AN ILLUSTRATED INTRODUCTION TO CAPOEIRA: AN EXPRESSION OF AFRO-BRAZILIAN CULTURE
By Guido Ambroso
What is capoeira? Capoeira is a martial art created by Brazilians of African descent. But capoeira is much more than a fight. It is also dance, music, singing in Portuguese, acrobatics, improvised poetry and even pantomime. It is best described as an expression of Afro-Brazilian culture. Capoeira is over 200 years old and was widely practiced in the 19th century in the streets of Brazilian cities such as Rio de Janeiro. But in 1890 it was outlawed as a social disease practiced by black criminals and was almost eradicated by the Brazilian police.
Fortunately, it survived in Bahia where the capoeira practitioners, known as capoeiristas, stressed the musical and dancing aspects to conceal the martial side. In fact capoeira is now played to the sound of live instruments of African origin such as the berimbau, a bow with a metal string and calabash which sets the rhythm and the style of playing in the capoeira circle, called roda. Other instruments are drums of African origin and the tambourine. In the 1930s capoeira was legalized and started evolving in two slightly different styles, namely Capoeira Angola (the so-called “traditional” style, systematized by Mestre Pastinha) and Capoeira Regional (the “modern” style developed by Mestre Bimba), but until the 1970s it was still marginalized and stigmatized as an activity of black and mulatto street thugs from Salvador Bahia.
Since then capoeira experienced a true boom, first all over Brazil, and then abroad. By now, there are over 4 million capoeiristas and thousands of masters and instructors from all socials classes all over Brazil. And since the 1980s capoeira started spreading in the USA and in Western Europe and it estimated that it is now practiced in over 100 countries worldwide. Even US President Barack Obama was treated with a capoeira demonstration when he visited the favela (shanty town) of Cidade de Deus (“City of God”) in Rio de Janeiro in March 2011. This paper aims at providing a short introduction to the historical roots and evolution of capoeira in its social context.
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 Note that Bahia is a regional state in the north-east of the Federal Republic of Brazil, whose capital is Salvador. However sometimes people refer to Salvador as “Bahia” or “Salvador Bahia”. We shall use “Bahia” to refer to the state and “Salvador Bahia” to refer to the city.
 In Portuguese “Mestre” means “Master”.