Salvador is capoeira capital! Capoeira has been played here since the early 19th century, and many of the great names in capoeira’s history have lived in Salvador. There are more capoeiristas here and less snow than in London.

On my first Saturday in Salvador, I had arranged to meet a friend at the Forte de Santo Antonio where several capoeira groups have their academies. She gave me directions from the Pelourinho, the historic centre. I checked my guidebook and it acknowledged the significance of the Forte de Santo Antonio – but showed it as the lighthouse, some distance around the coast. Luckily I ran into another capoeirista who explained that yes – officially – the lighthouse was called the Forte de Santo Antonio but most people call it the lighthouse and the real Forte de Santo Antonio is near the Pelhourinho. She then went on to explain that roads and in fact pretty much everything had two names – the official name and the name that people use. There are two concurrent geographical discourses.

It´s a lighthouse - steer clear

In ‘The Little Capoeira Book’ Nestor Capoeira identifies three episodes in the history of capoeira: the street period, the academy, and the global era (Capoeira 2003).

Street period

Capoeira was outlawed in Brazilian Empire (1822-1889) and afterwards in the Republican Penal Code of 1890. Punishments were violently inflicted: during slavery and after, people risked being whipped for playing capoeira. The severity stemmed from the fact that slaves had no property that could be confiscated, were already performing hard labour and the punishment needed to exceed the physical damage done by capoeira.

Capoeira was associated with vagrancy and gangs, two key threats to internal security and the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force. A key quality in capoeira is malandragem – being streetwise. Capoeira represents nomadism (Capoeira 2002) and celebrates ‘vadiação’ – vagrancy. It was banned along with other manifestations of Afro-Brazilian culture, which typically took place in public – as opposed to in private property that was the domain of the upper classes. In Candomblé, the street is revered, and Exu, the lord of the roads/crossroads, is also the protector of travellers, commanding fortune and misfortune, chaos and trickery and is the personification with death.  The street is where carnivals and religious parades are held.

The street and the home are opposing realms in Brazilian social history, and the street is more than a place, it is a way of life and an addictive vice (Hecht 1998, 155) and invokes different communicative codes. Quoting Diogenes (1994, 24), Hecht comments, “life in the street is defined by action, by movement, by gesticulation”; speech is complementary to this, rather than central (Hecht 1998, 41-2). In geographical and political terms, the prohibition of capoeira was about the state extending its reach over the street.


Mestre Bimba´s academy
 In the early 1930s, Mestre Bimba laid the grounds of concession by subjecting capoeira to legal authority. He established an academy in which to train and his teaching emphasised the sporting and combat elements of capoeira at the expense of the ritualistic side. Bimba’s students included young men from the white middle class, and Frigerio traces capoeira’s transformation from a black art to a white sport (Frigerio 1988). Bimba’s style was complemented by Mestre Pastinha’s academy, which established Capoeira Angola, but did not attain the popularity of Bimba’s Capoeira Regional. Capoeira Angola accentuated the African roots of capoeira, including inventing a neo-African identity informed in part by black movements elsewhere, including Rastafarianism (Röhrig Assunção 2005).

The academy era was a renegotiation of the relationship with the state, in Leviathan terms: capoeira players forfeited some of their freedoms in return for security from state forces. As capoeira became more popular amongst the white middle classes, African-derived culture became accepted not simply as legal but as a central aspect of Brazilian nationality, history and identity.


Until the 1970s, capoeira was still largely restricted to Bahia, Rio and Recife. There was a surge of interest in 1980s and 1990s, which led to its expansion across Brazil and to other countries, at first the USA, but now practically every country in the world. I have trained with a capoeira group in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The export of Brazilian culture, including capoeira, is intertwined with the country’s economic success and the extension of its ‘soft power’ abroad. It has accompanied the migration of Brazilians overseas and the influx of foreigners to Brazil through an invigorated tourist trade. There have been elements of commoditisation of capoeira. In a twist to the tale, capoeira has been taken back to the street as a tool for social work projects as it is credited with improving discipline, identity and confidence.

When Gilberto Gil took up his post as Minister of Culture in 2003 in President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government, capoeira was recognised as key aspect of culture; Gil himself appeared on stage at the UN in Geneva with some capoeira adepts, using the diversity and difficulty of their backgrounds as a message to promote ‘peace in the world’.

Capoeira has gone to the world, but the world also comes to capoeira. Rodas in Salvador frequently have capoeiristas from various countries participating in them.


Capoeira, N. (2003). The Little Capoeira Book. Revised Edition. Berkeley, North Atlantic Books.

Hecht, T. (1998). At home in the street. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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

Ok, at the moment I'm in London - but I'm going to Salvador soon!

“The and upside-down movements also help the player understand that capoeira, and life, are not simply a matter of winning and losing; and that if life has many battles and struggles, you also need to learn how to dance, be poetic, have fun, be unpredictable (not always rational and objective), and be slightly crazy and chaotic, if you are to savor the best in life and capoeira.” 
(Nestor Capoeira, The Little Capoeira Book, 2003 p69) 

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