Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art which incorporates dance, music and play. Practitioners are capoeiristas. Since it was developed in secret, there is little historical documentation around capoeira. Some say it was created in the 16th century by enslaved West Africans taken to Brazil. With defensive arts forbidden, they camouflaged their practice as dance. Others trace roots from African fighting styles like Angola’s n’golo and Congolese kipura. The word capoeira reportedly originated from the now-extinct, indigenous Brazilian language, Tupi. In Tupi, ka’a meant “forest” and paũ meant “round,” referencing the hiding places of escaped slaves.
Rhythm and athleticism are important, e.g., in a rocking movement called ginga, and au fechado, a combined handstand and inverted kick. Other moves are legs sweeps called rasteiras and knee strikes called tesouras. The roda is a circle of people, singing and clapping, who surround duelling capoeiristas. Accompanying musical instruments include the berimbau (string percussion), pandeiro (hand drum), atabaque (big drum), agogo (bell) and ganza (rattle).
As a fighting style, capoeira was a tool of resistance. Fugitives escaped slavery, formed independent communities called Quilombos and protected themselves using it. Capoeira was also a form of entertainment and cultural transmission, and so capoeristas continued to practice despite risks of punishment. With the end of slavery in 1888, white Brazilians feared capoeira could be used by former slaves for retribution. Capoeira was stereotyped as the practice of criminals and outlawed in 1890. Under the ban, capoeristas could have their Achilles tendon cut off or be executed. Not until the 1940s was this lifted.
Two strands of capoeira are “Regionale” and “Angola”. Regionale was created by Mestre Bimba, an instructor from the city of Salvador who set up a school under the ban in 1932 to keep the practice alive. Angola, on the other hand, is the revival of earlier traditions. These days Capoeira is practiced all over the world. In 2014, it was designated “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO.
By Nnenna Onuoha