Image: Kazimir Malevich


The status conquered by capoeira inside and outside the country is disconcertingly recent.

If the appointment between the harmony of European music and the timbres and rhythms of powerful African percussion, which is the jazz, was and is treated as the first genuinely “American” (American) form of art, capoeira – which is not sport, art, game, religion, martial arts or just music, and also synthesizes all of this – has to be considered as characteristic expression of the Brazilian legacy. Yes, one should not equate oranges and apples. The first corresponds to a musical genre that spread throughout the world, forming one of the bases of popular music in the XNUMXth century. The second is a fight-dance hybrid that defies categorization and finds few formal parallels in terms of originality. But both are cultural novelties initially resulting from the hecatomb imposed on Africans during nearly four centuries of captivity and forced labor in the Americas.

The status conquered by capoeira inside and outside the country is, however, disconcertingly recent. The appreciation and popularity of capoeira around the world erupted with more force and continuity in the 1970s and 1980s, based on efforts radiating from Brazil. In a peculiar way and perhaps not by total coincidence, in the West, it was just the time when martial arts were popularized, also led by a generation of North American action films of the previous decade. The “wave”, which started in the second half of the 1950s, was a consequence of the westernization of films wuxia, from martial heroes, which the Chinese had been producing since the 1920s.

In Brazil, about fifty years ago, capoeira finally began to be recognized institutionally and to integrate the list of practices of entities such as the Brazilian Boxing Confederation.[I] Part of the causes of the phenomenon of rescuing this Afro-Brazilian cultural complex arose precisely from the division into styles of contemporary capoeira, in Bahia, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century. The Brazilian Republic, born in the year following the absolute repeal of slavery, codified capoeira as police jargon.2 From the 1930s onwards, the pioneer Mestre Bimba (1900-1974) endeavored to recover what he considered the martial aspects of the practice, relegated, according to his view, to the marginalization of capoeira curbed by prejudice and repression by the State. In an effort to respond to the urgency of new fight modalities that appeared in the rings, Bimba developed the didactics of his Bahian regional fight, which later reflected in the formalization of his teaching and also in a true philosophy of learning.

As a direct reaction, Mestre Pastinha (1889-1981), in the following decade, led the traditionalist divergence of capoeira angola, by recovering elements discarded by the innovative effort of the group that surrounded Bimba, such as the introductory litanies, the theatrical aspect and the so-called “game”. from the inside". Pastinha and his capoeira school in Pelourinho would become international references. The old master would still be converted into the homonymous character of the satirical novel The death and death of Quincas Berro D'Água (1961), by Jorge Amado.3 It is worth emphasizing that both approaches are movements that emerged among Bahian capoeiristas and, despite being antithetical in terms of, on the one hand, the preservation of traditions of African origin and, on the other, the commitment to standardize it as a sport, the two styles established themselves as innovations, as Vieira and Röhrig observed:4 “Furthermore, it is necessary to remember that capoeira in Bahia before modernization was not homogeneous and uniform, but that each master taught a specific set of movements, rhythms and rituals. So much so that the capoeira of other old masters like Waldemar, Cobrinha Verde or Canjiquinha could have very different characteristics from the form taught by Pastinha”.

Divided and standardized into styles, the consequent irradiation of the practice was to be expected. The internationalization of capoeira from the 1970s on was a two-way movement. It stemmed, to a certain extent, from its gentrification in the country, at the same time that the attention and respect of foreigners for the game influenced the Brazilian middle class, which then educated its gaze towards that very original cultural invention. From the stigma of vagrancy at the time of the Empire, passing through a typified crime during the Old Republic, capoeira had become, then, an exotic folklore that had to be preserved.

From there it would not take long to conquer the condition of “intangible heritage of Brazil”, ironically instrumentalized, for example, in the re-education of minors. That is, it began to be applied to the effort to correct the social ills that, in the past, it had been accused of aggravating. It is not exactly a strange trajectory when considering that Brazil nurtures an ambiguous and superficial relationship with its national identity, is fragmented into social castes, with a characteristic type of racism that is systemic in public and intimate forums and with a reduced elite that does not recognize and is ashamed of its culture.

The wave of popular interest in capoeira in the 1970s and 1980s was preceded by artistic and ethnological attention from the 1940s onwards. The most notable reference is to the images recorded by the French-Brazilian photographer Pierre Verger (1902-1996). Verger left post-war Europe after reading the French translation of Jubiabá (1935), Jorge Amado's fourth novel. After incursions to Africa and working as a contributor to the magazine The Cruise, deepened his personal immersion in Afro-Brazilian culture, later assuming the forename of Fatumbi, as a result of the adoption of the Yoruba faith, starting with cults such as the oracle of Ifá.5

The stylized illustrations of the Argentine naturalized Brazilian Carybé are another reference to the iconography resulting from the interest of foreigners in capoeira. Carybé, stage name of Hector Julio Paridé Bernabó (1911-1997), even worked on the film O Cangaceiro (1953), by Lima Barreto (the filmmaker from São Paulo and not the writer from Rio de Janeiro), making more than 1660 sketches for the storyboard Based on the film's screenplay. Artistic records of capoeira made by Europeans are obviously older. The French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848), one of the pioneers of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, founded by Dom João VI, based on the efforts of the French Artistic Mission in Rio de Janeiro, in 1817, painted scenes of capoeira between his countless records of daily life in Brazil during the transition between the colonial period and the formation of the Empire.

A jump cut to the period that goes from the mid-1970s to the end of the 1990s, and we see the proliferation of capoeira schools, spread across Europe and North America. particularly in the era yuppie and especially in the United States, capoeira “studios” brought together an eclectic audience ranging from liberal professionals to dancers from large companies, from high-performance athletes to names from the entertainment world. The combination of rhythm and acrobatics coming out of a fight, interposed by instruments considered exotic such as the berimbau, the pandeiro, the atabaque, the reco-reco, whistles and caxixis, displayed a singularity to the Westerner with European roots – capoeira seemed the extraordinary synthesis between art and sport.

The pioneer Nestor Capoeira (Nestor Sezefredo dos Pasos Neto), who, from 1971 onwards, started teaching at the London School of Contemporary Dance, is one of the main names behind the effort to internationalize the game, as well as the Bahian masters Jelon Vieira and Loremil Machado, who worked in the United States from the same decade onwards, with the first more involved with the world of dance, and the second training foreign capoeiristas.6.

Alex Ladd, translator of Nestor Capoeira's work into English and author of the preface to “The Little Capoeira Book”, summarizes the atmosphere surrounding the work of Brazilian masters in the US, referring specifically to Jelon Vieira: “A typical Vieira class in New York City during the 1970s and 1980s would include a Yale hockey player who naturally saw connections between his sport and that hybrid of grace, agility and muscle that capoeira brings; an African-American jazz musician who found in songs with an essentially African rhythmic structure a return to his own roots, and a classical dancer mesmerized by the beautiful but lethal movements of capoeira.”7

Capoeirista, disciple of Jelon Vieira and Edna Lima, first female master in Brazil, Alex Ladd, who also translated the tales of Life as it is (1950-61), by Nelson Rodrigues, into English (Host Publications, 2009), summarizes the aspect of capoeira not being widespread like the martial arts of East and Southeast Asia: “And despite all this movement, capoeira , however, remains a foreign word to most Americans, not unlike the status that Asian martial arts held in the early 1950s in this country.”

Born in 1946, the miner Nestor Capoeira started practicing at the hands of a famous master from Rio de Janeiro, Demerval Lopes de Lacerda, Mestre Leopoldina (1933-2007). Like him, Mestre Acorden (Bira Almeida) is another of the pioneers in teaching capoeira outside the country, from his school based in the area of ​​San Francisco Bay, California, and based on his book Capoeira: The Brazilian Art Form (North Atlantic Books, 1986), one of the first on the subject in the English language.

The title of Bira Almeida's book is simple and clear. Capoeira is art. Brazilian art. There are obviously records of other dance and fight hybrids considered to be related to capoeira, such as the moringue, which appeared in the coastal regions of Madagascar and spread throughout the countless archipelagos of the Indian Ocean. Emerged during the Maroseranana dynasty (1675–1896) of the reign of Sakavala, formed by one of the smallest ethnic groups in the world, the moringue was conceived as a form of combat, and its practitioners are still feared and respected in the regions where it is popular. . The demonstrations are accompanied by music and sounds performed with the purpose of inducing trance states, while the audience also sings teasing and mocking chants.

Another example comes from the Caribbean island of Martinique, where the folkloric combat dance, also of African origin, of Ladja (also known as danmyé ou Ag'Ya). Like capoeira, it is a game of skill, guided by the head of the circle and the musicians. Despite the uncertainty and improbability of a direct relationship with capoeira, Ladja has the same unequivocal quality of synthesizing dance, singing and spirituality when representing a martial game between fighters.

Even by approximation, the “synthetic art” character of these modalities of African origin is irrefutable if contrasted with quite characteristic forms of struggle invented in other traditions, such as the Hawaiian martial combat Kapu Kuʻialua (or Lua), based on twisting and causing damage to sensitive points on the body; or even the Polynesian defense art of the Limalama, which was developed from traditional Samoan dance steps in the XNUMXth century.8

Even if confronted with better known martial varieties, the distinct character of capoeira seems undisguised. Is it enough to define it as a Brazilian martial art? Despite the word “art” in the expression “martial art”, we know that the word here has the connotation of an analogy, as in “art of war”, or the “art of cooking”. Is this, therefore, the case of capoeira?

Nobody claims the artistic character, for example, of judo, the “soft path” arising from the pedagogical innovations introduced by the educator Jigoro Kano (1860-1939), as an alternative to injuries caused during the practice of more traditional forms of jiu-jitsu. Throughout the XNUMXth century, judo spread throughout the world, always associated with the best pedagogical virtues, not infrequently, with the cliché of attributing to the Japanese an impeccable sense of discipline and technique. Even another Brazilian invention, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, enjoys the renown of the most popular martial art in the world compared to capoeira. The modality was developed from the 1920s onwards by four of the brothers of the Gracie family, based on the direct learning of judo. kodokan by one of them, Carlos (1902-1904), who studied with the itinerant master of Japanese origin Mitsuyo Maeda (1878-1941) from 1917 onwards.

At the end of the last century, in the early 1990s, based on a series of videos named Gracies in Action, which showed family fighters challenging and prevailing over practitioners of other martial arts modalities, was when the first tournaments emerged that gave rise to the international franchise Ultimate fighting and in the so-called “MMAs”. In a way, the confrontation between fighters of different varieties of Mixed Martial Arts and its expressed violence and essentially commercial character are an ironic epilogue to the ferocious beach racket that marked the trajectory of the Gracies.

Capoeira, however, inhabits another spectrum of the cultural unconscious of the West in relation to Brazil. It is far from conquering the popularity of the tropical appropriation of a Japanese martial combat, which is Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and seems limited to the biased exoticism, common when looking at almost everything that comes from Africa.

A term of indigenous origin, the word “capoeira” probably refers to the meaning of “dry bush”, in allusion to the undergrowth through which enslaved blacks fled. O Dictionary Houaiss extends the meaning, from the environment, to the slave himself who took refuge in the 'capoeira' (bush) and assaulted travelers in order to survive, pointing out the etymological evolution and probable competing origins such as the expression Kapwila – 'beat, slap, spanking' – until the word ended up being associated with vagrancy and fights between street fighters carrying razors.

Through a collection of testimonials, the documentary Mestre Bimba: the enlightened capoeira, based on the book Mestre Bimba – body of mandinga, by sociologist Muniz Sodré, sheds some light on the hybrid and unique nature of capoeira. Invented by people of African descent, the practice is still marked by the debate surrounding its sportivization or re-Africanization. The originality of capoeira competitions in the Brazilian School Games (JEBs), in the 1970s, or the organization of their praxis in a format that is different from traditional models of federations, as with most martial fights, are objective examples of this ambivalent characteristic.

Historically, however, there is no identification of the practice of capoeira among the first quilombolas,9 with the oldest records going back to the urban environment. Historian and diplomat Guilherme Frazão Conduru, citing10 The 1898 study by Elísio Araújo, on the Federal Capital Police between 1808 and 1831, revisits the figure of a militia officer, Lieutenant João Moreira, “the mutineer”, a kind of predecessor of the memorable Major Vidigal, immortalized in the novel Memories of a Militia Sergeant (1852/54), by Manuel Antônio de Almeida (1830-1861), thus recovering the character of the urban vigilante, involved in disputes with escaped slaves in pursuit of quilombos, candomblés and capoeiras. It is the scenario that precedes the capoeira packs, in which the blows delivered were combined with the use of razors and axes, used as melee weapons.

The chronicle that has its origins in the stormy and endless experience of slavery and that, with the end of captivity, settled in the environment of poverty, marginality, street fights, later becoming noble as a cultural expression, perhaps suggests some prevention against superficiality of the sociological soap opera that confronts the past with the hypertrophied filter of moralism and invests itself in “healing history”, thus announcing an era of reparation. Capoeira, like every human invention that inaugurates a tradition – that is, which is marked by the predicate of originality – is a response to historical, economic and social circumstances, but it cannot be purely understood by these, because it is greater than the sum of its parts, as is all original art or invention.

“Capoeira is everything the body eats and everything the mouth gives”,11 repeated Mestre Pastinha. “Capoeira is defense, attack, body swing and trickery”, defines today Antonio Liberac Cardoso Simões Pires, professor and researcher at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia, synthesizing the terms of the novelty that survived the servitude. Simões Pires transcribes12 also the effort of parliamentarians during the provisional republican government regime, to defend capoeira, when referring to the movement to formalize the teaching of the modality in the Armed Forces. That is, even curbed by repression, there was some contemporary awareness of its value and uniqueness. In support of the evidence, the historian refers to the comments of the “exquisite capoeira of the 1920s”, Annibal Bularmaqui, master Zuma, who, with the proposition of his “Brazilian gymnastics” and the appeal, already in the first half of the last century, for recognition at some institutional level of the country's sport, it developed a branch of carioca capoeira.

There are also spiritualist elements that connect “sport-art” with the cosmological enigmas of Afro-Brazilian religions. In the same volume published in December 2008 by the Division for the Promotion of Brazilian Culture of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (source of some of the studies cited here), capoeirista Pedro Rodolpho Jungers Abib, author of the work Capoeira Angola: popular culture and the game of knowledge in the circle (Edufba), sends13 to the character Besouro Mangagá (also known as Besouro Preto or Besouro Cordão de Ouro), nickname of the Bahian master of Santo Amaro, Manoel Henrique Pereira (1895-1924), whose news of exploits and discrepant circumstances of his death raised doubts even about the veracity of its existence. One of his disciples, the famous capoeira Rafael Alves França, another almost legendary figure and nicknamed Mestre Cobrinha Verde, claimed to have known him, corroborating some of his feats defeating several opponents at the same time, by strengthening the belief that Besouro Mangagá had the “closed body”.

Mestre Cobrinha himself is another very important character in capoeira angola, around whom many myths were also created (there are seven songs from a 1962 album available on the platform Spotify with records of their performances sung in circles). In an obscure but enveloping volume, Capoeira and mandingas: Cobrinha Verde (1990), Marcelino dos Santos, o Mestre Mau, gathers some of these reports and resorts to an Amadian expedient (by Jorge Amado) when he warns at the outset: “If the facts narrated in this book did not happen as Cobrinha Verde tells, bad luck for the facts ”. In the same work, there is also a photographic record of a sorcerer from Cameroon wearing a lion mask, with the caption by the Swiss polygrapher Carl G. Jung (1875 – 1961): “He does not pretend to be a lion, he is convinced that he is. a lion".14

More recently, there are those who point out the crooked ancestry of capoeira even on a part of popular culture such as the break dancing (b-boying ou b-girling), an improvised street dance style, which first emerged in communities of immigrants and descendants of Puerto Ricans in the United States and which became popular in the 1980s. Based in the USA, the dancer and DJ self-named Neguin, epithet of the Brazilian Fabiano Carvalho Lopes, became known worldwide for inserting capoeira movements in his performances. The result, which combines dance steps and gravity-defying acrobatics, earned him artistic renown in the most diverse circles.

Putting aside any idealism, countries invent themselves culturally in a complex and non-linear cycle that ranges from the pragmatism of cultural policy actions to the unfathomable concert between history, struggles and founding pains. However, there is something that seems to be always present, the aptitude of men and women to look at themselves and their countrymen and decipher what they see in order to translate the fundamental human experience. Yes, there are innumerable misfortunes and countless injustices in the destinies of nations. Exaggerated respect for what is foreign, contempt for what is foreign, feverish patriotism and self-contempt are paradoxically offspring of the same vice, the inability to look at oneself and interpret one's own culture. Perhaps capoeira is still waiting for its emissaries and prophets who, finally, reveal the mysteries of its dawn.

*Rafael Baliardo is a journalist. He was a literary critic and covered science and justice issues in Brazil and the United States. He currently lives on the Atlantic coast of Canada.


[I] VIEIRA, Luiz Renato & ASSUNÇÃO, Mathias RÖHRIG. “The contemporary challenges of capoeira” in Texts from Brazil no. 14, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2011).

2 GOULART, Luiz Fernando. Mestre Bimba, the Illuminated Capoeira [documentary]. Lumen Productions (2005).

3 AMADO, George. The death and death of Quincas Berro D'Água. Co. Of Letters (2008).

4 Same as note 1.

5 West African divinatory system linked to the cults and religions of the Yoruba ethnic group.

6 CAPOEIRA, Nestor. The Little Capoeira Book. Blue Snake Books, Berkeley, California (2003).

7 Idem.

8 GREEN, Thomas A. & SVINTH, Joseph R.. Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation. ABC – Clio, Santa Barbara, California (2010).

9 CONDURU, Guilherme Frazão. “Metamorphoses of Capoeira: Contribution to a History of Capoeira” in Texts from Brazil no. 14, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2011).

10 Idem.

11 ABIB, Pedro Rodolpho Jungers. “Capoeira and its mythical-religious aspects” in Texts from Brazil no. 14, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2011).

12 SIMOES PIRES, Antonio Liberac Cardoso. “Capoeira is defense, attack, body swing and trickery” in Texts from Brazil no. 14, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2011).

13 Same as item 11 and ASSUÇÃO, Matthias. (2019). Capoeira: From Slave Combat Game to Global Martial Art. 10.1093/acrefore/9780199366439.013.293.

14 SANTOS, Marcelino dos. Capoeira and mandingas: Cobrinha Verde. Filhos de Bimba/ Lyceum of Arts and Crafts of Bahia, Salvador (1990).

The A Terra é Redonda website exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.
Click here and find how

See this link for all articles