Lang Liu:

A Very Brief History of Capoeira

Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian art form that appeared sometime in the sixteenth century.  It's origins are hotly debated, but it is clearly linked to the story of the slaves who were forcibly brought to Brazil to work the plantations. These slaves came from all over Africa and although some proponents claim that they brought capoeira with them, it is more likely that capoeira was a blend of many African cultures, and also drew from Portuguese and Indigenous influences.  Other similar mock-fight slave dances found in the New World seem to support this hypothesis:  The ladje is found in the Martinique and the Mani in Cuba.


In Brazil, capoeira seems to have developed in various urban centers, taking on particular local characteristics.  It mushroomed in the emerging cities of Brazil during the 18th & 19th centuries, particularly in the larger coastal cities of Rio de Janeiro (the capital at the time), Sao PauloRecife and Salvador da Bahia.  It appears to have been a very violent capoeira, one in which gangs fought each other over territory or were hired by political parties to intimidate their opponents. This capoeira was brutality repressed by the authorities and mostly disappeared from Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Recife. It was formally made illegal in the penal code of 1890, punishable by emprisonment or by whippings.


For a variety of reasons which probably had to do with its form of government and its high percentage of African decendants, one style of capoeira survived: Capoeira from the Reconcavo area of Salvador da Bahia.  Although it was declining by the early 1900's, one man's efforts changed the story of capoeira forever, so that it was to become an immensely successful art form inside and outside of Brazil.  Thus, the form of capoeira that we see today is a diret descendant of Bahian capoeira, from the use of the berimbau, the bow-like instrument that has come to symbolize capoeira, to the songs that accompany capoeira, its rituals in the roda (the capoeira circle), and its links to the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomble, just to name a few.

 Originally simply called "capoeira", the old style of capoeira had, by the early twentieth century, begun to morph into something of a folkloric expression in Bahia, and was rapidly losing its martial aspect (a luta). It was in the 1930's, that a capoeira Master called Manuel dos Reis Machado, Mestre Bimba, began to make modifications to the art form.  His aim was to bring capoeira out of its marginalized status and also to create what he saw as a genuine Brazilian martial art, equal to the martial arts from Asia that had taken off in Brazil.


Thus, Mestre Bimba created Capoeira Regional, an amalgamation of those elements from the old capoeira that he deemed useful, and other elements from the old batuque, another Afro-Bahian fighting art that he, like his father, a champion of batuque, had excelled in.  Bimba opened the first ever official capoeira academy between four walls.  Whereas capoeira had formerly been practiced informally on the street, Bimba was to usher in a whole new era for the art form, introducing elements that are used by all practitioners today, irrespective of the style.  Mestre Bimba dreamed of helping a marginalized population of poor, black Bahians to find a place in the sun - he wanted the Afro-Bahian culture to be valued and respected.  Eventually, Mestre Bimba welcomed people of all races and backgrounds to his classes (although many of his poorer students never paid), and thus many sons of the elite, young, white and educated men, began to practice capoeira and to help draw it out of its illegal status.

Mestre Bimba received many criticisms from other practitioners, who felt that he was betraying the art form, but without his work, the old capoeira would have soon disappeared. Soon, this old capoeira style also began to enjoy a revival practitioners came together under the guidance of the famous Mestre Pastinha, who began to organize it. They began calling this old capoeira Capoeira Angola to distinguish it from the newer Capoeira Regional. Thanks to Bimba's far-reaching vision, capoeira has thrived and spread throughout Brazil and the world to a degree that no one could have expected, being practiced in places as far and wide as Japan, England and Israel.

Today the son of Mestre Bimba, Mestre Nenel, runs a school in Salvador, Bahia, that he has named the Filhos de Bimba (Children of Bimba), in honour of his father.  With the help of some of Mestre Bimba's former students, Mestre Nenel strives to keep his father's legacy alive.  A lot of confusion has arisen since Mestre Bimba arrived on the scene.  The name Regional has come to designate any style that is not Capoeira Angola, the older form of capoeiraIn reality, the traditional Capoeira Regional movements, music, rules and philosophy differ quite strongly from contemporary offshoots. Traditional Capoeira Regional, as both Mestre Bimba practiced it and as his son Mestre Nenel continues to practice it, is very grounded and has none of the flashier, acrobatic movements that have come to define the modern styles.  Mestre Bimba's Capoeira Regional is based on rhythm, technical precision and close interaction with one's partner.  It is centered on the creation of harmony within the group, in contrast to the modern focus on personal performance.

Check out this wonderful clip of a demonstration roda given by the Filhos de Bimba, students of Mestre Nenel's in Salvador da Bahia.  The image in the video, although not a very good one, shows the quality of the games.  The roda begins with a slower rhythm called Idalina, moves onto a faster rhythm called Sao Bento Grande da Regional and ends with 'Baloes' or 'Cintura Desprezadas' which are a form of throws Mestre Bimba taught his students in order to help them develop agility, as well as to learn how to fall.