[Capoeira] Capoeira History

Discussion in 'Other Styles' started by dormindo, Aug 11, 2014.

  1. dormindo

    dormindo Active Member Supporter

    Belltoller's recent thread on WSOF got me thinking about an old thread idea that I've never actually posted: until now.

    For those of you who trained capoeira in any capacity with a group, how was the history of the art presented? Meaning: what, if anything, were you told about capoeira's origins? How were you told this information--during class, at workshops, some other way?

    Also, did you agree or disagree with this history? Did it seem likely or not or did it even matter to you?

    Because there are so few capoeiristas on MAP I also want to extend my questions to those who have never trained in it: for you, what was the most interesting thing you've heard about capoeira's history? What was the most egregious/outrageous/unbelievable thing you've heard about the history of the art? Did any of these things affect how you viewed the art and, if so, how so?

    As for me, I had heard a lot of things about the art's history in the beginning (some of which are mentioned in the aforementioned WSOF thread), some of which seemed pretty fantastical (akin to the TKD stories of ancient Tae Kwon Doin kicking people off of horses). These many years later now that I am a historian, some of the ideas and their justification, or lack of same, seem quite silly, but I'm curious to know what others have thought about the art.

    So, what did you hear?
  2. embra

    embra Valued Member

    Well this is of some interest to me, as I am working in Holland, and the TaiJiQuan that I train in more than anything else, is almost (but not completely) non-existent.

    By chance the lodgings that I found were those of a Capoiera teacher - 'Senzala' style. I was initially very, very busy and spent a lot of weekends travelling for TaiJiQuan training. In time, I left the lodgings but was invited to come to the Capoiera classes.

    I time I got round to going to the classes, and discovered very, very quickly; just how difficult and skilled Capoiera is.

    The basic conditioning techniques and exercises are very demanding e.g. armada reverse roundhouse kick.

    The sense of evasion and interception is very different to anything I have encountered before, but I can see it being very useful material. Particularly of interest and impressive, is the blending of energy, timing and rythym - what Japanese Aikidokas some times call 'Awase'.

    I was encouraged a lot by the folk here, particularly in Joda, where I was free to use whatever I had. I do better on the ground than standing up - I can do a fairly reasonable Ginga counter-sway stepping now, some from squat hand stands, but not hand stands from standing - even 2 handed. Some back kicks and interceptive trips are possible some times, but thats about it.

    I asked questions of the folk here in Holland, regarding the context - as it is very different from TaiJiQuan, Sanshou, Aikido or anything else that I have encountered. The nearest I could place Capoiera to, would be the sense of 'flow' in FMA. This led me to read up on Capoiera a bit, and from what I can see it evolved from a sense of 'dance' disguised deception on top of a highly effective Martial system, developed by Slaves in spite of their Owners.

    If you read from the Gospel of Wikipedia, the slaves of Brazil broke out of slavery and formed isolated outposts in the Brazilian jungles where they very effectively defended themselves against the invading Portuguese armies - with words to the effect of ' the Portuguese army described the slaves and their Capoiera as much more difficult to defeat than the marauding armies/navys from the Dutch/British/otherwise' (can't remember exactly which.)

    I don't know how long I will be in Amsterdam, but Capoiera has opened my eyes quite a bit.
  3. Fish Of Doom

    Fish Of Doom Will : Mind : Motion Supporter

    i haven't seen that much history yet in class (then again i haven't done more than like 5 sessions this year since coming back from my eurotrip...), but i know that the association i train/ed with (arg. capoeira association, grupo oriaxé) takes a lot of inspiration from african culture, with a lot of representation inherent in for example the cords, with each representing a different interaction with different orixas. the explanation for it, along with our cord progression is on a small booklet/ID/thingy i got at the batizado which is used as association ID and progress track for each member while throwing out some background info on the group's take on things.
    the mestre in charge of the group, as well as his mestre and his former classmates (also mestres) are all bahianos as well, and each gave a small talk during the seminars they gave during the batizado, which gave us a look into early modern capoeira, mainly (partly their own personal capoeira journeys, and partially stories from bimba's time), but not a lot of talk that i can remember (although i may have simply forgotten) about the slave times (but there's definitely a LOT of african influence in the group, particularly in the more holistic non-MA elements, which they actively cultivate, up to and including proper dance and some spirituality.
  4. ap Oweyn

    ap Oweyn Ret. Supporter

    My knowledge of capoeira's history comes primarily from a book written by Bira Almeida. Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form, I believe it's called. (It's on the bookcase here somewhere.)

    Most unbelievable assertion (and I don't know that these assertions are actually made in the book; they're just the things you hear in passing):

    1) The handstands, etc. characteristic of capoeira come from slaves learning to fight inverted with their feet because their hands were tied/manacled together.

    2) Capoeiristas used to fight with razor blades held between their toes.

    After that, I suppose it's down to the (probably overly simplistic) distinctions between things like Angola, Regional, etc.

    It's all fascinating though. Even the tall truths.
  5. belltoller

    belltoller OffTopic MonstreOrdinaire Supporter

    From a layman's point of view:

    The first time I'd seen Capoeira in use was ironically during an MMA event that happened to be on the telly as I was channel surfing. Up until that time I'd really not cared for MMA, which I really only understood to be cage-fighting, a quazi-legal circus-act I thought of as a barbaric form of human dog-fighting featuring men whose primary skills were aggression and the ability to withstand inhumane punishment. Like many ( or most of the general public ) I knew NOTHING regarding the long months of training, the superb conditioning and high levels of athleticism that were required of these combatants.

    By the same token, I'd written traditional martial arts off as the fancies of film and television fiction such as “Kung Fu”, whose movements, albeit graceful and athletic, were probably of very little practical use in an actual combat scenario. Skilled fighters were boxers and one never saw a boxer kick another boxer. Why? Because he'd probably be laughed out of the ring. The only time I ever saw saw anyone get hurt by kicking were those occasions where an individual was lying in a fetal position on the ground and was surrounded by 3 or 4 blokes resplindant in their lovely Hawkins boots.

    As far as an actual fighting technique between two standing combatants, nahhh...

    That point of view changed dramatically one evening while a son and I were flipping channels and a bit of morbid curiosity held our attention to the screen 30seconds longer than it normally would have during a UFC card - just long enough to witness something totally unexpected; something I would have considered very unlikely – a very clean and to the point KO via head kick!

    I didn't like the savagery that was implied, suggested by the idea of locking two men in a chain-link cage but I could tell the fighting was all business and economy of motion and a shortest-distance-between-two-points practicality were at a premium here so seeing the Capoeirista deliver his very bad intentions via fancy kicking left us quietly, but most profoundly impressed. I really had not thought, previous to seeing it, that such a beautiful, ballet-like movement would have near the power to render a hulking, tatooed savage as such as the one it was employed against, unconcious.

    Opened my mind to both TMA and MMA in one fell swoop.

    Canna say that I know much actual historical fact but its one of those things that, because one doesn't hear much regarding it, a thing here or there, the little that one does catch, seems to increase some sort of latent desire to know more.

    Like a rumour.

    Rumours de Capoeira would be a fitting title for a book about it, lol.
  6. dormindo

    dormindo Active Member Supporter

    This is one of the things I'd heard early on--before I had even joined an official group. Turns out that there doesn't appear to be much to support it in the history.

    1. It would appear that, according to the works of historians like T.J. Desch Obi, Maya Talmon-Chvaicer and John Thornton, that 'dance' is a part of certain West Central African martial games and traditions (which are thought to be the source of capoeira).

    2. Travelers from Europe noted the martial nature of capoeira that they witnessed, so it would seem that the dancing 'disguise' didn't even manage to fool some casual observers. The arrest records of capoeiristas in the 19th century would also indicate that many weren't very good at hiding what they did.

    3. There were public performances of capoeira where observers noted the agility of the movements and yet didn't refer to it as dance. The authorities sometimes saw it as a scourge on the society of the time.

    So the dance disguise thing, one of the first things I'd heard about capoeira history, doesn't seem to hold up. So I've often wondered why it even became a story that was told. No one that I'm aware of has taken this on, but I do wonder if it was a way to explain the dance-like nature of the art when the actual origins of that tendency had been lost to the collective memory. Just a curiosity of mine.

    Another one that I'd heard--that capoeira was born in the quilombos/mocambos. Though there may have been some capoeiristas in the quilombos (not much documentation on this, though), the fighting done by quilombolas was certainly armed (they even traded with local communities, in some cases, for weapons). Also, capoeira seems to have largely been an urban phenomenon tied to urban enslaved Africans and their descendants in the port cities (Rio, Recife, Salvador, etc.). So, the quilombos don't seem to have the data to back them up as sources of capoeira. It'll interesting to see where future research goes with it, though.

    Lastly, and most importantly, I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying your experience in capoeira. Axe!
  7. dormindo

    dormindo Active Member Supporter

    Oh, man, look at the time! Will respond to the other posts later!
  8. Bozza Bostik

    Bozza Bostik Antichrist on Button Moon

    I'm a convert.

    I've really banged on here about my MA history so I will put some marker-thingies so you can skip the boring history.

    ================= Boring history =================

    I've been in and out of MAs for numerous years; I started with TJMA arts way back and moved into JKD and MMA (and related arts) in the late 90s. I took a very extended break in the early 2000s and picked up FMA when I got back into training MAs a few years ago. A year or so after picking up eskrima I started capoeira. I've had yet another training break for the last year but hopefully starting up again in a couple of weeks.

    I always knew about capoeira, I'd seen it in books and possibly the odd film (Only the Strong) or TV program or something. But I knew very little about the art besides the usual, "They do it to music" and the myths that ap_Oweyn mentioned. But I was very negative about the art. At that point in my life I believed that unless all the techniques you were learning would work in a fight situation or in a cage or ring, it was basically a joke and shouldn't be called a martial art. Do it if you want, but don't call it a martial art.

    In 1999 I moved to Finland and with in a few months started dating a girl who practiced capoeira. I used to go and watch the class and go to some of their events etc. I've always been impressed with gymnasts, acrobats and traceurs, so I began to develop a respect and appreciation for capoeira and it's practitioners. Despite my girlfriend and the other members, who I got on with, trying to get me to join in, I never took them up on the offer as I still had a lot of negativity towards the art in regards to its combat effectiveness...nice handstands though! :)

    A couple of years ago one of the guys from our FMA group organised a charity event with a few different arts. As well as FMA, there was some kickboxing and capoeira. I was actually looking forward to doing capoeira the most. I can honestly say that during that 90 minute session of capoeira, I feel in love with the art. I loved the flow, trying to do handstands and falling on my head, the rhythm. It was just so much fun. A couple of weeks later I started regular classes and have really enjoyed the art, even though it is incredibly hard and I am perhaps way too old to be learning it.

    My attitude towards martial arts had changed when I got back into training after my extended break. I no longer cared about self defence or th3 d3adly (is that how you write it?). I was more interested in learning a skill and having an interesting hobby that would also keep my a little fitter. Capoeira ticked a lot of the boxes for me and also had a musical component, so I get to combine two hobbies in one!


    Ok, the myths. The truth is usually more interesting.

    As ap said, the two big myths I heard were the whole learning to fight with their feet as their hands were tied story and that slaves would put knives between their toes and fight.

    I never really thought about it. It seemed fantastical and I was used to martial arts nonsense, but it was what I read and heard everywhere and hadn't heard any other ideas about the origins of the art, so i just accepted them.

    The odd thing about the idea about slaves fighting with their feet is there's a lot of information out there that conflicts with this, yet the myth is still regurgitated time and time again...by people in capoeira. This is also mentioned in The Little Book of Capoeira. When I read other opinions regarding the history of capoeira I started to question the whole idea. It just didn't make sense. Why would you tie your work force's hands together and leave their feet loose? It makes it difficult to work and easy to run, which is not really what you want from your slaves. As Dormindo said, if the hands are tied it would make it incredibly difficult to perform a lot of the inverted movements. If the chain or rope tying the hands is long, the slave could work better and perform handstands and cartwheels, but could also fight back (or run) quite easily.

    I wonder if the idea that slaves had knives between their toes came from smuggling. If you think about prisons in this day and age and how prisoners hide all sorts of stuff in all sorts of places to make shanks, it's quite possible that the slaves hid things under their foot or between their toes as well. I think that is possibly were the myth comes from, but I am making wild guesses there. But if I remember right, prisoners are routinely checked between the toes for contraband.

    I've heard these stories in our capoeira club. It was actually quite frustrating as we were discussing the topic and I felt that my ideas were dismissed as I was the new guy.

    I haven't been formally told about the history of the art in our club; it just kinda pops up. Maybe if we have some new members the instructor will mention the history, or when the instructor is showing a technique or something. Most of the time it's usually just when people are changing or hanging out before or after training and the discussion will start.

    Edit: quite often when new members have been told the history they are presented with the myths. They are then told that they are myths, but no alternative opinion is offered. Why that is, I really don't know!

    What I know of capoeira's history, besides the myths, is from reading the odd book and what I have read on MAP or discussed with Dormindo.

    One of my favourite ideas that I have heard, which I don't believe, is that the ginga was developed as slaves needed to creep low to the ground if they wanted to train or were trying to run away or were up to something. I've heard that the slaves would train in secret in long grass or fields with long, tall plants to hide their activities and needed to stay low. Escaping slaves would ginga through the fields and then spring up and take out guards with a killing blow and then escape! Pure comedy!

    Wow! Banging on and no music vids!!! I'm gonna give you all that suffered through this and myself a wee break. I need to read Belltoller's and Dormindo's MMA/Capoeira chat. I think I have another thing from that.

    I'd be interested to know where the ginga comes from. I think I have read that it comes from the West African fighting games which would make the above story of the ginga even more hilarious.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2014
  9. Smitfire

    Smitfire Cactus Schlong

    That would have made "12 years a slave" hilarious. :)
  10. Bozza Bostik

    Bozza Bostik Antichrist on Button Moon

    I have this weird vision in my head of a line of ginga-ing slaves moving slowly through this long grass-like plant at night, crickets chirping and owls hooting, then the one in the front popping a handstand and kicking an armed guard in the neck and dropping him. Then the line of escapees moving on by ginga to their next victim.
  11. dormindo

    dormindo Active Member Supporter

    I'm back.

    Yeah, this seems to be the pattern--not that much of the history in class itself--but there will be discussions in workshops/seminars (as you mention below) or in conversations over a meal, etc.

    When I teach classes here, I don't talk much about the history, either. I tend to do that more outside of class or even online (our group has an email usergroup that we use occasionally to discuss things). I've used it to post historical articles in order to generate discussion, but generally don't use class time to do it (there is so much to work on in terms of music and movement already).

    Yeah, there is a lot of the African culture and spiritual elements (i.e., orixas for those reading who may not be familiar tied into it). I've known a few people in the capoeira angola world who feel that being immersed in candomble/ifa is a part of being in capoeira angola. I don't know if that is the expressed viewpoint of their particular groups, but I've never been to a group that explicitly expressed this and Mestres like Joao Grande and Moraes make a definite distinction between the practice of candomble/ifa and the practice of capoeira.

    Maya Talmon-Chvaicer's book indicates that while the practice of capoeira at present has strong ties to the West African derived religious practice of candomble--especially due to the moving of the center of capoeira practice to Bahia, the early practice, centered in Rio, was aligned with Central African spiritual practices that account for some of the mystical elements in capoeira like carrying around protective amulets (patuas/minkisi), etc. Lots of interesting history there.

    Yeah, I learned a lot of the history of the art that I got early on from workshops. Interestingly enough, when I first started capoeira, I'd heard some of the strange stories and histories mentioned so far in this thread, but when I started training and going to workshops, the history I'd heard was grounded in fewer fantastical stories and revolved around the narrative that capoeira was an art that began in Africa and was transferred to Brazil. If memory serves--and we are talking about 17 years ago, sooo....., the narrative was more one of capoeira kinda coming over wholesale and fully formed by those captives taken from (what is now) Angola and Congo.

    If I understand Desch Obi's argument correctly, that isn't wholly correct. It seems that an antecedent art known as ngolo/engolo contained a lot of the elements known in present day capoeira (loads of kicking, sweeping, evasive bending, turning movements and inverted handstands), but was conflated with a headbutting game practiced by the same ethnic groups once in Brazil. So, kinda 'born in Africa, continued to evolve in Brazil with the addition of other African elements' might be more accurate?

    On an off-topic note: FOD, I notice that you don't capitalize 'i', is there a reason that you don't do this? Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but I had noticed before and upon seeing it again in this thread I thought I'd ask, in case there was a reason (perhaps something akin to why bell hooks doesn't capitalize her name, or perhaps something else).
  12. dormindo

    dormindo Active Member Supporter

    I used to own a copy of that book, too!

    Yeah, I'd heard that quite early on, too (though I'd always heard this from fellow students or even people who didn't train capoeira but were interested in it, but I'd never heard this directly from a mestre, now that I think about it. As Lily mentions, the likelihood of that being true, seems nil in light of the evidence. I'm sure you already know this, but it does make me wonder why that myth had such persistence. I mean, trying to explain why someone who is ostensibly trying to fight (or at least trying to simulate fighting) would stand on their hands in order to attack or escape is understandably difficult if you don't have access to an accurate historical source that can tell you, but why the explanation became 'it was the way they had to fight because of chains around their hands' bewilders me.

    Oh, man, how could I have forgotten about this one. Sad to say that I briefly bought that one (though, in my defense, I didn't think about it too hard and wasn't really thinking that fighting with razors between my toes was anywhere in my future--try not to judge me too harshly). I just thought that those capoeiristas that did that in the early days must have been some tough characters--and a little bit crazy.

    Of course, there's no evidence for that that I'm aware of, either. Capoeiristas certainly used razors at times (and clubs, and daggers and even threw rocks), but every depiction has been that of people using razors in their hands.

    Don't know where the assertion that they held razors in their feet even came from, though I have heard other capoeiristas (not mestres) speculate that perhaps there were closed door training sessions where a person would be told to play in that fashion in order to demonstrate their agility. Personally, I don't buy that, but it doesn't seen absolutely impossible that some people may be crazy enough to do it. However, that should also mean that there are some less-than-perfectly-agile people walking around Bahia with a missing toe or two.

    Funnily enough, this story is so persistent that you can see groups that put razors on their toes to perform capoeira as a form of demonstration for an audience. Won't ever catch me doing it, though.:)

    I'm very guilty of this one even to this day. If prospective new students ask me about the difference between capoeira angola and regional or contemporanea, I'll easily fall into the shorthand explanation of 'angola is the old school/traditional one and regional/contemporanea are more recent variants' or 'angola is trained slow and is played close to the ground while regional/contemporanea are played fast and have the aerial acrobatics'.

    None of this is absolutely true. Angola is old school but no art is sealed in a vacuum and angola has evolved and had some changes over time. Also, there were forms of street capoeira before that more closely resembled Bimba's capoeira regional than they do capoeira angola.

    While angola is certainly trained slow, it is played at a variety of tempos, including very fast (though it is most often played--in my experience--at a moderate tempo, not extremely fast, but certainly not slow). There can be aerial kicks in angola. I've seen a number of mestres do various kicks (and even a flying tesoura [scissor-leg takedown]); they're just not prominent in angola (and the plethora of sweeps, as well as angoleiros' frequent use of said sweeps, will probably keep it that way). In regional and contemporanea, the pace at which the game is played can vary quite a bit, too, and they often play low to the ground just as angoleiros play standing up fairly frequently. But those shorthand distinctions are the most noticeable 'differences' between the forms of capoeira, as they tend to highlight the differing areas of focus between the styles. But thanks for reminding me about a few other things that I'd let slip from my consciousness.
  13. dormindo

    dormindo Active Member Supporter

    Very nice. You know, back when I started messing about with capoeira in late '96, one of the guys in our 'collection of stupid people doing untrained cartwheels on concrete' was joining up with an informal MMA-type sparring group. He stayed on for about a year or so and still occasionally came by to train with us and would tell us about it. That's when I first heard about MMA and, because of his association with this informal group, I'd thought it was just dudes getting together to just punch and kick each other and then go out for beers or something. It would be years later that I would discover that it was this whole formal fighting methodology and everything! I was so clueless!
  14. Fish Of Doom

    Fish Of Doom Will : Mind : Motion Supporter

    laziness. i almost never capitalize :p (and i handwrite in block capitals)
  15. ap Oweyn

    ap Oweyn Ret. Supporter


    Yeah, I don't think of the simplistic explanation of the differences between styles as being a problem really. It's a perfectly reasonable way to go, given that most people who ask really aren't looking for a crazy in-depth analysis anyway. We do the same with every style of martial arts really. If you ask about the differences between two forms of FMA, you'll get a simplistic response about how one emphasizes knife and the other emphasizes stick. Or one emphasizes long range and the other short. Thing is that satisfies the need of the moment 9 times out of 10.

    If someone wants a less simplistic explanation, that takes time, exposure, and direct experience.

    Also, I imagine that most of us bought the razor blade in the toes story for some length of time or another. My first response certainly wasn't "that's an embellishment, I'm sure." It was "Hell's bells!"

  16. dormindo

    dormindo Active Member Supporter

    Nice! Was there any movement or movements that surprised you with its degree of difficulty?

    As I've written above, I was subject to those stories, too. Of course, with the internet now, new members come in with fewer of those old stories in their head. In our group, though, we do tend to give newbies a more generalized, shorthand of the history. Not entirely precise, but no stories of razors in the toes and the like. As beginners, I'm not sure how interested they are in the complex history of the art as they typically are in the music and the movements.

    I do like your idea about the razor thing and possible links to smuggling. It might make for interesting research. If the prison records displayed any tendency toward smuggling and if they left records as to what contraband was found and where on the person it was found, that would be a cool discovery. You should apply for funding and go to Brazil!:)

    Desch Obi links the tendency for movement in the ngolo to nsanga, an agility dance of mimicked combat. That might explain the origin of the concept of ginga, but doesn't explain the ginga itself in its current, standardized form. I recall seeing a diagram of the stepping patterns for ginga in a book (may have been Ring of Liberation?) taken from the '40s or '50s that was quite different to what one thinks of of the 'standard' ginga. Go to youtube and you can see that Mestre Pastinha's ginga is a bit different to the ginga as it is typically done in angola groups.

    Granted, the ginga is supposed to become personalized and, as I had been taught, can be so full of breaks, feints, pauses and the like that doesn't necessarily resemble the box/triangle stepping pattern people are familiar with. Still, it would be nice to know where that particular ginga came from. I imagine that it became standardized with the advent of the academy of capoeira in the '30s and '40s and the teaching of a large number of students at any given time. It still doesn't get us to the origins, though, and you raise a valid question.
  17. dormindo

    dormindo Active Member Supporter

    I am so glad that I wasn't eating or drinking when I read that, because I totally lost it at the image that came up in my head!
  18. dormindo

    dormindo Active Member Supporter

    Djinga Unchained, son!
  19. dormindo

    dormindo Active Member Supporter

    So, yet again, the actual answer is less mystical than the assumption.
  20. belltoller

    belltoller OffTopic MonstreOrdinaire Supporter

    Crackin write-up Boris. Enjoyed that.

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