Capoeira is a martial art developed in Brazil by enslaved Africans. The true history of the art is unclear, but most people believe the following:
In the 1500’s many Africans were taken from different areas of West Africa and brought to Brazil to be used as slaves by the Portuguese. They were taken from their land, but their culture and desire for freedom could not be taken away. With this need for freedom growing, these people began developing techniques for defending themselves and for escape.
Of course slaves could not be allowed to practice martial arts, so the development and practice of the art had to be disguised. The natural disguise for the art was as a dance since in Africa dance and music are the most popular forms of expression. So these “slaves” developed a way of practicing different defensive and offensive techniques with music, singing, and dance.
A Seemingly Harmless Ritual
Although it appeared to be a harmless dance, the dancers or “Capoeiristas” were practicing deadly fighting techniques. That need to be disguised, and the trickery are part of what separates Capoeira from other martial arts. A lot of the kicks and some movements done in Capoeira can be seen in other arts, but the difference is the delivery. There are many fakes and deceiving movements in Capoeira. Although a certain movement is done with grace and style, it can be very dangerous.
Capoeira is usually done inside a circle of people called a “roda“, pronouced HO-DUH. The people in the circle are usually other capoeiristas waiting to “play”, and observers. Player or not you are expected to give energy to the roda by clapping and singing in response to the person “in charge” of the roda.
There are several instruments used to make the music in the capoeira roda. The agogô (double cowbell), pandeiro (tambourine), Atabaque (conga type drum) and the Berimbau (a long one stringed instrument) which is the most important.
Each instrument, when played correctly, contributes to the energy in the roda, but the Berimbau is the commanding instrument. It tells the players inside the roda how to play, fast or slowly, agressively or pretty with lots of acrobatics. The berimbau starts and stops the roda and all the other instruments follow its rhythm and tempo.
At first, there was only one “style” of Capoeira – the original style used as a tool and expression of the African slaves far from their homeland. Within this original capoeira they sought beauty and freedom, movement and dance, and ultimately a weapon to protect themselves from the perils of a life in bondage.
When the slaves attained their freedom, capoeira accompanied them out of slavery and into society at large. Once removed from its cultural origins, capoeira began to degenerate from a celebration of freedom and liberty into a vicious and bloody form of street fight. The capoeirista was no longer revered as a freedom fighter and hero, but rather feared as a ruffian, thug and criminal. It was not long before the authorities declared capoeira illegal. Just having knowledge of the art became a punishable offense. Due to official oppression, its practice was either forgotten or fell into disuse in most of the Brazilian cities. Capoeira nearly became a lost art.
It was only in its native Bahia that capoeira stayed alive, and it was from here that it would see its rebirth. In the early part of the twentieth century, capoeira was almost single-handedly rescued by one man: Mestre Bimba. After a group of foreign diplomats were impressed watching a capoeira demonstration by Bimba and his students, the Brazilian government finally decided to recognize capoeira as a unique native-born cultural art form deserving of protection.
Opening the first legal Capoeira academy in 1932, Mestre Bimba also sought to make Capoeira more “legitimate.” He developed a new style of capoeira known as “Regional.” This style brought structure and sound teaching methods to the art, but unfortunately downplayed the use of the music and the more playful movements of Capoeira.
Practitioners of the older style of capoeira, commonly referred to as “Angola” style, felt an essential aspect of the art was being lost as the Regional style spread and flourished under Bimba and his students. To them, Capoeira was losing its roots and connections to the past by over-emphasizing the sport and exercise aspects of the practice. In contrast, they highlighted capoeira as an art form where the music and playful movements were a key to understanding the true nature and spirit of capoeira, as an expression of a people in a struggle for freedom and self knowledge.
Once a year our group holds an important event. The batizado is a day of celebration. The students that are starting are presented to the senior students. They are initiated and receive their nickname and corda (rank).
During the batizado, the new learn of tradition and tradition renews itself. You can see the happiness and anxiety in the students faces. In the Mestres, you see the satisfaction of being able to understand, learn and teach this art, in this way.