UNESCO describes capoeira as following: Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian cultural practice – simultaneously a fight and a dance – that can be interpreted as a tradition, a sport and even an art form. Capoeira players form a circle at the centre of which two players engage with one another. The movements require great bodily dexterity. The other players around the circle sing, chant, clap and play percussive instruments. Capoeira circles are formed by a group of people of any gender, and comprise a master, counter-master and disciples. The master is the bearer and guardian of the knowledge of the circle, and is expected to teach the repertoire and to maintain the group’s cohesion and its observance to a ritual code. The master usually plays a single string percussion instrument, starts the chants, and leads the game’s timing and rhythm. All participants are expected to know how to make and play the instrument, sing a shared repertoire of chants, improvise songs, know and respect the codes of ethics and conduct, and perform the movements, steps and strikes. The capoeira circle is a place where knowledge and skills are learned by observation and imitation. It also functions as an affirmation of mutual respect between communities, groups and individuals and promotes social integration and the memory of resistance to historical oppression. (UNESCO, www.ich.unesco.org/en/RL/capoeira-circle-00892)
It is widely believed that capoeira was imported to Brazil by African slaves in the 17th century. As the number of slaves grew, many escaped and established their concealed communities in the mountains or jungles, where they practiced hand-to-hand fighting against the slave owners and external invasions. Hand-to-hand combat in guerilla warfare combined with a folk culture including music and dance produced the rapid development of capoeira (Liponski et al. 2003).
In the aftermath of slave rebellion, slavery was abolished in 1868. Slaves were then integrated into slum areas, becoming slum gangs using capoeira for street fight. As capoeira was viewed as violent and dangerous, it was prohibited in the late 19th century. Later in the mid-1900s, legendary master Bimba revitalised capoeira by gaining official support from the Brazilian President and establishing a capoeira school, which facilitated the spread of capoeira to clubs and schools.
There are still debates over whether capoeira is the New World development of an African martial art or it is originated in the New World with some African influences like musical instrument (Green & Tausk 2001). Some argue that there are a lot of similarities between capoeira’s body mechanics and music, and those of African.
Capoeira has been spread across Brazil and abroad since the 1970s and is now practised in more than 150 countries.
- National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage, Ministry of Culture
- Green, T. & Tausk, G. (2001). “Africa and African America”. In Green, T. and Svinth, J. (eds.) Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. - Liponski, W., Farmer, M., & Hagarty, K. (2003). World Sports Encyclopedia. Oficyna Wydawnicza Atena. - UNESCO, n.d. Capoeira circle