Capoeira, African Inspired Martial Art

The Capoeira leaders. Gil Maciel is first from the right.   Photo Credit: African Press Club

Dateline: Marina, Barcelona

By Chiogor Constance Ikokwu

This week, I’m excited to share my article on Capoeira, a martial art with roots in Africa that I had no idea existed. My journey to discovering Capoeira was sown by the seed of curiosity. More than ever before, I’m convinced that curiosity is a great quality to have. The reward in terms of knowledge acquired is amazing.

A colleague Newman Gompil had mentioned in passing that he had a friend who was acquainted with Afro-Brazilians. This caught my attention right away because I’ve always wanted to pen an article on the enduring religious practices of Afro-Brazilians whose roots have been traced to the Yoruba people of Nigeria. I am utterly startled by the fact that their culture survived the transatlantic slave trade for generations.

I asked Newman to introduce me to his friend by name Gervasio. Soon after, he informed me that Gervasio was involved with a Capoeira cultural association whose official launch was imminent. “Get me an invite,” I blurted out. At the time, I had never heard of Capoeira. I did not know what it meant. All I knew was that my participation at this event will open up a new world of learning, and boy oh boy, it did.

On the D-day, I arrived at the venue to the warm embrace of a group of people whose appreciation for all things cultural was evident and infectious. I began to ask questions. This is what I discovered.

Capoeira was a martial art originating in Angola in Southern Africa. The Africans that were shipped from Angola to Brazil by the Portuguese slave traders used this dance-fight performance as a survival technique during years of oppression.

The Portuguese like many European colonialists used slavery to build their economies. Slave rebellions were expected due to the injustice of a system that was developed on forced, unpaid labour and sheer brutality. But being unarmed, it was usually difficult for the slaves to succeed in any type of revolt. Capoeira was, therefore, something indigenous that they developed as a tool to overcome their captors.

Capoeira is a fusion of dance, music and acrobatics. The movement can be slow or fast depending on the pace of the music. The show of power is astonishing when it’s performed with speed. The precision is unbelievable. The kicks, spins and, maneuvers, are dizzying, to say the least. It requires energy, endurance, tact and, flexibility.

When the performance at the event started, I felt as if I had been transported to an African village square. The leader of the Associacion Cultural de Capoeira Angola Vadiacao, Mestre Gil Maciel carved out a sizeable circle on the floor with a marker, after which he placed a tape around it. The fighters were to remain in the circle.

The leader of a Capoeira group is called a Mestre (master) in Portuguese, while the practitioners are called Capoeiristas. Mestres that were visiting from Brazil, Belgium and other parts of Spain took turns to engage Maciel in the circle. Apart from the handshake at the onset, the fighters do not make body contact during the entire session. Why?

It was a tactic used by the slaves to disguise their actual intentions or objectives. Any onlooker, in this case, the slave masters were made to believe the slaves were entertaining themselves by dancing. On the contrary, they were honing their fighting skills. Faced with armed slave owners who hunted them down if and when they escaped, the slaves had Capoeira as their only weapon.

I left that event with a renewed respect for the intrinsic value of culture and the innate capabilities of human beings. Everything is rooted in culture. It defines our evolutionary identity. Knowledge of ancestry is, therefore, key.

It’s possible that many Africans or non-Africans as well, are unaware of Capoeira, the genesis of the art and the tales of Afro-descendants in South and Central America. The teaching of history is crucial. Alternatively, it pays to consciously seek for knowledge outside the confines of the system.

A nice wrap up to the story is that Maciel showed me a document indicating that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had in 2014, recognised Capoeira as an “intangible cultural heritage,” to be protected.

The Assocacion Cultural de Capoeira Angola Vadiacao offers classes for adults and children interested in learning the art. I must warn you though, you need to be fairly fit. It’s not a joke at all. Find here, youtube links that give you an idea of what this is all about: 

Please share your thoughts. Enjoy!

Gervasio at the event. Other members learning how to weave a music instrument, as part of activities for the day

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  1. Like probably most people I had no idea that this form of dance/combat existed. South American black slavery is not as well documented as north American as far as I know. I’m wondering what the slaves then who practised the art and who well may have had to fight for their lives with it would think of the present day practitioners who do it as an art form I’m supposing. It would be great if some documentary evidence was available. Here in the UK we have a brilliant Afro-UK investigator who has presented BBC TV documentaries of British involvement in the slave trade and Caribbean immigration by painstakingly delving into the historic all records available in abundance here I would love to see the samemail re this subject…maybe in Portugal or Brazil say. .

    1. Ian I know. We learn everyday. We know much about afro descendants in North America because of the USA is a world power, but know almost nothing about the rest of the Americas. But there are so many afro descendants in South and Central America. Do you know that Brazil has the largest population of black people in the world outside of Africa. Anyway, I agree with you. A documentary on this will be great.

  2. The first time I learnt that Capoeira was actually a martial fighting style from Angola SSA was playing the video game Tekken on PlayStation using Eddie Quado. All I knew was it was a dance/fighting style popular in Brazil until a google search later on made me realize it was actually Angolan. It’s heartwarming to note that these cultures are still being preserved after so many years but hurtful also to realise the dark history behind the need to continue practicing and how slavery, forced migration and colonialism over 400 years almost made us lose our identity. Interesting read

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