Friday, 22 June 2012


Playing in the available space
Communicative rationality functions alongside instrumental rationality, and can itself be instrumental in some ways. This blog and the two that follow will explore instrumental rationalities within the game and history of capoeira. This blog looks at tactics – the gains that can be made within the available space and according to which the weaker party conforms to the same rationality as the dominant party. A destitute thief and a rich person may have different perspectives on the law but agree on the value of money.

De Certeau differentiates between strategy and tactics, whereby strategy involves the ability to command and shape and environment. Conversely, “The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power… It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow… It is a guileful ruse… In short, a tactic is an art of the weak” (de Certeau 1984, 37).

Attack! Escape!

The history of capoeira and the identity of the capoeirista derives from the perspective of the weaker party: it was developed in slave communities and then among people who were politically and economically marginalised.

Contrary to other martial arts and mainstream security thinking, there is little notion of defence. People talk about defence in capoeira but there is no block. Players swipe away kicks that have not come to full force, but they do not stand in the way. The key defensive tactic in capoeira is escape – esquiva: ducking the kick, or moving to the side or behind. This allows the game to continue. As Mestre Poncianinho observes: ‘escape is infinite.’ In security terms, having an infinite resource is helpful.

from Alexandre Robatto’s 1954 film ‘Vadiação’; photo displayed in Forte de Santo Antonio

The game of capoeira is not role-play, and there are strategies that are employed within the characteristically tactical context: players try to dominate space and the stronger player has some advantages. Of greater significance, though, is malandragem – being streetwise. Capoeira is a streetfighting art: songs celebrate no wrong step, no move in vain. The kicks are not the point; the point is to take down the other person, preferably using a rasteira – a sweep – something that goes under the radar and takes away the other person’s feet when they are attacking. As a corrido puts it, “tough guy, I’ll give you a rasteira and put you on the ground!” (FICA songbook p27).


Santo Antonio – He’s a busy man
Protection is a recurrent theme in the moves and the songs, reflecting the vulnerability of the weaker party. All moves involve an element of protection – the capoeirista can be attacked at any moment: one hand always protects the face, and the body is protected by being ‘closed’ – using the legs or arms to protect the torso.

There is a strong theme of protection in the songs too. A commonly sung corrido is ‘Saint Antonio is the protector’: firstly protector of Noah’s ark, then of capoeira, quite often of Salvador, and finally of love! Orixás, too are called on for protection, either by name or by allusion. The corrido “my mermaid, queen of the sea, don’t let my boat capsize’ is addressed to Yemanja, Orixá of the sea, often depicted as a mermaid.

Yemanja taking care of a boat
God is another source of protection: “a little with God is a lot. A lot without God is nothing” (Retrato da Bahia. CD Mestre Paulo dos Anjos). The ladainha ‘Iê Senhor Bom Deus’ (‘Oh Lord Good God’ – sorry, this one is really lost in translation!) (FICA CD track 3) makes clear allusion to the Lord’s Prayer, but is a honed-down version, especially for capoeiristas! Firstly, ‘make me a good capoeirista’ (with the usual ambiguity between the game and life). It then misses the majority of the prayer and cuts to the protective elements: deliver me from temptation, all evil and my enemies. It concludes with a prayer for protection.

Reducing vulnerability

The identity of the capoeirista is a ‘small’ one: ‘pequeno sou eu’ – ‘I’m small’ is a constant refrain, especially in chulas (the songs sung between the ladainha and the corrido). But the diminutive size of the capoeirista amplifies the size of the protector: ‘Maior e deus!’ – ‘God is great.’ That reduces vulnerability.

The animals invoked in moves and songs also signal an element of vulnerability. They are not predatory: they are frogs, monkeys and birds, not big cats, bears or wolves. In ladainhas there are frequent references to being wary or careful: ‘I don’t go to your house, you don’t come to mine’; ‘I say my prayers with a knife in my belt.’ By allusion too, the capoeirista is often threatened: ‘the German canary killed my songbird.’

Sapinho – want to play?

In this threatened role, the priority of reducing vulnerability is higher than that of increasing influence. Besouro de Mangangá – ‘Beetle’ is the name of a quasi-mythical capoeirista (some say he is mythical. Mestre Joao Pequeno, when asked about him said, ‘yes, he was my father’s cousin’). The beetle has a protective shell but is small and does not pose a threat. It can fly away though (and Besouro is credited with the ability to fly when pursued by the police), so it is able to outwit and destabilise its persecutor.


“The boat capsized, sailor! There is treasure on the ocean floor!” – corrido.

Head above water? Missing opportunities!

Nancy Scheper-Hughes has written about psychological responses to violence and theorises resilience as the ‘refusal to be negated’ (Scheper-Hughes 1992, 19). A short ladainha observes, “The miner bird doesn’t sing when it’s in a cage. It only sings when it’s by the anthill and sees an ant outside!”

Resilience is a subject that is taken up in Claudia Seymour’s ground-breaking work on young people’s experiences of violence in eastern Congo, in which she explores how people cope in various ways and to various degrees with incessant violence. She finds, amongst other things, that the way that people recount their own histories is significant in attributing responsibility and meaning to violence. In capoeira, too, the preservation of cultural identity and the tactics used in the game demonstrate a strong form of resilience: you smile in adversary, if you are taken down you get up, if you are taken down again you get up again. You look the other person in the eye. You sing.

There is a clear instrumental rationality in staying in the game (literally or figuratively) by whatever means, and this has some lessons for the pursuit of security. Mearsheimer identifies the inability of states to cooperate as the ‘Tragedy of Great Power Politics.’ The reason, he argues is that ‘it pays to be selfish in a self-help world’ – both in the short and the long term (Mearsheimer 2002, 33). The ‘tragedy’ as far as great powers is concerned, is of political stalemate and environmental collapse. But a much more immediate ‘tragedy’ faces weaker states: that of political, cultural or literal obliteration. The tactical responses offered in and by capoeira inform an understanding of the quest for security for the majority of the world. Escaping, seeking protection, reducing vulnerability and refusing to be negated are tactics that start to fill some of the conceptual void created by the assumptions of conventional security studies – assumptions of strategic rationality and power.


de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life, University of California Press.

Mearsheimer, J. J. (2002). The tragedy of great power politics. New York London, W. W. Norton.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Capoeira sou eu! Capoeira I am!

A poetic context of Africa and slavery is complemented by a more recent and literal history of market, dock and farm workers. Considering Habermas’ notion of communicative rationality, Miller argues that, “Common understandings arrived at consensually provide the basis for a morally valued way of life and the construction of collective identities that transcend the individual” (Miller 1992, 29). This blog will be looking at capoeira identities that derive from common understandings.

Menino, quem foi seu mestre? Kid, who’s your mestre?

Capoeira preserves few names before the 20th century, and those that survive have quasi-mythical status. From the early 1930s onwards, capoeira was taken from the street to the Academy. This allowed for more formalised histories and hierarchies within groups and mestres are celebrated in song, among them Bimba, Pastinha, Waldemar and João Grande.

Preserving names in this way is consistent with an oral history. It also cements the significance of the mestre and the importance of descent. The question ‘kid, who was your mestre’ (related in songs) presents the status of a capoeirista as the child of a history and is the first question that is asked of anyone visiting an academy. The figure of the mestre is mixed in with family line: there is a strong notion of being ‘son’ or ‘grandson’ of – invariably male – lineages. The ladainha ‘Tradition’ includes the assertion, “Whoever has no father or mestre also has no tradition” (CD GCAP 3).

The notion of ancestry is reinforced by rituals that are performed in various ways: some academies honour the birthdays of past mestres, some have ‘baptisms’, some include in this the use of capoeira names – apelidos. Baptisms establish identity within a capoeira family and in doing so ritually reclaim space from Catholic church, which forced slaves to be baptized, disorienting them from their familial roots.

There is also some ground seized from the state. Capoeira does not render a national identity. Foreigners can play capoeira and become accomplished without any aspiration to being Brazilian. Brazil is scarcely mentioned in capoeira: the geographic setting is Bahia – and the geographical parameters are set by the sea not the state. The identity derived from capoeira comes from Salvador, Bahia or Angola, not from Brazil.

Power is also reconfigured. A ladainha on Mestre Pastinha’s CD includes the lines, “If you want to learn, come to Salvador and get in touch with Mestre Pastinha, he is the best teacher.” Another song claims, “I’ve never seen anyone better than Mr Bimba!” Within the group, the authority of the mestre is unquestioned and there is an associated responsibility in the guidance given within a relationship of confidence. The generation of status and respect that are distinct from and – formerly – contrary to the state establishes a community and source of support that shifts the distribution of power.

Angola & Regional

In discussing identity, some consideration is needed of the two major strands of capoeira. The ‘Regional Fight of Bahia’ known as Capoeira Regional was established by Mestre Bimba’s academy in 1932 and brought the combative elements to the fore. Around the same time, Mestre Pastinha opened an academy for ‘Capoeira Angola,’ placing greater store by the African roots and ritual elements of the game.

Filhos de Bimba, heirs of M Bimba

There are significant differences between the two schools in the music, games, values and histories. Angola and Regional function as concurrent universes of capoeira, with scarcely any acknowledgement of each other. ‘Contemporary capoeira’ is influenced by both schools and cites both styles or both founding fathers in its songs. I have come across only one reference in Capoeira Angola to Capoeira Regional. The song, ‘Tudo é diferente na Angola’/‘Everything is different in Angola’ seems to be an implicit comparison to Regional: the details are, ‘the viola responds to the gunga (referring to the conventions of interaction between the berimbaus); the berimbau is tuned; the game is low.’ (I don’t think it’s talking about the country).

GCAP - heirs of M Pastinha

Few capoeiristas are born into their capoeira line. Most choose their group and identities are constructed through the conventions and values of the group: the sway of the ginga (the core capoeira movement), the composition of the batería, Angoleiros wear yellow and black and train in hat and shoes, Regional schools have various colours but no shoes or hat. Regional schools have coloured belts to indicate level; Angoleiros ask how many years of training you have. Regional players enter the roda with exuberance; Angoleiros engage in ritual and then sneak in warily. I am not making an exhaustive comparison of the two schools, merely indicating some of the many ways in which identities are reproduced within and across groups.

Both the Regional and the Angolan branches of capoeira have universalising discourses: Regional popularised capoeira, for the first time training whites and people from the middle class, and arguably saving capoeira from obscurity. Pastinha also insisted that anyone could learn – asserting ‘capoeira is for men, women and children’ – but was keen to save capoeira from popularisation. He was specifically inclusive: one of his ladainhas states that generals and doctors can learn – but they need to submit to capoeira’s conventions. It’s the difference between taking capoeira to the people and bringing the people to capoeira.


“Capoeira is my name
Capoeira is in my blood
Capoeira is to live well” (CD GCAP 3/ FICA songbook p17)

Capoeiristas are descendents of a general and particular lineage and, through their participation in orality and tradition, they become part of it. By joining a group they become integrated into its history and assume various duties of commitment and behaviour. They are responsible for the t-shirt they wear; when visiting other academies they are implicitly representing their group and their mestre.

Capoeira draws on – and feeds into – community (maintained by common exclamations ‘vamos vadiar’, ‘vamos embora’ – let’s play capoeira), but it is not a team sport. The realization of ancestry and training is the game that takes place in the roda, and that is about the individual and what he or she can do. Capoeira is not simply about presentation of history or the representation of a group or its conventions. Ultimately it is about self-presentation: how the capoeirista interacts with conventions, tests them and extends them through improvisation, creativity and expression. ‘Capoeira sou eu!’ It is personal – it is never ‘we are,’ it is always ‘I am!’

‘I have no superior, I am the son of freedom.
I’m not recounting my life, because there’s no need.
I am not on the run, and you are not the authority” (CD Mestre Canjiquinha e Waldemar/ FICA songbook p9)


Miller, B. (1992). "Collective action and rational choice. Place, community and the limits to individual self-interest." Economic Geography 68(1): 22-42.