Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Capoeira: History and Philosophy


The Brazilian martial arts-dance form of Capoeira is inherently African in its underlying philosophies. These philosophies are taught through song/text performed in the practice of Capoeira; through the mythological histories of the developmental roots of the art form; through lessons and stories that address the Afro-Brazilian experience both historically and in the present; and through lessons and stories that celebrate the tenacity and cleverness of the Afro-Brazilian to endure in spite of slavery, poverty, and racism. In the mid-1970s, when the practice of Capoeira began to attract students outside of Brazil and in particular in New York City, it broadened its practitioners to a multicultural, multiracial base. The hypothesis of this study is that through the practice of Capoeira and through exposure to Capoeira's underlying afrocentric philosophies, students have altered their perspectives of race, acquiring afrocentric philosophies themselves. In this study student's participate in a written survey to discern the alterations in their perspectives on race as result of their study of Capoeira.

Origin-Problem Statement:
The first group of African slaves arrived in Brasil in 1537. These slaves were brought from Africa by the Portuguese explorers to work on the Brazilian's sugar cane plantations! The main ethnic group of slaves brought to Brasil were the "bantos" - from Angola, Golfo da Guinι and Congo; "sudaneses" - from Golfo da Guinι and Sudγo; and "maleses" - from Angola and Costa da Mina. However, the origin of the Brazilian martial arts-dance form known as Capoeira is the subject of heated debate. There are those who adhere to the belief that Capoeira originated in Africa and was transported along with the slaves when they were brought to Brazil. There are others who say that the art form originated amongst the Afro-Brazilians in the "Senzalas", the living quarters for the slaves on Brazilian plantations. Others believe that Capoeira was practiced and used to fend off attacks by Portuguese slavers in Palmares, Brazil's most infamous "Quilombo" maroon colony of escaped slaves. There is no historical evidence to support any of these claims; many written documents regarding slavery in Brasil were burned when the first government of the new Republic was established. Ruy Barbosa, the Finance Minister, signed an act intending to clean all traces of slavery from the history of Brasil. By his own words, "...the lamentable institution which paralyzed for many years the development of the society..." ! There is, however, evidence and agreement that Capoeira is aesthetically and philosophically an Afro-Brazilian art form. The most acceptable claim is that basing themselves on traditional African dances and rituals, these slaves developed the art in the work free hours left to them, thus training both mind and body for combat situations. As the slave-masters forbade any kind of martial art, it was cloaked in the guise of an innocent-looking recreational dance. In the 16th century, escaped-slaves founded a number of "Quilombos" , in which the art of Capoeira was further perfected. Many escaped-slaves, before they could reach the Quilombos, were captured by the "Capitγo-do-mato" that ironically were sometimes African decedents or mulatos themselves. The "Capitγo-do-mato" were hired by the Portuguese slavers and usually worked on their own. The inhabitants of Palmares, the largest of the Quilombos, lasted 65 years. The "Quilombo dos Palmares" was located in what is today's state of Alagoas, northeast Brazil. Its population was composed not only of escaped African slaves but also of native Brazilian Indians and other mixed races(Mestiηos). It had an organized government system similar to an African Kingdom with a King and his Assembly. The best warriors on battles were chosen King; "Zumbi" was the most known King of all. The "Quilombo dos Palmares" fought for many years and was finally destroyed in 1694 by Domingos Jorge Velho and his troops. "Zumbi" managed to escape and many believed that he was immortal. Wanted by the authorities, he was captured on November 20th, 1695. He was killed and beheaded on the spot. His head was brought to a public Plaza at the "vila do Recife". "Zumbi" was considered a national hero and warrior, a symbol of liberty ; his name became a Capoeira legend. Capoeira was used not only in direct combat, it also inspired the battle strategy itself; feigning retreat, thus luring the over-confident enemy into remote territories only to strike back at an unsuspecting place and time. During the "Paraguai War" (1864 to 1870), many capoeiristas were sent to battle in the front line. The official prohibition of Capoeira remained even after slavery was abolished in May 13th, 1888. In 1890, Brazilian president "Marechal Deodoro da Fonseca" signed an act that prohibited the practice of capoeira nationwide, with severe punishment for those caught. It was nevertheless practiced by the poorer population on public holidays, during work-free hours and similar occasions. Riots, caused also by police interference, were common. Persecution and punishment were almost successful in eradicating Capoeira from the "streets" of Brasil by the 1920's. In spite of the ban, Master Bimba (Manuel dos Reis Machado) created a new style, the "Capoeira Regional" (as opposed to the traditional "Capoeira Angola" of Mestre Pastinha). He incorporated new moves and techniques from "Batuque", a martial art that he learned form his father (the unified champion); The "Capoeira Regional" or "Luta Regional Baiana" was than a more effective and efficient style of capoeira. Mestre Bimba was finally successful in convincing the authorities of the cultural value of Capoeira, thus ending the official ban in the 1930's. Mestre Bimba founded the first Capoeira school in 1932, the "Academia-escola de Capoeira Regional", at the Engenho de Brotas in Salvador-Bahia. He was than considered "the father of modern capoeira". In 1937, he earned the state board of education certificate. In 1942, Mestre Bimba opened his second school at the "Terreiro de Jesus - rua das Laranjeiras"; today rua Francisco Muniz Barreto, #1. The school is open until today and supervised by his ex student, "Vermelho-27". He also taught capoeira to the army and at the police academy. Mestre Bimba was born on November 23rd, 1900, at the "bairro do Engenho Velho" in Salvador-BA. The son of Luiz Cβndido Machado and Maria Martinha do Bonfim, Mestre Bimba started capoeira at the age of 12. He was taught by "Bentinho", an African that used to be the "capitγo da Companhia Baiana de Navegaηγo". Master Bimba was a coalman, carpenter, warehouse man, longshoreman, horsecoach conductor, but mainly capoeirista; a giant with strong personality! He died on February 15th, 1974 at the "Hospital das Clνnicas de Goiβnia", due to a stroke. Capoeira progressed from an illegal art to become a national sport in Brasil. It is also growing its popularity worldwide. There have been comparisons drawn between the Afro-North American art form of the blues and Capoeira. Both were practiced and developed by Afro-American slaves, both retained distinctive African aesthetics and cultural qualities; both were shunned and looked-down upon by the larger Brazilian and North American societies within which they developed, and both fostered a deep sense of afrocentric pride especially amongst poorer and darker skinned Blacks. In the mid-1970s, when masters of the art form - mestre capoeiristas, began to emigrate and teach Capoeira in the United States, it was still primarily practiced amongst the poorest and Blackest of Brazilians. With its emigration to the U.S., however, much of the stigma with which it was historically associated in Brazil was shed. Today there are many capoeira schools throughout the United States, and with its growing popularity in the U.S. it has attracted a broad spectrum of multicultural, multiracial students. In New York City particularly, Capoeira schools have attracted a representative array of students from the following: White (European and American), Asian, Caribbean, Hispanic and Black North American segments of New York's diverse population. While the present demographics of Capoeira students in New York has developed into a multicultural, multiracial base, the demographics of masters has largely remained Brazilian and the philosophy of capoeira has retained its afrocentric focus. This research will consist of a set of questions, directed at the varied base of multiethnic Capoeira students in New York City to find out to what degree students have acquired afrocentric philosophies inherent to the study of Capoeira.

Related Research:
The study that most closely resembles my proposed research is a master's thesis completed in 1996 by Marcelo Montes Penha and entitled "Capoeira In New York: An Ethnographic Perspective of an Afro-Brazilian Art-Form." Penha covers a broad research area of the practice and study of Capoeira in New York City including the favorable reception of female capoeiristas (as compared to the historical exclusion of women in capoeira in Brazil); a close look at the two main styles of Capoeira practice (Regional and Angola); an historical look at the art as it developed in Brazil and its continuance in New York City, including its political and cultural Afrocentric philosophies. Penha also takes a look at race and ethnicity of Capoeira students in New York, including some of the perspectives that students have regarding these issues. Penha does not, however, look at the direct impact that Capoeira has had on student's perspectives of race and ethnicity and the way in which it has altered the student's way of thinking. This is what my smaller and more focused research proposes to accomplish. To my knowledge, no other studies have been made which primarily focus on Capoeira schools and students in New York City. There are however, several studies and articles on the history of the art form, on its emigration to the U.S., and on its underlying afrocentric philosophy. One such well-researched article is by Ben Downing, "Jogo Bonito A Brief Anatomy of Capoeira" published in the Southwest Review. Downing elaborates on the mythological afrocentric historical roots of Capoeira, on the celebration of the trickster-like cleverness as practiced in Capoeira and its comparison to the tenacity necessary to survive in life. A record review by Kathleen O'Connor in Ethnomusicology Journal discusses the ladainha (litany) musical portion of the game of Capoeira which includes slave songs and reflects the political philosophy of darker skinned Brazilians. Other researchers, including Daniel C. Dawson and Kaira Lingo, point out the profound significance of music in the practice of Capoeira.

The objective of this study is to collect data that will shed light on the hypothesis that the perspectives of Capoeira students in New York City of a wide variety of racial and cultural backgrounds are altered and their awareness and appreciation of afro-Brazilian philosophies expanded through their study of Capoeira. This study will also provide data on what specific Afrocentric philosophies have been most frequently identified with through study of the game. Afrocentric philosophies are taught through histories of the development of Capoeira (regardless of primarily having an oral and mythological base) as told by the mestres. Afrocentric histories and lessons are also taught through song texts. I will primarily be looking at the songs/texts performed in the ladainha or litany of the Capoeira performance, texts that speak of historically significant events during slavery and texts that address the historical racial inequality in Brazil. Lessons and stories that celebrate the tenacity and cleverness of the Afro-Brazilian to endure in spite of slavery, poverty and racism and which foster a sense of pride and which are seen as being mutually reflective in the game of Capoeira and in life are also viewed, in this context as part of Capoeira's afro-Brazilian philosophy. I will be looking at the ways these philosophies are reflected in the student through the study of the art form.

In New York City there are few Capoeira schools. Each school offers between five to ten classes per week. I have observed classes in two New York City Capoeira schools. My two visits to the Raνzes do Brazil School were on Tuesday nights. There were consecutively twenty and twenty one students in attendance. Schools tend to hold afternoon and evening classes on each of the seven days of the week with an average of 14.5 students per class. Given the probability that there are high and low ratios of student attendance based on the time and day of the week on which classes are held, I will conduct a sampling of two classes, one held on Saturday afternoon and the other on Tuesday evenings. Time restraints will limit my research to one Capoeira school. I have chosen the Raνzes do Brasil Capoeira School in Greenwich Village for its centrality and accessibility to Capoeira students residing throughout the New York City metropolitan area and because of the approachability of the key respondent, the school's professor, Eduardo. I will be using a questionnaire and conducting interviews to measure the unidirectional variable of students' afrocentric philosophies before and after they began studying Capoeira. In order to ensure that students have had the time to learn the philosophical aspects of Capoeira, only students who have studied for two years or more will be asked to participate in the study.
· Questionnaires will be given to students on April 8th (Saturday afternoon) and 11th (Tuesday evening) classes.
· A request for completed and returned questionnaires will be included with a return date no later than April 29th (Saturday afternoon) and May 2nd (Tuesday evening). Analysis of the data will take place between May 3rd and May 17th and a final report on the findings will be handed in on May 24th.
· Interview with Prof. Eduardo
· Interview with some of Eduardo's most advanced students.
· Group interview.

After completing this research of "A Study of acquired Afrocentric-Brazilian Philosophies in New York City Students Through the Study of Capoeira", my original hypothesis as stated in my research proposal has been altered. My original hypothesis stated that "through the practice of Capoeira and through exposure to Capoeira's underlying Afrocentric philosophies, students have altered their perspectives of race, acquiring Afrocentric philosophies themselves". My now altered hypothesis is that students use the songs, histories and stories taught through Capoeira to broaden and deepen their own philosophies in life, in particular to foster a sense of personal and mutual respect amongst themselves. While the histories and philosophies in Capoeira were originally created by Afro-Brazilians (and this is a fact that was taught by Prof. Eduardo to his students) and the "philosophies" of Capoeira particularly reflect the Afro-Brazilians' aspirations for such concepts as "freedom" and "respect" for various Afro-Brazilian Capoeira mestres (masters of the game), the practice of the game itself (at least among Prof. Eduardo's students in New York City) fosters a sense of personal and mutual respect that is clearly seen for its value in and of itself beyond racial identification. This is not to say that a greater awareness of Africans, Afro-Brazilians and their cultures and histories does not take place through the study of Capoeira amongst New York City students. It does take place, but such awareness however, is more gradual than I had initially hypothesized, and such awareness is secondary to the fostering of a sense of personal and mutual respect for those who play the game. These attributes acquired by study of the game are seen by the students that I interviewed as being extremely valuable and not only practiced in the game of Capoeira but being useful in every facet of their lives.
I agree!

Personnel: Karen Taborn, Ethnomusicology Researcher - Hunter College
Eduardo Ferreira, Instructor - Raνzes do Brasil Capoeira N.Y.


DAWSON, Daniel C. "Capoeira: Africa's gift to Brazil; Brazil's Gift the World." Essay, New York City, 1994.

DOWNING, Ben. "Jogo Bonito A Anatomy of Capoeira." Southwest Review, Autumn; 1996.

LINGO, Kaira. "Capoeira: A Cultural Thermostat or Thermometer? The Racial Politics and Transformative Capacities of Capoeira." Essay, Stanford University, 1995.

PENHA, Marcelo Montes. "Capoeira In New York: An Ethnographic Perspective of an Afro-Brazilian Art-Form." Masters thesis, Hunter College, The City University of New York, 1996.

O'CONNOR, Kathleen. "Capoeira Angola from Salvador, Brazil." Ethno-Musicology Journal, 41; Pages 319-23; 1997.

AMADO, Jorge. "Bahia de Todos os Santos(Guia das Ruas e dos Mistιrios da Cidade de Salvador)." Editora Martins, Sγo Paulo, 1970.

FILHO, Angelo A. Decβnio. "A Heranηa de Mestre Bimba." 2a Ediηγo, Salvador, 1997.

FERREIRA, Olavo Leonel. "Histσria do Brasil." Editora Αtica, Sγo Paulo, 1978.

VIEIRA, Emνlio." Na Roda do Berimbau." Editora Oriente, Goiβnia, 1973.

ALALEONA, Domingos. "Histσria da Mϊsica - desde a antigόidade atι nossos dias." Editora Ricordi, Sγo Paulo, 1978.

REGO, Waldeloir. "Capoeira Angola - ensaio sσcio-etnogrαfico." Editora Itapuγ, Rio de Janeiro, 1968.

CARNEIRO, Edison. "Ladinos e Crioulos: estudos sobre o negro no Brasil." Civilizaηγo Brasileira, Rio de Janeiro, 1964.

CARNEIRO, Edison. "Candomblιs da Bahia." Ediηυes de Ouro, Rio de Janeiro, 1961.

CATUNDA, Eunice. "Capoeira no Terreiro de Mestre Waldemar." Fundamentos (Revista de Cultura Moderna). Sγo Paulo, nΊ 30, 1952.

BADARΣ, Ramagem. "Os Negros Lutam Suas Lutas Misteriosas - Bimba ι o Grande Rei Negro do Misterioso Rito-Africano." Saga (Magazine das Amιricas). Salvador, August, 1944.

NADOTTI, Nelson & DIEGUES, Carlos. "Quilombo" Ediηυes Achiamκ, Rio de Janeiro, 1984.

OLIVEIRA, Valdemar. "Frevo, Capoeira e Passo." Compania Editora de Pernambuco, Recife, 1971.

ADORNO, Camille. "A Arte da Capoeira." Grαfica e Editora Kelps, Goiβnia, 1999.

By ethnomusicology researcher, Karen Taborn


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