The origins of capoeira to this day are a source of controversy
and debate. Many theories have emerged on capoeira’s
early 17th century beginnings, and not much has been proven
since few documents from that era still exist.
It is generally agreed that capoeira was originally practiced
by African slaves brought to Brazil by Portuguese slave traders
at the peak of Portugal’s dominance. Africans were boarded
onto slave ships and sailed to Brazil in appalling conditions,
only to arrive there and be sold into slavery. To explain what
life was like for slaves, Nestor Capoeira, who took his name
from the sport of which he writes in The Little Capoeira Book,
in imaging the lives of these slaves: “ . . . After the
first days of arduous work we are taken to rest in the common
slave quarters. We get to know our companions in this calamity:
an American guitar player, an English boxer, a Brazilian percussionist,
a Chinese tai-chi practitioner, and an African swat player— among
Time goes by, and during rare moments of leisure we begin to
absorb each other’s culture.
Let us imagine that gradually, over several decades, a new form
of cultural expression
is born— a dance-fight, a game that is a mixture of boxing, tai-chi, samba,
American music and the swat.”
This is one idea of how capoeira was born and the game’s origins: a synthesis
of dances, fights, and musical instruments from different cultures, different
Capoeira and other forms of African expression were at first
allowed, even encouraged, to keep the morale of slaves up
and to keep slaves from mutiny and other forms
of revolt. However, starting about 1814, forms of African cultural expression
including capoeira were heavily discouraged and in some places forbidden and
punishable by severe beatings. Capoeira was then practiced in secret, and without
lessons, and it slowly turned into a weapon rather than a method of self-defense.
People in positions of power, either political or criminal, would use a capoeira
expert who had turned to crime to strike down enemies and simultaneously further
their power. Capoeira then received a reputation for criminal activity.
Capoeira retained this image until 1934 when Getulio Vargas,
whom Nestor calls “the
best-known Brazilian statesman of all time,” eliminated the law forbidding
the practice of capoeira. Capoeiristas were then free to practice capoeira openly
and academies were established.
The most famous of these academies was founded by Mestre Bimba, the creator of
Capoeira Regional, a more systematic approach of the teaching of capoeira. This
style goes against the traditional Capoeira Angola, which relies heavily on learning
by example. Mestre Bimba is thus remembered and revered for creating Brazil’s “national
Players of capoeira begin the dance-fight game by situating
the roda, literally, “wheel.” The players stand in a circle, and
all share in the singing of chants.
The chants, like all fight moves and musical instrument names,
are in Portuguese.
Participation in chanting is necessary, as the chants create
the energy for the players in the roda, and they alone will
make the game completely fulfilling.
There are three basic types of chants, or chulas. The ladainha
is sung by one person before the start of the game, and then
is answered with a chorus. Quadras
are a four-verse song sung by the soloist and answered by the chorus, and a corrido
is a song one to two verses also sung by a soloist and answered by a chorus.
Chants used in rodas today can be traditional, dating back
to slavery, or written by various more recent capoeira masters.
Songs can be based on morals and life
teachings as well as religious beliefs.
Also in the roda are three major musical instruments: a berimbau,
a wooden bow used to keep rhythm, an atabaque, a drum similar
to a bongo drum, and a pandeiro,
an instrument similar to a tambourine. It can also include a reco-reco or an
ago-go, or cow bell, although these instruments are not crucial to the roda.
The berimbau is perhaps the most important instrument in capoeira.
Up to three berimbaus are used in a traditional Angola roda,
one high-tone, one mid-tone,
and one bass. The berimbau is made of a wooden bow, approximately seven palm-lengths
long and three-quarters to one inch in diameter wide. A small peg is carved on
its widest end to attach a steel wire. The other extremity is covered over by
a leather, most commonly the wire from the insides of an old car tire.
A hollow gourd is attached to the bow by two small perforations
threaded through with string and cut open circularly where
the fruit’s stem used to be.
The gourd, or cabaca, serves as a percussive box to magnify the berimbau’s
The berimbau’s sound is made when the player strikes the wire with a foot-long
wooden stick. The stick, or baqueta, is held in the right hand with a small shaker
filled with dried beans or pebbles, which enriches and adds “texture” to
the berimbau’s sound, according to Nestor.
Capoeira can be played with as few as eight players or as many
players as can be gathered in any given space. Players are
situated in a roda, where they stand
answering the solo chanter and clapping to the beat. The fighting can begin when
the ladainha is sung. If one desires to fight, one will crouch down facing another
player in front of the berimbaus, and au, or cartwheel, into the roda. Upon entering
the circle, players start the core movement or capoeira, maneuvering their feet
to form a triangle. This is called a ginga. From there, players can launch into
a vast assortment of moves, offensive and defensive.
The most commonly used offensive kicks include a bencao, a
forward thrust kick aimed, with the ball of the foot, towards
the abdomen; an armada is a spinning
heel kick aimed toward the head; and a quiexada is a kick to the opponent’s
head that comes from the side.
Punches and other moves besides kicks are not used too frequently
in the roda. One speculation of why only kicks are used is
that kicks can injure from a distance,
while to injure with punches, players must be very close to their opponents.
Individual games are played until another player in the roda
jumps in, and begins playing with one of the members already
in the circle. The other player then
rejoins the roda. The game can go on for hours until the players (and musicians!)
get tired out.
For more information on capoeira and capoeira lessons, contact
Japa, the contact person of one of the capoeira schools in
O‘ahu, of Centro Cultural Senzala
de Capoeira at 735-5361.