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.


  1. (Received by email from Hugh)

    This is interesting on so many fronts. First, the development of capoeira is yet another demonstration of the ingenuity, resilience and resourcefulness of human beings even in the most adverse circumstances – when they are highly likely to be undervalued, even ridiculed. Second, this illustrates how the establishment of a language like capoeira gives the community cohesion and power, even military prowess – and, conversely, how when this community is destroyed (deliberately or otherwise) it loses its strength, which is an important security point. Thirdly, how essential it is to engage with this language or belief system, when dealing with, or trying to aid, a community – and that is as crucial in Congo as in Camberwell. Fourthly, how beliefs, whether or not we term them religious, shape the life of a community. It seems easier to see and analyse other people’s beliefs than our own – for instance, in the so-called West we have only just started to challenge the notion that austerity is a method of improving an economy, even though this fervently-held belief has ruined much of Africa for decades and is now threatening to do the exactly same for Europe. Keep it coming but can you also answer another burning question: how does that man keep his hat on when he’s upside down?

    1. Thanks for all those points, and sorry you had problems posting. I think you need a google account (I´m not really sure how this thing works!)

      As regards the language and community, yes, that is where I´m going with this! In security terms, the ability to understand others is well understood with regard to the enemy, but is often overlooked with regard to those who are to be protected. There will be more on this!
      As regards the hat - yes, the hat is a game within the game: keeping your hat on is one priority, knocking the other´s off can become equally important/fun. Why wear a hat when it makes things more difficult? Why stand on your hands when you could stand on your feet - there will be more on this too!

  2. Zoe, great to have some hard fact about capoeira lyrics; my Portuguese isn't up to it yet. I attempted capoeira classes, but they have stopped at the school I teach at. I miss the regular exercise, and the challenge! Just back from Bahia, which is indeed lovely, though also puzzling and depressing ... see my posts on Brasil at I did see an excellent all-female group from a samba school, DIDA, perform in the street one night, who were stupendous. I will post on them soon. Also recommend this blog on Rio Thanks again. Arnold.

  3. Hi Arnold, thanks for your comments and for the link to your blog. It looks like you've been having an interesting time too! I hope you can find a capoeira class to go to soon - it's pretty harsh to have to give it up! Zoe.