Monday, 23 July 2012


Why is this so much fun?

Researching anarcho-magicalism is intellectually exciting and I’m grateful to Nathalie Wlodarczyk for her brilliant book, Magic and Warfare, which brings data from fighters in Sierra Leone. There is a lot of magic in capoeira and it is a powerful vector of security.

Security studies is not conventionally concerned with magic. Its centrepiece of strategic rationality establishes what Lacy refers to as ‘networks of realism.’ As Lacy argues, these tend to block out consideration of non-conventional threats – environmental collapse, for example. Much, much further out is the realm of magic!

It is important not to be discouraged by this! In any culture, tattoos, prayers and the attribution of power to inanimate objects (lucky socks!) are routine and can boost self-belief or give meaning to violence or sacrifice. Magic relates to security through its association with protection, and with increasing influence and liberation. From the perspective of the weaker, it can disrupt the established order of things: for this reason I am using the term ‘anarcho-magicalism.’

The what: mandinga, dendê & axé

There is no standardised rubric for any part of capoeira. Like other elements of the game – the significance of history, the tactics, the identity of the capoeirista – there are variations in people’s relationship with magic.

Pandeiro with fitas

There is remarkably little paraphernalia in capoeira; there are instruments and you need at least six foot square to play in, but beyond that there is no obligatory kit. Correspondingly, there are a few physical representations of magic: some capoeiristas wear patuas (amulets), or fitas (ribbons) that conform to or evoke certain social or religious codes, make things more fun and more beautiful, and give people identity and confidence.

There are some claims to magical powers; the quasi-mythological figure of Besouro got his name – ‘Beetle’ – from his ability fly away. This ambiguous physical form is a common motif in West African (and many other) cultures and is picked up in ladainhas: “I change into a coral-snake and give a poisonous bite that doctors cannot cure” (CD Mestres Bimba e Cabecinha). The practice of changing form, though, is not part of the game of capoeira and forms a magical atmosphere rather than the performance of magic itself.

There are, though, other forms of magic made with the body and the music that are fundamental to the mechanisms of the game. I will briefly describe three here: mandinga, dendê and axé. No attempt to place parameters on these concepts will satisfy everyone’s understanding or interpretation, but I’ll try to indicate where these forms of magic are located.

Mandinga is fundamental to capoeira and takes it’s name from a West African ethnic group. It is the magic that a person performs in the roda as a ritual honour, and to distract or spook the other player. It is released through the style of play, sometimes by tracing signs on the floor or with the hands (which bear strong resemblance to some of the moves made in Candomblé ceremonies), or by using the movement of the body to play around with the other person emotionally, and laying claim to the tone of the game. It is referred to in song, for example, “release the mandinga!” – particularly if players are engaging in too straight a game, and “I’m not giving anyone my mandinga!”

Dendê is an ingredient of the game. It is also an ingredient in food: it is a kind of palm oil used in Bahian cooking and is used in food offered to the Orixás. An English equivalent that nearly captures its meaning and use would be ‘spice.’ According to a corrido, Bahia has dendê; in fact pretty much anything connected to capoeira, including people, can be described as having dendê – and it’s a good thing!

Axé is the life force, the energy that flows during the game, when people sing unreservedly or play instruments, when they smile and hug. This is a creative force that generates fun, expresses feelings and liberates. It is not often mentioned explicitly in songs (although there is one that attests, ‘you have to have axé’), but it is present. In a song that is apparently about a pandeiro (tambourine) and a viola (small berimbau), the singer proffers, “I bring the force of the earth, I bring the force of the sea.” The ability to express this somatically and musically is axé.

The how: protection, influence & liberation

I have written about protection in former blogs and the invocation of luck is consonant with the perspective of the weaker and the quarters called on for protection. The three kinds of magic considered here, though, perform more powerful political and security roles: those of influencing others (getting others to do your will is one definition of power), and of self-empowerment.

The ability to influence others through mandinga, dendê and axé is significant in security terms because they do not rely on the use or threat of force. Magic is executed with facial, bodily or lyrical expression, by the timbre of a singing voice or by the movement of the body.

Despite a silence on magic in security studies, it is of utmost importance: charisma is possibly the unifying characteristic of political leaders and its influence exceeds that of persuasion or rational thought. People who are able to galvanise groups, stir emotions, be loved by everyone at the same time, make people belief without recourse to evidence – these people have axé. The path of history is often changed in moment of irrationality: when rational judgement is suspended by oratory powers of charisma.

The ability to empower oneself is also important to security. There is self-expression in historical continuity and identity, and capoeira has social and political functions in transmitting historical and contemporary messages. Its power as a vector, though, does not lie in its political earnestness. Capoeira persists and enthrals people because it has dendê – it is fun. It is not at all like doing history homework!

The physical exhilaration, creativity and interactive improvisation of capoeira are themselves empowering. It is acknowledged by capoeiristas that magic brings responsibilities: a common refrain is “quem não pode com mandinga, não carrega patua” – “if you can’t deal with the magic, don’t wear an amulet.” One ladainha couples this with another comment: “if you can’t improvise, leave it to those who can” (CD Mestre Canjiquinha e Waldemar). This gives a vital clue about how it all works: magic is about creativity – it comes from inside! As Mestre Valmir puts it in the video ‘Tem dendê’, “capoeira doesn’t go in – capoeira comes out” (Apolo 2011).

The why!

Magic is not defined simply by being rationally inexplicable, it also has the power to change things: noises to songs, movements to games, words to lyrics, randomness to meaning and enjoyment. Magic also makes things: atmospheres, games, camaraderie. And it is anarchic because it is not bound or defined by progress, profit or logic. Its mechanisms of elation, liberation and energy confound sterile experimentation.

Including charisma and creativity in an analysis of security brings into focus the relationship between what is profoundly valued – in others and in oneself – and action. Creativity and expression through charisma emerge through spending time doing what one values and finds fulfilling. These things generate energy, community and significance. From the perspective of magic, the irrational behaviour is the rest – the parts of life that are not lived in accordance with values; life that is conservative or containing. Life that is calculating or predicated on fear and threat. Many things that, in other circles, pass for rationally strategic behaviour.

Not magic - one of Salvador´s largest
shopping centres claims to make you happy


Apolo, F. (2011), Histórias da Bahia. A ladainha tem dendê. Capoeira Angola.

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

Wlodarczyk, N. (2009), Magic and Warfare: Appearance and Reality in Contemporary African Conflict and Beyond. New York, Palgrave MacMillan.

Thursday, 5 July 2012



There are elements of the thief in capoeira – the use of deception to trick the other player and the tactical use of space and resources. I now want to extend the concept of instrumental rationality to include counter-rationality: forms of rationality that do not conform to the dominant notion but nonetheless render goals that are significant and valued.

Luis Renato Vieira argues that vadiação – vagrancy – and deception in capoeira generate a second reality to Western rationality and efficiency (Röhrig Assunção 2005, 116). Similarly, Abib theorises a ‘differentiated logic’ and ‘ambiguous strategy’ at work in capoeira (Abib 2004), which are deliberately baffling. These are two contributions to the exploration of counter-rationality.


Malícia is where tactics meet counter-rationality. It is akin to trickery, but it makes a virtue and an art of deception: the use of malícia in capoeira proposes a different set of values and goals.

Malícia stems from the perspective of the weaker party and aims to outwit the stronger. Capoeira is about intelligence, not brute force and there is a degree of heroism in the confidence that the weaker will find a way round or a way out. A ladainha makes the observation: God did not give intelligence to the wolf and the cobra cannot fly. What is all that body worth without a head to think with? (CD Mestre João Pequeno/ FICA songbook p7)

Micky-taking is the thin end of the wedge: “The king’s crown is not made of gold or silver, my friend – it’s made of tin!” Malícia is a constant playful presence in games: setting up expectations and then confounding them, jokey interaction followed by a forceful kick or takedown and a smile, persistent needling to confuse or wear through the other person’s resources by attrition. Malícia is not mentioned in songs – it is implicit, part of the fundamentos of capoeira, particularly Capoeira Angola.


Sign for the capoeira academy - for those arriving on their hands

Canjiquinha opens his book, ‘Alegria da capoeira’: “1. When reading this book, don’t be guided by the punctuation marks you find in it. 2. Sometimes, there are contradictory assertions on the same page. Don’t be fooled. That’s how it is. Capoeira is a game of double meaning. It has two sides that are hardly ever really distinct” (Canjiquinha 1989,2).

Riddles are a common feature of capoeira songs, and build up the counter-rationality. They reflect on the tricksy and fickle way of the world and the need to respond accordingly. Some riddling is serious, presenting the puzzles of the cosmic order and the distribution of wealth. Riddles are used in ladainhas to assert the worth, strength or innocence of capoeiristas in the face of accusations to the contrary by those in power.

There are also more light-hearted riddly statements made: ‘the chicken has two wings but it doesn’t have two gizzards’; ‘when I go, you come. When I come, you go.’ There are riddles in corridos as well. In the song ‘Paranà é’ presents two apparently unrelated riddles in consecutive verses: “I make a knot and tie the end, no one knows how to untie it” and “I am an arm of the tide, but I am the infinite tide.’ These perplexing or idiosyncratic situations are not resolved, they are simply observations on the contradictory nature of life.

There are also explicit critiques of science made in a riddly way. It is worth quoting the ladainha ‘I am free like the wind’ at length ([Cordel: Riachão] CD Mestres Boca Rica e Bigodinho/ FICA songbook p13).

“Você diz que tem ciência            “You say that science exists
Me de uma explicação                  So explain this -
Como é que em doze horas         How it is that in twelve hours
Há uma transformação.                There’s a transformation.
Não é o sol quem se move           It’s not the sun that moves
Este e fixo em seu lugar               - that’s fixed in its place.
A terra ta sobre o eixo                   The earth is on an axis
E o eixo faz rodar                           and the axis spins it.
Uma cobra tão pequena               A snake that is so small
Mata um boi agigantado”              Kills a huge bull”

Faced with such a line of questioning the scientist who is being addressed is likely to reach for a large gin. It is not quite that the questions are too difficult, but the ladainha applies a rasteira to rationality – sweeping the rational feet away. It is destabilising because it appears interested in science but then does not grace the dominant rationality with a cogent investigation (which would be submission).

A rasteira -
From Jair Moura (2009) “A capoeiragem no Rio de Janeiro através dos séculos.
JM Grafica e Editora Ltda, Salvador/Bahia.


A third aspect of counter-rationality is chance: the belief that things happen for random reasons or for no reason. The corrido ‘oh sim sim sim, oh não não não’ is defined by the verse: ‘Today I have it, tomorrow no.’ No explanation is proffered for this unhappy turn of events. Life for slaves or the severely marginalised is routinely disoriented: work is not related to money and there is no insurance or compensation in case of attack. Life itself is largely determined by luck. A ladainha recounts the disembarkation of slaves with the words, ‘Africans arriving by chance, or having died on the crossing.”

This theme is explored in the ladainha ‘Eu tive um Sonho’/’I had a dream’ (CD FICA), in which the singer relates having a dream that he was rich. It goes on to explain that in reality he works in a coffee plantation to earn money to buy capoeira clothes and to make a berimbau. But, the ladainha recounts, that too was a dream and he was robbed of his earnings. That’s the end!

Chance is linked to the cosmic order – still with no explanation. Love God, but be careful. “He makes one person rich, another poor. He makes one blind, another maimed. He made Solomon king, and he made Saint Peter a soldier.” The ladainha records no outrage at this distribution of grace, though. It ends, “I’m going a long way away. I’m going close to my God” (FICA CD).

Crooked world, crooked way

The use of malícia and riddles, and the acceptance of chance generates a consistent message: it’s not me that’s wrong – it’s the world. And a counter approach is needed in order to survive the twisted order and ‘rationality’ imposed by the powerful.

The confusion of the capoeirista is commonly expressed: Mestre Paulo dos Anjos’ ladainha ‘Fickle world’ starts out ‘I don’t know what to do to live in this world’ and lists the tensions he experiences: ‘if I’m clean [people say] I’m cunning, if I’m dirty [people say] I’m filthy” (CD Mestre Paulo dos Anjos). Others follow similar formats: “I don’t know how to live in this fickle world. If I talk a lot, I’m talkative, if I talk a little I’m sly.” (CD Mestres Cajiquinha e Waldemar). This ladainha ends intriguingly: “I’m always telling you that envy killed Cain.” Cain killed Abel, but what did Cain die of? The Bible doesn’t tell us, but we can work it out. There are whole untold truths to be uncovered by taking a counter-rational step away from the dominant version of events.

Counter-rationalities challenge conventional analyses of decision-making. The notion of ‘strategic rationality’ dominates understanding of security but assumes access to information and power. If one or both of these elements are missing, the decision-making process is changed. If underlying values do not conform to the supposition of conventional strategic behaviour the model is further adrift.

During the Cold War, US strategists established increasingly complex game-theory models to predict the decisions that the USSR would take. The need to understand the enemy has a long history in security thinking. On the other hand, attempting to understand populations for whom security is to be provided – through demobilisation programmes, peace agreements, power-sharing arrangements – is often overlooked. Frequently, too, such programmes are rejected or fail to establish security. Recognising counter-rationalities establishes the intellectual ground for analysing action that does not comply with conventional assumptions of strategy.


Abib, P. R. J. (2004). Capoeira Angola: Cultura popular e o jogo dos saberes na roda. Campinas-São Paulo, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Faculdade de Educação, Doutorado em Ciências Sociais Aplicadas à Educação.,%20cultura%20popular%20e%20jogos%20dos%20saberes%20na%20roda-Pedro%20Abib.pdf.

Canjiquinha (1989). Alegria da capoeira, Fundação Cultural do Estado da Bahia.

Röhrig Assunção, M. (2005). Capoeira. The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art. London and New York, Routledge.