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.

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