Tuesday, 7 August 2012

How has security been distributed through capoeira?

“Quem bate não se lembra, quem apanha não se esquece”
“The one who gives the beating doesn’t remember, the one who is beaten doesn’t forget”

Security relates to interests and power bases and, according to Fierke, "assumes a field of relationships, including a threatener, the threatened, the protector or means of protection, and the protected" (Fierke 2007, 46). This provides a helpful template for analysing the distribution of security. How have these relationships of threat and protection been changed by capoeira?


The institutionalisation of capoeira is a dominant part of the contemporary experience. In academies, rodas start on time, follow defined conventions, and there is no malicious violence. Students comply with the trappings of the institution, including the authority of the mestre, the rituals of instrumentation and music, and the use of uniforms. Institutionalisation is reinforced by the continuous assertion of identity, often through implicit or explicit differentiation with other academies, practices and strands of capoeira.

FUMEB, Filhos de Bimba in Salvador

This institutionalisation stems from Mestre Bimba who performed capoeira to the Governor of Bahia in the late 1930s. In communicative terms this was significant: through capoeira, Mestre Bimba was communicating with the non-capoeira world and with the power that posed the direct threat. There was a risk involved in opening communications: capoeira was still illegal at the time and Mestre Bimba had already founded his academy.

The communication that Mestre Bimba established with the political hierarchy and the institutionalisation that stemmed from it had the effect of reducing both the threats that the state posed to capoeira players and the threat that capoeira players posed to the state. In Cooper’s term’s capoeira was de-securitised (Cooper 2010). Regional Groups maintain communication as part of their tradition. They put on demonstrations and, within the game, the style has more extroverted elements of performance. The more ‘open’ game relies on rhythm and, in addition to its technical and competitive aspects, can allow for collaborative interaction, including the use of choreographed or semi-choreographed sequences.

Angola groups tend not to put on shows. In the 1930s, Angola groups increased their protection by playing in academies and reserving the knowledge of black history for black students. The Angola game is more ‘closed’ – the legs used to protect the body during cartwheels and handstands. It is also more crafty than Regional, with the pronounced use of feints and deception. This protective element is complemented by assertion: there are Angola street rodas, but the logic is of reclaiming the space rather than demonstrating capoeira to the people who might be in that space.

The institutionalisation of the academy era renegotiated the relationship between capoeira and the state, but also distributed security through changes in social relationships of power. Mestre Bimba was black and his students included many whites from the middle-classes. His authority over them – charismatic, reputational and physical power – contributed to the processes that were redefining social interaction and identity in early 20th century Brazil.

The popularity of capoeira Regional across Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s (at a time that Angola was in abeyance) extended the reach of capoeira across socio-economic classes and racial groups. This is seen by some as compromising in that capoeira was appropriated by the more powerful classes. It is a charge has weight in that some mestres were marginalised by the processes by which capoeira gained popularity, and also in that the cultural impact of capoeira was not matched by political or economic change. Within the game, though, the discourse is maintained and continuously re-asserted and re-communicated through the musical and somatic languages of training and rodas.  

Unimagined outcomes - what would the world be like without capoeira?

In conventional security terminology, capoeiristas relinquished some of their freedom in return for security from the state. They relinquished the freedom to live outside the law, fighting in the street and using lethal blows or weapons. Capoeira is still, though, strongly associated with freedom. Through the game, its history and community, capoeiristas enjoy an intense freedom of expression and association. It is a freedom that is meaningful in the roda and in life, because of or in spite of other constraints that people face.

Disappointed by the Golden Law abolishing slavery, freedom is purposefully investigated through capoeira, particularly as it relates to security. The stories of Zumbi dos Palmares, the fighters in the Paraguay war, and the ‘battle’ of Camugerê bring together freedom and agency: this is attack and escape! It celebrates people taking an active role in their freedom rather than having it granted to them by the powerful, and it has an enduring legacy. Attack initiates change through the challenge and renegotiation that it initiates. Escape not only frees the individual from a particular situation, it entails political escape from an inevitable future. Attack (kicks and take-downs) and escape (esquiva and negativa) comprise much of the game of capoeira.

The key strength of capoeira’s knowledge and power is that by changing individual or political trajectories, capoeira has forged unimagined outcomes, including security outcomes. At the beginning of the 20th century it would have been hard for anyone to imagine that Afro-Brazilian culture could impact on the dominant Brazilian identity. Galm writes that the “berimbau became less visible… due in part to dominant social pressures that strived to distance Brazil from its legacy of slavery” (Galm 2010, 161). At the beginning of the 21st century it is hard to imagine Brazil with no capoeira, samba or Candomblé. The security that the state would have allowed if unchallenged would have been physically, politically and culturally disempowering for people.

Creation of knowledge/power

The centrality of attack and escape to capoeira means that alongside the compromises of institutionalisation, capoeira has maintained its counter-hegemonic discourse. It presents elements of Africa and slavery, and of workers, the marginalised and the lower classes. Within the tactical counter-hegemonic narrative, there is a creative strategy.

The development of capoeira is not a random or determined event. Mestre Bimba was not simply a practitioner but a creative force in developing and promoting the Regional style as was Pastinha with the Angolan style. Both mestres created discourses of capoeira that granted players access to forms of knowledge. Foucault argues that discourses “act to both constrain and enable what we can know” (McHoul & Grace 1997); the ways in which capoeira presents and represents its origins and history reproduces knowledge of them and with it, power.

Ultimately, then capoeira embodies a (non-conventional) strategy because it generates space for identity, belonging, improvisation and expression. It performs a protective function – of the game and life of capoeira. It has established the significance of black history in the contemporary Brazilian identity. Capoeiristas adopt different relationships with power and may or may not offer resistance and defiance to the state – but in becoming a game, a cultural icon, and a way of life it states: I am me! Let’s hang out! That is a strong declaration in the face of what the state was trying to deny.


Cooper, N. (2011) Humanitarian Arms Control and Processes of Securitisation: Moving Weapons Along the Security Continuum.

Galm, E. (2010). The Berimbau. Soul of Brazilian Music. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi.

Fierke, K. M. (2007). Critical Approaches to International Security. Cambridge and Malden, Polity.

McHoul, A. W. and W. Grace (1997). A Foucault primer: discourse, power and the subject. New York, New York University Press.


  1. This is interesting. Great post! I agree with the idea that the older regional players gave up some of their freedom in order to gain some security from the state. I see this now with players who train in academies compared to the wandering player who moves from city to city never abiding to one groups' rules. They have total freedom, but not really much security from a group.

    At least, I think that's part of what I understood here. Haha! If I misunderstood, please correct me!

    1. Thanks for the comments! Yes, I think people who train with one group have a real security of style as well - they have the same fundamental training as their group-mates and can play really intense games. It´s where cooperation meets competition, and conceptually I think that has a lot in common with security.

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