Many people see Capoeira as a martial art, a dance, a cultural identity or even a religion. However one would be better off trying to describe Capoeira as the sum of those elements. Capoeira blends elements of dance, music, rituals, acrobatics, and fighting. Capoeira is a native Brazilian Indian word given to a small partridge whose male is very jealous and engages in fierce fights with its rivals. However, most practicioners call Capoeira a game. Capoeira is "played", not fought.
A BRIEF HISTORY
As in the USA, there was also slavery in Brazil. The slaves were put to work in the plantations where sugar and tobacco were the main crops and the demand for slave labor was great. During the history of the slave trade, it is estimated that more than two million slaves were brought to Brazil from Africa. These slaves came from different regions of Africa and thus had different cultures. They were distributed in three main ports: Bahia, Recife, and Rio de Janeiro. In Rio and Recife, the slaves were from different ethnic groups and sometimes from enemy tribes as well, which made it difficult for these slaves to organize a revolt. More slaves in Rio were from Bantu peoples, while in other areas, such as Bahia, slaves came primarily from West Africa. As the slaves became aware that their condition was irreversible, that they were intended to be an involuntary work force forever, they began to run away.
In Recife, a group of 40 slaves rebelled against their master, killed all the white employees, and burned the plantation house. They then set themselves free and decided to find a place where they could be hidden from the slave hunters. They headed to the mountains, a trip that took many months to complete. Had it not been for the help they received from the Indians, this journey would have been practically impossible to accomplish. Eventually they reached what they thought was a safe place, which because of its abundance of palm trees they named Palmares. In this place an African community was born; a community which lasted nearly a century. In this community the first forms of Capoeira were developed.
While no one would deny the tremendous African influence on Capoeira, nothing is really known about a form of Capoeira originating in Africa. All that is written on this subject is based on speculation. The earliest known historical record of Capoeira as a martial art is approximately 1770, long after early years of slavery. No further accounts of Capoeira are found until the early 1800's in the form of various police records from Rio de Janeiro.
Over the course of years, scattered settlements were established in the mountains. The largest of these was Palmares with more than 20,000 inhabitants, including some Indians and whites. Here tribes that were strangers or enemies in Africa united to fight for a common goal. A new community was formed with a very rich cultural mixture. In this new environment they shared and learned from each other their dance, rituals, religion, and games. One result of this rich cultural fusion was Capoeira in its earliest form. Palmares was growing rapidly as more refugees arrived in this little African nation. It started to worry the Portuguese colonizers. People from Palmares would come down from the mountains to trade produce, fruit, and animal skins and would often raid plantations to free more slaves. Palmares began to effect the life of the plantations as more and more of the slaves escaped. The colonists suffered economically because of the diminishing labor force. To make things worse for the Portuguese, Holland invaded Brazil in 1630. The slaves took advantage of this situation and with assistance from Palmares left the plantations and fought the Portuguese Army. The army at this point was fighting two enemies. The Dutch won the war, but the Africans never stopped fighting. In 1644 the Dutch organized an expedition to go to Palmares, but nothing was accomplished. In the following years a second expedition was sent to the mountains which also failed.
It is important to point out that these expeditions were formed by very experienced and well-armed soldiers. But the Africans developed a system of fighting called "jungle war" or ambush. Capoeira was the key element in the unexpected attacks. With fast and tricky movements the slaves caused considerable damage to the white men. Capoeira became their weapon, their symbol of freedom. When an expedition was successful, the slaves who were returned to the plantations taught Capoeira to others there. Sunday was their one day of rest and that was when they practiced Capoeira. But there, in the quarters, the practice soon was altered. Music, singing, dance and ritual were added to Capoeira, disguising the fact that the slaves were practicing a deadly martial art. In twenty-five years the colonies suffered eleven rebellions that culminated with the abolition of slavery on May 13, 1888.
After the abolition, some ex-slaves returned to Africa, but the majority stayed in Brazil. The planters being no longer interested in them as a work force, most headed to the cities to form slums and shanty towns. There was no employment in the cities either, and many organized into criminal gangs. Others, more fortunate because of their knowledge of capoeira, were hired by politicians as bodyguards. All were seen by the government as a "plague." The main activities of these "capoeiristas" (anyone who practices the art) was to disrupt the political life of the country. In the 1890's some very influential people in high levels of society, were practitioners of capoeira. This was a threat to the government, and the president created a special police force to control the situation. When this effort was ineffective, a rigid penal code was initiated. In Chapter B of this code, ten articles were specifically related to the actions, practices, and crimes related to capoeira. A tougher law was later added stating that any person who was a known capoeirista would be expatriated. To enforce these laws, the president hired a man named Sampaio, who was reputed to be the most ruthless police chief in Brazil's history. He was determined to extinguish capoeira. What is interesting about Sampaio was that he was an excellent capoeirista, and was a terror to the gangs. Sampaio's special police force learned capoeira, so they were able to challenge their "enemy" on their own ground. Had it not been for the strong resistance by the capoeiristas, as well as support by influential people, he may have succeeded in his mission. One incident brought to an end Sampaio's relentless pursuit of the capoeiristas. He arrested a man named Juca, a member of the gentry, for practicing capoeira and demanded that he be expatriated. This caused a crisis for the government for the members of the president's cabinet opposed this action because Juca's father was well-known and favored by many politicians. The president called a special meeting of his cabinet, and after eighteen days, two important members of the cabinet resigned and Juca was expatriated. After this event, change was expected in the behavior of the capoeiristas. But the change was in their favor. The opposition to the government created a black militia to disrupt the president. This militia was formed exclusively of capoeiristas and they spread fear in the capital. The police were ineffective against them and just as the situation was becoming desperate, Brazil went to war with Paraguay. The black militia was sent to the front and suddenly the outlaws became national heroes. And capoeira entered another phase in its history.
CAPOEIRA IN MODERN TIMES
The law that prohibited the practice of capoeira was still effect until 1920, and its practice disguised as a "folk dance." In their hidden places, capoeiristas did their best to keep the tradition alive, and by presenting it as a folk art, they made the practice of capoeira more acceptable to the society. In those years it was very common for a capoeirista to have two or three nicknames. The police knew all the capoeiristas by these names and not by their real identity, so it made it much more difficult to arrest them. (This tradition is continued today. When a person is "baptized" into the practice of capoeira, they are given a nickname.) In 1937, Mestre Bimba, one of the most important masters of capoeira, received an invitation from the president to demonstrate his art in the capital. After a successful performance he went back to his home state and with the government's permission, opened the first capoeira school in Brazil. It was the first step towards a more open development, and years later the senate passed a bill establishing capoeira as a national sport.
Today capoeira is all over the world. In Brazil, as part of the culture, there is capoeira everywhere - in elementary schools, universities, clubs, and in military academies.
Manoel dos Reis Machado was born on 23rd November 1899, in the neighbourhood of Brotas, Engenho Velho, in the city of Salvador, state of Bahia, the son of Luis Candido Machado, batuque artist, and Dona Maria Martinha do Bonfim. His capoeira name, Mestre Bimba, arose from a bet between his mother and the midwife as to whether he would be a boy or a girl. Being a boy, he had a Bimba, referring to his masculine genital organs.
Mestre Bimba had various professions, but confirmed himself as a Master of Capoeira.
At that time capoeiristas were marginalised. The police sergeant, Pedro de Araujo Gordilho, 'Pedrito' was for a long time the fear of Bahian capoeiristas, who began to hide themselves and disguise their capoeira, being seen merely as folklore. The fighting capoeiristas, feared, loyal and with technique gave way to the pseudo-angolan capoeira dancers. Only a few kicks remained, no more than nine, and the ginga.
Feeling that capoeira was losing its characteristics, he, possessing a creative spirit and great intelligence, decided to create a particular method, known today as Regional Baiana. Excellent practitioner of capoeira and intimate with Batuque (ancient art of fighting now disused), Mestre Bimba became the great name of capoeira, being the image itself of the fight.
In 1932 he founded the first specialised academy, in Engenho Velho de Brotas. At this time he also taught in people's homes, in the 'Roca do Lobo'. On 9th June 1937, he registered his Capoeira School with the Secretary of Education, Health and Public Assistance with the name : Centro de Cultura Fisica e Regional, becoming the first authorised academy to lecture capoeira. In 1939 he taught 'regional' in the army base of the CPOR. He established his second academy in 1942.
On 23rd July 1953, when the President Getulio Vargas watched in the Palacio da Aclamacao, together with Dr Regis Pachecho, then Governor of Bahia, a presentation of capoeira regional by Mestre Bimba. The President confirmed that capoeira was a unique and truly national sport. He also administered his course in colleges and army and military police headquarters.
In 1968 he commemorated 50 years of Capoeira Regional. The II Symposium of Capoeira took place in 1968. Mestre Bimba appeared at the event and returned before the end, disappointed. President Medice helped him in Goiania in 1971 during the Expo / Goias. In 1973 he moved to Goiania where he died, victim of a stroke followed by a heart attack, on the 5th February 1974.
His remains were taken to Salvador in 1978, being installed in Jazigo no. 194 of 3rd Order of the Carmo in the Historical Centre on 5th February 1994.
Vicente Joaquim Ferreira Pastinha, known as Mestre Pastinha, was born to José Pastiña, a poor Spanish immigrant who worked as a pedlar and Eugênia Maria de Carvalho Ferreira, a black Bahian homemaker on April 5, 1889 in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. He began Capoeira when he was 8-10 years old with an African name Bentinho, who had watched Pastinha through his window losing fights to older boys. The story goes: "an older and stronger boy from Pastinha’s neighborhood would often bully and beat him up. One day Benedito saw the aggression that Pastinha suffered and then told him to stop by his house to teach him a few things. In his next encounter with that boy, Pastinha defeated him so quickly that the older boy became his admirer."
Pastinha had a happy and modest childhood. In the mornings, he would take art classes at the Liceu de Artes e Ofício school where he learned to paint; afternoons were spent playing with kites and practicing Capoeira. He continued his training with Benedito for three more years.
Mestre Pastinha did a little bit of everything. He joined the Marines for 8 years, he was a painter, a poet, practiced fencing, played soccer, was a shoe-shiner, a philosopher, a tailor, security at a casino, a music composer, but he always felt a strong attraction, in his heart, to Capoeira. When asked what the importance of Capoeira was for him he answered:
"I was born for Capoeira, I love to play Capoeira, it's the only thing I will be left with when I die."
In 1910, when Pastinha was 21 years old he opened his first academy in a place called Bigode in Campo da Polvora. In 1941, by Aberrê’s (Pastinha’s former student) invitation, Pastinha went to a Sunday roda at ladeira do Gengibirra located at bairro da Liberdade, where the best Capoeira Mestres would hang out. Aberrê was already famous in these rodas, and after spending the afternoon there, one of the greatest Mestres of Bahia, Amorzinho, asked Pastinha to take charge of Capoeira Angola. As a result, in 1942 Pastinha founded the first Angola school, the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola, located at the Pelourinho.
Here Pastinha adopted the colors black and yellow, for his Capoeira uniforms, those were the colors of his favorite soccer team, Ypiranga. it was there, in his academy in Pelourinho, that Pastinha taught his technique and wisdom. He showed Capoeira to tourists from all over the world.
In 1964 with the help of his good friend, and famous author, Jorge Amado, Pastinha published his first book called Capoeira Angola.
Pastinha represented Capoeira in various states in Brazil and formed part of the delegation that represented Brazil in the first Festival of Black Art in Senegal, Africa in 1966. Pastinha worked as shoeshiner, tailor, gold prospector, security guard at a gambling house, and construction worker at the Porto de Salvador to support himself financially so that he could do what he loved the most, being an Angoleiro.
In 1973, at 84 years of age, Pasinha, already famous witin and outside of Brazil, was kicked out of the space he had used for his academy for 32 years by the state government. They transformed what had been a rich and strong center of Capoeira into a restuarant.
This expropriation was the most difficult event for Mestre Pastinha.
He was forced to move out of his academy with his wife, daughter and three grandchildren, to a small room in the Alfredo Britto street where he lived his last years forgotten. He expressed his frustration in these words:
"This wood bench is all that I have. Today I am convinced that I was tricked. I gave it my all, but the truth is that I was used. No matter what, if I were to be born again, I would choose the same life: Capoeria."
His wife Maria Romelia Costa Oliveira took care of him until he died. Mestre Pastinha had his first stroke on May 1978, and a second one, one month later. In 1980 he was tranferred to Dom Pedro II, a home for senior citizens. There, with many other old people and his wife, Mestre Pastinha died on November 13, 1981. He was buried in Campo Santo Cementery, on the same day.
During his funeral, to accompany him in his final dream, the soft sound of berimbaus were played.
"However, we don't feel sad when we think about Pastinha because he so well represented the culture and life of Brazil. With people such as Pastinha, we learn and become really wise."