Onderstaande tekst werd integraal gekopieerd uit het artikel “Capoeira: From Slave Combat Game to Global Martial Art” van Matthias Röhrig Assunção.


Capoeira is a martial art that developed from combat games enslaved Africans brought to Brazil. It is systematically documented since the beginning of the 19th century in Rio de Janeiro and later in other port cities. During the 19th century capoeira was increasingly practiced by the poor free people, black and of mixed ancestry, and also by white immigrants. Capoeira gangs controlled their territories against intruders and allied with political parties until the Republican purge of 1890. Capoeira survived best in Bahia, where it remained more associated with other forms of Afro-Brazilian culture and acquired many of its features still extant in present-day capoeira. From the 1930s onward, capoeira masters such as Bimba and Pastinha modernized capoeira, leading to the emergence of the Regional and Angola styles. Bahian capoeiristas migrated to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in search of better opportunities during the 1950–1970s. There they and their students developed what later became known as “Contemporary capoeira” (Capoeira Contemporânea) which is the most practiced style today. Capoeira was and is practiced in various ways: as a friendly game or as a fight, as a combat sport, or as an Afro-Brazilian cultural activity. Since the 1980s, capoeira has undergone a process of globalization and is now practiced in many countries around the world. Capoeira is the only martial art of the African Diaspora that is known and practiced worldwide.

Slave Capoeira

Capoeira was first documented among enslaved Africans and Creoles in the port cities of late colonial Brazil. Although there is one isolated mention in a court trial in 1789, the first systematic references to a combat game called capoeira started to appear in 1810 in Rio de Janeiro. Contrary to the widespread myth among today’s practitioners that capoeira was a fight disguised as a dance, the very first reports by the newly created, professional Royal Police Guard left no doubt that capoeira was a dangerous activity and needed to be repressed. At this time Rio de Janeiro had just become the capital of the Portuguese empire, due to the migration of D. João VI, the Portuguese prince-regent, and his court, who escaped Napoleon’s troops occupying Lisbon. The city underwent significant change as a consequence of this transfer of the metropolis and at the same time also grew due to the economic expansion in the surrounding region based initially on sugar and later on coffee plantations. The growth of coffee plantations fueled a massive increase in the transatlantic slave trade. During the first half of the 19th century, more than a million enslaved Africans were disembarked on the shores of Rio de Janeiro province, first at the Valongo site next to the city center and, after 1831, when the trade was officially banned, at more discrete locations along the coast. Although most slaves were sold to plantations in the Paraíba valley, an important number did remain in the city. The proportion of slaves in relation to the total population rose from 34 percent in 1799 to 46 percent in 1821, and in 1849 almost 80,000 slaves lived in the city. Free black and people of color represented at least another 20 percent, so it is no wonder many travelers likened Rio de Janeiro to an African city.

Capoeira developed in this period when thousands of enslaved Africans populated the streets of Rio de Janeiro. In contrast to plantation slaves, many urban slaves did not work under the permanent surveillance of an overseer. They were street vendors, or their owner made them rent out their labor as porters. These slaves “for hire” enjoyed thus a relative autonomy of movement, which allowed capoeira to develop. Maintaining law and order, in particular controlling the masses of enslaved urban workers, understandably became an obsession of the white elites, especially in the decades after the Haitian Revolution. The Police Intendant was granted authority to punish minor offenses on the spot, through immediate “correction,” combined with imprisonment. In 1817 the Intendant announced that slaves found with knives were to be punished with 300 lashes of the whip and three months of forced labor and that “the same penalty will apply to all those who roam around the city, whistling and with sticks, committing disorder most of the times with no aim, and which are well known by the name of capoeiras, even if they do not provoke any injuries or death or any other crime.

This announcement reflects the standard attitude of legislators and police chiefs throughout the empire at the time: capoeira was to be repressed by all means, even if its practitioners had not committed any crime according to Western legal traditions—and for that reason capoeira was not formally included in the first Brazilian Criminal Code (1831). In the years 1810–1820, capoeira accounted for 438 arrests in Rio de Janeiro, or 9 percent of the total, second only to escapes of slaves.4 These police records also provide us with an idea of the background of the arrested capoeiras (the term used at the time). Ninety-one percent of those arrested were enslaved, 77 percent of the same total were Africans, and just 10 percent were creoles (the rest were of unspecified origins). In other words, capoeira then was, above all, a practice of enslaved Africans. This raises the question of what combat traditions these men brought with them and how pre-existing forms and techniques eventually did or did not combine. In that respect, it is worth detailing the more specific African origins. Based on early police records, Carlos Eugênio Soares has calculated that 84 percent of the Africans came from west-central Africa (Kongo and Angola) and the rest from Mozambique and west Africa, which more or less reflects the overall proportions of these groups in Rio de Janeiro.5 Within the west-central Africans, arrested capoeiras came often from the Kongo region but also from northern Angola and southern Angola (Benguela), making it again difficult to trace any particular region or ethnicity as responsible for the core input of what became capoeira. Soares concludes that it seems the art “was the fruit of a combination of dispersed African traditions and creole cultural ‘inventions.” It therefore seems that participation in capoeira reflected to a large extent the composition of the enslaved population. Hence when the numbers of Benguelas increased in the city in the 1840s, they became the most numerous group among the arrested capoeiras. 

Unfortunately, police sources rarely provided detailed descriptions of capoeira practice beyond the explicit mention that individuals were arrested for “playing capoeira.” This is a crucial detail, insofar as some teachers and writers have suggested the practice 

acquired a playful character only at a later stage. A game—and that is also clear from police records—could easily become a brawl, resulting in injuries such as broken legs. Since slaves arrested for capoeira often carried musical instruments with them—drums, violas, tambourines, and bells—one can safely assume that they used them for the game. Contemporary engravings seem to confirm that capoeira was a leisure activity, already referred to as a game, often accompanied by musical instruments and carried out in a circle surrounded by participants and bystanders. The iconic engraving based on a painting by Johann Moritz Rugendas (1835), the first explicit representation of “Playing Capoëra or war dance,” shows it accompanied by a drum. The two men facing each other seem to perform a basic step quite close to what is known today as the ginga, or basic movement from which all attacks and defenses originate.

Police sources also mention frequently head butts (cabeçadas), and Earle’s watercolor “Negros fighting, Brazil”(1820– 1824) confirms that kicks were used. Otherwise there is very little information on specific corporal techniques. Since capoeira also appears occasionally in 19th- century records of other Brazilian port cities such as Recife, Salvador, and São Luís, it is better to conceive of “slave capoeira” as a generic term ascribed to quite different practices in those various places, depending on the specific African input and local circumstances. 

Capoeira and Gangs in Imperial Brazil 

The demographic changes that affected Rio de Janeiro after 1850—the slow decrease of the proportion of slaves and Africans and growing importance of a population of mixed ancestry and of European, mainly Portuguese, immigrants—also had an impact on the capoeira universe. The proportion of creole slaves but also that of free practitioners grew substantially. By 1881, the free constituted 60 percent of those arrested for capoeira in Rio, and in 1885 whites represented at least 22 percent of arrests. These developments were accompanied by changes in social context and capoeira’s cultural meaning. Capoeira expanded into all lower classes—sailors, port workers, artisans, and vagrants but also soldiers and policemen. This was facilitated not only by enslaved and free, blacks, browns (pardos), and poor whites working increasingly side by side but also by those living in the same squalid, overcrowded tenements (cortiços) and fighting for the same women of color, as rendered in Azevedo’s famous novel, where the mulatto capoeira Firmo confronts the white Portuguese stick fighter Jerônimo because of the stereotypical mulata, Rita 

Capoeira practice changed accordingly. The enslaved Africans and their descendants had been relegated since colonial times to the very bottom of the official social hierarchy, but even that did not prevent them from inserting themselves into urban social life. Capoeiras hence participated not only in African-inspired street celebrations (batuques) but also joined processions for patron saints and even military parades. They did so by imposing their presence, for example ringing the church bells or exhibiting their skills at the head of processions or parades. This often ended in confusion, with the capoeiras running and yelling “Shut down” to close an event, followed by street battles with the police or among themselves. As Mello Morais wrote, the results were “broken heads, shattered light posts, stabbing and deaths.

Since the times of “slave capoeira,” practitioners assembled in groups to practice, relax, or fight—not only against the police but also among themselves, for instance over access to fountains on Carioca Square.9 Early records do not establish exactly how organized these groups were or if all of their members really practiced capoeira. Yet since at least the 1850s capoeira in Rio was dominated by the infamous maltas, who divided the city’s territory among themselves. A malta was comprised of between half a dozen and a hundred individuals, from adolescent boys to mature adults. They practiced and instructed younger adherents on hills or on the beaches. Each gang established around a parish church, its square, and the surrounding neighborhood, which also became the symbol of their identity. Hence the malta that assembled in the proximity of the Saint Joseph parish church was called the “Carpenters,” the name of the “Spear” gang was an allusion to Saint George’s lance in the church of São Gonçalo Garcia e São Jorge with his statue, and the malta of Santa Rita parish church was called “Three Bunches” because of the grapes that saint was often pictured with. If African secret societies may have initially contributed to malta formation (for which we still have no evidence), later developments therefore show the importance of popular Catholicism in gang culture. The influence of military organization and hierarchy is also apparent and can be explained by the fact that a number of capoeiras were or had been in the army or were enrolled in militias such as the National Guard. Gang members identified through attire, ribbons, colors, and, increasingly, political affiliation. The two main political parties of the Brazilian empire (conservatives and liberals), recognizing the potential of capoeira gangs, started to hire their services during election times to intimidate voters and make sure they voted for the right party. This contributed to the emergence of two overarching federations of maltas, the Nagoas and the Guaiamus. The Nagoas were associated with the conservatives, while the Guaiamus supported the liberals. Nagoas used hats with a lowered brim and their color was white, while the Guaiamus used hats with a lifted brim and their color was red. Soares has argued that the Nagoas were “identified with a slave and African tradition of capoeira,” whereas the Guaiamus “should be linked to a native and mestizo root.” While patterns of residence and gang membership reveal that indeed some gangs had higher proportions of Africans than others, these are at best broad trends, as all maltas in the 1880s consisted of African and Creole blacks, pardos, and white men. It is precisely capoeira’s capacity to recruit beyond its original constituency that allowed the art to survive and expand. 

The alliance between Nagoas and the conservatives on one side and Guaiamus and the liberals on the other meant that repression of capoeiras by authorities was usually partial (restricted to the gangs affiliated with the party in opposition) and therefore ineffective. The abolition of slavery, in May 1888, even though it raised support for the royal family among the ex-slaves, let to the overthrow, in November 1889, of the empire, no longer endorsed by the majority of planters. Republican planters and the military, influenced by positivism, increasingly viewed the empire as a symbol of archaism and an obstacle to progress, and even more so when defended by a “Black Guard” of ex-slaves and capoeiras. Capoeira and more generally any form of Afro-Brazilian culture was seen as barbarism, which the Republic needed to extirpate. The first republican police chief of Rio de Janeiro nominated by the provisional government, no longer bound by imperial party-political allegiances, organized a systematic clampdown against capoeiras in the city. In December 1889 hundreds of capoeiras were detained at home according to lists drawn up by the police. Without trial or right to defense, at least 162 of them were deported to the distant Atlantic island Fernando de Noronha.

The Republican Criminal Code, issued by the Provisional Government in 1890, sought to maintain the harsh repression against the practice. The Code qualified capoeira as a crime in its chapter dedicated to vagrants and capoeiras. Articles 402–404 threatened two to six months of jail for anyone found doing “exercises of physical agility and dexterity, known by the denomination capoeiragem, in the streets and public squares; to run amok, provoking disorder and mayhem, and threatening, frightening or injuring specific or unspecified individuals.” Belonging to a gang was considered an aggravating circumstance, and gang leaders were to receive twice the ordinary penalty. 

Capoeira in the First Republic 

The Republican purge put an end to the hitherto powerful maltas, and capoeira disappeared from the streets of Rio de Janeiro. It is not entirely clear how much of it survived in more discrete locations, such as backyards and shantytowns. No doubt some capoeira skills went into the pernada, also known as samba duro, where one man danced to the rhythm of the emerging samba while another tried to make him fall by swiping his feet from the side (banda) or unbalancing him using his knees. 

Capoeira survived better in other surroundings, in particular in Bahia around the Bay of All Saints and in its capital and main port, Salvador but also in the south of the state, making Bahian capoeira less exclusively urban. Although there is mention of some gangs in the city of Salvador during the empire, they never became as powerful as the Cariocan maltas. Unfortunately this also means there is very little information on 19th-century capoeira here. The absence of significant European migration and the economic decline of Bahia resulted in capoeira remaining more closely associated with other Afro-Bahian forms such as samba-de-roda and candomblé. Black or pardo workers in the port area played it to relax while waiting for work in between tides.

On Sundays, informal capoeira circles (rodas) also took place in poor neighborhoods. This again was a purely leisure activity, but here participants played in Sunday attire instead of working clothes, in front of families, and more musical instruments and people to play them were available. Since this was very different from former gang mayhem in Rio, it did not provoke the same kind of repression. Republican legislators were more worried about evidence of gang activity rather than mere “exercises of physical dexterity.” 

The annual cycle of celebrations of port gangways and patron saints provided a third important social context for Bahian capoeira rodas. Each gangway along the quayside in the harbor organized its own commemoration, usually taking place between August and November, aggregating port workers, sailors, boat owners, and tradesmen. It was sponsored by a wealthier merchant house and entailed a pilgrimage to one of the churches on the waterfront. Playing capoeira intermingled with other Afro-Bahian music and dance. The festas de largo started in November and went until carnival, in February. Almost every week some church would celebrate its patron saint, all of which were syncretized with African orixás (spiritual entities) worshipped by the various nations of candomblé. After the Catholic mass and processions, celebrations continued on the square next to the parish church, where capoeira, batuque, and samba-de-roda circles provided again the key performative attractions. It was here that good capoeira players could exhibit their skills to a wider audience and poorer young males could impress their peers. Yet it was also the situation where repression was the most likely. One subchief of police, Pedro Gordilho, carved himself a reputation during the 1920s for having his subordinates break up capoeira rodas, as well as invading candomblé shrines, arresting priests and confiscating instruments and cult objects. This was part of a wider campaign, particularly in the press, stigmatizing all Afro-Brazilian forms as barbarous.

It is in this ambivalent context of post-emancipation that Bahian capoeira evolved and acquired what can be considered its classical form during the first decades of the 20th century. Ethnographic accounts, newspaper reports, and oral history facilitate a more accurate and detailed picture of Bahian capoeira during the post-emancipation period. 

Capoeira took place in an imaginary circle formed by the orchestra (bateria) and the other participants or spectators. Two players kneeled down in front of each other and next to the orchestra, at the “foot” of the berimbau. They listened to a preliminary song, called “litany” (ladainha) and waited for subsequent “praise” (reza or canto de entrada), when some of the standard phrases such as “turn around the world” (volta ao mundo) from the lead singer, repeated by the chorus, indicated that the game could begin. Players crossed themselves, drew signs on the ground, and started their game. Many capoeira groups today still comply with this basic structure and ritual. The movements were less standardized than those used today in Contemporary Capoeira or the Angola style. All kicks developed from the syncopated basic step or sway (ginga) that kept players in permanent movement and always in tune to the rhythm played by the orchestra. Movements required good balance and flexibility, as well as strength, since players often equilibrated themselves on their arms or their head while executing a kick. There is some controversy regarding the instruments used in the former rodas, in particular regarding the berimbau and the drum. All sources suggest that the berimbau (musical bow) might only have been incorporated into capoeira at the beginning of the century. Furthermore, all early-20th-century sources seem to agree that no drum (atabaque) was employed but only berimbaus and tambourines (pandeiros). They were eventually complemented by some other percussion instruments, such as the chocalho (metal rattle), the reco-reco (scraper), and the agogô (metal bell). Moreover, the berimbaus were not necessarily restricted to three. Early photographs and drawings of capoeira orchestras confirm this flexibility of the number of berimbaus and tambourines. As in Rio de Janeiro, the “professional” Bahian practitioner developed an idiosyncratic way of dressing (consisting of scarf, trousers with a big hem, golden earrings, and pointed boots) and walking, derived from the ginga. In other words he represented a social type and a whole subculture. 

The game consisted of avoiding the other player’s attack through an acrobatic escape movement such as the “negation” (negativa) and riposting with a counterattack. The game became therefore a sort of dialogue, where each movement provided a reply to the other player’s previous one. Players could show off through particularly acrobatic movements but also through malice (malícia). Malice or deception—also a key concept in modern capoeira—was meant to lull the other player into a false sense of security, only to surprise him with a move he was not expecting. However, respect for the other player usually meant the attack was not carried out; it was only to show him what one could have done. This was enough to score points in front of an initiated public. A carefully executed rasteira or a soft head-butt that threw the other off balance was equally acceptable, although it raised the stake of the game. Full contact was therefore unusual and almost proscribed and, when it happened—due to inattention or provocation—could lead to retaliation and the outbreak of violence. The employment of malícia meant that the game did not just represent an athletic competition, where the youngest and strongest could show off. Experience was paramount for a skillful game, and for that reason older mestres were able to keep in control even when playing with much younger practitioners. The capoeira orchestra (bateria) played a range of rhythms (toques) during a roda. Each toque consisted of a basic rhythmic-melodic pattern and its variations. The berimbau with the deepest sound took the lead, and the others instruments followed, countermarking or varying the basic pattern. The most common toques were São Bento Grande, São Bento Pequeno, Angola, Santa Maria, Angolinha, Jogo de Dentro, and Cavalaria. Yet there was no strict consistency regarding the names and the rhythmic pattern of each toque.

Most testimonies agree that games in this period could be tough but usually did not cross the borderline into real fights. Capoeira players called each other “comrades” (camará), not opponents or fighters. Old mestres also insist that players were well aware of the different types of games, which varied according to the toque played by the orchestra. Common characterizations differentiated between high and low; inside and outside; fast and slow; and acrobatic, playful, or aggressive games. The particular toques thus provided a framework for the different modalities of play. Since boundaries between rather playful and more antagonistic games were blurred, every jogo could potentially cross the borderline and deteriorate into an open confrontation. Only the mestres in charge were able to prevent this by calling the players back to the “foot” of the berimbau to admonish them, or by changing the rhythm or the song. Hence the strategic ambiguity between game and fight resided at the very core of the art. Despite the insistence of many old mestres that in this period there was less aggression in capoeira than today and that friendship reigned between “comrades,” games occasionally did become violent. Capoeira was more than a game; it could be a lethal weapon. 

Songs were central to the capoeira game. They conjured up memories of capoeiras of the past, praised orixás and saints and asked them for protection, exhorted players, and commented on the ongoing game. Capoeiras drew from a wide repertoire of tradition during each roda performance, but they were not bound to a mere, uncreative repetition of existing songs. They rather rearranged known songs, weaving their own biography, convictions, and feelings into the lyrics and interpretation. If the refrain sung by the chorus repeated a traditional verse, the solo singer could, after chanting some of the well- known verses, fully improvise his part. Usually singers did use older, established verses but inserted others of their own creation, to compose a song that was suited for the particular context of a given performance. In that way they could acknowledge tradition while at the same time display their skills as improvisers. Thus every capoeira song performed in a roda constituted an intertextual bricolage. 

The Modernization of Capoeira 

Capoeira evolved considerably in the second part of the 20th century in part because Brazilian society went through major changes. The modernization of capoeira also resulted from its interaction with foreign martial arts, in particular from Asia. After Japan defeated Russia in 1905, the West became interested in its martial skills. The arts of the samurai (bushido) were modernized in Japan after the Meiji Restoration so that they could be taught and practiced by civilians. A number of sensei traveled to the West to exhibit their skills. In Brazil, ju-jitsu fighters challenged urban audiences to step in the ring and confront them. Some capoeiras accepted the challenge, and even if some of them occasionally won, they were often defeated. The first ju-jitsu school was registered in 1914, and others followed, eventually resulting in a specific Brazilian style of the art, the now famous BJJ. Since the beginning of the 20th century some Brazilian intellectuals have argued that capoeira needed to be redeemed from its criminal background to become a national sport. A sportsman and boxer from Rio, Anibal Burlamaqui, developed a teaching method for capoeira moves and published a manual in 1928. But his “national gymnastics” had been cleared of its Afro-Brazilian cultural roots. There was no music or ginga, and practitioners were supposed to practice in boxer attire. That was the capoeira that had survived in Rio. 

In Bahia, a capoeira master, Manoel dos Reis Machado (1900–1974)—better known as Mestre Bimba—became increasingly unsatisfied with capoeira as it was practiced at the time. According to him, it was overly playful with too much pantomime and not efficient enough for real fights. Bimba developed a new style, eliminating the most theatrical aspects of traditional vadiação (e.g., the chamadas or “calls” during which the proper game stopped while practitioners executed ritualized, dance-like steps) and incorporating a range of new kicks, inspired by Asian martial arts but also French savate and Greco- Roman wrestling. To distance his style from traditional capoeira he called it “Bahian Regional Fight,” a term later abbreviated to “Regional.” Even more importantly, he devised a teaching method for capoeira, which so far had only been taught quite unsystematically, on a one-to-one basis. For example, he developed six “sequences,” each of which consisted of a string of attacks and defenses to be practiced by two students repeatedly until they familiarized themselves with them and could execute them at high speed. Bimba moreover moved the training away from the street into a closed space, which he called, perhaps inspired by his pupils who were university students, the “academy.” 

Bimba’s didactics were probably the most important innovation, because they allowed a much more systematic teaching of capoeira. His students could graduate in only two years, and given their intense training of attacks and the focus on speed, they were able to defeat not only many traditional capoeiras but also more experienced fighters. During the 1930s and 1940s Bimba had his best students confront other fighters in the ring in prize matches with large audiences in various Brazilian cities. This helped to advertise his new style even more but also had some drawbacks. The emphasis on fighting tended to eliminate the playful and ritual aspects. The ring was hardly a propitious environment for a capoeira orchestra, and prize matches with fighters from other martial arts were increasingly hampered by arguments over the rules that should prevail, for example regarding the proper attire or the attacks that should be allowed. Therefore Bimba and most of his students eventually retreated from the ring and concentrated on consolidating their style. In contrast to earlier attempts to transform capoeira into a sport by eliminating its African roots, Bimba did maintain core Afro-Brazilian rituals of the roda, including the orchestra (based on berimbau and tambourines only), and his rhythms became another hallmark of Regional. At the same time he created, with the help of his pupils with an academic background, new rituals that contributed to attract new audiences. For instance he invented two new rites of passage, a “baptism” ceremony for new and graduation ceremonies for advanced students in his “academy.” Students, or capoeiristas as they were now called, were expected to abide by strict rules of the academy, such as, for example, abstaining from drinking alcohol. 

These ceremonies reaffirmed the separation between beginners and graduated students and contributed toward the creation of a hierarchy that had not existed before. It also enhanced the group’s identity, which was further reinforced through adoption of white uniforms with the emblem of the school—a Solomon star with an R inside, topped by a cross. No doubt Bimba’s religious background—he had been initiated in Afro-Bahian Candomblé religion at an early age and was the chief drummer at his wife’s shrine— provided the materials with which he and his group built a definitively modern style that proved to be attractive to new and wider audiences. Some of his middle-class students also helped his academy become officially recognized by the Bahian state government in 1937, an important step toward the decriminalization of the art. All of these innovations did not necessarily please other practitioners, even though Bimba invited them to join. Bimba’s success made them feel that he was betraying genuine capoeira in order to promote himself. Ever since then, the meaning of Regional has been an object of heated disputes. 

The emergence of Regional not only decisively contributed to the survival of an art form that may have disappeared otherwise, but it also provoked the development of a second, competing style, which modernized by emphasizing tradition. During the 1930s, a civil guard known as Amorzinho held a roda in Gengibirra, an area within the popular black neighborhood of Liberdade, in Salvador. His profession may have helped to avoid repression. A group of twenty-two respected mestres attended that regular roda, and they constituted the core group resisting the innovations of Regional, which some other mestres had been adopting, at least in part. Among them were many respected mestres such as Antônio Maré, Juvenal, and Noronha. According to the latter, this was the first capoeira Angola center. After the death of Amorzinho in 1942, Vicente Ferreira Pastinha took over the direction of the center and dedicated the rest of his long life to promote what became known as the Angola style. Pastinha became the main—even if not undisputed—figurehead of Bahian capoeira traditionalists for a number of reasons. He was an extraordinary skilled player, having been initiated into capoeira at the end of the 19th century by Benedito, an old Angolan freedman, and he had practiced fencing, jack- knife techniques, and Swedish gymnastics while serving in the Navy as an adolescent. Moreover, he was an accomplished musician, who not only had learned to play capoeira music but also had received training in the Navy orchestra. Although he received no formal education beyond primary school, he became the most articulate Angola master, enjoying reflection, in conversations, interviews, or writing, about capoeira. He therefore became “the first popular capoeirista to analyse capoeira as a philosophy and to worry about the ethical and educational aspects of his practice.” He also enjoyed the support of many Bahian intellectuals, such as Jorge Amado, who hailed him as preserving one of the city’s core traditions. Having himself experienced trouble with the police as a young man, Pastinha later identified the “tough guys” of the past as being responsible for the bad image of capoeira. He wanted to establish distance between these troublemakers and Capoeira Angola, and for that reason he named his center “Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola.” The ethics of sports spreading at that moment throughout the Western world seemed to provide Pastinha with a model consistent with the type of behavior he wanted to see implemented in the capoeira rodas. This meant establishing a clear differentiation between capoeira as a game, capoeira as a defense, and capoeira as a training method. Yet at the same time Pastinha, together with the other icons of the Angola style, such as M. Waldemar or Cobrinha Verde, emphasized the role of music in controlling and giving meaning to the game, the need to learn the “foundations” of capoeira, and the initiatory character of the art requiring a long process of apprenticeship. All this made capoeira Angola more than a simple sport but rather a holistic art with its own philosophy and an elaborate ritual. This also meant maintaining aspects such as the “calls” even if they were not “efficient.” If Pastinha did not invent, like Bimba, an entirely new style, he nevertheless contributed significantly to codify the capoeira of his time, establishing norms for Angola still valid today. Regarding the music, for example, he institutionalized the existing song forms ladainha, chula and corrido as the trilogy for a proper game. He also codified the capoeira orchestra as consisting of three berimbaus, one drum, two tambourines, one bell, and a scraper. Similar to Bimba, Pastinha required his students to take regular classes in a closed “academy” and to wear uniforms modeled on sport jerseys. The colors yellow and black were inspired by those of Ipiranga, his preferred football club, and became another hallmark of the Angola style, or at least one core variant of it. In contrast to Bimba’s Regional, though, the Angola style did not immediately become very popular. As his generation of mestres passed away, Pastinha emerged as the increasingly undisputed voice of traditional capoeira—but after he died in 1981, very few people practiced the Angola style

The Growth of Contemporary Capoeira 

From the late 1940s onwards, capoeira masters and their groups started to demonstrate their skills in the more developed cities of southeast Brazil. Capoeira became part of folklore shows and was performed alongside other Afro-Bahian forms such as samba-de-roda, candomblé, and maculêlê. Just like prize matches in the ring (which continued until the 1950s), this was a new setting, which not only contributed to disseminate the art but eventually resulted in new adaptations. Furthermore, thousands of Northeasterners migrated to the growing metropolises of the Southeast, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, in the search for jobs and a better standard of living. Among them were a number of capoeira practitioners and even masters. Playing capoeira after work was a way to reconnect to their homeland, but some soon realized it could also become a source of income if taught to locals. Not all of them were successful, but by 1970 nine capoeira academies existed in the city of São Paulo alone, all led by Bahians from both Regional and Angola style. The conflict between both styles seemed less relevant in the new setting, where cooperation among all capoeiristas appeared the best way to ensure the art would take root in the metropolis. 

A good case in point is the Cordão de Ouro group, set up by mestres Suassuna and Brasília. Suassuna had first learned traditional capoeira in southern Bahia but had then trained with Bimba’s students before coming to São Paulo. Brasília was a student of M. Canjiquinha, a prominent angoleiro, and founder of an important capoeira lineage. As a result, Bahians in the southeast of Brazil usually no longer claimed to belong to a specific style but asserted that they taught capoeira full stop. 

A number of Bahian masters from both styles were also established in Rio de Janeiro, such as Paraná, Roque, and Mário Santos. Artur Emídio (1930–2011), a prize-fighter who nevertheless stuck to the rituals and the music of capoeira, was probably the most influential. Most capoeira masters of the second generation in Rio were his students: Leopoldina, Paulo Gomes, Celso do Engenha da Rainha, and Djalma Bandeira. That capoeira was established mainly in the poorer neighborhoods in the “Northern zone” or even the periphery such as Caxias, where a capoeira street roda has been in existence since the 1970s. Another important development was the emergence of the Senzala group in the richer “Southern zone” of the city. Two adolescents discovered capoeira during a trip to Salvador where they trained in Bimba’s academy. They decided to continue training on their own on the veranda of their flat, and soon a group of white, middle-class youngsters were training with them (although there were also some boys from the nearby shantytown). They received further support from Bimba’s students, some of whom established themselves in Rio. The Senzala group developed their own training method, including “exhaustive and methodological repetition of kicks,” “systematic trainings of kick-counterattack and kick-fall carried out by pairs.” This renewed emphasis on speed and efficiency, and the systematic use of grappling techniques resulted in Senzala students performing well in the capoeira competitions that were being organized. Their decentralized structure—with every teacher, soon master, being relatively autonomous— also appealed to the new, middle-class audiences, and Senzala became a model organization for capoeira groups all over Brazil. Several important figures subsequently left and established their own organizations. The most prominent example is M. Camisa. He founded Capoeira Abadá, which was to become the most important organization worldwide, claiming 20,000 members in 1996. 

The initial expansion of capoeira throughout Brazil took place during the 1960s to the 1980s, when the military was ruling the country. There were various attempts to transform capoeira into a national sport and institutionalize it. M. Bimba had already taught recruits in 1938, and in the 1960s capoeira was taught by Artur Emídio and others to Navy recruits in Rio. More important still was the creation of capoeira federations in each state, with the aim of standardizing practice and imposing norms on capoeira groups. The “Technical Rules of Capoeira” were adopted in 1972 and likened capoeira to an athletic competition with judges awarding points and ranking competitors. Some prominent mestres adhered to the Federations, expecting support for their own groups. But many others resented the imposition of rules, for instance stating that groups had to use the greeting “Salve!” before or after classes, adopt a system of colored belts, or display the Brazilian flag in the academy. Retrospectively it is clear that most of the growth capoeira experienced in this period did not happen within the Federations but through the independent groups. In São Paulo, for example, two influential groups, Capitães de Areia and Cativeiro, emerged based on an alternative model of “cultural resistance,” aiming to maintain the “foundations” of capoeira against control from above and its absorption into a highly standardized sport. 

Most capoeira groups in the Southeast merged elements of the two Bahian styles, for example Bimba’s sequence of movements with the music and instruments of Angola. Many masters insisted that there was only one capoeira and hence the denomination “Contemporary capoeira” began to be used for what was in fact not one unified style but rather a vast range of practices shaped by the idiosyncrasy of individual groups and their masters. In Rio de Janeiro one student of Pastinha academy, though, insisted that Angola was different. After the death of Pastinha in 1981, M. Moraes established in Salvador and spearheaded the revival of the traditionalist Angola style. Angoleiros ever since insist on the specificity of their style and traditions. 

Since the 1960s some masters had traveled abroad for exhibitions, but it was not until the late 1970s that some established themselves as teachers in western Europe and the United States. During the 1980s and 1990s, capoeira became a popular practice in many western European and US cities as well as in Israel and Japan. It also started to expand into Spanish America, Africa, eastern Europe, Australia, and a number of Asian countries. Today it is practiced by millions of young people, including women, in virtually every country in the world. This globalization happened “from below,” without any institutional support, hence transnationalization is a more adequate term. It relied on various vectors, including individual migration but also systematic efforts by some groups to establish affiliate nuclei or franchises. The Brazilian Ministry of Culture started a process of official recognition in 2007, which culminated with capoeira being recognized as “cultural patrimony of the humanity” by UNESCO in 2014. It remains to be seen what benefits this growing institutionalization will bring to the art.