Capoeira – African martial arts

Capoeira is the common name for the group of African martial arts that came out of west Africa and were modified and mixed in Brazil. These original styles included weapons, grappling and striking as well as animal forms that became incorporated into different components and sub styles of the art.

In 1500’s the Portuguese, led by explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, arrived in Brazil. One of the first measures taken by the new arrivals was the conquering of the local population, the Brazilian Indians, in order to allow the Portuguese slave labor (for sugarcane and cotton). The experience with the Indians was a failure. The Indians quickly died in captivity or fled to their nearby homes. The Portuguese then began to import slave labor from Africa. On the other side of the Atlantic, free men and women were captured, loaded onto slave ships and sent on nightmare voyages that would end in bondage.

The Africans first arrived by the hundreds and later by the thousands (approximately four million in total).Three major African groups contributed in large numbers to the slave population in Brazil, the Sudanese group, composed largely of Yoruba and Dahomean peoples, the Mohammedanized Guinea-Sudanese groups of Malesian and Hausa peoples, and the “Bantu” groups (among them Kongos, Kimbundas, and Kasanjes) from Angola, Congo and Mozambique.

The Bantu groups are believed to have been the foundation for the birth of capoeira. They brought with them their culture; a culture that was not stored in books and museums but in the body, mind, heart and soul. A culture that was transmitted from father to son, throughout generations. There was candomble’, a religion; the berimbau, a musical instrument; vatapa, a food; and many other things.

The Dutch controlled parts of the northeast between 1624 and 1654. Slaves took steps towards reconquest of their freedom when the Dutch fought against the Portuguese colony, invading towns and plantations along the northeastern coast, concentrating on Recife and Salvador. With each Dutch invasion, the security of the plantations and towns were weakened. The slaves, taking advantage of the opportunities, fled into the forests in search of places in which to hide and survive. Many, after escaping, founded independent villages called quilombos.

The quilombos were very important to evolution of capoeira. There were at least ten major quilombos with economic and commercial relationships with neighboring cities. The quilombo dos Palmraes lasted sixty-seven years in the interior of the state of Alagoas, fighting off almost all expeditions sent to extinguish it. Because of the consistency and type of threat present, capoeira developed as a fight in the quilombos. The birth of capoeira as a fighting style was created in the slaves’ quarters and might not have developed further if left only to that environment.

Starting around 1814, capoeira and other forms of African cultural expression suffered were prohibited in some places by the slave masters and overseers. Up until that date, forms of African cultural expression were permitted and sometimes even encouraged, not only as safety against internal pressures created by slavery but also to bring out the differences between various African groups, in a spirit of “divide and conquer”. But with the arrival in Brazil in 1808 of the Portuguese king Dom Joao VI and his court, who were fleeing Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Portugal, things changed. The newcomers understood the necessity of destroying a people’s culture in order to dominate them, and capoeira began to be persecuted in a process, which would end with its being outlawed in 1892.

Why was capoeira suppressed? There were many motives. First of all it gave Africans a sense of nationality. It also developed self-confidence in individual capoeira practitioners. Capoeira created small, cohesive groups. It also created dangerous and agile fighters. Sometimes the slaves would injure themselves during the capoeira, which was not desirable from an economical point of view. The masters and overseers were probably not as conscious as the king and his intellectuals of his court of all of these motives, but even still, they knew something didn’t seem right.

There are many other theories to explain the origins of capoeira. According to one well known theory, capoeira was a fight that was disguised as a dance so that it could be practiced without knowledge of the white slave owners. This seems unlikely because when African culture began to be repressed, other forms of African dancing suffered prohibition along with capoeira, so there would be no sense in disguising capoeira as a dance.

Another theory says that the Mucupes in the South of Angola had an initiation ritual (efundula) for when girls became woman, on which occasion the young warriors engaged in the N’golo, or “dance of the zebras,” a warrior’s fight-dance. According to this theory, the N’golo was capoeira itself. This theory was presented by Camara Cascudo , but one year later Waldeloir Rego warned that this “strange theory” should be looked upon with reserve until it was properly proven (something that never happened). If the N’Golo did exist, it would seem that it was one of several dances that contributed to the creation of early capoeira.

Other theories mix Zumbi, the legendary leader of the Quilombo dos Palmares with the origins of capoeira, without any reliable information on it.

All of these theories are important when trying to understand the myth that surrounds capoeira, but they cannot be accepted as historical fact according to the data and information that we presently have. Maybe with further research, the theory that capoeira as a mix of various African dances and fights occurred in Brazil, mostly in the 19th century, will also be outdated in future years.

With the signing of the Golden Law in 1888, which abolished slavery, the newly freed slaves did not find a place for themselves within the existing society. The capoeirista (practitioner of capoeira), with his fighting skills, self-confidence and individuality, quickly descended into criminality and capoeira along with him. In Rio de Janiero, where capoeira had developed exclusively as a form of fighting, criminal gangs were created that terrorized the population. Soon thereafter, during the transition from the Brazilian Empire to the Brazilian republic in 1890, these gangs were used by both monarchists and republicans to exert pressure on and break up the rallies of their adversaries. The club, the dagger and the switchblade were used to complement the damage done by various capoeira moves.

In Bahia on the other hand, capoeira continued to develop into a ritual-dance-fight-game, and the berimbau began to be an indispensable instrument used to command the rodas ( sessions of capoeira games), which always took place in hidden places since the practice of capoeira had been outlawed by the first constitution of the Brazilian Republic (1892).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, in Rio the capoeirista was a rouge and a criminal. Whether the capoeirista was white, black or mulatto, he was an expert in the use of kicks (golpes), sweeps (rasteiras) and head-butts (cabecadas), as well as in the use of blade weapons. In Recife, capoeira became associated with the city’s principal musicbands. During carnival time, tough capoeira fighters would lead the bands through the streets of that city, and wherever two bands would meet, fighting and bloodshed would usually occur. In Bahia, the capoeirista was also often seen as a criminal.

The persecution and the confrontations with the police continued. The art form was slowly extinguished in Rio and Recife, leaving capoeira only in Bahia. It was during this period that legendary figures, feared players such as Besouro Cordao-de-Ouro in Bahia, Nascimento Grande in Recife and Manduca da Praia in Rio, who are celebrated to this day in capoeira, made their appearances It is said that Besouro lived in Santo Amaro da Purificacao in the state of Bahia, and was the teacher of another famous capoeirista by the name of Cobrinha Verde. Besouro did not like the police and was feared not only as a capoeirista but also for having his corpo fechado (a person who through specific magic rituals, supposedly has almost complete invulnerability in the face of various weapons). According to legend, an ambush was set up for him. It is said that he himself carried the written message identifying him as the person to be killed, thinking that it was a message that would bring him work. Legend says he was killed with a special wooden dagger prepared during magic rituals in order to overcome his corpo fechado.

Of all the rouges that led the carnival bands through the streets of Recife, Nascimiento Grande was one of the most feared. Some say he was killed during police persecution in the early 1900s, but others say he moved from Recife to Rio de Janiero and died of old age there.

Manduca da Praia was of an earlier generation and always dressed in an extremely elegant style. It is said that he owned a fish store and lived comfortably. He was also one of those who controlled elections in the area he lived in. It is said that he had twenty-seven criminal cases against himself (for assault, knifing etc.) but was always overlooked due to his influence of the politicians he worked for.

The two central figures in capoeira in the twentieth century were undoubtedly Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha. These two figures are so important in the history of capoeira that they (and the mystery that surrounds them) are the mythical ancestors of all capoeira players. Much of what a modern capoeira player tries to be is due to what these men were or represented.

In 1932 in Salvador, Mestre Bimba (Manuel dos Reis Machado) opened the first capoeira academy. He started teaching what he called “the regional fight from Bahia,” eventually known as Capoeira Regional (faster more aggressive than traditional Capoeira Angola style). This was made possible by nationalistic policies of Getulio Vargas, who wanted to promote capoeira as a Brazilian sport. Although Bimba opened his school in 1932, the official recognition only came about in 1937. The Getulio Vargas government permitted the practice of capoeira, but only in enclosed areas that were registered with the police. With the opening of Bimba’s Academy, a new era in the history of capoeira began, as the game was taught to the children of the upper classes of Salvador. Bimba was active in capoeira his whole life.

In 1941, Mestre Pastinha (Vincente Ferreira Pastinha) opened his capoeira angola school. For the first time, capoeira began to be taught and practiced openly in a formal setting. He became known as the “philosopher of capoeira”. Unfortunately, government authorities, under the reforming of the Largo do Pelourinho, had his academy confiscated. Although he was promised a new one, the government never came through. The final years of his life were sad. Blind and almost abandoned, he lived in a small room until his death in 1981 at the age of ninety-two. Capoeira has grown tremendously over the last fifty years. It has finally been excepted by the masses in Brazil. Capoeira competitions and academies are surfacing everywhere. In 1974 it was recognized as the national sport of Brazil. This forced the creation of a national federation of capoeira. In 1974 it was recognized as the national sport of Brazil. It was formed to govern, promote and coordinate capoeira since no effort was made previously to unite the various emurgances of capoeira throughout Brazil.

Capoeira has expanded beyond the borders of Brazil and is growing rapidly in other countries (including the United States). Capoeira appeals to many for many different reasons. First of all the pure beauty of the art is hypnotic. Capoeira is a dance and a fight. It’s not only a combination of gymnastics, dance and martial arts but also music, culture, history and knowledge. The capoeirista must learn to balance the physical with the mental. The capoeirista must play many instruments and sing. The capoeirista may at times be your enemy but is usually a friend. The capoeirista is a historian. The capoeirista is all of these.

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