The science of the art of capoeira


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The Formation of Capoeira Identity Throughout the Ages

  by Andrew C Eadie, Kings College London, 2003


Between the most traditional Angola and Regional schools, inter-scholastic divergence is far outstripped by similarity. For example, the element of music is featured in all styles of capoeira, though its tempo and verbal content may vary, its inclusion per se in the roda is indisputable. Without music there can be no capoeira, and we can find possible explanation for this in its historic use as a method of evading capture. There is a berimbau rhythm, widely known today called cavalaria that was used to warn of the approaching mounted police in the nineteenth century. Rego mentions another, now extinct, called aviso that was used for a similar purpose. Perhaps the berimbau served as a coded method of early warning long before, Almir das Areias quotes a passage from a book written by Fernando Cardim in 1584: herein the nocturnal activities of the slaves are almost disturbed as, “O feitor se aproximava e um som de berimbau denunciava sua presença” (The owner was coming but the sound of the berimbau denounced his presence). The instrument is well suited to the purpose, being both light and portable, furthermore it could easily double as a weapon in a time of need. Indeed, Mestre Pastinha reported the old tradition of fixing a blade for this effect onto either end of the stick. The roda is still the place of physical interaction and the entire process is grounded in a deep spiritual sub-text that speaks of brotherhood, the surmounting of personal obstacles and most importantly, the application of the lessons learned in the roda in everyday life. At which point these came to be soldered into the art form of capoeira is unclear, but they are representative of the entire capoeira universe. Regardless of the fact that some posit the universality of capoeira as a myth, in the present day it is not, as the above aspects are common to all groups.

The written capoeira history predating Mestres Bimba and Pastinha has been pieced together from books that themselves rely on individual quotations, events and police record. It is a version of history based mostly on the viewpoint of those looking in at capoeira from the outside. Ever since Mestre Bimba’s modernisation intellectual inquiry has taken a turnabout and now the majority of authors that write on the subject are themselves capoeiristas. Capoeira autobiography marks an appropriation of the significance of capoeira by its practitioners, thereby denying both intellectuals and the state exclusive rights to present it as they think it should be or remain to be. The fact that these practitioner/authors study capoeira from the ground up, beginning with their own personal experience means that past facts are often imbued with present meaning. It is natural, in fact almost impossible not to do so. As capoeiristas in their earlier incarnations wrote nothing of their exploits, the only history we have is oral, the problem being that there is no proof of exactly when these oral versions of history came about. Intellectual curiosity is quite natural when we think of the capoeirista as a student. Presented with a body of material that was intelligible as a manifestation of his own culture yet was based in sparse historical fact, the obvious thing to do would be to engage in research. In the absence of fact, presuppositions are made and in the absence of historical material these are based on contemporary material. This is a historical minefield of potential errors and exaggerations when we consider the stylistic variations existing between one capoeira academy and the next.

We can deduce, by examination of those aspects shared by both Capoeira Regional and Angola, that the consolidation of capoeira into the format of a fight/game/dance performed to music with spiritual undertones predates Bimba’s modernisation and Pastinha’s affirmations. Beyond this, disparate historical facts can be manipulated to suggest capoeira’s existence in a variety of formats within the senzalas and the quilombos. Via these theories it can be posited as either the cultural property of Afro-Brazilians, poor Brazilians or physical adepts of whatever ethnicity depending upin which time in history we are reffering to. The most convincing evidence and that which cannot be manipulated is what we have before our eyes. The format of the game, and its spiritual undertones are African as can be seen by its outstanding similarity to dance forms such as the Ladja of Martinique or Afro-Brazilian. The instruments and call and response, chanting style of singing (although the language is mostly in Portuguese) are African. Today, the people that play capoeira, are determined by nothing other than their propensity to do so, neither gender nor nationality limit an individuals access. The membership of capoeira has come to be that of a self-defined, participatory group.

Although in the past capoeira was defined by covert resistance to overt oppression, after legalisation this ceased to be a defining factor. By this time, as I have shown, it had developed sufficiently, to allow for innovations that adhered to a mutually intelligible format. Capoeira continues to be defined by its adepts. Exceptions granted, the long and difficult apprenticeship guarantees that by the time an individual has the power or ability to effect any marked alterations, they have obtained the understanding to ensure that only changes adhering to the core principals are made. Thus we see Mestre Bimba and Mestre Suassunna’s innovations working along the lines of a capoeira format determined before their respective births. It is certain that further innovation will take place in the future. Each time one visits Brazil it is possible to come back with a new repertoire of exciting and increasingly difficult acrobatic contortions and leaps. The concluding point of this thesis is that these items extend the capoeirista’s vocabulary within the pre-set game, allowing him to respond in novel ways, increasing the number of possibilities within the roda without ever departing from the core format that has been defined by capoeiristas throughout history.



Almeida, Bira, Água De Beber, Camará: Um Bate-Papo de Capoeira, (Salvador: Grandes Autores, 2000) Almeida, Bira, Capoeira A Brazilian Art Form: History, Philosophy, and Practice, (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1986)

Areis, Das, Almir, O Que É Capoeira, (São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1983)

Capoeira, Nestor, The Little Capoeira Book, translated by Alex Ladd, (Berkley: North Atlantic Books, 1995)

Kubik, Gerhard, Angolan traits in black music, games and dances of Brazil: a study of African cultural extensions overseas, (Lisbon: Junta de Investigações Científicas do Ultramar, Centro de Estudos de Antropologia Cultural, 1979)

Lowell Lewis, J., Ring of liberation: deceptive discourse in Brazilian capoeira, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)

Pastinha, Vicente, Ferreira, Capoeira Angola (Salvador: Escola Gráfica Nossa Senhora do Lorêto, 1964)

Rego, Waldeloir, Capoeira Angola: ensaio sócio-etnográfico, (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Itapoa, 1968)

Viera, Luiz, Renato, and Assuncão, Matthias, Rohrig, “Mitos, controversias e fatos: construindo a história da capoeira”, Estudos Afro-Asiaticos, Vol. 34, (1998), pp. 81-21

Magazine Articles

Jose de Abreu, Frederico, “Mestre Bimba: Vida dedicada á capoeira”, Universo Capoeira, Vol. 3,(1999) p.18

Mouro, Jair, “A Projeção do Negro Ciríaco no Âmbito da Capoeiragem”, Revista Capoeira: Arte e Luta Brasileira, Vol. 11, (2000), pp.46-49

Silva, Raquel, “Mestre Bimba o Mestre dos Mestres”, Revista Capoeira: Arte e Luta Brasiliera, Vol. 8, (2000), pp. 26-31

Zigatti, Manoela, “João Grande”, Universo Capoeira, Vol.4, (1999), pp. 5-8


A Capoeiragem na Bahia [videorecording]; directed by Jose Umberto, [Salvador]; TVE Bahia [2000]

Pastinha!: Uma vida pela Capoeira [videorecording]; directed by Antonio Carlos Muricy, [Rio de Janeiro]; Globo [1999]

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