Capoeira - An Afro-Brazilian Martial Art Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Capoeira - An Afro-Brazilian Martial Art

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Dressed in red and white, two performers demonstrate various Capoeira moves on a rooftop against a dramatic London backdrop.
Vamos jogar capoeira,
Vamos tocar berimbau1

Originally, the word 'capoeira' (pronounced 'cap-wear-a') came from the indigenous Brazilian Tupi-Guarani language and meant an overgrown area that has been cut back. However, during the 16th Century, 'capoeira' came to mean an Afro-Brazilian martial art among the African slaves who were brought over to Brazil from Angola and the Congo to work on the sugar plantations. To onlookers this martial art appears to be like a dance; this was deliberately done to prevent the slaves being punished for fighting. During the course of the game2, two players (capoeiristas) compete against each other with a series of kicks, evasions, takedowns, and acrobatic moves. There are two major styles: the Regional, created by Mestre3 Bimba and Angola originating from Mestre Pastinha.


Today (2007) nobody knows the exact origins of Capoeira. The leading theory, as stated above, is that the African slaves developed their own fighting style to protect themselves from white slave owners, but hid their training in plain sight by making it look like a ritualistic game or dance. Another theory says that an African rite of passage called the N'Golo, during which warriors would engage in a ritualistic fight/dance, was the origin of the martial art. Regardless of its origins, the game was practised by Brazilian slaves up until they were freed in the 1880s, at which point it became the fighting style of criminals. Just as with the gangs of today, Capoeira gangs would have their own turf, where they controlled the criminal activities. At that time the martial art incorporated less ritual and music than previously, and involved the use of weapons such as knives and clubs. Consequently, Capoeira was outlawed in Brazil in 1890.

Then in 1928, Mestre Bimba created 'Luta Regional Baiana', which is now known as Capoeira Regional. He performed it in front of the nationalist president Getulio Vargas, who was so impressed by it he declared it Brazil's national sport. During this time, Mestre Pastinha also began teaching a style known today as Capoeira Angola, which is played slower and closer to the ground, emphasising the dance and ritual aspects of the game.


It's not a fighting form - when you get in the circle, you just express what you're feeling as you listen to the berimbau.
- Leandro de Oliveira, a Capoeira Instructor in Stoke-on-Trent, UK

Capoeira is usually played in a roda (circle) of people; the roda measures about ten to 20 feet (three to six metres) across. There are usually two capoeiristas playing at any one time, and they play until new players buy into the game. Music plays a significant part in the game as it tells the capoeiristas inside the roda how to play. If the music is fast and excited, the capoeiristas should be playing fast, combative games. If the music is slow and leisurely, the capoeiristas should play a slow, careful game. Therefore, musicians are placed at the head of the roda and capoeiristas who wish to enter the game, or 'buy in', generally must kneel before them and wait for permission to enter. The musicians (the Bateria) play a number of instruments:

  • Berimbau - a one-stringed instrument resembling a bow with a gourd attached, which is usually played by the Mestre.
  • Atabaque - a drum.
  • Pandeiros - tambourines.

The Mestre conducts his orchestra and encourages people to contribute to the music by singing and rhythmically clapping their hands. They also dictate when a game is to be started, finished and intervened. Most songs have solo parts and chorus parts, so people in the roda are always listening for their cue to sing a chorus.

Capoeira Movements

In Capoeira, there is little physical contact between capoeiristas and most movements are made to evade opponents. The Jogo de Capoeira (game of Capoeira) can be really won by knowing your opponent and outwitting them.

  • The ginga - the core movement of Capoeira is the ginga which is basically a swing-like motion from one side to another.
  • Esquivas - literally translates to evading attacks.
  • Kicks - extending the leg can offend an opponent and can act as an escape.
  • An Au - a cartwheel.

Capoeira in the Media

Compared to other martial arts, Capoeira is relatively unknown outside of Brazil. Eastern martial arts like Karate or Kung Fu are often shown in movies and television shows, but Capoeira has only appeared in a few places, most notably in video games. Anyone who has played Tekken 3 is probably familiar with this martial art. The character Eddy Gordo is modelled after a well-known Mestre and many of the movements that he does are from the martial art.

The Jean-Claude Van Damme movie The Quest, Carlos Santana's music video 'Maria, Maria' and Wyclef Jean's video 'We Just Tryin' to Stay Alive' also feature Capoeira. Capoeira was featured in a movie called 'Only the Strong', in which a former Green Beret proficient in the martial art teaches it to a group of rowdy high school students. Finally, the BBC showed a couple of people partaking in Capoeira in an ident4 in 2002.

1We're going to play Capoeira, we're going to play the berimbau...2The proper term for a Capoeira 'fight' is 'game' (jogo), and the term for doing or performing Capoeira is 'playing' it.3'Mestre' means teacher.4An ident is the short television sequence which identifies the channel. The picture on this Entry is taken from the BBC ident.

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