What is Capoeira?

The History 

Capoeira, as the story goes, is a Brazilian martial art form developed by the African slaves in Brazil over 400 years ago.  It combines the potency of violence and fight, the fluidity and expressiveness of dance, the soul-calling power of music, the wit and playfulness of clever games, and the showmanship of acrobatics into one beautiful art form.  Although there are many opinions as to how capoeira specifically came to be, popular versions include:

  • it was a form of self-defense disguised as a dance to ward off landowners’ suspicions
  • it was a common past-time of slaves while they sold chickens in the market (the current dictionary definition of “capoeira” is chicken coop)
  • it descended from or was influenced by the N’golo zebra dance in Africa, a contest for young men with a dowry-waived bride as the prize

The Game

While most other martial artists “spar” or “fight”, capoeiristas (practioners of capoeira) play.  This is done inside a ring of other capoeiristas, called the roda (pronounced “hoda”, with the “o” as in “hot”, not “hoe”), which means wheel in Portuguese.  Players often try to trick and outwit each other, looking for ways to trip the other person up while avoiding having the same happen to them.  The capoeira game is also considered a dialogue between two players, with their actions and reactions together forming anything from a pleasant conversation to a heated argument, to rounds of teasing and bantering, to a lesson being given and received. 

The Music

Music plays a fundamental role in capoeira, and largely makes the martial art what it is.  At the head of every roda plays the bateria, with the rest of the roda clapping and singing along.  Songs are sung in Portuguese, often follow a call-and-response style, and subject matter includes things such as legendary capoeiristas, capoeira proverbs, or commentary on the game currently being played.  The bateria itself consists of the following instruments, in various numbers and combinations (click for pictures):

  • the berimbau (which will be discussed below)
  • the atabaque (a tall, Afro-Brazilian drum somewhat resembling congo drums)
  • the pandeiro (tambourine)
  • the reco-reco (a ribbed metal or wooden rod that you run a stick up and down over to play)
  • the agogo bell (two metal bells attached to each other and struck with a stick)

The first three instruments are essential, while the bottom two are only used regularly in some capoeira groups.  The berimbau is a bow-like instrument made from the wood of the Brazilian biriba tree and strung with a single steel wire, called the arame.  A hollowed-out gourd, the cabaça, is hung onto the bottom end as a resonator, and the player holds a stone or dobrão (large, colonial Portuguese coin) against or away from the wire in order to produce different sounds.  The wire is struck with a bow or stick, the baqueta, while a caxixi (rattle) is held and shaken with the same hand. 

The berimbau is master of the roda: it controls what players do, when they do it, and how they do it.  There are different berimbau toques (rhythms/melodies) all reserved for specific situations, whether it is setting the pace of the game, indicating the presence of graduated students, or (historically) announcing the arrival of potential danger.

The Styles

There are two major styles of capoeira: regional (pronounced “heh-jional”) and angola.  Capoeira regional was developed by Mestre (“master”) Bimba, and is considered to be faster paced, flashier, and more similar to other martial arts.  Capoeira angola, championed by Bimba’s contemporary Mestre Pastinha, maintains the reputation of being the “true”, traditional form of capoeira, which includes extremely slow as well as extremely quick movements, fewer acrobatics, and much closer games.  A growing number of schools today practice what is called capoeira contemporânea, which combines the two styles, or focuses on one while dabbling in the other.

The Visuals

If one picture is worth a thousand words, one capoeira roda is worth a thousand articles.  To help clarify your understanding of exactly what capoeira is, please view the following clip of a capoeira regional roda, followed by one in capoeira angola!

Capoeira Regional

Capoeira Angola

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