Thursday, 24 May 2012

Soldier, Sailor

Africa, as a continent, but more as a concept, ideal or set of values, gives the context for capoeira. There is a more recent history that is also communicated through the songs and movements of capoeira. This is a history of heroic capoeiristas and their – often military – exploits, and of ordinary capoeiristas and their daily lives.
From Africa, with sunshine!
I got back to Salvador from Kilombo Tenonde and found a postcard from a friend in Madagascar! It took a month to arrive and seems to be evidence of a big world out there!


There are a few songs in capoeira that are traced to military battles. Paranaé – perhaps the most widely sung capoeira song – references the involvement of slaves in the war against Paraguay (1865-70) in which many capoeiristas were enlisted.

The participation of capoeiristas in historic battles places them central to the history of Brazil – and as a function of their martial art, which was illegal at the time. This was also a moment of liberation: capoeirstas were promised freedom on the misplaced assumption that they would not survive the fighting. The song: “I won the battle of Camugerê,” also recalls a victory; in this case runaway slaves killed the slave master who was pursuing Aidê, an African enslaved woman. The recounting of these stories locates capoeira politically – in opposition to the state and slave masters. It also creates a heroic past in which capoeiristas’ exploits became decisive in their freedom from slavery.

There is a more radical critique of mainstream Brazilian history relayed by capoeira songs that debunk of the myth that slavery was abolished by the Golden Law of 1888. The argument is put succinctly in the ladainha ‘Dona Isabel, que historia e essa?’ (Madame Isabel, what history is this?). The ladainha offers an explicit counter-narrative: freedom was not given by Princess Isabel; it was Zumbi who fought for the true freedom, training heroes in the runaway settlement of Palmares. A similar line is given by the ladainha ‘Zumbi, King of Palmares,’ which begins, “history deceives us, telling us the opposite of what happened…” and elsewhere, sometimes mixed with the – contradictory – assertion that slavery has never been abolished.

Zumbi dos Palmares, statue in the Pelourinho, Salvador

Plaque by the statue

Vou vender coco, senha
A larger body of songs refers directly to the everyday lives of capoeiristas: not having the gravitas of the references to slavery or war, these more incidental histories tend to be rendered in the corridos, which are the simple songs that are sung during the roda and have a call-and-response structure. Market traders, cowboys, plantation workers, petty craftsment, dockers and sailors are represented in song. With the exception of ‘espora’ – ‘spur’, the names of moves are not derived from jobs. Cowboy songs also have direct reference to the game: ‘lasso, lasso, cowboy’ indicating the moment to strike. There is some sedimentation around the first half of the 20th century. No one is working as a call centre or a petrochemicals factory.

There is a range of trades but they are all labouring jobs: there are no bureaucrats or property owning classes in capoeira songs. The jobs cited demand bodily strength, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes notes that people who have physical work are more likely to express themselves somatically (Scheper-Hughes 1992, 187). The shapes of the moves in capoeira are expansive and demonstrative of physical form: they are devised by labourers, not by people sitting at computers or driving cars.

women in the roda (from Alexandre Robatto’s 1954 film
‘Vadiação’; photos displayed in Forte de Santo Antonio)

Practically all capoeira songs present the male perspective, reflecting the predominantly male history of the game, a predominance that continues particularly in the upper echelons of the game. There are references to female Orixás and occasionally to their associated female saints. There is also a palpable female human presence: there are very few romantic love songs, but women appear in the everyday of life. There are women market traders, there are women’s names in songs ‘sai sai Caterina’ (leave, Caterina); ‘Dona Maria, como vai voce?’; (Maria, how are you?) ‘Dona Alice, nao me pega nao,’ (Alice, don’t get me) or more generally, ‘menina,’ ‘nega,’ ‘morena,’ or ‘mulher’ – terms addressing or referring to women.


An important set of references is also made to Salvador, Bahia, the home of capoeira. There are a few mentions of Brazil (usually as the country that abolished – or didn’t – slavery), but the immediate geographical environment is frequently the subject of songs. You can literally (yes, literally) sing your way round Salvador: ‘Bahia de todos os santos’; ‘Good Jesus of Lapa!’ (an area of Salvador); ‘I’m going to Maré Island’; ‘If you want to see me, go to Piedade [Square] tomorrow’; ‘Adeus Santo Amaro’ (a town near Salvador).

Bom Jesus de Lapa-eh!
Sao Bento me chama
Saia do mar, marinheiro!


Bahia de Todos os Santos

The sea is also a constant presence in songs: as a source of fear and fish, as a vector for journeying and the source of sunken treasure, the preserve of the Orixá Yemanja, and as a feature of the city. It is also where the sting-ray lives, the ‘sting-ray’s tail’ – raba-de-arraia, being the name of a spinning kick. There is something very beautiful about playing in a roda by the beach singing, ‘Aprendi a jogar capoeira de Angola na beira do mar’ – ‘I learned to play capoeira Angola by the edge of the sea.’

The message

The perspective relayed through movement and songs is a workers’ perspective. There is not a strong class-consciousness or a unified political ideology, but there is a strong recognition of roots and social context.

References to Salvador and Bahia and the lives of extraordinary and ordinary people who live here sit within the broader context of Africa and slavery and provide local roots to capoeira. The relaying of experiences and familiar places establishes a bank of shared knowledge, experience and identity. Capoeiristas come from the street, are workers and – despite all the talk of travelling – really rather like Bahia (it’s lovely!).


Scheper-Hughes, N. (1992). Death without weeping. The violence of everyday life in Brazil. Berkeley, Oxford, University of California Press.

Thursday, 10 May 2012


You can find very similar instruments
 in the National museum in Kinshasa, Congo
The big news story is the waves. In the past week they have gone from being small and friendly to huge and very friendly. Apparently it’s now winter (it’s still extremely sunny!)

In this and the next few blogs, I’ll be presenting the knowledge that is transmitted through capoeira – the cognitive ends of the extralinguistic communication – and considering how it relates to communicative and instrumental rationality.

This blog will be looking at the references that are made to Africa and slavery, and that iteratively acknowledge these origins in capoeira and in Brazilian history. I put the word ‘Africa’ in inverted commas as the name does not refer to the continent in historical or geographical terms. Instead, a notion of ‘Africa’ is forged by capoeira that serves social and political functions.

According to the Afro-Brazilian Museum in Salvador, 4,507, 940 Africans arrived in Brazil as slaves from the beginning of Portuguese colonisation until 1851. Thousands more died en route. By way of comparison, a similar figure is put on the excess mortality rates in Congo during the wars from 1998-2002.

A double-headed agogo from Benin
 - in the Afro-Brazilian museum, Salvador


 A ladainha from Mestre Pastinha’s CD includes the lines, “Capoeira came from Africa. It was the African who brought it” (CD Mestre Pastinha/ FICA songbook p6).

There are elements of capoeira that can be regarded as ‘off-shoots’ of Africa: the instruments, the roda, the call and response singing, the incantation of ‘Iê!’. Combat games were played in parts of central and southern Africa before colonisation.

 That there are elements of African culture is not contentious: until the 1930s, capoeira was played almost exclusively by people of African descent. Music was introduced probably around the beginning of the 20th century, and as Brazilian social life was segregated, it is not surprising that African instruments were used.

 There are more explicit references to Africa: the frequent invocation of Orixás (the divinities of the West African pantheon), and the notion of a numerous family and common ancestry that they inspire. Some songs have words that are understood to be ‘African’: Nzambe (God in Lingala), Aruanda (a spiritual home in various sects and religions such as Umbanda, Quimbanda and Candomblé), Benguela (a Angolan port). There are colloquial references to race or skin colour – which is always black.

There are direct references to slavery in songs. The first ladainha I learnt in Salvador was ‘Saudade do grande mestre’ – which reflects on the experience of being enslaved and brought to Brazil. Giving a personal account – albeit poetic – it recalls to the misery and confusion of the slaves, rather than simply the physical hardship or the injustice. Corridos refer to captivity, slave-masters and their families, and plantation work.

Xangô  - Orixá of thunder and fire.
Xangô in capoeira is a backflip

There are also many songs and moves that refer to a natural environment – there are frequent references to the moon and the sun which, along with religious citations, summon a cosmic, rather than a human, order. A jungly context is given by ubiquitous mentions of forests and animals in the names of moves and in songs: monkeys, frogs, scorpions and various bird species.

Jungle cookies

In Guyana, you can buy jungle cookies. They don’t come form the jungle, though – they are baked in a factory but cut to look like jungle animals.

The Africa mix is compiled in Brazil. Orixás and agogos come from West Africa, berimbaus and atabaques (drums) come from central Africa. The pandeiro came with the Portuguese; practically all capoeira lyrics are Portuguese. And ‘Angola’ comes from Mestre Pastinha, the founding father of Capoeira Angola.

Berimbaus & pandeiro – (from Alexandre Robatto’s 1954 film ‘Vadiação’;
photos displayed in Forte de Santo Antonio

 People were brought for slave labour from Angola, but also Congo, and from West Africa – the Yoruba and Evê-Fon kingdoms. Angola is constantly invoked in Capoeira Angola songs; no other African countries are mentioned (the only exception I have come across is a corrido that relates: ‘I left Congo, I went to Angola!’). There is very occasional reference made to ‘Bantu’ which is commonly understood to include Congo and Angola, but comprises a much larger area.

What is more, slaves were brought from the interior and would not have national Angolan identity (not least because the territory was not fully established until after the end of slavery). Nor would they sing about Luanda, now the capital city, but then essentially a slave port. Slave identities would relate to kin or kingdom groups, and the lack of reference to these names is poignant: slavery disoriented heritage, and reference to broad and imposed identities, such as ‘Angolan’ preserves the dislocation of slavery rather than the more complex political reality from which people were brought.

Map showing slaving routes,
in the Afro-Brazilian museum in Salvador





If we look at the jungle scenes, we find that they are not African – the animals are South American: there are jaguars in songs not lions, cutias (a South American chipmonk) not gibbons, caimans not crocodiles. Beija-flor – the hummingbird/ one-handed handstand – lives only in the Americas. ‘Macaco’ (or ‘macaque’ in French) has an offensive colonial legacy, particularly in Congo where the Belgians referred to uneducated ‘non-evolved’ Congolese as monkeys. ‘I stepped on a dry leaf and heard it crunch’ is a story about a runaway slave concerned that the noise made by the dry leaves will give him away.


Where is Africa?

The notion of African culture, words or ancestors provides a uniting discourse for a consciousness of slavery. References to Africa have communicative rationality in establishing a base and with it a lineage and capoeira community.

It´s difficult in the city
This non-literal concept of Africa performs social and political functions. It is the watchword for the motherland and black consciousness. Africa is the refuge, the home. Lacy talks of the ‘tame zones’ of security and modernity – oppositional to the ‘wild zones’. But the wild zones of the jungle are not threatening to all; Africa is the nurturing jungle where alternative norms, hierarchies and laws exist. In capoeira, Africa (or Angola) establishes a counterpoint to the tame zones of modernity. By reference to these origins, which legitimize and provide historical significance to capoeira, an alternative way of life is established through the processes of musical, lyrical and somatic communication.


Africa is not somewhere that has been left behind. It is the other side of the kalunga – the middle passage – that continues to exist in people’s identity, religious beliefs and artistic expressions. It is the other side of death, where the ancestors live and provide guidance and protection. It has a historical function in granting meaning and continuity. But its significance is also in a continued presence: this is what makes capoeiristas who they are. And Africa is the future too: frequently it is where capoeiristas are just off to ‘I’m going back to Angola’ – to play capoeira!
Orixas by Carybé, displayed in the Afro-Brazilian museum in Salvador 



Lacy, M. J. (2003). Security and climate change : international relations and the limits of realism. London, Routledge.