Capoeira é Dança, Part 1: Maculelê

17 01 2008

Welcome to Part 1 of Mandingueira’s newest series, Capoeira é Dança!  Maculelê has always been one of my absolute favourite things about capoeira since the first day I saw it (“That’s even cooler than the backflips!”), and I hope you enjoy finding out more about this spellbinding dance as much as I did!   

Myths and Legends

Maculelê may have been named for a village hero who single-handedly fought off an enemy tribe.Maculelê has its origins steeped in waters as murky as those which surround the origin of capoeira. Some say it came from Africa. Some say it came from indigenous Brazil. One story features slaves on a sugarcane plantation; another features two tribes at war. What is agreed, however, is that maculelê is a warrior dance—clashing blades, flying sparks, and heroic movements all blend together in a whirlwind performance against the pounding of hypnotic drums.

One of the most popular origin stories of maculelê attributes it to African slaves working on the sugarcane plantations in Brazil. The maculelê sticks were to represent stalks of sugarcane, and machetes the large knives used to cut them. Slaves, according to this theory, either formed the dance for entertainment in the fields or senzalas while resting between work, with the dance movements representing the motions of cutting sugarcane; performed it to vent their anger and frustration; or, like capoeira, practiced it as a form of self-defense disguised as a dance, later using the sticks, knives, and movements to protect themselves from physical punishment. Maculelê performances have also been known to use flaming torches in place of sticks or machetes; these represent the sticks some say slaves used to fight their “captains”, which were pulled, still burning, from the fire.

The other principal version of maculelê’s origins features a village hero, and there are variations even within this. As the story goes, all the men of a village went hunting and fishing one day, and left only one man or one boy to protect the rest of the village (i.e. women, children, and the elderly). An enemy village attacked, and the hero fought them all off with only a pair of wooden sticks he picked up off the ground. In some versions he dies in the attempt, but always when the rest of the village men return, they celebrate his bravery and spirit, creating the dance of Maculelê (possibly the hero’s name) in his honour. This story is said by some to have taken place in Africa, and one source goes so far as to give specifics: it was not one man, but 22, and they were from a village in Nigeria.


Finally, maculelê seems to be partly yet very strongly rooted in the indigenous culture of Brazil. Popular Brazilian legends tell the same tale of a sole man or boy fighting off an entire enemy tribe and saving his own, then being celebrated in the dance of maculelê. According to one, the battle was actually part of an ongoing conflict between two tribes, a warlike one and a peaceful one. The latter could not defend themselves against repeated attacks by the former, until during one attack, a young boy named Maculelê ran around with such ferocious energy holding two sticks in his hand that the warlike tribe never came back.

There is much talk of African culture having mixed with Brazil’s indigenous culture in the creation of maculelê, especially as the dance resembles some Brazilian aboriginal ones. A study by Manoel Querino, on the other hand, claims that maculelê was actually derived from the Cucumbi natives in Angola, whose battle traditions involved a “more elaborate and complex warrior dance” that “included group dance formations simulating actual combat”.

That’s it for how maculelê came to exist in the first place, but what happened after? How did this “dance of sticks” migrate from indigenous tribes, whether in Africa or Brazil, into the academies and performances of capoeira schools today?

All the World’s a Stage

Maculelê is performed as a popular part of many festivities in Santo Amaro.That would be thanks to one Paulino Alusio de Andrade, also known as Mestre Popo do Maculelê, in the city of Santo Amaro. Apparently, Mestre Popo first used the movements of this near-forgotten dance in the street, with a friend to attract the attention of women. Then, he gathered family and friends in 1943 in order to teach them maculelê based on his memory. He refined and revived it through a folkloric dance company called Conjunto do Maculelê de Santo Amaro, with the intention of reintroducing maculelê in local religious festivals. As a result, Mestre Popo is now considered by some to be the father of maculelê in Brazil.

If Mestre Popo is the father, Santo Amaro may well be the home. A city in interior Bahia, Santo Amaro is known for its African cultural heritage, which strongly includes maculelê. Incidentally (or perhaps not so incidentally), Santo Amaro is apparently also known for “the green of its sugarcane fields”. It’s not surprising then to hear that maculelê is supposed to have developed in the sugarcane fields of Santo Amaro, where the dance has been performed in local festivals for over 200 years. It is a leading number in the Nossa Senhora de Purificacao (Our Lady of Purification) festival every February, and plays a role in other religious and harvest festivities as well.

Although no one knows exactly how old maculelê is, the role it played in Santo Amaro is unmistakeable, with records such as the following newspaper obituary, published in O Popular, December 10, 1873:

“On the first of December the African Raimunda Quiteria passed away at the age of 110.  In spite of her age, she still used to cut the grass and sweep the front and back of the ‘Church of Purification’ for the maculelê festival.”

The popularity of maculelê declined after the abolition of slavery in 1888, coinciding with the death of great maculelê masters in the early 1900s, until it was revitalized by the efforts of Mestre Popo (purely for the tourism, one source claims). Now, the dance takes centre stage once again, especially among festivities in northeastern Brazil.

Maculelê performance by a capoeira grupo

As for maculelê’s association with capoeira, this supposedly began in the 1960s, through the students of Mestre Bimba. Many capoeira groups today incorporate maculelê into their schools due to its similar Afro-Brazilian roots to those of capoeira.

Dance this Dance

Maculelê dancers using machetes, or facãosMaculelê is immediately recognizable for its dramatic, expressive motions, high-energy performances, spectacular choreography (if applicable), and mesmerizing rhythms. The sticks, called grimas, were originally 24 inches long and 1 1/8 in. thick, but today have a range of 12-20 inches. Traditionally, grimas are made of biriba wood, the same used to make berimbaus. Maculelê knives, normally machetes, are called facãos, and they were traditionally around 40cm long (about 16 inches).

The dance is performed to a 4-count rhythm: for three beats, players strike their own sticks (or knives, or flaming torches) together in combination with expressive and athletic movements, and every fourth beat, partners strike their right-hand sticks together. Grass skirts are normally worn for performances, and sometimes bodies are painted. Although today many maculelê performances are choreographed and have dancers performing movements individually in straight lines, true maculelê is done in a roda just like capoeira is. Someone begins singing, then two people enter and begin to play. According to one source, the original basic step of maculelê was a “broken gingado” similar to that found in frevo, but through the years has been turned into “a hardened ginga with little swing”.

Maculelê by Grupo Abada CapoeiraMaculelê songs are sung mostly in Portuguese as well as in Yoruba, one of the languages spoken by the African slaves in Brazil. Songs can lament working in the sugarcane fields, celebrate the abolition of slavery, recall the bravery of the hero Maculelê, or evoke the battles of Brazil’s indigenous peoples. Up to three atabaques may be used for the accompanying rhythms, one of each type: Rum (large), Rum-pi (medium), and Lê (small). The rhythms usually associated with maculelê are the congo, afoxé, and barra vento.  Click here and scroll down for a list of maculele songs (with lyrics and English translations)!

Well, that’s it for Part 1, and I hope you discovered more about maculelê than you ever thought you would!  Unfortunately, I can’t list the sources I used right now as they’re bookmarked on my own computer and I’m posting this from a hostel in Morocco, but they will be added as soon as I return home!


Click here to read a transcribed/translated interview with Mestre Popo, the “Father of Maculelê”!

Click here to read other posts in Capoeira é Dança 

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19 responses

17 01 2008

Great stuff! Please do Samba, I’m interested in what your research will turn up.

18 01 2008

Thank you, Branca! Haha, uh-oh…I came across enough samba stuff while looking for maculelê to know you just opened up a can of worms there, but I will do my best. 😀

18 01 2008
Pirulito (D-cal)

Great post as usual!

Already found out some of the stuff before. It’s nice to see it all compiled.

Sharing this with my friends. 😀

18 01 2008
Maculelê « Xix’ weblog

[…] er toch graag meer over weet, raad ik dit artikel van Joaninha aan. En als je daar dan toch bent, lees dan de rest ook maar eens, ‘t is een […]

18 01 2008

Very well written Joaninha!
I linked to this article. I just added two cool maculelê video’s to your text.

Keep up the good work 😀

19 01 2008

Hey Pirulito, and Xixarro–thank you! I hope your friends enjoy the post as much as you two did. 😀

19 01 2008

Hey Joaninha, nice place you’ve build here! I’ll definitely visit again soon!

20 01 2008

Hey, Narizinho! Thanks for dropping by! =)

22 01 2008

Well done Joaninha,
good to see you have done your homework. You have done a fantastic job, and it is great to see someone promoting the history of the sometimes elusive maculele. Would be great to see a puxada de rede section too.
Have you ever seen the book called maculele? it has a big interview with mestre popo in it and a lot of pictures, explanations and diagrams that may be useful for you to further develop the article.

23 01 2008

Thanks, Chan! Hehe, puxada de rede is already on the list, I hope to get through all of them, eventually. 😀

I haven’t actually, but somewhere along the way in my research I read about a book called Olele Maculele, by Emilia Biancardi. Is that the one you’re talking about?

24 01 2008

emilia biancardi wrote an extensive book to help choreograph a famous show that she produced, (from what I can remember), I have some copies of the maculele section somewhere, but it also had a great song list, and other really interesting things, like the various types of berimbaus that people have made and used over time and also heaps of sheet music for various folkloric things.
So no it is not the book I am talking about, the maculele book is different. I am going away this weekend but when I get back I will try and find them for you and give you a summary.

25 01 2008

That would be awesome. Thanks so much!
p.s. I know I’m sounding like a broken record, but seriously, where do you manage to find all this historical (and sometimes seemingly obscure) information from?? Or wait, can you read Portuguese?

25 01 2008


Here’s a synopsis and translation of Olele Maculele:

Click to access Olele_Maculele.pdf

Unfortunately I didn’t have access to a scanner when I was reading this book, so I didn’t get any of the cool pictures – but the text is pretty interesting!

I’ll have to look further into the book that Chan mentioned… if I can get my hands on that I’d love to translate it.

26 01 2008

Wow Shayna, that’s amazing–thank you so much! I will definitely be reading this some time soon.

28 01 2008

Hi! Just wanted to share a point of view to the version of the slaves working in sugar cane fields playing/dancing during their brakes… Just imagine what were the conditions of working in the open fields – over 35 degrees Celcius in open sun, no shade, limited water and food, working day from before sunrise and after dawn and not to forget that the slaves were chained to each other. It’s kind of hard to dance and play in such conditions…


28 01 2008

hey guys
the book written by emilia biancardi is called raizes musicais da bahia,- the musical roots of bahia.
The other book about maculele I was talking about is called maculele and is written by maria mutti. This book is fantastic. I am translating it slowly, but I am unsure of how to post it without copyright issues. I think I may just try and write a synopsis.
there is also another awesome book/study on the songs of capoeira called cantos e ladainhas capoeira da bahia by carlos pereira and monica bori.
Shayna have you ever translated ‘o abc da capoeira angola’? by mestre noronha?
that is a book worth translating I think, and also ‘mestre atenilo’ relampago da capoeira regional, by itapoan.
Hopefully this gives you guys a bit of work to do.
lots of axe

29 01 2008

I would very much like it if a copy of your translation ended up in my mailbox chan 😀

29 01 2008

Hey, that’s a good point Mariposa; I think similar things have been said about capoeira origin stories, as well. For example, I’ve heard or read at one point or another that the acrobatics and kicks became important because the slaves’ hands were chained together… although it’s also possible they used capoeira and/or maculele precisely to escape and forget about those things!

29 01 2008

Between you and Shayna, Chan, I would be completely willing to give up my high school French for a year of Portuguese right about now!

And ditto to what Xixarro said. 😛

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