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Capoeira is a martial art of African origins that was once used by enslaved Africans in Brazil as a form of physical and social resistance. Despite years of persecution, the art has recently experienced a boom in popularity and spread throughout the world. This graceful art is practiced to music and combines a dynamic assortment of head butts, dodging movements, foot sweeps, and dynamic kicks. The origin of the word capoeira is uncertain, although a number of unproven etymological hypotheses link it to the Portuguese term capoeira for "basket" used to carry chickens, a Central African term for the fighting style of chickens, or Native American terms for a secondary-growth brushland. This unique martial art tradition itself, however, can be traced back to Central Africa, particularly the highland and Cabinda regions of Angola.

In the Angolan highlands the art evolved under the name engolo before the tenth century as part of a wider militarization of culture by pastoral peoples seeking to effectively protect their herds from cattle raids and engage in lucrative raids of their own in times of famine. The three major techniques of the art were head butts in imitation of the fighting style of their prized cattle, acrobatic dodging ability, and sweeps and kicks. The latter were unique from other martial arts in that they were often executed from an inverted position in imitation of ancestors who were believed to live in an inverted state from our own. These skills were developed during practice rituals in which adepts would form a circle and enliven the exercise with percussion and song. Two adepts would enter the circle and practice trading attacks, evasions, and counterattacks in a graceful exchange. This ritual practice took place during rites of passage, healing rituals, and community festivals. It was also understood as a form of military training as it developed in young warriors the crucial ability to defend themselves with agility rather than shields, which were not utilized in the Angolan highlands.

More enslaved Africans were taken from Central Africa than any other region in Africa. Central African warriors took their martial art tradition everywhere they settled in the Americas. In North America the Angolan martial art of head butting and kicking became known as knocking (head butting) and kicking, which became the primary combat style of enslaved peoples in North America. It continued to play a role in covert religious rituals, community dances, initiation societies, and self-defense. Similarly the Central African martial art tradition was extended to Martinique, where it became known as danmyé and was also associated with secret societies during slavery.


Unique to the island of Martinique is the martial art danmyé. Mainly a competitive sport for men, it contains a combination of music, dancing, martial arts, and wrestling. Invented by the slaves of Senegal, danmyé was primarily inspired by the initiation ceremony that symbolized the passing from adolescence to adulthood and consisted of a confrontation that took the form of fight. From their fascination with this ritual, an innovative, rare combination of art and sport was born. The reemergence of this martial art occurred during the 1960s when folk ballets regained importance and popularity. Le Ballet Martiniquias, in particular, with its choreographic contests fueled a danmyé resurgence.

Music is an essential component to danmyé as drummers follow the contestants closely, timing their drumrolls and crescendos to the fighters' blows. The wrestler has to hit and move in harmony with the drum rhythm as well. If this condition is not respected, the fight is stopped and the guilty wrestler is disqualified. While danmyé drumming has, for the most part, a specific basic rhythm pattern, there is room for very frequent and elaborate improvisations. Singing, too, sometimes provokes the wrestler. Lyrical phrasing often centers around the wrestlers themselves and can be provocative, critical, or used to stimulate the wrestler into performing at a higher level.

During the rise of the drum the opponent tries to do damage to his opponent, or outdo the other in terms of strength or agility. Danmyé, for the most part, is a nonviolent activity. The strokes must be restrained and given without intending to hit. In fact, they must be shown rather than given unless it is necessary to drive an opponent back to refuse a hand-to-hand fight. Victory assessment is dependent on two things, harmony with the sound and decisive blows that might have lead to a knockout had they really been carried out.

The Central African martial art tradition also appeared in Brazil under the name of capoeiragem in the late eighteenth century. Capoeiragem appears to have been primarily located in such major urban centers as Salvador and particularly Rio de Janeiro, which was the epicenter of slavery and African culture in the late eighteenth century. The art was most associated with enslaved Africans who worked de ganho, as wage laborers who paid their masters much of their earnings but otherwise lived relatively autonomous lives. The martial art continued to be practiced in a number of contexts, including entertainment at dances (batuques), popular festivals, as well as bloody conflicts. However, by the early nineteenth century the primary context for the art was urban initiation societies called maltas. These societies were dedicated to the protection of the enslaved population of a given parish and often held ceremonies in the bell towers of the church. The maltas taught the martial art to youth, who would continue to advance in the art as they moved up the various levels of initiation in the society. A fully initiated member, called a capoeira, was expected to fight for the malta in administering punishments to those who failed

to respect their code or in clashes with other maltas or police. In the teeming streets of Rio de Janeiro, capoeiras were set apart by their characteristic clothes, style of walk, and often their drums, which were used to accompany the ritual practice of the art, the jogo de capoeira. Their visibility and the threat they posed to the slave system made them constant targets for police repression, which the capoeiras resisted in ongoing bloody battles with the police. Although the art was highly persecuted, it continued to spread through the urban African population in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, with the gradual elimination of the Atlantic slave trade, the African-born population dwindled, and the maltas began initiating Brazilian-born blacks and pardos (people of mixed heritage). As the art spread from enslaved Africans to other Brazilians, it also developed a sort of symbiosis with various Brazilian police and military institutions. Capoeiras were forcibly conscripted or voluntarily joined the ranks of these organizations, which afforded them some protection from persecution. During the War of Paraguay beginning in 1865, many of the highest-ranking capoeiras were sent off as soldiers to the front lines. In their absence a large number of European immigrants filled the reduced ranks of the maltas as a means of survival on the harsh streets of Rio de Janeiro. At the war's end in 1870, however, the conscripted capoeiras returned as conquering heroes widely acknowledged for their bravery in the war. They reestablished control over the maltas and streets of Rio and, despite the continued prohibition against capoeiragem, many of these malta chiefs became immersed in Rio's political system. The maltas were loosely organized into two rival umbrella organizations, the Nagoas and Guayamus, each allied with different political parties. The maltas received patronage and political protection from elites in exchange for violently breaking up the political rallies of their opponents and stuffing ballot boxes during elections. Although often in conflict with one another, capoeiras tended to unify against the Republican Party, who were seen by many as proslavery.

The twentieth century was marked by alterations in the practice of this martial art. Throughout Brazilian urban centers the maltas were effectively disbanded, although capoeiragem continued to be perpetuated by independent experts called bambas or valentões. A number of musical transformations also took place in the region of Salvador, Bahia. Sometime around the first decade, the drum, formerly the main instrument used to accompany the jogo de capoeira, was replaced by a musical bow of Central African provenance. This musical bow, originally called urucungo in Brazil but later popularized as berimbau, was a more mobile instrument and doubled as a weapon. In the 1930s and 1940s new instruments were sporadically joined to the growing ad hoc orchestra, often including the tambourine (pandeiro), double cow bell (agogo), wooden scrapers (reco-reco), or a new drum (atabaque).

In Rio a capoeiragem expert, Mestre Macaco (Ciríaco Francisco da Silva), defeated a visiting jujitsu expert in a public challenge match in 1908. The national pride in his victory was an important watershed in the movement to end the ban on the art. A number of intellectuals and adepts of the art in Rio began publishing literature calling for the adoption of the art as a national sport. Despite this early drive for legitimacy in Rio, the successful transformation of the martial art into a national sport took place in Salvador, Bahia, in the 1930s and 1940s. This occurred in a larger political context in which a populist policy led by President Getúlio Vargas attempted to create a Brazilian identity by transforming African Brazilian cultural forms such as candomble, samba, umbanda, and capoeiragem into national symbols. In 1927 Mestre Bimba (Manuel dos Reis Machado) catalyzed this transformation by opening the first formal academy dedicated to promoting his new variant of capoeiragem termed a luta regional Baiana, or more popularly capoeira regional. The efforts of Mestre Bimba and the policies of Vargas together led to a legalization of a controlled capoeira separate from the art's earlier associations with Africa, violence, and the underclass. In 1935 Mestre Pastinha (Vicente Ferreira Pastinha) followed suit by opening the first academy for the purportedly unaltered style of the art, called capoeira Angola. Both masters promoted the art under the term capoeira ("regional" or Angola) to distinguish their styles and possibly to separate the art from the violence associated with the term capoeiragem. By teaching the art in structured school settings, these two masters proliferated their formalized teachings of the art and eclipsed the lineages of other bambas.

Capoeira regional in particular was adopted by the police and promoted by sporting federations. Students of Mestre Bimba spread this new variant throughout Brazil and more recently the world. Although not nearly as widespread as capoeira regional, capoeira Angola has also begun to spread worldwide during the last two decades. Capoeira is now recognized as a Brazilian national sport and is one of the fastest growing martial arts of the twenty-first century.

See also Candomblé; Samba


Almeida, Bira. Capoeira, a Brazilian Art Form: History, Philosophy, and Practice. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 1986.

Dawson, C. Daniel. "Capoeira: An Exercise of the Soul." Icarus 13 (1994): 1328.

Desch-Obi, T. J. "Combat and the Crossing of the Kalunga." In Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora, edited by Linda Heywood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Dossar, Kenneth. "Dancing Between Two Worlds: An Aesthetic Analysis of Capoeira Angola." Ph.D. diss., Temple University, Philadelphia, 1994.

Thompson, Robert Farris, and C. Daniel Dawson. Dancing Between Two Worlds: Kongo-Angola Culture and the Americas. New York: Caribbean Cultural Center, 1991.

t. j. desch-obi (2005)