and teaching the traditional Bahian capoeira in a time when Capoeira Angola started to vanish from the streets. Other Mestres of Capoeira did give him the duty and the responsibility to keep up the traditions. And although he was of higher age already, he did start teaching people, building up students who would pass on Capoeira Angola. Without Mestre Pastinha, there wouldnt have been a Mestre Joao Grande, a Mestre Joao Pequeno, a Mestre Moraes, a Mestre Cobrinha, a Mestre Jogo de Dentro… all the people and their organizations which make Capoeira Angola the smaller but definitely not less important part of today’s Capoeira. Not only today’s Capoeira Angola Community, but also the general Capoeira world would have been totally different – and I think far less attractive – if he wouldnt have done his job.  Would there be another one who would have taken the responsibility? No one knows for sure. But what we know is that he did it. And he did it in the best way possible. Concentrating on everything what Capoeira was losing in a time when Capoeira was getting more popular among Brazilian society, but only if it was stripped of it’s Mandinga, Brincadeira, rituals, spirituality, individuality and – to sum it up – it’s soul. He did resist all these temptations and died miserably.

It’s sad that his role in keeping traditional Capoeira alive was only fully comprehended when he was already dead, but that’s often with big personalities in history. We can’t change history, but we can keep his work up. I dont expect it from everybody, just somebody has to do it. And those who are mostly (but not solely) responsible for this are the Mestres, especially the ones who dedicate themselves to Capoeira Angola.

This is the reason why in future I will also post more about specific Mestres of Capoeira Angola, and their achievements and ways to keep up the heritage of Mestre Pastinha. And with this I will finish now and hope that I did a small contribution to the memory of Mestre Pastinha.





Filed under Mestres

Mixing styles: Can you train both Angola and Regional?

This is one of the most controverse topics in discussions between Angoleiros and Regionalistas. And it is a question which is coming up more and more often since several groups claim for themselves that they a) practise both or b) that the dichotomy between Regional and Angola is artificial and thus, that they are training “Capoeira só”. Capoeira e uma so, I agree. But most of the time this sentence is used to downsize the existing difference between the styles. Isnt it possible that there is one Capoeira, but with two different styles? Can you intermix those styles?

Capoeira e uma so?

First I want to talk about the difference between Capoeira Angola and modern variants of Capoeira. The question I want to ask is: how big is the difference? Because, if there is no big difference between the two styles of Capoeira, than the issue is not that big, right? We have to keep in mind that these styles are not monolithic constructs. They did develop over time and under the influence of different mestres and different schools, thus both evolving into artforms with a lot of variants. Thus the issue get’s more complicated than you think.

Let’s chose the most simple solution to this problem. Below I posted 6 videos of Capoeira games and you people will make a self-test and see if you can see the difference between an Angola game and a Regional game.

Ok, so most of you were able to distinguish the different styles here, right? Good, for me that’s proof enough that there is not only one Capoeira, bBut two distinguishable styles.

Enter: Capoeira Angonal

Can you intermix the styles?  As supporters of a mixed Capoeira do say over and over again, there was no dichotomy between Capoeira Regional and Capoeira Angola before Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha started teaching these. So logically there should be the possibility to get back to the traditional “pre-forms” of Capoeira by mixing Capoeira Angola and Regional, right? Although this logic seems to be intriguing, as an Angoleiro I have to say that there is one basic mistake in this assumption. That is to see Capoeira Angola as something which did evolve from the old Capoeira and which is significantly different from it, as different as other modern variants of Capoeira. We Angoleiros do insist on the fact that Capoeira Angola is the traditional Capoeira (or at least what comes closest to it). The dichotomy did evolve when the modern form of Capoeira Regional did come to existence. So if somebody wants to rely on tradition, why doesnt he play Capoeira Angola?

Thus, when you try to intermix the modern form with the traditional form, then what you wont get back to a traditional form. Present mixes of Capoeira Regional and Capoeira Angola are sometimes called Capoeira Contemporeana or Capoeira Angonal. When you search for both terms you will find modern Capoeira groups, Angoleiros still would still call them Regionalistas. Check it yourself on Youtube by typing in Capoeira Angonal. Some of the videos do sometimes resemble an Angola game, but as an Angoleiro (and I assume also as a modern Capoeirista) you will be able to see the difference. On the other side I have to admit that it is hard to name the differences. There is a lot differentiating the Angoleiro from the Regionalista: the ginga, the way of moving, the use of malicia (there is also malicia in modern Capoeira though), the expression, the speed, the proximity of the players to each other and much more. Although we might not be able to pinpoint it, we can tell if we see an Angoleiro playing or not.

But what is with those old Capoeiristas who did say that they were neither Regional and neither Angola like Mestre Canjiquinha or Mestre Leopoldina?

With these Mestres it is more difficult to put them into certain categories, as they are clearly no Regionalistas, but they seem to differ from the typical Angoleiro style. To answer this you have to remember that most Angoleiros nowadays are in the tradition of Mestre Pastinha and his students Mestre Joao Grande and Joao Pequeno. But there were other mestres, and those played different. For Angoleiros there is no contradiction. The other old mestres might play differently, but for an Angoleiro they are clearly traditional Capoeiristas, thus: Angoleiros. On the other side, supporters of the “Capoeira e uma so” idea do bring these examples as evidence that present day Capoeira Angola is also just a new style and that by practising Capoeira Angonal, you are actually really traditional! Angoleiros, seeing themselves as protectors of the traditional Capoeira, see “Angonalistas”, their game, and start getting suspicious. Is Capoeira Angonal just a marketing idea, brought up when being “traditional” started to be cool again? Because, Capoeira Angonal did not exist (neither as word nor as idea) when traditional Capoeira was threatened by extinction, when being modern was all, and being traditional was considered antiquated or plain stupid. Only when people started realizing that being traditional is not equal to being old-fashioned and antiquated, and when traditional Capoeira did start to rise in reputation again, only then the “true” “pre-forms” of dichotomy free Capoeira did come up.

Can you train both and keep them separate?

So, for an Angoleiro you can’t intermix the styles and make a Capoeira Angonal. That would be just taking over some of the traditions, but keeping the modern changes in it. Thus, it would still not be traditional Capoeira Angola. It would be more like taking your favourite pieces to spice your game up again, but denying the rest.

On the other side there are other groups who say that they train both, but separated from each other, having Capoeira Angola classes in one week and Capoeira Regional classes the other weeks. At first thought, there cant be a big problem with this, right? The only thing you have to do then is to define when you are going to play Regional, and when you are going to play Angola. I have met people who did say that they train both and yes, you could see that. It was still not the game of an Angoleiro. The following video is an example where you see a group of Regionalistas training Capoeira Angola.

But be careful: It’s not that Angoleiros dont appreciate when modern Capoeiristas do show interest in Capoeira Angola. I love it and I wish much more modern Capoeiristas would do that! But you should be aware that everybody will see the difference between a pure Angoleiro and a Capoeirista who learned to play Capoeira Angola.

At the end: it is one body and one brain we are training. And if you have seen people from other martial arts training Capoeira you know exactly what I mean. What you learned before, does influence your game. Be it another martial art, be it Capoeira Regional or Capoeira Angola. I trained for a year with a group of Capoeira Contemporeana, and I have observed two things about my game: One, if I would want to play the same way as the students of that group, I would have to train years with them, and concentrate on not using what I learned before. Only after years people will have a hard time seeing if I was an Angoleiro before or not. And on the other side, only after a year of training with a modern Capoeira group my first Capoeira Angola teacher and other Angoleiros could see the difference in my game. Less than before I was going into Jogo de Dentro, I was kind of restricted in my game. Had problems seeing through the malicia of my teacher, and so on.

I dont say it’s bad that I trained with a group of modern Capoeira. Life is a learning process and for sure I have learned things in the last year. But I realized myself that my game started to change, and develop away from my Capoeira Angola skills. That is why I now start focusing on Capoeira Angola again.

Is it impossible to play both?

No it’s not, when you see Mestres play you can see that there are a lot of Mestres who can play both styles of Capoeira. With some of the bigger Mestres it is impossible to see if they are Angoleiros or Regionalistas. They blend into any Roda. And that’s something admirable for sure. One nice example is the game in the following video.

But to be able to blend into both styles does not only need the will to do it, but also the coordination and the experience to do so. For the usual student of modern Capoeira, like most of my readers, it is impossible to play Angola Angoleiro style. And for me it is impossible to play Regional Regional style.

At least not with a few years of experience.


So what does it mean for us? First, we have to decide on what we are gonna be. Do we want to be Angoleiros or Regionalistas? Do we want to concentrate on one, or do we want to learn both? It’s not a mistake to chose to learn both styles. I can see that there are different qualities in the different styles and that you want to learn and experience them both. I as an Angoleiro dont want to recommend on training some kind of mix of the two styles, because these mixes have not proven themselves to be a real alternative to the established schools and styles. And I would also recommend you to learn the two styles in different schools. Not because one school might not be able to learn you the basics of both, but because the chance to learn both properly is higher when you go to a modern Capoeirista for modern Capoeira, and to an Angoleiro for Capoeira Angola.



Filed under Capoeira Today

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