Some 400 years ago in Angola, on the west coast of Africa, a form of combat practiced by the natives was beginning to take shape in what we would today call a martial art. Four centuries later, capoeira is practiced in that South American nation known as Brazil. It no longer uses savage self-defense techniques that originated in Africa, however. And thereby hangs a tale.
In the days of the great plantations, the owners took a dim view of the capability for mayhem that the natives possessed. Practitioners of capoeira suffered great persecution at the hands of the owner-dominated police. In order to avoid this persecution, the capoeristas began to camouflage their “sport” by turning it into a weird dance, consisting of pantomime, music and dances. Capoeira ceased to be a matter of violence and death and became an amusement. It became the custom to remark that “the natives are playing Angola style.” Even the plantation foremen would applaud the “performances” as the “players” would jump, weave, gambol, trip and kick their opponents, then avoid retaliation by slithering on the ground like serpents.
So in spite of early difficulties, capoeira caught on. Legendary names appeared: invincible fighters, men with flesh impenetrable by knife or bullet, men under contract with the devil, men with charms against the most powerful of enemies, men who could liberate themselves from any kind of a trap.
Capoeira’s Musical Instruments
The berimbau (a kind of Jew’s harp) can be divided into two types: The berimbau de boca and the berimbau de barriga. The berimbau de boca was said that it came originally from Angola. This, however, is contested by some students of the subject. It consists of a bow that tightens a cord of “timbo” (a kind of vine). The resonating chamber is the mouth of the player. The cord is made to vibrate by striking it with a knife. The berimbau de barriga is the most usual type used. It is formed by a piece of wood called “the pigeon,” which maintains tension in a steel wire. The resonator is a small gourd attached to the wire by a string. The wire produces a sound that is modulated by a copper coin, while the mouth of the gourd is placed at varying distances from the abdomen of the player.
The berimbau has many quivering vibrations that are marvelously adapted to the reproduction in sound of the swaying of hips and the feline jumping of the capoeiristas. Independently of this, it lends a melancholy note to the singing of “Lundus,” which accompany the movements of the game of capoeira. According to Oneyda Alvarenga, the music of the berimbau is a “force activating the energies of two combatants, and in such manner, the music ties itself to the game so that the latter is entirely dependent on it and is regulated by it.” So the ardor of the battle grows in accordance with the crescendo or rallentando of the music.
The other instrument that accompanied the evolution of the capoeira is the caxixi. It consists of a round bamboo basket with dried seeds inside. The orifice is covered with dried gourd skin. It acts as an accompaniment to the berimbau. Each time the wire resounds, it is accompanied by the rattle of the dried seeds.
The third instrument that frequently accompanies the game of capoeira is the reco-reco. It is a large segment of bamboo, in which have been made innumerable lateral incisions for the escape of the air, which is caused to vibrate by a piece of cane that is scraped across the incisions in the side of the bamboo, thus producing the characteristic sounds.
Finally, we must consider the pandeiro. It is a regional instrument, used not only to accompany the capoeira but also to mark the shaking rhythm of the sambas. Its shape is well-known: the circle of quince wood, the goatskin top and the jingles of Flemish tin. Certain societies of capoeira use agogó.
Capoeira Combat Songs
The berimbau is used by the accompanists of the capoeira to produce definite and resolute tunes that modulate the rhythms of the game. The most important are the following:
Sao Bento Grande — the light game
Sao Bento Pequeno — samba of the capoeira
Banqnela — the knife game
Santa Maria — the measured game
Ave Maria — the capoeira hymn
Amazonas — the middle game
Iuna — the creeping game
Cavalaria — a signal denouncing the proximity of strangers
Angolinha Samba de Angola
In view of what we tell, it is easy to understand the character of the capoeira game.
At the sound of the music of Sao Bento Pequeno, the combat is transfigured into the clashing of the samba. The good masters of capoeira, in order to give a demonstration of singular ability in this game, after blows and counterblows, much whirling in the space left by the tangle of arms and legs, end the battle without showing a single spot or stain on their Sunday clothes. The old masters, such as I, are capable of similar feats. At my age, 74, I also perform with my pupils. I would like to give exhibitions in any part of the world.
As a Brazilian, I am proud of this friendly country, which may wish to give me an opportunity to exhibit myself and my pupils there, in order to show our American brothers the possibilities of using capoeira techniques against an enemy, an adversary or several adversaries, without the necessity of using firearms or knives. On the contrary, the capoeirista, meeting his adversary armed with a weapon, has the possibility by means of the lightness and quickness of capoeira, to disarm his opponent by taking his weapon from him or to vanquish him by tripping and throwing the armed adversary to the ground. Even though the capoeirista may be physically inferior to his opponent, a good capoeirista has no fear of him, be he of superior physique, a younger man, or armed tooth and nail.
In case it may not be possible for me to demonstrate capoeira in America, I shall be proud if your people may have an opportunity to come to Salvador-Bahia in Brazil to know intimately this game, this personal defense, which is the capoeira, substituting well for any weapon, physical force or age.