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.


  1. At first I began to think about connections between Capoeira and Tango (this on long dark nights flying back from Buenos Aires, with Santiago away in the distance). The more I read of this diary, the more I realise that there are few, if any, points of contact - this is a wholly elusive and magical world. Thank you for sharing both the scholarly and the immediate!

    Best, Mike

  2. Hey Mike! I don~t know much about Tango but there are probably points of contact because ultimately everything is capoeira! But the fascination with decking your partner may not help much on the tango floor! xx

  3. "Decking your partner"...must run that by my teacher in Buenos Aires fact, there is a theory that some of the more elaborate leg moves derive from a sort of ritualised kicking combat (yes, really!). And there is a huge gangster-like subplot to tango with origins in the dockside/bordello origins of the dance - like capoeira, it drew from from myriad immigrant influences. "Everything is capoeira"? Now there's food for thought!

    1. Enjoy Buenos Aires - and good luck to all your dancing partners now you are sneaking over to the capoeira side!! xx

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