What is Capoeira?  カポエイラとは何だ?

Brazilian martial artsCapoeira is a Brazilian art that combines elements of acrobatics, dance, and rhythm. It should be noted that the basic footsteps of Capoeira are very similar to those of Samba (Brazilian music) though the speed of the music and the feet distance are different. Some karate people have a problem calling it a martial art because of the music and the dancing aspect. However, it must not be disregarded and considered simply as a native Brazilian dance. Master Seikichi Uehara (上原清吉 1904 – 2004, photo below) said that the essence of te (the old name for karate) can be found in the Okinawa buyo (舞踊 dance). In fact, the Capoeira’s movements clearly contain the fighting techniques and the intricate movements SEIKICHI UEHARAthat can definitely qualify Capoeira as a fighting art.

The word capoeira is supposed to have come from one of the South American languages, Tupi Guaraní. It came from the original words of caá puéra. “caá” means a jungle and “puéra” means existed. Combined those two words, caá puéra means the disappeared jungle.

The details of Capoeira’s origins and early history are still a matter of debate among historians as the written documentation is almost non-existent on the origin. On the other hand, it is clear that the slaves from Africa played a crucial role in the development of the art form. Slaves used the dance movements as a way to hide their training of fight and self-defense. Interestingly, Okinawa te was similarly hidden in the Okinawan folk dance.

Here is a history that no Brazilian people are proud of but we must look at the dark history of Europe and Brazil. During the Middle Ages (between the 5th to the 15th century), Portugal suffered a drastic decrease in its labor force as a result of human loss in the war for independence from Castile, and from a series of epidemics of devastating proportions. Moreover, a huge deployment of people to Africa and India in Portugal’s colonial endeavors intensified the crisis. Gomes Eannes de Azurara was one of the first to register Portugal’s incipient attempt to replace its productive hands, narrating how Antáo Gonçalves in 1441 captured and took the first Africans to the Infant D. Henrique, King of Portugal. By the early 1500s, Portugal had begun extensive human trafficking from Africa to its South American colony of Brazil.history 2

Between the years of 1500 and 1888, almost four million souls crossed the Atlantic in the disease-ridden slave ships of the Portuguese Crown. The signing of the Queiroz Law prohibiting slave traffic in 1850 was not strong enough to empty the sails of the tumbadoras (slave ships) crossing the ocean. Many Africans were still forced to face the “middle passage” and were smuggled into Brazil. The ethno cultural contributions of this massive forced human migration, along with those of the Native inhabitants of the colony and those of the Europeans from Portugal, shaped the people and the culture of Brazil. From the Africans, the essential elements of Capoeira were inherited. This is evident in the aesthetics of movement and musical structure of the art, in its rituals and philosophical principles, as well as in historical accounts of the ethnicity of those who practiced Capoeira in the past.

Most of the questions related to the formative period of the art still remain unanswered. The difficulty in answering the questions for the originHistory 5 of the art resides in the lack of written registers of Capoeira and in the absence of an oral tradition that reaches as far back as the predawn of the art. Also, the unclear Europeans’ notion of cultural and geographic boundaries of the African territories at the beginning of Portugal’s colonial enterprises, as well as the mixing of Africans from different tribes in the same work areas in Brazil, increase our uncertainties.

According to E. Bradford Burns, it is possible to identify three major African contributors to Brazilian society: the Yoruban and Dahomean Sudanese people originating from regions that later became Liberia, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, and the southern part of contemporary Benin (former Dahomey); the “Mohammedanized Guinea-Sudanese” Hausa; and the Bantu people from Angola, Congo and Mozambique.

Early documents about enslaved Africans in Brazil, however, refer only to “natives from Guiné.” At that time, “Guiné” was a generic denomination for a large area of West Africa with no precise ethnic or politico-geographic definition in the European mind. “Guiné extended from the delta of the Senegal River limits of the desert region between Senegal and Mauritania to the Orange River, in the contemporary Gabon …” This lack of clarity was felt even by the earliest chroniclers of the art.

capoeira-2The importance of Yoruban influences in the state of Bahia has long been recognized. Recently, though, the weight of the Bantu contribution has been reevaluated, gaining more prominence as traces of this culture are identified in the way of life of the inhabitants of Bahia’s old cities. Since the cadence in the ginga (the multi-functional and characteristic movement of Capoeira), the music, and the rituals of today’s Capoeira seem to have radiated from the Reconcavo Baiano (coastal areas of the Bay of All Saints in Bahia), it is not a far stretch of the imagination to associate the formative elements of the art with cultural expressions embedded in the traditions of the sub-Saharan Bantu people from Angola.

One experiences the essence of Capoeira by “playing” a physical game called jogo de capoeira (game of capoeira) or simply jogo. During this ritualized combat, two capoeiristas (players of capoeira) exchange movements of attack and defense in a constant flow while observing rituals and proper manners of the art. Both players attempt to control the space by confusing the opponent with feints and deceptive moves. During the jogo, the Capoeiristas explore their strengths and weaknesses, fears and fatigue in a sometimes frustrating, but nevertheless enjoyable, challenging and constant process of personal expression, self-reflection and growth.Capoeira5

The speed and character of the jogo are generally determined by the many different rhythms of the berimbau, a one-string musical bow, which is considered to be the primary symbol of this art form. The berimbau is complemented by the pandeiro (tambourine), atabaque (single-headed standing drum), agogo (double bell), and reco-reco (grooved segment of bamboo scraped with a stick) to form a unique ensemble of instruments. Inspiring solos and collective singing in a call-and-response dialogue join the hypnotic percussion to complete the musical ambiance for the Capoeira session. The session is called roda de Capoeira, literally “Capoeira wheel”. The term roda refers to the ring of participants that defines the physical space for the two Capoeiristas engaged in the ritualized “combat”.The Capoeira rule, however, prohibits making any contacts to your opponent or a partner. If you touch the other person, that will be considered as a poor technique. You are supposed to put some pressure on the opponent by jumping, circling and kicking around him or her. Capoeira is a dialog or physical communication between players through movement which can mean different things. This unique character, I believe, makes Capoeira a half way between the dancing art and a martial art.

Here is a video (6 min) of the basic movements of Capoeira:


For more information on Capoeira:


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