Written by Lorenzo Aldé
Source: Revista de Historia
Translation into English by Shayna McHugh
Capoeira is declared a cultural inheritance of Brazil. In various ways, the art walks together with our country.
Fight or game? Dance or sport? Festival, religion, lifestyle. Race and mixing. Roots and globalization. You can choose any point of view; there is an art that is capable of fitting in the most diverse realms. And its identity is so Brazilian that this art transforms itself in accordance with the changes of our chameleon-like country.
On July 15, a counsel from IPHAN meets in Salvador in order to confirm something that already seems to be an established fact: capoeira is a national inheritance. Even an international one, since it is present in over 150 countries, with Brazilian teachers, songs in Portuguese, berimbaus, pandeiros, etc.
Just like samba (which received the same honor this year), capoeira is not even close to being threatened with extinction. It is not lacking fame, and it is no longer persecuted as it was for many years. It shows great vitality in its adaptation to the modern world, without losing its original roots. So what is the use of this title that the art is now receiving?
First of all, in order for any cultural inheritance to be registered, it is necessary to carry out an extensive research project both in the literature and in the field. Between 2006 and 2007, researchers from Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife performed a complete map of all the previous studies, films, and books about capoeira and its history. The final product, which is officially called an “inventory,” can help to undo certain myths and to spread incredible and little-known contributions of capoeira to Brazil’s national culture.
The myth of capoeira’s origin that remains preserved in the public memory is the one that associates capoeira’s practice with the rural environment. It goes like this: in the slave-quarters, the slaves expressed their resistance to captivity by training martial arts inherited from their African ancestors, but disguised them with dance and music in order to avoid raising the suspicions of the slave owners. But there is no documentation that corroborates this theory. “There is no record of capoeira in Palmares, for example. It had a much greater presence in the port cities than in the quilombos,” explains Maurício Barros de Castro, Doctor of Social History from the University of Sao Paulo and an assistant to the research project.
Instead, the art was urban, existing on the margins of society. The oldest written record of capoeira comes from Rio de Janeiro in 1789. It is a document about the freeing of a slave named Adam, who had been imprisoned for practicing “capoeiragem.” In the following century, the capoeira player was a well-known character in the port cities. In these places, the streets contained an intense commercial environment, where the so-called “slaves for profit” worked intermittent jobs. In this environment, they begin to gather in groups, fight over territories, spark fights and chaos, and appear frequently in police reports. The capoeira player is the father of the malandro.
It’s interesting that the term “capoeira” appears in no documents from Salvador during almost the entire 19th century. Similar things were happening as in Rio and Recife, but in the press and in the police records, there appear only synonyms for these types of people (“tough guys,” “troublemakers,” “straight razor fighters”) and their movements (“rabo de arraia,” “cabeçada,” “rasteira,” “pontapé”). Could it be that the term “capoeira” arrived later in Bahia? Maurício Barros de Castro doesn’t go as far as this conclusion, preferring instead to encourage further research: “Despite the work of researchers such as Antônio Liberac and Fred Abreu, 19th-century Bahia still must be further studied – in contrast to Rio, which is already well-researched,” he says.
In Recife, the research project was received with particular enthusiasm for the same reason – this is one of the less-documented areas. Known as the land offrevo, Recife was also a main capoeira center until the intense police repression caused it to flee the scene, disguising itself in other cultural arts. The very step offrevo was inspired by the playfulness of the capoeiristas during the carnaval, their straight razors in their fists, among turns and spins.
In Rio, the dance of the mestre-sala and the porta-bandeira (Note: two characters featured in samba processions) has a similar origin. Malandragem,capoeira, and samba always went together, sharing the ginga that has blessed another major art in Brazil: soccer. The sport was introduced in the country in 1894 through the Englishman Charles Miller, just four years after the institution of the Penal Code that made capoeira a crime and began the heavy official persecution. Soccer soon became popular and inherited the ginga that God gave us. The word ginga comes from Nzinga, the name of the legendary warrior queen of Angola. In addition to inventing what would one day be called “soccer-art,” the players also incorporated some obvious customs from capoeira, such as blessing oneself before entering the roda (or the soccer field) as well as the adoption of nicknames for the players (a strategy that the capoeiristas used to avoid judicial process). This is pure speculation, but it is yet another area for study.
There are various other great stories that are just waiting for a deeper investigation. How can we explain, for example, the fact that Debret, the official painter of the court in the capital city, never depicted those common scenes? There are only three artistic representations of capoeira from that era – one from Augustus Earle and two from Rugendas (and in one of these, the players appear with closed fists)? Also, little is known about how this “marginal” art captured the attention of intellectuals, officials, and well-educated people – the Baron of Rio Branco played capoeira when he was young. There is also the systematic exile of capoeiristas to the island of Fernando de Noronha as soon as the 1890 Penal Code went into effect.
It no longer seems an exaggeration to state that capoeira permeated the formation of our urban culture. Capoeiristas played a key role in Brazil’s most significant conflict – the War of Paraguay (1864-1870), in which capoeiristas enlisted (and were forcibly recruited). In the political sphere, capoeira players created the Black Guard (1888) in defense of the monarchy and of Abolition. In Rio, Recife, and Salvador, capoeiristas served as bodyguards for politicians, varying between defending the republicans and the conservatives. In exchange, the authorities turned a blind eye to their street game-fight.
Capoeira’s more recent history in the second half of the 20th century can be told in a good part by living witnesses, and this was what the research project produced. Interviews with seventeen experienced mestres give detailed explanations of the various paths that the art’s history took after the 1930s, when Getulio Vargas proclaimed capoeira “the only genuinely national sport” and shook the hand of Mestre Bimba (1900-1974), the Bahian responsible for the creation and spread of the Regional style, which draws from eastern martial arts. A modernized version of capoeira, it won over Brazil and the world. At the same time, the art spreads in various styles (which even causes controversy among the practitioners) and does not abandon the elements of improvisation and of the street, flirting with candomblé and the regional cuisine. Each interview reveals a piece of an apparently infinite universe, reflecting the definition of the great Mestre Pastinha (1889-1981), defender of the Angola branch of capoeira, which is supposedly the purest: “Capoeira is everything the mouth eats.”
“I just wanted to be tough. I heard that there was a dance in which you could hit the other person without getting hit. So I said: I want to learn! Then when I saw capoeira, I said: that is good,” remembers João Pequeno de Pastinha, at 90 years old (75 of which have been in capoeira). He was a charcoal-seller, a tram driver, a stonemason’s assistant, a construction superintendent, a cattle-driver, “and other things that I don’t even remember,” but from roda to roda (“on the beaches, in backyards, in public squares and festivals”), life took him further. “Capoeira made me a doctor,” says the proud mestre – a Doctor Honoris Causa by the Federal University of Bahia.
Capoeira is received well in various social environments. “The director of the Pestalozzi Society asked me if I would like to give class to mentally handicapped children, because it had made them laugh. With capoeira, the kids opened their arms, sang and laughed. And all the psychological therapy hadn’t been able to do what capoeira did – liberate them and make them laugh. Even getting them to watch was a victory, because these children don’t look directly at people. I would tell them to look at me in order to ginga. So capoeira, in its own disorganized way, broadened their horizons,” remarks Mestre Vilmar from Rio de Janeiro.
In the late 1950s, he was a student of Artur Emídio, one of the precursors of capoeira’s internationalization. “Artur and Djalma Bandeira were hired by a guy named Carlos Machado, who was the king of the Rio nightlife; he would organize shows that would perform throughout the world. They went to extremely famous theaters in Lisbon, Paris, Rome, and the United States in 1958 and 1959. ‘Skindô’ is an internationally known show.” These type of performances for tourists provides a source of income for the mestres, who always found it very tough to make a living from their art.
The progressive professionalization of the “sport” – which in the 1970s would become linked to the Brazilian Fighting Federation, also adding colored cords to mark levels like in karate – did not cause the more traditional capoeira to disappear. “On Sunday, they would be dressed in their best – suit, collared shirt, tie, fancy shoes – and play capoeira in a little alcove. Capoeira players respected each other and they didn’t need to dirty each others’ Sunday clothes, which were clothes for attending mass. You didn’t need to dirty the other guy’s face with your foot or put your foot on his clothing in order to prove that you had the ability to kick him or throw him to the ground. It was a playful thing. It was the way that they expressed themselves; it was a ritual. Instead of going to the Catholic church, they would go to play capoeira. They would take a hit, spit, and go at it again,” describes Mestre José Carlos, 36 years of capoeira, a student of Mestre Moraes, the Bahian responsible for the resurgence of capoeira angola in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s.
In the peripheral neighborhoods, malandragem still had a romantic aura, a unique set of ethics. As Nestor Capoeira, 62 years old and a student of the malandroMestre Leopoldina, describes: “In those days, the drug trade was very light. This was before the craziness of the heavy trafficking. The leader of the drug ring… was usually a malandro around 45 or 50 years old who got along well with the community. He was brave, but also a malandro. …The malandro was a philosopher. Of course he needed to make a living, and he could even give a few blows. But generally he didn’t even need to. One time I was in Mangueira, in a bar with a super-malandro, whose name I didn’t even remember. He was a little on the older side, around 50. A girl taking a survey showed up and asked him, ‘What do you do for a living?’ He said ‘Do for a living? What do you mean?’ ‘Everyone needs to make money to survive,’ she said. He replied, ‘My dear, I live off my reputation.’”
Anyone who has witnessed capoeira’s transformation during the last few decades is struck by the game’s ability to mix with whatever is around it. At times, it becomes almost unrecognizable, such as when it abandons even the berimbau. In the 1980s, “it was chaos, there was capoeira everywhere. In the high-class gyms, the rodas didn’t have live music, it was electronic,” comments Nestor. Hybrid forms keep cropping up, such as “capoboxing,” “capojitsu,” “capoeira-fu,” and “hydro-capoeira.” Some innovations are absorbed without any problem: “I began to see guys doing flips around 1990… It’s logical that Olympic gymnastics has influenced capoeira. And the straight, precise style of Senzala’s movements reflects the influence of karate. But I think it’s great to fit one of those crazy flips inside the game,” he concludes.
How can we “register” and “safeguard” an inheritance that is expressed in such diverse forms? The IPHAN team met with capoeiristas from the three states in order to understand their environment and listen to their requests. The team decided to emphasize two elements without which capoeira does not exist: the roda and the mestres.
“The roda is the place where capoeira has continuity. It brings together all the symbolic, ritualistic, historical, musical, and social aspects, and is linked with candomblé, cuisine, and philosophy. The roda is also the informal space for learning. It is the mestre who organizes the roda and who passes on the knowledge,” summarizes Maurício Barros de Castro.
The project even proposes an environmental policy for preserving the biriba tree (Eschweitera ovata) that is typical of the Bahian Atlantic Rainforest and is threatened with extinction. This is the wood traditionally used to make the berimbau. Alternative species, such as pau d’arco, açoita-cavalo, pitomba anditaúba preta, are also endangered.
The mestres, who are the greatest heirs and teachers of the art, do not always harvest the fruits of capoeira’s globalization or commercial success. In the 1970s, Mestre Bimba died, forgotten, in Goiás. In the 1980s, Mestre Pastinha died blind and poor in Salvador. “Just before his death, he was asked if capoeira was in a bad state. He said no: capoeira was in the universities and had spread to various countries… what was in a bad state was him, the mestre,” says the researcher.
The mestres of today are not in a much better situation. “Despite having 60-80 students, I don’t see how I can continue giving classes unless someone pays for it. I need help from a federal, state, or local level. I’m afraid that my students will take a bad turn and I’ll pay for it,” laments Mestre Gajé of Salvador.
It’s worth asking the question: what defines a mestre? In a word, one of them: “There are people who have been in capoeira for 20 or 30 years and are extremely violent. They have not learned the point of capoeira. They have lived capoeira, capoeira has passed through them, but he has not entered into capoeira, understand? Because it is not just knowing how to do a movement; you have to know how to teach the basics, how to pass on the philosophy, how to pass on what it is to be a capoeira mestre. There’s no point in someone entering an academy, showing that he is good, and then doing stupid things outside,” says Mestre Coca-Cola, from Olinda.
Guaranteeing these teachers the minimum conditions to be able to continue their art is difficult considering the legal obstacles. Law number 9.696/98 is still in effect, which requires any sporting activity to be regulated by the Physical Education Council. This legislation was quite a blow to the traditional mestres, whose education comes from the school of life. They need a college degree in order to teach “officially.” The law does not impede their teaching in their own schools (fortunately, it did not “catch” on this point), but it does make any program for including capoeira in official projects extremely difficult. For example, capoeira teachers can only give classes in schools and universities if they have a degree. The proposed law (number 1371/07) that would overturn these restrictions has not yet been voted on, but in the meantime it wouldn’t hurt for the Ministry of Education to create mechanisms for the recognition of the great mestres’ wisdom, which would allow them to teach without obstacles. This is a recommendation for “immediate implementation.”
The typical informality of capoeiristas’ professions (dock workers, street vendors, day laborers) brings further problems that the Safeguarding Plan wants to see solved. IPHAN defends the right of mestres to a special retirement plan and proposes a “World Capoeira Incentive Program” – since obtaining passports and visas is not always an easy task for these ambassadors of Brazilian culture.
“Capoeira is such a wonderful culture, with such notable greatness, that I feel small in the face of such things. Although many consider me a mestre of capoeira, I like to say that I prefer to be recognized as one of the zealots for this culture,” remarks Mestre Russo, from Duque de Caxias (RJ)
Whether recognized or not, these zealots will continue to keep this Brazilian art alive, as they always have. To define them as a cultural patrimony says less about them specifically, and more about Brazil’s capacity for recognizing what is really important. Whoever is ready to take on this national identity, ask a blessing and enter the roda.