Brazil’s Black Guerrillas

After the abolition of slavery in Brazil, well up into the 1930’s, there
were protests against
capoeira by politicians and intellectuals. For some
time capoeiristas became the fastest growing group
of criminals.
The police were always chasing after
capoeiristas and capoeira in
days can be compared to a guerrilla movement.

Jihan Abdalla

Vanquished somewhere within the eye of the storm, and the salt of the ocean so carelessly smeared in with the sweat
of slave labor, dissolved into the desperate pounding waves that never reached the shore of freedom lies the origins of
capoeira. The facts will remain between the sealed lips of lost souls, who share the same secret of the mysterious force
responsible for the wind, for all of eternity.

About 10 years after the evils of slavery in Brazil were finally abolished, there was an attempt to destroy the entire
history of it as well. The written history that is… After Brazil had already become its own republic, such an embarrassment
lingered over the first government, that all the records of slavery were ordered to be burned. Reduced to the tangibility of ash,
these documents have fused into human memory and legend.

How could something so brutal, inhumane, and poignant be so easily dismissed in the wake of the fire?
Capoeira among so many other cultural entities did not burn to death!
Capoeira is a resistance to slavery that survived just like its
people did, and its vibrancy is an endowment to today’s Afro-Brazilian Culture.

There are many theories concerning the origins of
capoeira. The most controversial issue being whether
capoeira already existed in Africa, or was it invented by the African slaves after their arrival in Brazil. Due to the burning of the slave
records and other factors, unfortunately there is little written history of
capoeira. However, it is generally agreed upon that
capoeira is related to the presence of African people in Brazil.

One particular theory states that after various slaves escaped successfully from the
senzalas (the Portuguese name for slave quarters on the plantations), they sought refuge in
quilombos (independent villages which the run-away slaves
founded). Of all quilombos,
Palmares was the biggest and strongest, for it lasted 67 years before it was destroyed. Here is one
theory, which is one of the most popular among
capoeiristas today: 1

Freedom Fight

“Capoeira was born out of a burning desire for freedom. Only through the efforts of these men would the slaves
free themselves, and return once more to the life of freedom they had known in their own land. The first steps in this
reconquest for freedom were taken when the Dutch lashed out against the Portuguese colony, invading the towns and plantations
along the Northeastern coast concentrating on Recife and Salvador. With each Dutch invasion the security systems of the
plantations and towns were weakened and the slaves, taking advantage of the opportunities, fled, plunging into the forests
in search of safe places in which to hide and survive…

At the time the land along the coast was separated from the interior lands by a strip of Amazon-type forest, traces of
which are still found today. It was this strip of forest, in areas 100 kilometers wide, that the best hiding places were found.
These areas were known as capoeiras. The process of isolation and fortification caused the fugitive blacks to develop a
system for freeing the slaves still captive on the plantations and in the towns…

Capoeira developed its structure as a fight in the
quilombos. The embryo of capoeira as a rudimentary fighting
style was created in the slaves’ quarters, and perhaps would not have developed further if left only to that environment. It
would have been only a series of strike movements, utilizing above all the muscular strength of its practitioners. It would have
remained an essentially rustic style used only to evade the aggression of the slaves’ captors and masters. The development of
capoeira as a fight occurred in the
quilombos, basically because it was needed not just to defend against physical aggression,
but as a defense in life or death situations in which the attackers did not simply use whips, but rather as deadly weapons,
even fire arms and cannon…

Another indication that capoeira was used by the people of Palmares was its diffusion throughout large parts of
Brazil. When the quilombos were destroyed, the watchful warriors, no longer able to stay together, were scattered throughout
several states, even as far as Rio Grande do Sul, and with them went their fight, traced to them through studies in the following centuries.”

Another theory says that in the South of Angola Africa, the
Mucupe tribe held a ritual when a girl entered
womanhood. Just as it is common for many indigenous tribes to have a sacred animal totem, the
Mucupe worshiped the zebra. Therefore during this ceremony, the young men preformed “the dance of zebras” which was known as the
n’golo. This dance was also a battle—sometimes a bloody one, for it was the toughest boy who received the girl. Supposedly
capoeira is another word for the n’golo
dance, and it is said that some of its movements mimic those of a zebra.

Capoeira and Candomblé

Perhaps the most popular theory, which is more like a legend spread by word of mouth, therefore altering its detail, is
that the slaves invented capoeira not only in Brazil, but while still in captivity. When the slave owners established the
senzalas, they were well aware of the power of organization and community. Therefore in order to retain absolute power and
domination over the slaves, all tribes were purposely separated (just like a modern-day communist scare situation). Unity and
congregation among the slaves was the worst fear of the slave owners.

Even though rival African tribes were put together, the white men overlooked that they all shared one common
belief—religion. That religion was candomblé
and it is still popular among Afro-Brazilians today. Many of the ritualistic
objectives of capoeira are also derived from
candomblé. So as the legend says, just as easy as the Africans united under their
common belief of candomblé, they could have united to form
capoeira as well. Therefore the roots of
capoeira were born inside of the
senzalas where it absorbed a variety of components such as dances, cultures, beliefs, rituals, religions, and battles.
Capoeira is a mixture of many elements contributed by several different African tribes.

The slaves invented capoeira as a fight, but disguised it as a dance so that the white slave owners wouldn’t realize
what was going on. The slave owners prohibited them to fight, for fear of a revolution. Some even say that the developing of
capoeira as a fight was specifically to rebel against the slave owners. But if this is in fact true, why
capoeira? If capoeira does not use weapons, it surely would have been no match for the arms of the slave owners. According to Nestor Capoeira,
capoeira had no need to be disguised as a dance: “around 1814, when African culture began to be repressed, other forms of
African dancing suffered prohibition along with
capoeira, so there was no sense in disguising
capoeira as a dance.”2

Certain conclusions concerning the origins of
capoeira contain more facts, and therefore are more believable than
others: capoeira is a unique art form, belonging to a
class of its own. There is no history of
capoeira in any geographical region in the world outside of Brazil. This includes all nations which exploited African slave labor. Other forms of cultural
expression with African roots such as music, musical instruments, and dances, have been and still are practiced in such countries,
but not capoeira specifically. Therefore, it is easier to assume that
capoeria was indeed invented in the nation of Brazil.

After Slavery

Capoeira was born out of a society that was suffocated at the bottom of the class system. For that reason it was
always judged and labeled to be an activity associated with ‘lower class people’. In 1888 slavery was officially abolished with
the signing of the Golden Law. Although the blacks were ‘free’, the discrimination in society against them in no means
ended as well.3 Where would these newly freed people find a place for themselves within the existing socioeconomic order, a
nation that was already so problematic?

Due to Portuguese rule, and their selfish quest for the exploitation of natural resources, Brazil suffered irreversible
repercussions. Little if any attention was paid to the rapidly growing society. There was no structure within society, within
culture, and definitely not within economics. The result was a large vagrant population, predominantly blacks. Many of these
people sought refuge through the art of

Capoeira developed fighting skills, alertness, self-confidence, and individuality. It was an expression of freedom, a
form of being, a form of belonging to ‘something’.
Capoeira was also a means of survival, for after times of slavery, many
used capoeira in a violent nature. Due to the type of people that played
capoeira, and their position in society as a whole,
capoeira and capoeiristas, became nothing more than the fastest growing criminal population, and they were well-known for it.

After the abolition of slavery, well up into the 1930’s, there were protests against
capoeira by politicians, intellectuals, among other upper-class folk. These people wanted to label and hold one single group responsible for the society that
crumbled before them, without really thinking of the previous history that was to blame for all of these repercussions of their
struggling society.

Due to its negative perception by higher society,
capoeira had to be played in secret locations, for the first
constitution of the new Brazilian Republic outlawed the practice in 1892. The police were always chasing after
capoeiristas, especially during the epoch of the 1920’s, when
capoeira was used as a fight more than anything, and also perhaps reached its
bloodiest peak.

Capoeira faced an enemy that it could not conquer—the Brazilian penal code. So it had to be malleable, quick,
deceiving, and cunning in order to survive alongside a scrutinizing society.
Capoeira in those days can be compared to a current
day guerilla movement—in the way that it was forced to exist in secrecy among the presence of the large police army that
was always on a search and destroy mission to end

In the state of Rio de Janeiro during the 20’s and 30’s,
capoeira had developed into a form of fighting only.
Criminal gangs were created, and they integrated weapons such as clubs, knives, and razorblades with their defense tactics of the art.
These capoeira gangs were a serious threat to the population, and often the police were not quick enough to stop them from
harming others. In the state of Bahia,
capoeira was also seen as a criminal activity. But it differed for it held on to its African
roots—encompassing dance, religion, and ritual as well as the fighting aspects. These non-violent characteristics have been
maintained, and are a very important part of contemporary
capoeira today.

Through time, capoeira evolved along with the changing world. No one is certain when the
berimbau4 was integrated into the game. It is possible that the
berimbau was introduced to capoeira as part of the scheme to disguise its fighting
aspects, thus making it more perceivable as a dance. The
berimbau eventually developed into the essential holy instrument.
Without it, capoeira has no rhythm, flow, meaning, or existence. The
berimbau commands the rodas (capoeira

There is a tale (but more like a joke to a
capoeirista), that the berimbau was born one day when, at the sight of a
slave driver approaching—a slave grabbed a branch off a tree to pretend that they were making music to go along with their
dance. Although no one can say for sure, it is also believed that it wasn’t until after times of slavery that the acrobatic
movements were integrated into the art of
capoeira. This idea is very credible because what human being would have the strength
or the motivation to do gymnastics after being forced to spend an entire day of physically demanding labor in the fields?

Mestre Bimba

Manuel dos Reis Machado (1900-1974), better known as Mestre
Bimba, was the single most important contributor to
the evolution of capoeira. Bimba developed
capoeira as a valid form of self-defense; he was the first to prove that
capoeira is a form of cultural expression, and due to his efforts it eventually became a nationally recognized athletic game or sport.

In 1932, Bimba opened the first official and institutionalized academy for
capoeira. Bimba’s school, Centro de Cultura Física Regional Baiana in Salvador da
Bahia, marked the beginning of the teaching of
capoeira openly in a formal location. This was only made possible through the new chief of government, and later president Getúlio
Vargas, whose goal was to diminish the repression of all cultural
expression. It was Bimba himself that brought
capoeira back to legality, after it
suffered under the ban of authority for the previous decades. Bimba’s school and his efforts marked the beginning of a new era
in capoeira—the same era which continues today, and circulates the blood inside the bodies of every

Bimba was the official creator of capoeira
regional. He favored the fighting aspects of
capoeira. His creation—capoeira
regional—is a mixture of capoeira Angola
(the original form of capoeira),
and batuque—an old form of fighting at
which Bimba’s father was very skilled. Bimba
implemented new types of sweeps, connective blows, flips, and kicks—such as
the martelo (hammer)—a kick where the leg and foot is sideways.

He is also responsible for developing the seqüências de
Bimba—various sequences of moves and kicks for two
players, and most importantly the cintura
desprezada—(scorned hips). The cintura desprezada
is a sequence of acrobatics, where capoeiristas
always land on their feet. Bimba also created a new
berimbau rhythm, and a quicker style of capoeira
to go along with the aggressiveness that he possessed inside.
Bimba criticized the quality of movements, and he had a very
disciplined teaching method. Bimba also registered his
capoeira regional officially as his trademark.5 That means that anyone who
did not train with Bimba specifically, but practiced what they said was
capoeira regional, was in fact practicing something
different all together.

In order to make capoeira an ‘appropriate activity’—excepted by all levels of society, Bimba’s students all came from upper class families. While this gave
capoeira a fresh, institutionalized look on the exterior, this also meant that these
students possessed different roots and virtues, in comparison with the class of people from the traditional Afro-Brazilian style of
capoeira. And so the style, institutions, and mind-states of the participants
of capoeira regional, integrated and developed with a
world rapidly attaching itself to the ideals of materialism. Meanwhile,
capoeira Angola—(which than became known as the
traditional style), remained with the poorer class of society, who had different lifestyles and philosophies.

Mestre Pastinha

Mestre Pastinha (Vincente Ferreira Pastinha)—1889-1991—was well known for his mission and devotion to preserve
the roots of capoeira Angola, the original form of
capoeira. Mestre Pastinha was a little older than
Bimba, but they were both from the same era, and the two
mestres are also remembered together as the two biggest contributors to modern-day

Mestre Pastinha was known as the philosopher of
capoeira’. He was a storyteller and is remembered as being a kind
and friendly man, who never ran out of wise words. Pastinha always wanted to share his knowledge and experiences with
others. In 1941, after Bimba had gained the rights by the government to do so, Pastinha opened up the first official academy of
capoeira Angola. Because he was also an intellectual and an artist, his academy also became a meeting place, and many of his
visitors simply came to meet him and chat, or to admire his intriguing paintings which hung on the walls.

What the history books never seem to mention however, is that Mestre Pastinha actually played little
capoeira himself. It is said in Salvador da Bahia that Mestre Pastinha (although uttermostly respected) has a very big name and image
that realistically is only that. It’s true that he was deeply concerned and responsible for preserving the roots, rituals, history,
music, and philosophy of capoeira, but contrary to popular belief he was not the “great” powerful
Mestre as legend portrays him.

Many of his greatest students such as João Pequeno and João
Grande, had already learned capoeira
under the instruction of different
angoleiros, before Mestre Pastinha had appointed them as
contra-mestres (assistant masters).

Pastinha wrote a book and recorded an album of
capoeira music. Where as Bimba gave demonstrations in more
formal settings, Pastinha gave hundreds of demonstrations outside, during festivals and on the streets where he invited the
public to watch. Capoeira Angola was and still is associated with street-style living and people. But one also has to
understand that since those types of people have less materialism in their lives, their ideas differ in comparison with many students
of capoeira regional.

It is said that the style of an angoleiro,
is more in the mind than the physical style of a player of
capoeira regional. A true angoleiro believes more in the religion, fundamentals, and history of
capoeira, and he also uses more malícia.
One that really enjoys the art of
capoeira respects this and knows that the beauty of it prevails on the inside, and not on the out.

Modern Day Capoeira

The contributions to the art of capoeira
made by Bimba and Pastinha, laid the foundation for the path of modern
day capoeira. Capoeira was rooted in Salvador da
Bahia, and up until the 1960’s/early 1970’s, the best
Mestres who were from or began to teach elsewhere in Brazil, all originally came to Bahia to develop their
capoeira skills and
fundamentos—the philosophy, religion, rituals, history, music, and roots of the game. Many of these middle-class students from Rio de
Janeiro migrated to Bahia during the 1960’s to learn
capoeira regional specifically under the teachings of the respected Mestre

After returning back to Rio, many of Bimba’s students formed the school and group
Senzala, which soon became the largest and most famous
capoeira group in all of Brazil. Grupo Senzala was responsible for inventing various warm-up exercises
before training, and they also modified kicks and other movements, which were built on the foundation of the teachings
of Bimba. Their teaching style also became known as
regional/senzala and it influenced other
capoeiristas all over the country. During this same time period, new twists were being added to the
capoeira played in São Paulo. In favor of a more violent and
aggressive game, more contact blows were being applied to
capoeira regional.

In 1972, capoeira was first recognized by the Brazilian government as a national
sport. Along with this ‘approved recognition’, an attempted first set of official rules were made. In an attempt to organize
capoeira even further, a new cord system also was developed.6 In the 1970’s there were even attempts to hold regular
capoeira competitions with sets of rules,
scoring, and judges as well. After a few years of these competitions, the best
capoeiristas realized that the game was selling out.

If this would have continued, capoeira would have lost its roots, rituals, and philosophies. Little by little, the
evolution of modern day capoeira was devouring its essence. All of these formal alterations were threats to transform
capoeira into something it wasn’t and could not ever become—such as a competitive martial art. The truth is that
capoeira stands still in a realm of its own, and it can never be treated or compared to any other expression of freedom or individuality.

As time passed and the popularity of capoeira
regional increased, there seemed to be little hope for the salvation of
its roots—the traditional capoeira Angola.
In the mid-1980’s, however, capoeira Angola
began its unexpected comeback. Due to the determination and wisdom of some of the older
Mestres—the fundamentos of
capoeira were brought back to the scene before they became lost forever. Today the
moda, or fashion of capoeira is
regional. Regional has been more popular
than Angola ever since Bimba introduced it in the 1930’s.

Without the creation of Mestre Bimba it is quite possible that
capoeira would have died out all together, like the
ancient art of batuque. And without the efforts of Mestre Pastinha to preserve the rituals, fundamentals, and beliefs of
capoeira Angola, the most touching and significant history of
capoeira might have been buried forever, beneath the

Nowadays the practice of capoeira does not only thrive in Brazil—it has spread, and is being taught in other
nations such as the United States and European countries. However, once again it should be noted that since Bimba was the
official creator and registrar of capoeira regional,
any style taught today claiming to be capoeira regional,
is not officially capoeira regional unless it is exactly the same as what
Bimba taught, which is basically impossible to find. Young
capoeiristas have the choice to enroll in academies that teach either
capoeira regional, Angola, or one that teaches both. Although these
new Mestres and schools definitely have their own teaching methods and styles; they are all linked by a common thread.
They are all capoeiristas—and hopefully they all strive for the same thing.

In Brazil, some say that the
capoeiristas from Rio de Janeiro and São
Paulo, have forgotten the roots of
capoeira due to the materialistic world in which they live.
Capoeira regional/senzala is commonly known as “Capitalist
Capoeira”, because it has evolved with the type of people and society who are driven by money and materialism, and quite often its
Mestres try to make a career out of it, instead of the passion for life that it was meant to be. It is also said that the
capoeiristas from Bahia hold the art inside their head and inside their hearts.
The capoeiristas da Bahia have not forgotten the religious element.
Capoeira is religion, and the berimbau

In my opinion, to be a true Capoeirista,
one must look beyond the movements and skill of the art; he/she must also
have knowledge of the fundamentos, and always carry the history inside of him/her. For there is so much more to
capoeira, than what is seen on the exterior. A truth prevails on the inside, a truth that digs so deep that you really have to experience it
yourself to understand what lies underneath. The roots of
capoeira are so important and powerful—just like a strong tree the
roots of capoeira nourish and hold it together. Without its roots it just would not be the same.

Capoeira is but one example of a cultural expression found in Brazil.
Capoeira is a resistance to slavery, it is an
expression of freedom driven by the desire to live. Brazil is rich in culture, and that makes it such a fascinating place to be, to visit,
and even to become a part of. One must also be aware that the Africans, such as the slaves whom invented
capoeira, have contributed so much of their rich culture to modern-day Brazil. Without this important racial group Brazil would be another place, it
would be a different experience, and perhaps the magic of
capoeira would have washed up onto another shore…

1 Mestre Acordeon quoting- Ferreira, Augusto,
“História da Capoeira” in
Jornal da Capoeira, no’s 1, 2, 3. São
Paulo: Editora Cordão de Ouro. Ano 1, pp. 6

2 Capoeira, Nestor. The Little Capoeira Book.
Berkeley California: North Atlantic Books, 1995.

3 This discrimination still continues in the nation of Brazil today.

4 Berimbau has no English translation. The
berimbau and other variations of the instrument, can be found in other
countries today such as: Africa, Caribbean Islands such as Cuba, and the Island of Guam.

5 Although Bimba officially registered his
capoeira regional, he did not do it entirely on his own. Bimba had a lack of resources and was helped by young university students to obtain them, and to write about
capoeira itself.

6 This cord system mimics those of Asian martial arts, for example a black belt in karate, etc. The colors of the
cordãos represent the various levels of the
Capoeiristas and correspond with colors of the Brazilian flag- green, blue, yellow,
and white. A corda is made from various strands of wool braided together, about 10 feet in length, and is worn through the
belt loops.

When invented, the cord system was not only intended for physically and technically met levels of
capoeira by its students, it was also rewarded for the fundamentals and understanding of the music, culture, history, and ritual as well. Originally
speaking, this cord system was intended to be uniform for all
capoeira groups and Capoeiristas. But nowadays every
capoeira group has its own system, and distributions of colors for various levels always vary. It is during a
batizado (baptism) that these cordãos
are given out, some groups having a batizado
every six months, some only once per year etc.

Jihan Abdalla studies photojournalism and language in an independent program sponsored by Long Island
University. This study abroad program focuses on cultural awareness and understanding, global knowledge, and social change. She
has spent over a year and a half in Latin America and is passionate for
capoeira. She will eventually settle down in
California one day, but for now please send comments to: 

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