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September 4th, 2007
Brazil in Black and White
Handbook: Capoeira

One of the important changes enacted by Afro-Brazilian activist groups and legislators in recent years was the mandatory incorporation of black history and culture into school curriculums. Perhaps the most prominent force in the informal preservation of Afro-Brazilian culture has been Capoeira, a unique blend of dance and fight. Developed in the slave shacks as a way to fight their masters, Capoeira has been described as “the fight of ballet dancers” and the “dance of gladiators.”

Capoeira is “played” in a circle (roda) formed by the capoeiristas who, dressed in white, take turns playing instruments, singing, and fighting. At the beginning, two fighters kneel at the feet of the lead singer to listen to his opening chant. Then the drums and other instruments join in with a call-and-response form of chanting, characteristic of the African musical tradition, that gets everyone singing. As the music picks up, the two fighters are given permission to begin and move towards the center to exchange fluid attacks, dodging acrobatically, and connecting moves with the ginga (a rocking back and forth of the body). The game ends with a cordial handshake as new fighters take the floor.

Explore this feature to learn more about Capoeira’s history, its ties to other key cultural symbols, and listen to music that reflects important themes in the Afro-Brazilian experience.


As with much of African heritage in Brazil, what is known about Capoeira’s origins is tentative. Of the little that was written down about slavery, even less is available today as Ruy Barbosa, the finance minister of Brazil’s first Republic government of 1889, ordered that documents be burned to erase it from history.

The prevailing account is that the “warrior dance” began in the senzala, or slave house, where the African captives would gather to keep their culture alive through rituals. As the slaves in one plantation were often captured from several different African tribes, many times their only common language was rudimentary Portuguese and body gesture. Dance, drum, and chant became tools to strengthen bonds and create a sense of community. One of their dances is rumored to have been the N’golo, performed during the puberty rituals of the Mucope of southern Angola. The young men would dance, imitating zebras fighting, and the winner of the N’golo would be awarded a bride for which he did not have to pay a dowry.

Competitive festive dances were the perfect cover for developing the skills needed to kill the slave drivers. With time, the bonds of the senzala allowed the slaves to organize and plan their escape. Once on the run, they would practice their dance of resistance in forest clearings. These areas of low vegetation were called caa-puera in the Native-Brazilian tribal language tupi, and from there Capoeira evolved.

Capoeira spread throughout Brazil and remained alive, even after slavery was abolished, in the public squares, alleyways, and docks where poor blacks spent their unemployed time. However, the deadly dance was seen as the practice of criminals and outlawed in 1890 by President Marechal Deodoro da Fonseca.

Capoeira became legal again in the 1930s and schools were set up seeking to organize the practice and remove its stigma of marginality. It is now recognized as one of the cultural hallmarks of Brazil and is widely practiced around the world.

Many see an urgent need to reaffirm Capoeira’s unique place, not as a martial art, but as a unique combination of several cultural traditions. There are fears that with the heavy influx of oriental martial arts, Capoeira’s dance-fight-game mixture will degenerate into violent combat.

“There are two to hit the negro
with stick, whip and machete
To survive the negro has
just two feet and two hands
switching his hand for his foot
and his foot for his hand
hit them on the face
and they’ll land in the sand.”

Sergio Ricardo, THE GAME OF ANGOLA

Since Capoeira was created as a form of physical resistance and continued on as a form of cultural resistance, it is closely linked in Afro-Brazilian consciousness to the history of Palmares and its famous leader Zumbi. Although the warriors of Palmares used weapons to defend themselves, Capoeira songs often cite their struggle as the height of the Afro-Brazilian fight for freedom.


Quilombo dos Palmares

“Negroes Fighting”
Painting by Augustus Earle, c. 1824

Slaves that escaped from plantations remained on the run constantly, yet as their numbers increased, they began to organize themselves into maroon communities. The largest of these communities was the Quilombo dos Palmares, a fortified collection of smaller communities located in the northeastern hills, occupying 360km of territory.

At its height Palmares had some 30,000 inhabitants, which included not only runaway slaves, but also Indians and poor whites. The community was ruled by a king and his council, developed agriculture and metallurgy, and even established commercial ties to neighboring cities. This growth drew attention from the colonizing government which saw Palmares as a threat and began sending expeditions to destroy it. From its foundation in 1596 to its destruction in 1716, Palmares resisted 66 expeditions.


Zumbi was born free in Palmares, the grandson of a famous Congolese princess. As a child he was taken by an attacking expedition and given as a present to a priest in the city of Porto Calvo. There the child was named Francisco and educated in Latin and Portuguese.

Yet, at the age of 15, Zumbi escaped and returned to Palmares where he was adopted by the community’s king, Ganga Zumba. In 1678, Ganga Zumba grew tired of fighting off the Portuguese and Dutch and negotiated a peace treaty that granted those born in Palmares their freedom as long as runaways were returned and the community moved closer to the Portuguese settlements. Zumbi, now 23 and a prominent warrior of one of Palmares’ larger communities, refused to comply and became the leader of those who remained.

Zumbi’s resistance, ignoring the fact that under the treaties’ agreement he would be granted freedom, earned him the status of a mythical figure in the fight for unconditional freedom. In 1694 he was injured and fell into a nook in a cliff during one of the Portuguese attacks. Rumors circulated that he had killed himself to escape bondage. When he reappeared in a battle the following year, myth spread of his immortality.

However, the Portuguese captured one of his closest companions, Antonio Soares, and promised him freedom if he would give them Zumbi. Soares led them to the “black king,” and as Zumbi approached to embrace his friend, he was betrayed and stabbed in the stomach. Zumbi fought back and killed Soares, but was overwhelmed by the whites that ambushed him and his men. The Portuguese then decapitated Zumbi and hung his head in the city of Recife to warn the blacks that their mythical hero was dead.

Zumbi lived on in the black cultural consciousness and remains to this day the greatest symbol of liberty. The day of his death, November 20th, is now a national holiday, Black Awareness Day.

Although most of the music in Capoeira is transmitted from teachers to students, capoeiristas like Mestre Toni Vargas from Grupo Senzala add to this rich tradition with original creations. Mestre Toni grew up in Rio de Janeiro and began practicing Capoeira at the age of 10. An accomplished teacher, performer, writer, and singer, his powerful imagery, distinctive sense of rhythm, and defiant tongue make him a potent voice in Capoeira today. “I am a white man with a black soul,” he claims.

In the song Chorou (Cried), Mestre Toni Vargas sings the laments of the African slave, tortured and humiliated by their masters in Brazil.

To learn more about Toni Vargas and Grupo Senzala, visit the website of his student and representative in the U.S., Fernando “Sonic” Moraes.


Around 1530, sugarcane plantations began to appear in Brazil. By mid-century, Portuguese colonizers brought Africans to Brazil as slave laborers for the expanding sugar economy. At the time, Portugal had a population of about two million and was already stretched in its trade and exploration of the globe. In Brazil, this meant that an extremely small elite ruled over the largest transplanted slave population in the Americas. When the slave trade ended roughly 300 years later, 3.6 million Africans had been imported – more than three times as many as in America (about one million).

The main instrument in Capoeira is the berimbau. Resembling a bow, the berimbau is a curved stick with a wire tied at both ends. A hollow gourd provides the resonance chamber and a rock or coin is pressed against the wire to produce a variety of notes. Capoeira is usually played to the sound of three berimbaus of varying size and timbre, along with an atabaque (large drum), pandeiro (large tambourine), and an agog´┐Ż (double cow bell). The musical arrangements, hand clapping, and tempo depend on the style of Capoeira being performed.

In the song Navio Negreiro (Slave Ship) Mestre Toni Vargas depicts the sorrow felt by the uprooted slaves during the fatal crossing of the Atlantic. This song provides a glimpse of what is known as banzo, the feeling of suicidal nostalgia that overwhelmed the African slaves, often leading them to eat dirt every day until they died.


The transportation of slaves from Africa to the New World was only one of the sides of what is called the “triangular trade.” First, the Europeans would export goods to African kings who would provide them with slaves captured during military campaigns. These slaves then embarked upon the perilous journey across the Atlantic in horrific conditions where around 15% of the “imports” would die. The triangle was completed by the exportation of goods from the Americas to Europe. The slave trade was officially outlawed in 1850 after increasing political pressure from England. However, it continued illegally for many years, as did trading within Brazil. In 1888, Brazil became the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery.

Capoeira’s music not only allowed slaves to disguise their fight as a dance, it also preserved African instruments and call-and-response chant. However, its most important attribute might be its preservation of oral tradition. Its songs passed down images and traditions through the centuries that might of otherwise have been lost without the continuity provided by the Capoeira community.

In Misturou (Mixed), Mestre Toni invokes the rituals of Afro-Brazilian religion and the black hero Zumbi, illustrating the mixing of races and cultures that have come to define Brazil.


During slavery, a large number of mixed-race Brazilians were born, largely through rape, but also through informal marriages between whites and nonwhites, due to a shortage of white women. In Brazil today, nearly one fourth of all marriages are interracial. A 2007 scientific study of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA in 120 Brazilians, performed by geneticists at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, estimates that upward of 85 percent of the population, including tens of millions of Brazilians who regard themselves as white, have a more than ten percent African contribution to their genome. Likewise, a large proportion of Afro-Brazilians have at least one European paternal ancestor.

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