There are still different opinions regarding when and where Capoeira was created. The most common theory is it was made by African slaves brought to Brazil when Portuguese colonization started in South America in the XVI century. There were 3 main ports: Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and Recife. The little documentation from that time shows that the first slave settlement was registered in Rio de Janeiro but the most similar manifestation of what we know as Capoeira game with current instruments was in Salvador de Bahia. There are afro culture similarities between Brazil, Colombia and Carribean Islands because most of their African population came from same regions and tribes of Angola and part of Congo e.g. Yoruba language, Candomblé religion, similar drum instruments, Ladja fight ritual from Martinica Island is similar to Capoeira, …
Some Capoeira researchers consider NGolo, a performance of ritual combat, as an important influence on Capoeira. It was practiced by various ethnic groups and it involves kicks, dodges, inverted positions and leg sweeps. It was performed in private and public in different situations including part of a rite of passage between young boys vying for a bride in the contest. It is also known as ‘Jogo da Zebra’ (Game of Zebra) for the similarities with how zebras fight amongst themselves.
The slaves used Capoeira as a tool to win their freedom from the oppressors, leaving the colonial settlements and organizing their own communities (“Quilombos”) in the jungle / rainforest. They practised Capoeira hiding it as a dance / ritual, they tried to not show its fight aspect to the portuguese colonialists. Researchers think they used different instruments that nowadays are part of Capoeira music. Some paintings and diary notes show the presence of drums across the colonial settlements but only the musical arc (Berimbau) was found as part of Capoeira in Salvador de Bahia. Other ports like Rio de Janeiro had a similar performance called ‘Pernada Carioca’ and used drums but Berimbau.
The workplace of the slave was mostly in ports and sugarcane fields. It is considered that slaves used to practice Capoeira with coworkers during their few free moments from hard labour. The current white Capoeira uniforms are inspired by the white clothes slaves used to wear while working.
Around the XVIII century, the portuguese settlements were more urbanized and they established laws against the practice of Capoeira with physical punishements in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador de Bahia and Pernambuco. The abolishment of slavery was passed by law signed by Princess Isabel around XIX century. It let any slave to be free but, because of their social condition as ex-slaves, they were marginalized without opportunities to have a decent life. Capoeira was related to marginalized and conflictive people, criminalized until recent decades. Some people got some fame and social popularity while living or after death because of their actions and conflicts with police. Songs and stories were made in honour of them and first recorded in small books called ‘Literatura de cordel’. Some of those legends related to Capoeira were Besouro Mangangá, Inocencio Sete Mortes, Maria Doze Homem, Angelica Endiabrada, Siri de Mangue… Even with a bad reputation, Capoeira continued to be practised in ‘Rodas’ in the streets and famous capoeiristas had duels with each other. Sometimes it became an opportunity to earn some money because some people used to give money and the best capoeirista got the reward.
Mestre Bimba and Capoeira Regional
Capoeira was institutionalized in the beginning of the XX century. The first Mestre (Master) who introduced the practice of Capoeira indoors was Mestre Bimba with his first Academy in 1932. He created a new Capoeira style first known as ‘Luta Regional Bahiana’ (Bahian Regional Fight) and later as Capoeira Regional. He introduced techniques from other martial arts including some from the traditional Batuque, he kept and create new ‘Balões’ (projections) techniques as well as Samba and Maculele dances. He prefered to just use one Berimbau and two pandeiros (tambourines) in the Roda. Thanks to his performances and connections with people from different social classes, he had the opportunity to show to the President of the Republic Getulio Vargas what Capoeira was. The President recognised Capoeira as a National sport, influencing the legalisation of the practice of Capoeira in Bahia. Mestre Bimba also contributed to breaking prejudices while teaching white university students. He created a Grading Ceremony called ‘Batizado’ where new students had the chance to play with senior ones and they received a silk neckerchief with different colours as a Grading system. A Blue Neckerchief was the first one (after the 6 month Regional course), followed by Red, Yellow and finally White (Mestre). The current Capoeira belt system ‘Corda’ was formally established after his death.
Mestre Pastinha and Capoeira Angola
Another Master called Mestre Pastinha was responsable for institutionalizing the traditional Capoeira. He was recognized by other famous old Masters and capoeiristas to be the leader of the first centre of practice of traditional Capoeira called Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola in 1942. When Capoeira Regional started be popular as the more innovative style, Mestre Pastinha and others decided to differentiate the styles by calling their traditional style ‘Capoeira de Angola’. Some street practicioners embraced this denomination and others identified as ‘Capoeira de Rua’ (Street Capoeira). Mestre Pastinha had different Capoeira spaces throughout his life. He settled a combination of Capoeira instruments based on his preferences and knowledge. Also he started a Capoeira Angola uniform (yellow shirt and black pants) inspired by his favourite soccer team ‘Ypiranga’. Regarding Capoeira titles, before Pastinha the practicioners were recognised as Masters socially in their communities. It was more a social consideration after years of building reputation in Rodas. Pastinha established the title of Contramestre in his Academy to designate to the student who was leading the classes in his absence. No grading belts were introduced then, nor nowadays, just Certificates in some groups. Now the hierarchy of a Capoeira Angola group is normally divided by Student – Treinel – Contramestre – Mestre and it takes more time to be recognized as a Master. Pastinha is considered one of the most influential Masters of Capoeira Angola.
Other Masters and legacy
There were other Mestres from different lineages in those times that contributed to mantain Capoeira. Some of them had their own space where they organized Rodas and trainings, others were more recognized for their knowledge of playing berimbau or the game of Capoeira. Some good examples are Mestres Noronha, Aberrê, Waldemar da Paixão, Canjinquinha, Cobrinha Verde, Traira, Eziquiel, Camafeu de Oxossi, Totonho de Maré, João Grande, João Pequeno, Bigodinho, Tiburcinho, Caiçara, Vermelho 27, …
The legacy and popular culture was recorded in LPs, books, video, voice recordings, … but unfortunately a lot of knowledge was lost because it is an art passed orally generation to other generation. Most of videos made were by foreign TV stations, tourists, universities…
After decades lots of students from those important Mestres and others traveled around Brazil and the world spreading the practice of Capoeira. Capoeira first arrived in Europe and USA through dance companies like ‘Grupo Viva Bahia’ of Emilia Biancardi. Emilia is ethnomusicologist and had her own show company. She was responsible for giving the opportunity to well known Mestres like João Grande, Acordeon, Preguiça, Suassuna and Lua Rasta to travel overseas and some of them stayed in other countries. She currently has a ethnomusic museum in Pelourinho, Salvador de Bahia. Those teachers who could stay overseas contributed to the globalization of Capoeira and also being ambassadors of the Portuguese language.
Capoeira suffered different influences across the decades. Each period of time influenced this art in different ways.
Even in Capoeira Angola where practicioners try to keep the art as how was practiced in the past, there are some Mestres that have different order in the instruments and also movements.
In Capoeira Regional, two main Grading belt systems ( Cordas) were established after Mestre Bimba’s death:
-Group Senzala Rio de Janeiro: crua (white) – amarela (yellow) – laranja (orange) – azul (blue) considered Alumno Formado – verde (green) considered Profesor – roxa (purple) – marrom (brown) considered Contramestre – vermelha (red) Mestre.
-Federação de Capoeira Rio de Janeiro: crua (white) – verde (green) – amarela (yellow) – azul (blue) considered Alumno Formado/Profesor – verde+amarela+azul considered Contramestre – branca+verde Mestre 1 Grau (Master 1st grade) – branca+amarela Mestre 2 Grau (Master 2nd grade) – branca+azul Mestre 3 Grau (Master 3rd grade) – branca (white) Mestre ou Grão Mestre.
Regarding instruments, in Capoeira Angola they continued to have: 3 Berimbaus (Gunga, Medio & Viola), 2 pandeiros, atabaque, agogô & recoreco. In Capoeira Regional some groups continued with just 1 Berimbau and 2 pandeiros.
Others introduced the Capoeira Angola instruments inside Capoeira Regional having: 3 Berimbaus (Gunga, Medio & Viola), 2 pandeiros, atabaque, agogô & recoreco e.g. Group Senzala.
Nowadays some groups with Capoeira Regional roots identify themselves as practitioners of Capoeira Contemporânea. Lots of Mestres who influenced this contemporanean movement were from Group Senzala and this group is considered one of the most influential in today’s Capoeira.
Women in Capoeira
Women weren’t involved in Capoeira much until last couple of decades. Due to the criminilazion and marginalization of Capoeira, it wasn’t really safe for women to get involved. Despite this situation, some women were known to have some knowledge or have trained a bit of Capoeira. There were some old legends like Maria Doze Homens that were linked to Capoeira culture.
In Capoeira Angola, Mestre Pastinha used to train some women in the ethnomusicolgist Emilia Biancardi’s house. Nowadays there are well known Mestras in Capoeira Angola like Janja, Paulinha, Jararaca, Tisza, Gege and others who have important roles in their communities.
In Capoeira Regional, sons and daughters of Mestre Bimba like Nalvinha had the chance to train. But not until last decades did we see women recognized as Mestras too. Some examples are Mestras Jo, Cigana, Edna, Noa, …
Women in Capoeira had to fight against sexist prejudices and women encounters help to encourage more practitioners to continue their Capoeira paths.