By Joshua Rapp Learn, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Amongst all of the diverse forms of Brazilian music and dance, Capoeira has been one of the most persecuted due to it’s origin in martial arts. Celebrated today as an iconic part of Brazil’s cultural heritage due to the acrobatic and musical performances of its practitioners, Capoeira has broken free from the negative reputation.
Although the history of Capoeira suffers from a lack of documentation, especially previous to the twentieth century, scholars tend to agree that the roots of the martial art came across the Atlantic with African slaves. Even if it is unclear how much of the martial art originated in Africa, Capoeira’s development is credited as a Brazilian phenomenon.
Most legends concerning the roots of the martial art recount how Capoeira was used for defensive purposes in the Quilombo dos Palmares, a large escaped slave settlement that was located in the present day state of Alagoas during the majority of the seventeenth century. Over the years it proliferated, achieving popularity among the Afro-Brazilian populations of Pernambuco, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.
Dance? Fight? Sport? Part of the reason Capoeira is so hard to define is that somewhere during the process, the people practicing the martial art began to disguise it as a dance to avoid persecution. Different rhythms twanged out on the bow-like Berimbau came to codify approaching danger, letting players know instantly to slow the intensity of a game down to make it appear more dance like and less aggressive.
From the very beginning, Capoeira in Rio de Janeiro was vilified as an insubordinate practice of the lower classes. Much of the early documentation of Capoeira in Rio comes from police records during the nineteenth century when the sport was made illegal. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, police records from Assunçao showed that nearly 30 percent of slave arrests and 10 percent of total arrests were due to Capoeira.
By 1890, matters took a turn for the worse when it was officially prohibited in the New Republic. Police chief Sampaio, who was reputedly a skilled Capoeirista, trained his forces to use the martial art in their efforts to eradicate it from the streets of Rio. It was during this time that many practitioners began to adopt Capoeira nicknames in order to disguise their true identity – a tradition that continues to this day.
Persecution continued right up until the late 1930s when it eventually became legal, due mostly to the efforts of two Capoeira masters, Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha, the modern day forefathers of the styles of Regional and Angola, respectively. The two worked tirelessly to create academies, record the history of the martial art and regulate its teaching and practice.
Based on the success of Bimba and Pastinha, academies began to proliferate around the country. In Rio de Janeiro, masters like Artur Emidio created some of the city’s first Capoeira academies while Grupo Senzala won the first three competitions of the Berimbau de Ouro in the 1960s, seemingly coming out of nowhere to become one of Rio’s most famous schools.
Today Capoeira is an integral part of Rio’s diverse cultural palette. You can see Capoeiristas training on the beach, playing for tourists and twanging the long Berimbaus.
Many of the schools are open to anyone who wants to train. If you are interesting in trying it out, or even if you just want to go watch a Roda (the musical circles where two capoeiristas face off at a time), phone one of the academies listed on Gringo-Rio’s website.