Friday, 28 August 2015

Capoeira and the art of Total Resistance

In my previous two blogs I have linked the study of capoeira to the topics of inequality and identity. Taking these two themes together, there is a potential for capoeira to present a model for a profound form of resistance that counters inequality in a universal way because it is founded in the identity of the player and the totality of the game. Such a conceptualisation is analytically exciting, and raises questions about how resistance makes it out of the roda of the game into the roda of life.

Policing the Forte de Santo Antonio

Since 2001, the era of the global terror and surveillance has generated forms of violence and control that are infinite over time (endless) and all-pervasive in their operations, employing political, legal and security architecture to extend power from the global to the individual. These forms of violence and control have been theorised by Mark Duffield as 'total war', a conceptualisation that issues political and analytical challenges in formulating and analysing responses made, including artistic responses. How do people survive, and what do art and resistance mean under conditions of total war?

Art – there's a lot of it about :)

Capoeira developed under political configurations that attempted to control the bodies, identity and expression of black people in 19th and early 20th century Brazil. Capoeira players not only denied the state the power to assign them unequal status, but forged identities that have become part of the Brazilian mainstream, and maintained a historical continuity that the state was attempting to eliminate.

The boundless nature of state control attacked the identity – the heritage, values and associations – of a marginalised population. It was met with the infinite nature of the game – a game that encompasses musicality, physicality and spirituality; a game with no rules, points or set timings, played in a circle. Congolese scholar Fu-Kiau described games in Congo as containing ‘all the ingredients a person needed to acquire mental and physical fitness…The music, dance, lyrics, joy, and laughter were all means to create positive energy that encouraged the community to join in an active participation. Games were thus an integral part of the process called life” (quoted in Chvaicer 2002, 537). Capoeira has this totality.

Capoeira is life – from Kilombo Tenonde

Capoeira is a somatic dialogue of questions and answers; insecurity in capoeira – as in life – derives from getting into a dangerous situation that you cannot escape. Total war generates this form of insecurity – militarily, politically, economically and psychologically. Violence and control are differentially experienced across the world, but the war is not defined only territorially. Control of the means of violence, access to capital and the threat or protection offered by surveillance mediate people's experience of total war. Total war is about systemic management and resistance to it is described by countering or escaping the politics of violence and control.

Capoeira prompts two lines of thought with regard to the art of resisting total war. The first is that artistic resistance can be oblique and unguided: capoeira is a source of inspiration and community rather than a concerted political lever. The second insight is that, despite – or because of – this lack of functional engagement, art continually creates both a retreat from political assault and a source of strength. Like other arts and forms of spirituality it provides a response to feelings of powerlessness and apathy arising from the aggression of total war. In doing so, art counters the inevitability of the violence of total war with potentiality – the idea that other possibilities exist and can be created.

Simply playing capoeira was resistance for those whose identity was threatened by the laws against it. Today, capoeira is a lens on struggle – for most of its players it is not the struggle itself. Power is defined as the ability to influence people, a definition that can be extended to art. Using capoeira – or other artistic pursuits – to influence the experiences of people who are marginalised from collective identities, dignified life or physical or psychological well-being are logical ways of channelling the struggle. The other way of extending the resistance of capoeira is to allow its history of struggle to change us – to internalise and act on the values of equality and struggle that are embodied in the music and movement to counter the forms of violence and control that continue to threaten people through war and devastating poverty.

Leaving Salvador! It has been beautiful

I will be elaborating on these thoughts with Professora Paulinha (Capoeira Bem-Vindo) in a presentation for the In Place of War project at Manchester Metropolitan University in November.

Chvaicer, M. T. (2002). "The Criminalization of Capoeira in Nineteenth-Century Brazil." Hispanic American Historical Review 82(3): 525-547.

Duffield, M. (2007). Development, Security and Unending War: Governing the World of Peoples, Polity.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Identity in the history and geography of capoeira

I'm in Salvador, training and playing in rodas. The Forte de Santo Antonio, overlooking the Bay of All Saints, received a facelift in the 1980s and has been the cultural centre for capoeira since, but capoeira is played elsewhere too – in other academies and in the street.

Bay of All Saints, looking lovely

Inside the Forte de Santo Antonio

The groups in the Forte de Santo Antonio retain the characteristics of their teachers' capoeira. The identity of each group is reproduced in the conventions of training, movement, rhythm and repertoire. Playing in the Forte de Santo Antonio is like taking a step out of time – and space (as many of the students are foreign) – to a kind of ideal capoeira, stylised by practitioners of the mid-20th century.

The attention to convention in the Forte de Santo Antonio contrasts with the lawlessness of capoeira in 19th and early 20th century when it was played in the streets. Arguably the most significant change in capoeira in the 20th century was the move from the streets to the academy in the 1930s and 1940s. Most academies are named after their founding teachers, and teaching lineage is – for many – a mark of legitimacy of style and identity. (For others it is constraining, and knowledge is acquired through engagement rather than hierarchy). Just at there is a contrast between the convention of the academy and the lawlessness of the capoeira that preceded it, there is a contrast between 'purity' of lineage since the mid-20th century and the mixed African, indigenous Brazilian and Portuguese heritage of the capoeira that preceded.

Roda at GCAP in the Forte (that's me on agogo!)

Identities make historically and geographically links, and provide a framework for navigating diverse and mutating capoeira lineages and groups. They are also forged by the relationship between capoeira and the state. Academies changed the identity of capoeira from an evasive practice in ungoverned areas to a governed art – in fact over-policed initially, when security agents attended games in the early years.

Last week I drew parallels between the attempts by the Brazilian state in the early 20th century and contemporary European governments to institutionalise inequality, noting that inequality has been the subject of various theories relating to security. Identity, too, features strongly in academic literature on security, and assessing how interests interact with identities offers insights into the survival and growth of capoeira.

The relationship between capoeira and the state puts the contrasts in capoeira identities in political perspective, encompassing the struggle for space (the street) and heritage (African/European). By accepting the state's need for regularity, and some 'Brazilian' ownership of capoeira, capoeira practitioners interlaced their interests with those of state authority, reducing the perceived threats. Today, groups in the Forte, other academies and the street reach various settlements of allied interests with each other and with the state.

Workshop on the street with Mestre Claudio de Feira de Santana (I'm at the back in red!)

Capoeira has flourished largely because its diversity enables it to adapt it to different political and cultural conditions. There is no overarching or united goal and therefore no rationality determining strategic gains. Instead, Habermas theory of 'communicative rationality' is helpful in detailing a rationality oriented towards understanding. The practice of capoeira generates opportunities for communication in the the game, group and teaching. While there is abundant bickering between capoeira teachers and groups, there is no fundamental incompatibility and the contestation of identities maintains connection and difference.

Capoeira provides a laboratory study in identity politics that throws regressive contemporary politics in Europe into relief. Crucially, capoeira groups have negotiated their own identities and interests, rather than having characteristics assigned and manipulated by others. Current portrayals of refugees, Muslims, welfare-claimants, the unemployed, and migrant workers as threatening are determined largely by the popular press. Ring-fencing sections of the population – allocating them an identity – and presenting these identities as having interests that are incompatible with the mainstream fosters blame, competition or conflict. As the imperfect but strangely functional case of capoeira demonstrates, though, diversity is a strength not only in that it accommodates a range of predilections, but that in doing so, it constitutes an adaptable and self-reflective whole.

I will be presenting these thoughts in the Post-Colonial Studies Convention in the University of Leicester in September.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Finding inequality problematic

I have returned to Bahia after three years. In the interim I have changed capoeira groups. For the last two years I have practised capoeira Angola and I now train with Professora Paulinha in CapoeiraBem-Vindo.

I have continued to think about how capoeira affects security through a study of how capoeira players have reworked relationships of threat and protection by gaining cultural and political space. A key reason for choosing to study capoeira was that, as a subaltern voice, its perspective contrasts with that of conventional studies in security, which have been dominated by the powerful north.

Subaltern voices do not simply complement more powerful voices, they provide insights through the political challenges the pose. The subject of inequality, for instance, has been researched from diverse disciplines with regards to incidence of conflict, and the reduction of inequality is central to progressive peace. At the same time, though, the processes of capitalism and the priorities of neoliberalism have reproduced inequalities domestically and internationally.

The tension between the merits of equality and the realist demands of politics is maintained because inequality is not genuinely problematic for the powerful. The current securitisation of migration, the political and media noise framing the threats posed by migrants in the Mediterranean and Calais, can be understood as the institutionalisation of inequality according to the political needs of European governments.

Capoeira is a form of embodied knowledge that has grown out of inequality – of the slave trade and racial injustice – and it finds inequality problematic as it is degrading and dangerous.
Playing capoeira with Treinel Marcelo (FICA) in Kilombo

I have just spent three weeks in Kilombo Tenonde, a centre for capoeira and permaculture led by Mestre Cobra Mansa (FICA). Kilombo is dedicated to promoting environmental sustainability through bio-construction, and organic gardening and agro-forestry. Capoeira training takes place every day from 6-8am and there are music classes in the evening. The intensity and regularity of training attests to the fact that capoeira is not a distraction, it is integral to the way that Kilombo operates. Sharing in the artistic practice of capoeira generates community, and also provides a site for physical and mental well-being, reflection and mobilisation.

Where does this leave inequality and politics, conflict, peace and the securitisation of migration? Inequality is problematic because it enables the powerful to exert violence on the relatively powerless, and subaltern voices start to redress the inequality in information that imposes structures of violence on distressed populations. The criminalisation of capoeira in early 20th century Brazil was the Brazilian state's attempt to erase African history and the brutality of the slave trade from the future of Brazil. The securitisation of migration in the 21st century is a similar attempt to erase historic and contemporary violence from the future global order.

Capoeira provides an example of how a struggle has been maintained in Brazil, but as Kilombo demonstrates, art can provide a focus for undertaking or understanding other struggles. It is not simply what is said, it is how it is said: capoeira's constant celebration of African heritage and its valorisation of artistic expression is not a snapshot quantitative measure of inequality but a bulwark against its political processes.

Artwork at Kilombo
Attending to the perspectives and experiences of people – whether they are in Libya, Syria, the Mediterranean or Calais – is essential to the process of finding inequality problematic in the sense of being degrading, dangerous. Just as capoeira has celebrated its heritage, contemporary subaltern perspectives illuminate the regressive nature of northern security, and indicate how to work towards a future that does not systematically exclude the victims of past and present violence.

I will be presenting these thoughts as Keynote Speaker at the International Conference: Inequality, Peace and Conflict at Manchester University in September.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Vamos vadiar!

This is my last blog from this piece of research. It has been an amazing experience! It has made me think not only about capoeira and security but also about the processes of learning and knowledge. The insights that I have gained have been intensely intellectually – and physically! – challenging and will continue to be so.

My final blog is dedicated to expressing thanks. I am very deeply grateful to the people who have been part of my experience of capoeira in Salvador. I have played dozens of games and I thank everyone for every single moment – in all the classes and all the rodas – it has all been brilliant.

My greatest gratitude is reserved for the teachers in the two schools in which I trained.

Mestre Nenel!
My heartfelt thanks go to Mestre Nenel, the living legend of Capoeira Regional and head of the Filhos de Bimba School of Capoeira, and to Professor Berimbau who oriented me patiently through my first Regional steps. Mestre Nenel taught me the diversity and loveliness of the musical toques that accompany the Regional game and shared the vast wealth of movements, each with a name, an objective and an escape! I am grateful to him for inspiration, for technique, rhythm and precision in capoeira and for the total magical happiness of it that makes everything possible! And for his great rodas where the extremely young, the extremely good and the extremely seasoned play – including many who trained with Mestre Bimba. Through an extraordinary charismatic power, Mestre Nenel lives, plays and teaches profoundly beautiful capoeira.

Mestre Valmir
Mestre Cobra Mansa

I extend my deep thanks, too, to the FICA team – Mestres Valmir and Cobra Mansa, Contra-Mestra Gege, Dija and Aloan. FICA Bahia introduced me to the wonder of Angola songs, the batería, the improvisation, the theatre of interaction, the diversity of games and the intricacy of convention. I am grateful for the stories that surround and work through capoeira Angola, the traces of history, and the insights into the extremes of physical expression and the variety of play. And for the experience of playing in the street, in the countryside, everywhere – everything is capoeira! 

Part of the FICA experience is Kilombo Tenonde, Mestre Cobra Mansa’s lived witness to permaculture and capoeira Angola. I spent some wonderful days weeding vegetable beds, working on an irrigation pump (!), playing capoeira and music, and swimming in the river. Kilombo is testament to the importance of sustainability and community and to how much work is involved. And it is fantastic! Another world is possible – it’s already there!


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

What are the implications for security studies?

Getting out of difficult situations

The Northern focus of security studies excludes the majority of the world’s population from discussions on security. The dominance of strategic rationality as the decision-making mechanism and the focus on direct forms of violence discount the perspectives of weaker parties and in doing so compromise the ability to understand threats faced by those who are not in positions of power. 

These threats include the threat of military attack; in the east of Congo, operations apparently designed to provide security for the distressed population have been catastrophic. There is also a lack of conceptual apparatus to address AIDS, environmental collapse, political anomie or marginalisation from a security perspective. Mitigation attempts abound but a security perspective would prioritise not ‘helping’ but changing the relationships of threat and protection that reinforce insecurity.

These shortfalls have become particularly disastrous since security programming has been incorporated into mainstream development policy. Without an understanding of the perspective of the weaker, development is unlikely to improve the security of those on whose behalf the intervention is made.

What does the perspective of the weaker party contribute to security?

The history passed through capoeira starts to fill some of the ‘historical absences’ generated by the northern dominance in security theorising and policy (Bilgin 2010). It has given insight into the tactics that are used in the strategic space commanded by others. In doing so, capoeira has provided data and analysis to map a much broader scope of rationality than is assumed by conventional concepts of strategy. This is a step towards theorising disruption and difference as counter-hegemonic discourses of resistance, rather than trying to shut them down.

A key part of the investigation has been the extension of understanding of rationality. Rationality has been seen to have communicative ends, in conserving and expressing personal and group identities and values. Instrumental rationality is diverse too: it makes tactical gains but it also employs counter-rationality and magic – including music, charisma and play – to generate meaning and reduce vulnerability. Reducing vulnerability is as important in security terms as increasing arsenal and tends to be less aggravating.
Filhos de Bimba, Salvador

Capoeira presents a further crucial challenge to dominant power in denying the inevitability of its processes. The commitment of Mestre Bimba to recuperating and codifying the art of capoeira has preserved elements that were in danger of being lost. An equal task is now undertaken by his son, Mestre Nenel, who maintains Bimba’s tradition in the face of strong pressures on the Regional style. A different form of challenge confronts the heirs of capoeira Angola. They have seen a less explosive diffusion of their art, but they also struggle to preserve the style alongside preserving the fluidity and improvisation that are integral to it. Through teaching and playing capoeira, the authenticity and integrity of the game and the forms of political expression that it gives are constantly renegotiated. The form that capoeira takes – the fact that it is situated in the present and defined by its lineage - continuously denies and outwits inevitability. Outcomes are not predetermined, they are in a constant state of becoming.

How are power, freedom and security related?

Examining capoeira has highlighted the political significance and construction of freedom. Security and freedom have conventionally been conceptualised as oppositional: populations relinquish freedom in return for security from the state. A break was made in 1994 when Human Security was defined by the UNDP as freedom from fear and freedom from want. This was a freedom from abstract threats and was not explained in political terms. Following the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, the debate about security and freedom has been reignited as many states have imposed extraordinary laws in the name of security.

Capoeira’s counter-hegemonic discourse foregrounds freedom not as a price but as a precondition for security. This is a freedom that is won from oppression, not one that is granted by the law laid down by the powerful. Capoeira unpacks the power relations and differences of interest that frame competing versions of security. It brings into focus the question of: Whose security is it? The song “vou dizer a meu senhor” – “I’m going to tell my master” recounts a slave’s lack of concern and abdication of responsibility for a pat of melted butter. The position is: Yes, the butter has melted, but it wasn’t my butter. Why should the slave care if the master’s butter has melted? In myriad ways, people whose interests are not served by dominant versions of security express lack of concern and an abdication of responsibility for pursuing it.

Without slavery there would be no capoeira: capoeira developed in the runaway slave settlements. Its form and reference is borne of experiences of powerlessness, resistance and difference of interests, and is expressed through defiant or oblique lyrics and the joy of playing despite everything. Without capoeira slavery could be condemned as unjust, but there would be no continuity of history, no cultural celebration or significance of agency. These constituent elements not only convey a particular set of historical experiences and priorities, they imply that there is no blue print for security. In drawing attention to power they also problematise the political practicality of providing security to others.

A ladainha contains the lines, “I am free like the wind, Ai meu Deus, ninguém vai me segurar” – “no one can hold me.” I am grateful to Lea Frehse, currently studying with us at SOAS, for the observation that the word ‘security’ derives its meaning from the notion of freedom from care; she explores how this can include also freedom from being cared for. Human Security promotes freedom within the hegemony of security as defined by the powerful minority, and many contemporary security policies extend the control exercised by the state. The critical angle presented by capoeira is the opposite: a need for freedom from that hegemony – the ability to choose – freedom to ACT, to BE!

The last word on rationality
Establishing communication

The strategic rationality and northern bias of security discourse faces strident and profound challenges in real world politics. Capoeira has provided a number of angles of critique and elaboration on the dominant security perspective. It is not obvious; if you see a capoeira game you are unlikely to think, ‘oh, cartwheels, what an heritage,’ or ‘magic! How liberating!’ I have written this blog alongside an intensive programme of training and playing. Capoeira’s fundamentals are encoded, as counter-hegemonic discourses must be and many counter-hegemonic discourses appear at first sight disoriented and disorienting. Most are not as fun or as beautiful as capoeira. Many are not rational in a straightforward sense, but it would be irrational to dismiss them just for that.


Bilgin, P. ( 2010). "The 'Western-Centrism' of Security Studies: 'Blind Spot' or Constitutive Practice?" Security Dialogue 41(6): 615-622.

Rogers, P. (2000). Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-First Century. London, Pluto Press.

UNDP (1994). New dimensions of human security. Human Development Report 1994 United Nations Development Programme. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

How has security been distributed through capoeira?

“Quem bate não se lembra, quem apanha não se esquece”
“The one who gives the beating doesn’t remember, the one who is beaten doesn’t forget”

Security relates to interests and power bases and, according to Fierke, "assumes a field of relationships, including a threatener, the threatened, the protector or means of protection, and the protected" (Fierke 2007, 46). This provides a helpful template for analysing the distribution of security. How have these relationships of threat and protection been changed by capoeira?


The institutionalisation of capoeira is a dominant part of the contemporary experience. In academies, rodas start on time, follow defined conventions, and there is no malicious violence. Students comply with the trappings of the institution, including the authority of the mestre, the rituals of instrumentation and music, and the use of uniforms. Institutionalisation is reinforced by the continuous assertion of identity, often through implicit or explicit differentiation with other academies, practices and strands of capoeira.

FUMEB, Filhos de Bimba in Salvador

This institutionalisation stems from Mestre Bimba who performed capoeira to the Governor of Bahia in the late 1930s. In communicative terms this was significant: through capoeira, Mestre Bimba was communicating with the non-capoeira world and with the power that posed the direct threat. There was a risk involved in opening communications: capoeira was still illegal at the time and Mestre Bimba had already founded his academy.

The communication that Mestre Bimba established with the political hierarchy and the institutionalisation that stemmed from it had the effect of reducing both the threats that the state posed to capoeira players and the threat that capoeira players posed to the state. In Cooper’s term’s capoeira was de-securitised (Cooper 2010). Regional Groups maintain communication as part of their tradition. They put on demonstrations and, within the game, the style has more extroverted elements of performance. The more ‘open’ game relies on rhythm and, in addition to its technical and competitive aspects, can allow for collaborative interaction, including the use of choreographed or semi-choreographed sequences.

Angola groups tend not to put on shows. In the 1930s, Angola groups increased their protection by playing in academies and reserving the knowledge of black history for black students. The Angola game is more ‘closed’ – the legs used to protect the body during cartwheels and handstands. It is also more crafty than Regional, with the pronounced use of feints and deception. This protective element is complemented by assertion: there are Angola street rodas, but the logic is of reclaiming the space rather than demonstrating capoeira to the people who might be in that space.

The institutionalisation of the academy era renegotiated the relationship between capoeira and the state, but also distributed security through changes in social relationships of power. Mestre Bimba was black and his students included many whites from the middle-classes. His authority over them – charismatic, reputational and physical power – contributed to the processes that were redefining social interaction and identity in early 20th century Brazil.

The popularity of capoeira Regional across Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s (at a time that Angola was in abeyance) extended the reach of capoeira across socio-economic classes and racial groups. This is seen by some as compromising in that capoeira was appropriated by the more powerful classes. It is a charge has weight in that some mestres were marginalised by the processes by which capoeira gained popularity, and also in that the cultural impact of capoeira was not matched by political or economic change. Within the game, though, the discourse is maintained and continuously re-asserted and re-communicated through the musical and somatic languages of training and rodas.  

Unimagined outcomes - what would the world be like without capoeira?

In conventional security terminology, capoeiristas relinquished some of their freedom in return for security from the state. They relinquished the freedom to live outside the law, fighting in the street and using lethal blows or weapons. Capoeira is still, though, strongly associated with freedom. Through the game, its history and community, capoeiristas enjoy an intense freedom of expression and association. It is a freedom that is meaningful in the roda and in life, because of or in spite of other constraints that people face.

Disappointed by the Golden Law abolishing slavery, freedom is purposefully investigated through capoeira, particularly as it relates to security. The stories of Zumbi dos Palmares, the fighters in the Paraguay war, and the ‘battle’ of Camugerê bring together freedom and agency: this is attack and escape! It celebrates people taking an active role in their freedom rather than having it granted to them by the powerful, and it has an enduring legacy. Attack initiates change through the challenge and renegotiation that it initiates. Escape not only frees the individual from a particular situation, it entails political escape from an inevitable future. Attack (kicks and take-downs) and escape (esquiva and negativa) comprise much of the game of capoeira.

The key strength of capoeira’s knowledge and power is that by changing individual or political trajectories, capoeira has forged unimagined outcomes, including security outcomes. At the beginning of the 20th century it would have been hard for anyone to imagine that Afro-Brazilian culture could impact on the dominant Brazilian identity. Galm writes that the “berimbau became less visible… due in part to dominant social pressures that strived to distance Brazil from its legacy of slavery” (Galm 2010, 161). At the beginning of the 21st century it is hard to imagine Brazil with no capoeira, samba or Candomblé. The security that the state would have allowed if unchallenged would have been physically, politically and culturally disempowering for people.

Creation of knowledge/power

The centrality of attack and escape to capoeira means that alongside the compromises of institutionalisation, capoeira has maintained its counter-hegemonic discourse. It presents elements of Africa and slavery, and of workers, the marginalised and the lower classes. Within the tactical counter-hegemonic narrative, there is a creative strategy.

The development of capoeira is not a random or determined event. Mestre Bimba was not simply a practitioner but a creative force in developing and promoting the Regional style as was Pastinha with the Angolan style. Both mestres created discourses of capoeira that granted players access to forms of knowledge. Foucault argues that discourses “act to both constrain and enable what we can know” (McHoul & Grace 1997); the ways in which capoeira presents and represents its origins and history reproduces knowledge of them and with it, power.

Ultimately, then capoeira embodies a (non-conventional) strategy because it generates space for identity, belonging, improvisation and expression. It performs a protective function – of the game and life of capoeira. It has established the significance of black history in the contemporary Brazilian identity. Capoeiristas adopt different relationships with power and may or may not offer resistance and defiance to the state – but in becoming a game, a cultural icon, and a way of life it states: I am me! Let’s hang out! That is a strong declaration in the face of what the state was trying to deny.


Cooper, N. (2011) Humanitarian Arms Control and Processes of Securitisation: Moving Weapons Along the Security Continuum.

Galm, E. (2010). The Berimbau. Soul of Brazilian Music. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi.

Fierke, K. M. (2007). Critical Approaches to International Security. Cambridge and Malden, Polity.

McHoul, A. W. and W. Grace (1997). A Foucault primer: discourse, power and the subject. New York, New York University Press.