byAntonio Flavio Testa and Don Warrener
Bahia! Bahia! Were the cries heard late one humid evening in Salvador, Brazil. The cries were coming from inside a rundown building on the back streets of Salvador, the capital city of Bahia Province. As we drew closer, the cries were mixed with the enchanting beat of drums and the rhythm of Latin music. All at once we saw two men, their bodies glistening with sweat, as they twirled at fantastic speed, flipped and kicked at one another to the rhythm of the music. They appeared to be doing an exotic dance. They were doing Capoeira!
Capoeira is the cultural fighting art, of the people of Brazil. The goal of Capoeira is to search for a way to disarm an opponent without
attacking him directly. The slaves of Brazil created these movements. African slaves were brought to Brazil and in many cases were
tortured by their Portuguese owners as well as other enemies. Out of a need for self-defense, they had little choice but to defend themselves. Hence they developed capoeira.
Capoeira was developed in what are called senzalas. These are houses where the slaves lived. They used them for their leisure time as well as other activities allowed by their owners. Through the further interpretation of African dances, the Brazilian slaves developed the techniques and the movements that looked like dances. Europeans and Brazilians watched them with curiosity. However, their owners did not realize what the objectives of these movements were and that they were actually watching a self-defense art.
There is one particular Capoeira technique called the tail of the araia. Araia means stingray in Portuguese. When attacked the araia uses its tail to defend itself. The technique is similar to a roundhouse kick or spinning back kick and is very lethal and dangerous because it is so Unpredictable. It is also extremely fast because of rotational momentum. The rasteira is yet another technique peculiar to Capoeira. It is a sweeping technique similar to karate’s ashibarai or footsweep except that the hands are held on the ground. Its purpose is to destroy moral and fighting spirit of your opponent.
Capoeira has a wide variety of techniques that allow fighters to confuse their opponents, but what it is more important is that the movements are rhythmic. The music and rhythm of the fight is created by two instruments the berimbau, a coconut shell mounted on a wooden stick and a wire used to create its own unique sound and the atabaque, a tambarine. The berimbau instrument and the music it creates are peculiar to Capoeira. This music gives the fighters the spirit to fight and as the beat of the music increases or decreases so does the intensity of the fight. The faster the beat the faster the moves become. Capoeira music has only one practical significance; the music would get faster and faster if danger was near in other words it was a code for the capoeiristas (capoeira fighters), to be aware if the techniques were becoming more and more dangerous.
In the first part of the 20th century Brazil’s society was changing and the large farms were being swallowed up by the cities. capoeira also left the big farms and came to the cities where it gained a poor reputation as a fighting system used by thugs against the police and authorities by the poorer class of people. The elite or upper class of society obviously had a poor opinion of capoeira and its practitioners.
During this time, Master Bimba, who is considered the father of capoeira Regional, developed capoeira and systemized it. He tried to improve the image capoeira had by emphasizing it as a cultural art of Brazil that stressed discipline, moral ethics, and uniformity of techniques. He attempted to de-emphasize the importance of it as a self-defense system. By doing this he improved the image of Brazil’s cultural fighting art in the eyes of the social upper class. He not only stressed the physical art but also the music which was peculiar to capoeira.
In yet another style of Capoeira, Master Pastinha is considered the father of capoeira Angola style. In this style the folklore side or the ritualistic view of the art is emphasized. It is more of a dance where flexibility and gymnastics are stressed with all kinds of flips and tumbles in the air. The moves are much more complicated then in Regional capoeira but this makes it in the opinion of some authorities more interesting to watch. The music of Angola capoeira is more mystical and slower which allows the fighters when playing the game of capoeira to be more creative and it is not unusual to see them flip two times in the air and go right into spinning kicks and then down to the ground where they perform a technique called negativa that is used to escape from an attack.
Today Capoeira is becoming more and more popular in Brazil. Now the stigma of capoeira being only used by thugs is long gone. Today you will often see politicians and other more sophisticated people practicing the art of Brazilian slaves.
Unfortunately, though the Brazilian Government has not yet realized that they have something that the world wants. With a little help it is quite possible for the art of capoeira to spread all over the world similar to how the Japanese have spread karate or the Koreans have spread Tae Kwon Do. It is possible that in the future with some help and good organization capoeira could become an international sport and help spread the culture of Brazil all over the world.
Unfortunately, many of Capoeira’s traditional values are being lost due to the influence of other cultures, through globalization and mass media. The government is not preserving its history. As an example Master Bimba died in total poverty and was abandoned by the State. If it had not been for a student named Master Oswaldo who took care of him in his last days and finally took care of his funeral expenses, who knows what would have happened to this giant of a man who tried to preserve a bit of Brazil’s culture for the generations to come.
However, today capoeira in Brazil retains certain cultural traits Brazil is known for around the world. These cultural traits are the love of music, dance, parties and the love of sport.
If only Capoeiristas could politically organize themselves like the soccer world of Brazil has or the Carnival of Rio “Who knows how popular this art could become?”