History & Philosophy of Capoeira

Capoeira's journey to India
Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that is currently practiced all over the world. While its origins are the subject of much debate, it has evolved from an underground activity associated with criminals to its legalization and subsequent popularization and on to becoming a national sport that is just now making its entry in India.

Capoeira as a sport is played in several different ways, the two most common being Angola and Regional. In both there are defense and attack moves that are accompanied and even led by the music and songs that the Master (Mestre) and students play and sing. Distinctive from other martial arts by this music, the continuous movement of the players and the minimal contact involved it is often (mis)taken for a dance. However, let not the grace and flexibility of the players hide their strength and skill.

The multiple aspects of Capoeira from the physical (weight regulation, flexibility and acrobatic movements) to the musical (the instruments and songs) and cultural (language) make it a sport that appeals to a wide segment. Indeed, all over the world, people of all ages, men, women and children are making it a part of their routines.

In India, we have been fortunate to have been exposed to Capoeira through Instrutor Baba (Reza Massah). He studied Capoeira for six years with the Cordão de Ouro (CDO) group in Israel. (CDO was started by Mestre Suassuna in Sao Paulo, Brazil and has branches all over the world). We began our classes in Mumbai in March 2006 and have grown from strength to strength in this year. Our classes typically have between 30 to 50 students per month, including 10% foreign students. We have been featured in several news articles in the print and televised media and have also given interactive workshops and performances. 

The derivation of the word Capoeira is under dispute. In Portuguese, Capoeira means Hennery and derives from the word Capão, which translates as Capon (a castrated rooster). Another possible meaning is that it refers to an area of forest or jungle that has been cleared by burning or cutting down. This word could be a union between two words from a Native-American language, Tupi-Guarani, where [CAA] means down, little and [PUOÊRA] means grass. Some quilombos, places where fugitive slaves lived, had Africans, Native-Americans, and poor white men living together. A favorite place used by fugitive slaves to attack slaves-transports was the place named, by Tupi-Guarani people, [CAÃ][PUOERA], generally next to some little river or some little trees. Afro-Brazilian scholar Carlos Eugenio believes it refers to a large round basket called a capa commonly worn on the head by urban slaves selling wares (a capoeira being one who wears the basket). Baskets containing roosters and chickens at market may also have been referred to as "capoeiras". Alternatively, Kongo scholar K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau thinks that capoeira could be a deformation of the Kikongo word kipura, which means to flutter, to flit from place to place; to struggle, to fight, to flog. In particular, the term is used to describe a rooster's movements in a fight. 

Mestre Bimba is the father of regional Capoeira. His real name is Manuel dos Reis Machado. He got the name Bimba due to a bet between his mother and the midwife during his birth; his mother bet that he was going to be a girl and the midwife bet he would be a boy. After he was delivered, the midwife said... it's a boy, look at his "bimba" (male sexual organ).
His last days
Bimba moved from Bahi to Goiânia as he felt his work in the field of Capoeira was not appreciated by the higher authorities. He felt betrayed by them as the government offered no monetary help to sun his academy or to help his research in the field of Capoeira Regional. He laso felt his work was ignored in the field of Bahian folklore – for the recuperation of the maculelê tradition, for the development of capoeira, for the spreading of candomblé in the academic environment of Salvador and in the Northeast.

He met his end in Goiânia due to a disease he had since his youth but known to very few people. The mestre has asthma, which Dr. Cisnando taught him how to treat with the injection of adrenaline, as was the custom of the time. Bimba continued to use this medication secretly, despite warnings against using the same by Mestre Decanio who studied medicine himself. The adrenaline shots provided him with instant relief. He didn’t pay attention to the medication’s hypertensive effect, because it didn’t affect him when he was young.
In Goiânia, bitter, tense, poor, with enormous expenses, his blood pressure was elevated, and the old heart no longer supported the burden imposed by hypertension and depression. Upon perceiving an asthmatic attack, he once again resorted to the habitual medication. It is also possible that the initial “lack of air” was provoked by a
purely emotional hypertensive crisis aggravated by the epinephrine, which triggered the cerebral condition that brought him to the grave.

In a room of an old mansion in the midst of destruction on Ave. Angelica in Sao Paolo, Brazil, 1967, Mestre (Master) Suassuna and Mestre Brasilia founded the group Cordão de Ouro.

Before these men met, Capoeira was divided as either Angolan or Regional. Mestre Suassuna followed a regional path and Mestre Brasilia followed an Angolan when they created CDO and decided they wanted to give their new group a name that was neutral and did not lean in either direction or style. While discussing names for the group they were inspired by a song by Elis Regina titled “. . . Farewell Bahia, zum zum zum, Cordão de Ouro . . .” and so it was they baptized it the Academy of Cordão de Ouro, which was neither Angolan or Regional. It was simply Capoeira.

Inevitably, Mestre Suassuna and Mestre Brasilia were forced to abandon their room in the old mansion on Ave. Angelica and they moved their Academy to another home in Sao Paolo on the Rua das Palmeiras n.104. Soon after the inauguration of this new home for their Academy, Brazil entered a period of military dictatorship, but capoeiristas continued to train.

This was a very difficult time for capoeiristas, it was forbidden for anyone to practice Capoeira in the streets, at the Universities, or in any school. Mestre Brasilia and Mestre Suassuna were forced to simulate fights in the streets as a way to get students to attend the Cordao de Ouro Academy. During this time in Bahia, there were many capoeiristas without families. Mestre Suassuna made the decision to unite these orphan capoeiristas at a roda that occurred on Saturdays at the Cordao de Ouro Academy, which led to the Academy being known as a sort of Bahian consulate.

Eventually the number of capoeiristas outgrew the Cordao de Ouro Academy until finally Mestre Suassuna made the decision that, “from next month on, each one of you will have to look for a place to give your own classes, Capoeira needs to grow in Sao Paulo.” Shortly after, Mestre Limão took up courage and opened an Academy in Santo Amaro ; Silvestre opened another one in Brooklin, and so forth. The group Cordao de Ouro had their first batizado with twelve students and it didn’t take long before they organized their 1 st Capoeira tournament. It was said “the floor is the limit” and soon enough Cordao de Ouro organized the Academy’s first three Capoeira festivals.

Despite the progress being made by these capoeiristas, the Brazilian dictatorship would not let up. Mestre Suassuna was even jaied by the Federal Police, being accused of being a leader of a subversive community. In prison Mestre Suassuna was beaten and shocked. This was an unjust imprisonment for Mestre Suassuna, the truth was that he had absolutely no involvement with subversion. It was said that some of his students had been involved in subversive acts, but he had nothing to do with their actions.

Eventually the oppression of Capoeira dwindled and with the foundation of the Paulista Federation of Capoeira in 1974, our Brazilian art went on to acquire more and more space in society. It grew so much that today the Cordao de Ouro group has thousands of members spread around the world, including the United States, France, Israel, Japan, Austria, Portugal, Mexico, England, Italy and India.


One of the reasons why people feared Capoeiristas or Capoeira itself was because of the Bateria. The drum percussions performed by the Bateria were used by some tribes to call upon the spirits of their ancestors. So whenever the Atabaque would be played in a Roda, the innocent bystander felt that the spirits took over the Capoeirista and made him perform the unbelievably complex moves with such finesse.

"Aché (axé, asé) is the magic force that moves all things in the universe according to the African religions in Brazil. It exists in all realms of nature and can be transmitted through specific rituals. Although Capoeira has no direct connection with religion, the capoeiristas, as the majority of the Brazilians, are related one way or another with Afro-Brazilian rituals. Aché in Capoeira means the connection with the roots, a special energy to be developed by any capoeirista. To wish aché to someone means to wish good luck. For those who believe, some special people transmit aché through their wishes." - Mestre Acordeon   

Paraná ê - The history behind the song
In 1865, Paraguay was the only country in Latin America that could be considered independent, and it found itself in full industrial development, with weapons and gunpowder factories. Unproductive land was being transformed into state plantations, generating employment for the whole population.

Impeding the process of Paraguay was a big challenge for England, because Paraguay became a big competitor in productivity. Brazil and Argentina, on the other hand, were interested in taking possession of parts of Paraguayan land.
The spark that initiated the war occurred on November 24, 1864, when Paraguayan president Solano López cut ties with Brazil, captured the Brazilian ship Marques de Olinda, and invaded the state of Mato Grosso (which, together with Paraná, are the only states that border Paraguay).

At the end of all the battles, the Paraguayans took the worst casualties. 75% of the country’s population was killed; of 800,000 inhabitants, only 194,000 were left. With this victory, England once again returned to economic domination of the region, and Brazil and Argentina managed to take 140,000 kilometers of the land they wanted.

The whites “logically” didn’t want to be on the front line of battle, so they created a law saying that blacks who entered the war and returned alive would win their liberty. What the whites didn’t anticipate was that the majority of the blacks who went... actually returned!!

The slaves had an advantage thanks to capoeira as the battles depended more on hand-to-hand fighting than on weapons. So, on their way back, on the margins of the Paraná River, the now ex-slaves sang:

Vou dizer à minha mulher, Paraná
Capoeira que venceu, Paraná... [Venceu a guerra]
Paraná ê, Paraná ê, Paraná.
Ela quis bater pé firme, Paraná [Ela = a guerra]
Isso não aconteceu, Paraná...

I will tell my wife, Paraná
That capoeira won [the war], Paraná
Paraná ê, Paraná ê, Paraná.
It [the war] wanted to stamp its foot hard, Paraná
This did not happen, Paraná 

Mestre Squisito was born in Montes Claros, Minas Gerais on March 11, 1953. His first contact with capoeira occurred around 1968 in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, where he met a capoeirista at school. He really established himself in capoeira in Brasília in 1974, in the Academia Tabosa de Capoeira, the most famous academy of the time.

Mestre Squisito on being asked what his biggest challenge was in capoeira:
"Continuity. The large majority of people who begin learning capoeira quit within a year. Of those that continue, many more quit in the second year, and so on. Even people with great ability and potential abandon capoeira for a variety of reasons: lacking time to train, moving far away from their home group and being reluctant to join another group, marriage, religion, laziness, taking up a different sport, studies, illnesses – all in all, there are infinite reasons that act as a "filter" for capoeiristas over the course of time. The only ones who become real capoeiristas are those who incorporate capoeira into their soul. That takes time."