The Tradition of Capoeira Angola
From the Capoeira Angola Center of Joćo Grande
The martial art and ritual combat dance know as Capoeira is one of the
primary expressions of an African, specifically Kongo-Angolan, continuum in Brazil. Its origins may go back as far as the
16th century, when slaves from western Central Africa arrived in Salvador and the surrounding Recōncavo region. They came
in great numbers throughout the 17th centruy, when they formed the majority of slaves in Brazil. Parts of Angola were almost
depopulated in the process. Since Angolans were the first of the large African groups in Brazil, they came into contact with
the Amerindians and caboclos, people of Portuguese-Amerindian descent. To this day in Brazil, one often finds Angolan and
Amerindian elements closely associated, as in the expression caboclos de Aruanda, literally Indians from Luanda, the capital
of Angola. In Afro-Brazilian religious contexts, a caboclo is the spirit of a dead Indian, and Aruanda means something like
Millions of Africans were brought to Brazil as slaves, bringing their culture with them
It is not surprising then that the word capoeira is believed by many to
have a possibly Amerindian etymology, although the word may also be of Portuguese or Bantu origin. The slaves brought to Brazil
were replacements for indigenous laborers from whom they learned agricultural techniques. A generally accepted theory of the
origin of the word capoeira is that it comes from the Tupi Indian ka puźra, meaning "secondary growth, the grassy scrubland
that sprang up after virgin forest had been cleared for planting." The implication is that such clearings were secluded spaces
hidden from the plantation's overseer's eyes where African slaves might freely perform their dances. The word also carries
the connotation of escaping to the "bush".
There are many claims regarding the origins of Capoeira. Everybody agrees
that the prescence of capoeira in Brazil is directly connected to the importation of African slaves by the Portuguese. Exactly
in what form it arrived and how it evolved is the subject of much speculation and debate. There are some historical documents
that support one premise. In an old letter by Albano de Neves e Souza, it is stated that "N'golo is capoeira". Albano wrote
that N'golo was an acrobatic zebra dance performed by young males of the Mucope people in Angola. N'golo also had a competitive
aspect, in that the one chosen as the best dancer was able to chose a bride without having to pay the bride's family a marriage
fee. The famous Capoeira Angola master Vincente Pastinha stated that his own teacher, a man from Angola named Benedito, told
him that capoeira came from the N'golo dance. However, there are many other theories about capoeira's origins.
Capoeira Angola is a multiform phenomenon. It draws elements from dance,
fight, ritual, and musical performance. It is a person's way of defense, and it is also a form of entertainment. This is shown
by some of the words used in refering to it, such as "brincadeira", "vadiaēćo", meaning merriment, entertainment; and by the
fact that it was frequently played when individuals were resting from their work, particularly sailors and laborers on the
Joćo Pequeno and Joćo Grande by the docks.
Capoeira scholar Ken Dossar writes:
"The object of the game is for the capoeiristas to use
finesse, guile, and technique to maneuver one another into a defenseless position, rendering them open to a blow, kick or
sweep. Only one's hands, head and feet are allowed to touch the floor. Generally there is no contact from strikes. An implied
strike is more admired; particularly when the opponent has been clearly manipulated into an indefensible position. All strikes,
evasions, and counterstrikes are woven together creatively during the course of a game. The freedom to improvise and create
openings keeps capoeira's action fluid and fresh."
Mestre Joćo Grande often describes Capoeira Angola metaphorically. He explains
that Capoeira Angola is like a plant growing up from the ground; it starts small, but with time it can grow into a large tree.
This refers not only to the fact that it takes time and patience to learn but also that the game itself should start on the
Sometimes in class he'll ask people "What does the fish do"? Answer: Fish
'ginga' (the basic move of capoeira angola) as they move through the water! Or he'll ask "What do monkeys do"? Answer: Monkeys
'au!' (a capoeira style cartwheel). He also likes to say that Capoeira Angola is something good to eat. He deeply believes
that Capoeira Angola gives many positive things in life. Mestre wants his students to understand the practice, philosophy
and tradition of Capoeira Angola, as he was taught by Mestre Pastinha.
Pastinha and his students
Mestre Pastinha explained:
"I practice the true capoeira angola and in my school
they learn to be sincere and just. That is the Angola law. I inherited it from my grandfather. It is the law of loyalty. The
Capoeira Angola I learned, I did not change it here in my school....When my students move on, they move on to know about everything."
These are some examples of what Mestre has to teach about Capoeira Angola.
If you wish to learn more, come by the academy and speak with the Mestre himself, he's very patient and loves to share his
knowledge. Portions excerpted from "Capoeira Angola
and Mestre Joćo Grande" by C. Daniel Dawson, the liner notes by Morton Marks, Phd from "Capoeira Angola 2" Smithsonian Folkways
Recordings and "Capoeira Angola: More Than a Martial Art" Karate/Kung Fu Illustrated August 1988 by Alejandro Frijerio, Phd.