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.




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