Lúcia Gaspar
Joaquim Nabuco Foundation Librarian
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According to the Dictionary of Brazilian Folklore, by Luís da Câmara Cascudo, capoeira is an athletic game of Black origin, introduced to Brazil by bantu slaves from Angola, defensive and offensive, spread throughout the country and is traditional in Recife, Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, where the famous masters are remembered for their agility and successes.

Since the first records of capoeira in Brazil, there have been doubts as to whether it originated in African villages or on Brazilian plantations.

The majority of authors, however, are adamant that it was created in Brazil, by African slaves, as a tool for fighting and resistance.

In the second half of the 19th century, it was used widely by rascals and insubordinates that lived to provoke and intimidate people, in fighting for control of urban areas, especially in Rio de Janeiro. Because of this, it was targeted by the government who even used the cavalry to combat it, triggering violent incidences. The Brazilian Penal Code of 1890 allowed for sentences of up to six months’ detention for those who were dedicated to playing capoeira.

Those who practiced capoeira, or ‘capoeiras’ as they were known, were not only slaves or black. Prostitutes, robbers, beggars and house burglars were all members of the group that played capoeira.

During public demonstrations and election periods, some politicians allied themselves with ‘capoeiras’, who used physical force to limit the participation of the party’s opponents, in exchange for benefits.

Despite its violent aspect, capoeira is also a form of leisure accompanied by music instruments.

From the 1930s, with the consolidation of Afro-Brazilian studies, capoeira began to be seen in a different light and its activities spread to Northeast Brazil, especially to Bahia.

Its image of violent fighting, so active and present in Rio de Janeiro during the 19th century, began to be gradually erased from the collective national memory. It was integrated into culture and folklore, ceasing to be seen as an activity for delinquents and becoming a “collective pastime”.

Capoeira, as a game or dance, takes place within a ring of people, the circle, which defines the space where it will be carried out. The rhythm keeps to the sound of the ‘cânticos’ (songs), curtos, chants (solo or in chorus) and its traditional percussion musical instruments, such as ‘berimbau’ (musical bow), ‘ganzá’ or ‘reco-reco’ (guiro), ‘agogô’ (a bell-like instrument), ‘pandeiro’ (tambourine), ‘atabaque’ (African drum), ‘caxixi’ (shaker).

The ‘berimbau’ is the main instrument and creates the atmosphere. It can be ‘médio’ (medium tone, which determines the game), ‘viola’ (high tone) or ‘berra-boi’ (low tone); the ‘ganzá’ or ‘reco-reco’ is made from bamboo shoots with transversal slits on which a wooden stick is rubbed producing a raspy sound; the ‘agogô’ is of African origin made of two metal parts similar to cow-bells without the clappers, which are played with a stick made from the same metal producing a sound in each part; the ‘pandeiro’ is made from a wooden circle with jingles, over which a layer of skin (usually goat) is placed, and played by hitting the beat of the dance with the hand; the ‘atabaque’, also of African origins, is a primary drum, covered with animal skin stretched over a wooden structure in the shape of a cone with an opening in the top end, which keeps the beat and, together with the tambourine, accompanies the ‘berimbau’ solo; the ‘caxixi’, an instrument in the shape of a small wicker basket with  a handle, is used like a rattle by the ‘berimbau’ player.

Those who play capoeira, or ‘capoeiristas’ as they are now know, have to be light, flexible and have a strong sense of rhythm, as it is that which determines the attacking or defensive blows. Their movements are continuous and the cadence is fundamental.

There are various styles of capoeira: Angola, São Bento (St Benedict), Jogo de Dentro (Inside Game), Jogo de Fora (Outside Game), Santa Maria (St Mary), Conceição da Praia (Conception of the Beach), Assalva, Senhor do Bonfim (Lord Bonfim). Each can be distinguished by subtle variations; sometimes only by the way the berimbau is played.

The movements or blows depend greatly on dexterity than on muscular strength. The most common are: rabo-de-arraia (ray tail), rasteira (pothole), tesoura (scissors), bananeira (banana tree), aú (cartwheel), salto mortal (death jump), chapa-de-pé (hotplate to foot), meia lua (half moon).

The clothes used in former times were regular white pants, with the bottoms rolled-up, and a loose shirt made from the thick cotton of a sugar sack, later replaced by a white singlet. Shoes are not worn: capoeira fights or games are always barefoot. Today, some ‘capoeiristas’ use coloured shirts with the logo of the association they belong to on them.

In Brazil there are large capoeira centres in Bahia, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. There is also growing interest in the sport, in its choreographic and sporting aspects and its elements of African tradition in Europe and the United States.

Among the grand masters of Bahia are Samuel Querido de Deus, immortalised by Jorge Amado in his book Bahia de todos os santos (Bay of All Saints); Mestre Pastinha (Vicente Ferreira Pastinha); Mestre Bimba (Manoel dos Reis Machado); Mestre Sombra from Sergipe (Roberto Teles de Oliveira), and others.
Nowadays, the topic is widely researched and there are estimated to be around six million ‘fighters’ in Brazil. Practitioners, singers, masters and directors of companies in this field are committed to regulating the profession.

There is a movement that defends a new form of capoeira – contemporary – which is the target of critics because it undermines cultural ties to the past. But for its defenders it is a spectacle, a competition and a serious fighting style on the way to becoming an Olympic sport.

Recife, 9 November 2004.
(Updated on 25 August 2009).
Translated by Peter Leamy, January 2011.


CÂMARA CASCUDO, Luís da. Dicionário do folclore brasileiro. 3.ed. rev. e aum. Brasília, DF: INL, 1972. 2v.

CAPOEIRA. Cultura, Rio de Janeiro, ano 6, n. 23, p. 52-55, out../dez. 1976.

EGLE, Telma. A arte da resistência: atividade que mistura luta e dança busca independência.Problemas Brasileiros, São Paulo, n. 361, p. 38-41, jan./fev. 2004.

KARWINSKY, Esther Sant’Anna de Almeida. A capoeira em Guarujá. Guarujá, SP: Associação de Folclore e Artesanato, 2000.

SOARES, Carlos Eugênio Líbano. A capoeiragem baiana na corte imperial (1863-1890). Afro-Ásia, Salvador, n. 21-22, p. 147-176, 1998-1999.

VASSALLO, Simone Pondé. Capoeiras e intelectuais: a construção coletiva da capoeira “autêntica”. Estudos Históricos, Rio de Janeiro, n. 32, p. 106-124, 2003


Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Capoeira. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at:  <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.


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