Capoeira is a 400-year-old martial art that blends music, dance, singing, and acrobatics to create a holistic approach to teaching self-defense. Originating in Africa, Capoeira was brought to Brazil by captured slaves from Angola. In this foreign land the Angolan people developed their practice into a method of defending themselves against their violent overlords. Because of their predicament, these enslaved people had to disguise their training as recreational song and dance.
The slaves from Angola, like slaves brought to the United States, blended their familiar call-and-response song forms with the regional dialect to create songs that glorified their homeland, deities, and future freedom. These songs were accompanied by a number of percussion instruments like the tambourine (pandeiro), bells (agogo), and, most importantly, the one-stringed instrument brought from Africa, the berimbau.
The ginga, roughly translated as swing, was created as the basic movement of Capoeira, so that two people practicing Capoeira appeared to be dancing together rather than fighting. The ginga is set to the rhythm of the berimbau and other instruments(bateria) to enhance the notion of dance and also to teach timing, a critical element in Capoeira.
Another characteristic of Capoeira that helped to mask its purpose of defense is the avoidance of direct contact and threatening movements against an opponent. Since a slave was obviously not allowed to show direct aggression or even opposition to his master, he had to learn the art of trickiness or malandro. For this reason, modern capoeiristas still prize sneakiness and cunning over strength and aggression.
The goal of Capoeira is not to defend oneself through violence but by redirecting and avoiding violence. Although Capoeira was originally conceived as a non-aggressive practice, it was later used as a violent weapon by street gangs in Rio de Janeiro. With the emancipation of all slaves in Brazil in 1888, many former slaves, lacking jobs and social status, formed Capoeira gangs and took to crime. As a result of the terror caused by these gangs, Capoeira was outlawed in Brazil in 1892. Capoeiristas found teaching, practicing, or using Capoeira were punished severely. The price was a slashed achilles' tendon, knee, or even throat. Capoeira, however, has always been a resilient phenomenon, and it practitioners continued to hand down their beloved way of life to the next generations.
In response to the outlawing of their art, capoeiristas moved even further underground in their practice. They adopted nicknames to identify each other as capoeiristas without revealing their real identities. This practice continues to this day with nicknames, usually descriptive of the capoeirista's style or body type, being given to a newly "baptized" student of Capoeira. They also held their rodas in places that offered concealment or convenient escape routes if the cavalaria (police) showed up.
It wasn't until 1937 that Capoeira was legalized for practice in registered areas. This development was thanks to the nationalistic president Getulio Vargas, who wished to promote Capoeira as a Brazilian sport.
Today Capoeira is practiced all over the world. With the addition of Mestre Bimba's newer, faster style, Capoeira Regional and various attempts to blend Regional with its ancestor Capoeira Angola, Capoeira has seen some interesting developments since its liberation in the early 1900's. It is a renewed source of pride for Brazilians and an adopted way of life for Capoeiristas across the globe.
In Recife, a group of 40 slaves rebelled against their master, killed all the white employees, and burned the plantation house. They then set themselves free and decided to find a place where they could be hidden from the slave hunters. They headed to the mountains, a trip that took many months to complete. Had it not been for the help they received from the Indians, this journey would have been practically impossible to accomplish. Eventually they reached what they thought was a safe place, which because of its abundance of palm trees they named Palmares. In this place an African community was born; a community which lasted nearly a century. In this community the first forms of Capoeira were developed.
While no one would deny the tremendous African influence on Capoeira, nothing is really known about a form of Capoeira originating in Africa. All that is written on this subject is based on speculation. The earliest known historical record of Capoeira as a martial art is approximately 1770, long after early years of slavery. No further accounts of Capoeira are found until the early 1800's in the form of various police records from Rio de Janeiro.
Over the course of years, scattered settlements were established in the mountains. The largest of these was Palmares with more than 20,000 inhabitants, including some Indians and whites.
Here tribes that were strangers or enemies in Africa united to fight for a common goal.
A new community was formed with a very rich cultural mixture. In this new environment they shared and learned from each other their dance, rituals, religion, and games. One result of this rich cultural fusion was Capoeira in its earliest form.
Palmares was growing rapidly as more refugees arrived in this little African nation. It started to worry the Portuguese colonizers. People from Palmares would come down from the mountains to trade produce, fruit, and animal skins and would often raid plantations to free more slaves.
Palmares began to affect the life of the plantations as more and more of the slaves escaped. The colonists suffered economically because of the diminishing labor force.
To make things worse for the Portuguese, Holland invaded Brazil in 1630. The slaves took advantage of this situation and with assistance from Palmares left the plantations and fought the Portuguese Army. The army at this point was fighting two enemies.
The Dutch won the war, but the Africans never stopped fighting. In 1644 the Dutch organized an expedition to go to Palmares, but nothing was accomplished. In the following years a second expedition was sent to the mountains which also failed.
It is important to point out that these expeditions were formed by very experienced and well-armed soldiers. But the Africans developed a system of fighting called "jungle war" or ambush. Capoeira was the key element in the unexpected attacks. With fast and tricky movements the slaves caused considerable damage to the white men. Capoeira became their weapon, their symbol of freedom.
When an expedition was successful, the slaves who were returned to the plantations taught Capoeira to others there. Sunday was their one day of rest and that was when they practiced Capoeira. But there, in the quarters, the practice soon was altered. Music, singing, dance and ritual were added to Capoeira, disguising the fact that the slaves were practicing a deadly martial art.
In twenty-five years the colonies suffered eleven rebellions that culminated with the abolition of slavery on May 13, 1888.
After the abolition, some ex-slaves returned to Africa, but the majority stayed in Brazil. The planters being no longer interested in them as a work force, most headed to the cities to form slums and shanty towns. There was no employment in the cities either, and many organized into criminal gangs. Others, more fortunate because of their knowledge of capoeira, were hired by politicians as bodyguards. All were seen by the government as a "plague."
The main activity of these "capoeiristas" (anyone who practices the art) was to disrupt the political life of the country. In the 1890's some very influential people in high levels of society, were practitioners of capoeira. This was a threat to the government, and the president created a special police force to control the situation. When this effort was ineffective, a rigid penal code was initiated. In Chapter B of this code, ten articles were specifically related to the actions, practices, and crimes related to capoeira. A tougher law was later added stating that any person who was a known capoeirista would be expatriated. To enforce these laws, the president hired a man named Sampaio, who was reputed to be the most ruthless police chief in Brazil's history. He was determined to extinguish capoeira. What is interesting about Sampaio was that he was an excellent capoeirista, and was a terror to the gangs.
Sampaio's special police force learned capoeira, so they were able to challenge their "enemy" on their own ground. Had it not been for the strong resistance by the capoeiristas, as well as support by influential people, he may have succeeded in his mission.
One incident brought to an end Sampaio's relentless pursuit of the capoeiristas. He arrested a man named Juca, a member of the gentry, for practicing capoeira and demanded that he be expatriated. This caused a crisis for the government for the members of the president's cabinet opposed this action because Juca's father was well-known and favored by many politicians.
The president called a special meeting of his cabinet, and after eighteen days, two important members of the cabinet resigned and Juca was expatriated. After this event, change was expected in the behavior of the capoeiristas. But the change was in their favor. The opposition to the government created a black militia to disrupt the president. This militia was formed exclusively of capoeiristas and they spread fear in the capital. The police were ineffective against them and just as the situation was becoming desperate, Brazil went to war with Paraguay. The black militia was sent to the front and suddenly the outlaws became national heroes. And capoeira entered another phase in its history.
The law that prohibited the practice of capoeira was still effect until 1920, and its practice disguised as a "folk dance." In their hidden places, capoeiristas did their best to keep the tradition alive, and by presenting it as a folk art, they made the practice of capoeira more acceptable to the society.
In those years it was very common for a capoeirista to have two or three nicknames. The police knew all the capoeiristas by these names and not by their real identity, so it made it much more difficult to arrest them. (This tradition is continued today. When a person is "baptized" into the practice of capoeira, they are given a nickname.)
In 1937, Mestre Bimba, one of the most important masters of capoeira, received an invitation from the president to demonstrate his art in the capital. After a successful performance he went back to his home state and with the government's permission, opened the first capoeira school in Brazil. It was the first step towards a more open development, and years later the senate passed a bill establishing capoeira as a national sport.
Today capoeira is all over the world. In Brazil, as part of the culture, there is capoeira everywhere - in elementary schools, universities, clubs, and in military academies.