Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art developed initially by African slaves in Brazil,
starting in the colonial period. It is marked by deft, tricky movements often played on the
ground or completely inverted. It also has a strong acrobatic component in some versions and
is always played with music.
There are two main styles of capoeira that are clearly distinct. Angola is characterized
by slow, low play with particular attention to the rituals and tradition of capoeira. The other
style, Regional, is known for its fluid acrobatic play, where technique and strategy are the
key points. Both styles are marked by the use of feints and subterfuge, and use groundwork
extensively, as well as sweeps, kicks, and headbutts.
Recently, the art has been popularized by the addition of Capoeira performed in various computer games and movies, and capoeira music has featured in modern pop music (see Capoeira in popular culture).
During the 1500s, Portugal shipped slaves into South America from Western Africa. Brazil was the largest contributor to slave migration with 42% of all slaves shipped across the Atlantic.
The following peoples were the most commonly sold into Brazil: The Sudanese group, composed largely of Yorubaa and Dahomean people, the Islamised Guinea-Sudanese group of Malesian and Hausa people and the Bantu group (among them Kongos, Kimbundas and Kasanjes) from Angola, Congo and Mozambique.
There are engravings and writings that describe a now-lost fighting dance in Cuba that reminds us of capoeira with two Bantu men moving to the yuka drums. It is called the baile del maní. Batuque and Maculele are other fight-dances closely connected to capoeira.
These people brought their cultural traditions and religion with them to the New World. The homogenization of the African people under the oppression of slavery was the catalyst for capoeira. Capoeira was developed by the slaves of Brazil as a way to resist their oppressors, secretly practice their art, transmit their culture, and lift their spirits. Some historians believe that the indigenous peoples of Brazil also played an important role in the development of capoeira.
After slavery was abolished, the slaves moved to the cities of Brazil, and with no employment to be found, many joined or formed criminal gangs. They continued to practice capoeira, and it became associated with anti-government or criminal activities. As a result, capoeira was outlawed in Brazil in 1892. The punishment for practicing it was extreme (practitioners would have the tendons on the back of their feet cut), and the police were vicious in their attempt to stamp out the art. Capoeira continued to be practiced, but it moved further underground. Rodas were often held in areas with plenty of escape routes, and a special rhythm called cavalaria were added to the music to warn players that the police were coming. To avoid being persecuted, capoeira practitioners (capoeiristas) also gave themselves an apelido or nicknames, often more than one. This made it much harder for the police to discover their true identities. This tradition continues to this day. When a person is baptized into Capoeira at the batizado ceremony, they may be given their apelido.
Persecution of the art petered out eventually, and was entirely gone by 1918.
In 1937, Mestre Bimba was invited to demonstrate his art in front of the president. After this performance, he was given permission to open the first capoeira school in Brazil. Since that time, capoeira has been officially recognized as a national sport, and has spread around the world. Mestre Bimba's systematization and teaching of capoeira made a tremendous contribution to the capoeira community.
In 1942, Mestre Pastinha opened the first Capoeira Angola school, the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola, located in Bahia. He had his students wear black pants and yellow t-shirts, the same color of the "Ypiranga Futebol Clube," his favorite soccer team. Most Angola schools since then follow in this tradition, having their students wear yellow capoeira t-shirts, although more recently each club has begun to adopt more personalized uniforms.
Together, Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha are generally seen as the fathers of modern Capoeira Regional and Capoeira Angola respectively.
The derivation of the word capoeira is under dispute. One possible meaning is that it refers to an area of forest or jungle that has been cleared by burning or cutting down. Afro-Brazilian scholar Carlos Eugenio believes it refers to a large round basket called a capa commonly worn on the head by urban slaves selling wares (a capoeira being one who wears the basket). Alternatively, Kongo scholar K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau thinks that capoeira could be a deformation of the Kikongo word kipura, which means to flutter, to flit from place to place; to struggle, to fight, to flog. In particular, the term is used to describe rooster's movements in a fight.
Music is integral to Capoeira. It sets the tempo and style of game that is to be played within the Roda. The music is comprised of instruments and song. The tempos differ from very slow (Angola) to very fast (São Bento Regional). Many of the songs are sung in a call and response format while others are in the form of a narrative. Capoeiristas sing about a wide variety of subjects. Some songs are about history or stories of famous capoeiristas. Other songs attempt to inspire players to play better. Some songs are about what is going on within the roda. Sometimes the songs are about life, or love lost. Others are lighthearted or even silly things, sung just for fun. Capoeiristas change their playing style significantly as the songs or rhythm from the berimbau (right) commands. In this manner, it is truly the music that drives capoeira.
There are three basic kinds of songs in capoeira. A ladainha (litany) is a narrative solo usually sung at the beginning of a roda, often by the Mestre (Master). These ladainhas will often be famous songs previously written by a Mestre, or they may be improvised on the spot. A ladainha is usually followed by a chula or louvação, following a call and response pattern that usually thanks God and one's teacher, among other things. Each call is usually repeated word-for-word by the responders. The ladainha and chula are often omitted in Regional games. Finally, corridos are songs that are sung while a game is being played, again following the call and response pattern. The responses to each call do not simply repeat what was said, however, but change depending on the song. For the words to many of the songs, see Capoeira songs.
The instruments are played in a row called the bateria. three instruments are berimbaus, which look like an archer's bow using a steel string and a gourd for resonation. It is played by striking the string with a stick, and the pitch is regulated by a stone. Legend has it that, in the old times, knives or other sharp objects were attached to the top of the berimbau for protection and in case a large fight broke out. These three bows are the Berraboi (also called the bass or Gunga), Medio, & Viola, and lead the rhythm. Other instruments in the bateria are: two pandeiros (tambourines), a Reco-Reco (rasp), and an Agogo (double gong bell). The Atabaque (conga-like drum), a common feature in most capoeira baterias, is considered an optional instrument, and is not required for a full bateria in some groups.
The "roda" is the circle of people within which capoeira is played. People who make up the roda's circular shape clap and sing along to the music being played for the two partners engaged in a capoeira match or rather a "game" ("jogo"). In some capoeira schools an individual in the audience can jump in to engage one of the two players and begin another game.
The minimum roda size is usually a circle where the radius is the length of a berimbau, or about 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter. They are often larger, up to 10 meters in diameter (30 feet). The rhythm being played on the berimbau sets the pace of the game being played in the roda. Slow music limits the game to slow yet complex ground moves and handstands.
Hits usually aren't made but feigned or just shown. The players often turn away from each other's hits just to throw their own. Slow games are often seen as finesse games, less impressive for the casual viewer. Faster music allows for more circular momentum which is key to gaining "big air" in the roda.
Capoeiristas can take up a lot of space while playing, so the roda is rarely small, especially if the players are playing quickly. In the fast game, acrobatics and big, circular kicks abound to the delight of onlookers. Sometimes actual hits are registered, but only between higher-level competing capoeiristas.
The roda is a microcosm which reflects the macrocosm of life and the world around us. Most often in the roda, your greatest opponent is yourself. Philosophy plays a large part in capoeira and the best teachers strive to teach Respeito (Respect), Responsabilidade (Responsibility), Segurança (Safety/Security), Malícia (Cleverness/Street-smarts), and Liberdade Liberty/Freedom).
Modern capoeira is often criticized by more traditional practitioners of capoeira as being in the process of losing its "playfulness" in the sense that many capoeiristas tend to focus more on impressive acrobatics and not so much the playful interaction with the other player in the roda.
Capoeira doesn't focus on injuring the person you play against, rather on demonstrating more skill (or cunning). Capoeiristas often prefer to show the movement without completing it, enforcing their superiority in the roda. If your opponent cannot dodge your slowest attack, there is no reason to use your fastest. Each attack that comes in gives you a chance to practice an evasive technique.
The ginga (literally: rocking back and forth) is the fundamental movement in capoeira. Capoeira Angola and Capoeira Regional have distinctive forms of ginga. Both are accomplished by maintaining both feet approximately shoulder-width apart and then moving one foot backwards and then back to the base. This movement is done to prepare the body for other movements.
The rest of the body is also involved in the ginga: coordination of the arms (in such a way as to prevent the body from being kicked), torso (many core muscles may be engaged depending on the player's style), and the leaning of the body (forward and back in relation to the position of the feet; the body leans back to avoid kicks, and forward to create opportunities to show attacks). The overall movement should match the rhythm being played by the bateria.
Capoeira primarily attacks with kicks and sweeps. Some schools teach punches and hand strikes, but they are not as common, because this art was originally developed by handcuffed slaves fighting against their guards. Elbow strikes are commonly used in place of hand strikes. Capoeira also uses acrobatic and athletic movements to maneuver around the opponent. Cartwheels (a very common acrobatic movement), handstands, head-spins, hand-spins, hand-springs, sitting movements, turns, jumps, flips, and large dodges are all very common in Capoeira.
Capoeira defenses consists of evasive moves and rolls. A series of ducks called 'Negativas', which literally means negations (of kicks) are also staple of a capoeiristas' defensive vocabulary. There are typically different Negativas for every step of the Ginga, depending on the direction of the kick and intention of the defender. A common defense is the 'Role', which is a rolling move that combines a duck and a low movement. This move allows the defensive player to quickly evade an attack and position themselves around the aggressor in order to lay up for an attack. It is this combination of attacks and defense which gives a game of Capoeira its perceived 'fluidity' and choreography. Other evasive moves allow the capoeirista to move away or dangerously close in an attempt to trip up the aggressor in the briefest moment of vulnerability (usually in a mid-kick).
There are also styles of moves which combine both elements of attack and defense. An example is the 'Au Batido', a move commonly associated with Capoeira. In essence, the move begins as an evasive cartwheel which then turns into a blocking/kick, either as a reflexive response to a blocking move from the opposing player or when an opportunity to do so presents itself (an opponent's drop of guard for example).
Capoeira Angola rodas feature a ritual called the "chamada." In a chamada, one player assumes a ritual pose, for example, with one hand in the air. Normally, the other player should approach and join the pose (in this example, touching their hand to the first player's hand). The players then walk back and forth until the first player separates and offers a slow attack, and the jogo resumes. However, the whole chamada is fraught with tension, since it is acceptable for either player (although most often the player that called the chamada) to strike out in a sudden attack – at any speed at all. If the other player is caught, it is because they weren't being careful enough. The goal of the chamada is to test a player's ability to cooperate, to appear friendly, without exposing himself to a sneaky attack. Some mestres will playfully involve spectators in the chamada (for example, introducing a female bystander to their opponent only to take the opponent down while he doffs his hat). Chamadas serve to show how well a player can handle the tricks of the world ("o mundo enganador" is a common call in the louvação).
Volta ao mundo (or "trip around the world") is a short break taken by both players, and is in Capoeira Regional the only Chamada or call available to indicate a desire to change something about the game being played, while in Capoeira Angola it leads to more formalized Chamadas.
Though each school is different, an example from a regional school could be walking counter-clockwise in large circle, loosely holding left hands and walking in the same direction. Two or three gentle laps is all the rest you get, then it is time to play again. In a Capoeira Angola school the meeting of the left hands would indicate a specific chamada that requires a ritual exit distinct and different from merely separating hands.
The "volta ao mundo" is commonly used to force the players to cool down after a heated exchange or by a player when he/she needs a break. It is important to note that "volta ao mundo" is practiced differently by different schools – some hold hands, some do not, some walk, some run. In some schools, the "volta ao mundo" is done when the music is over and the players are waiting for the new one to start. If you ever visit a roda, make sure you respect that school's behaviors in this respect as failure to do so is looked upon as quite rude.
For students who have mastered the basic moves, their game naturally progresses towards a more cunning slant. The art of trickery, or 'Malandragem'. This involves a lot of improvisation and modifications of basic moves into a flurry of feints and fakes in a blatant attempt to trick the opponent in responding wrongly. To this end, the ability of the capoeirista lies in their skill to observe and reliance on their innate sense in anticipating the moves of their opponents and prepare the appropriate response. Some capoeiristas take this aspect of the art to heights akin to the guile of theatrics and drama. Games displaying elaborate performances and even staging skits reenacting historic cultural aspects of Capoeira are commonly demonstrated amongst the most learned of the art.
Styles of Capoeira
There are many different kinds of capoeira. As previously stated the two largest types are Angola and Regional. Although groups of one style do exist, most groups tend to mix the two styles to some degree. Capoeira Angola groups from the Northeast will tend to identify only as Capoeira Angola and will mimic Regional for performances.
Angola is considered to be the true root style of capoeira, often characterized by slower, sneakier movements played closer to the ground and with the players playing their games in closer proximity to each other. Capoeira Angola, in actuality, is played in a great range of speeds, ranging from Mestre Rene's school (with fast, highly acrobatic movements and frenetic high tempo music) to Mestre João Pequeno's school (with much slower, methodical movements to low tempo, hypnotic music). The father of modern Capoeira Angola is considered to be Mestre Pastinha (Paas-cheen-yah) who lived in Salvador, Bahia. Today, most of the Capoeira Angola media that is accessible comes from mestres in Pastinha's lineage, but this isn't to say that he was the only one or that he was the originator. Many others helped in the preservation and propagation of Capoeira Angola, including Mestre Caiçara, Mestre Bobo, Mestre Noronho, Besouro Mangangá, etc. The Angola style, while emphasizing the traditions and history of capoeira remains a contemporaneous art in the vibrant street scene of Salvador, Bahia. There is a diversity of styles and players, all of the traditional form, playing or performing in a great range of speeds and testing each other in various academies and in the street.
Regional is a newer and more martially-oriented game. Regional was developed by Mestre Bimba to make capoeira more mainstream and accessible to the public, and less associated with the criminal elements of Brazil. While capoeiristas can sometimes play Angola-like, slow games, the Regional style is most often composed of fast and athletic play. On the contrary to what you might read elsewhere, Bimba's Regional style contains almost none of acrobatic movements so often associated with capoeira. It is combat oriented while maintaining the trickiness of Capoeira Angola.
Later, so called modern Regional came to be (see the next section about capoeira contemporanea). Developed by other people from Bimba's Regional, this type of game is characterized by high jumps, acrobatics, and spinning kick. This Regional should not be confused with the original style created by Mestre Bimba.
Regional ranks capoeiristas (Capoeira players) by ability, denoting different skill with the use of a corda (colored rope, also known as cordel or cordão) worn as a belt. Angola does not use such a formal system of ranking, relying instead upon the discretion of a student's mestre. In both forms, though, recognition of advanced skill comes only after many years of constant practice.
Today, there are many fusion styles, which mix the Angola and Regional traditions. Some refer to this as "capoeira atual," or "capoeira contemporânea." Whether playing Angola or Regional, groups often have different styles of wildly different movements. In general, older groups/styles often have a greater emphasis on the traditions of capoeira, while newer groups concentrate chiefly on sports-like technique.