Il Quilombo di Acupé: Capoeira and the art of social inclusion

Texts by to Shayna McHugh / Photos by Claudio Maria Lerario in collaboration with Laura Landi

Acupé is a Quilombo close to the small town of Santo Amaro, in Bahia. Here people find hope and a new meaning to their lives thanks to the discipline and energy of Capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art which has inclusion at its very core.

In the Quilombo of Acupé the Capoeira classes for underprivileged people and street children are both practical and theoretical, always emphasizing the playful side of Capoeira, including elements that are fundamental for education and for the development of the kids’ physical, mental, and moral abilities.

Capoeira helps develop motor skills and self-confidence, and it also helps on the cultural side as well as with social integration. Through capoeira, the kids have contact with people of different social classes, and we show them that there is no difference between them. In the Capoeira Roda everyone is equal; everyone wears the same uniform. You don’t know who’s an expert or who’s a beginner.

They see Capoeira as a profession, as an escape, as a shelter from drugs, from the street. According to educators who have more contact with the children, they attend more classes and become more interested in their studies and less interested in drugs; they understand that to be a capoeirista, you have to study and work hard.

Sometimes people think that capoeira makes you more aggressive. On the contrary, the kids expend so much energy here that they don’t have any left to fight in the street. Their communication skills improve because they have less of an inferiority complex; they feel equal to and closer to other kids. The shy kids have become expressive and the hyper ones have become more relaxed. They are slowly understanding the concept of working with each other rather than against each other.

The people of Acupé and how Capoeira helps them

Capoeira was born of an oppressed people’s struggle for freedom. Throughout its history, Capoeira has always been associated with socially rejected groups and people excluded from the mainstream, yet who never ceased their struggle to affirm their identity, rights and cultural values.

For this reason, Capoeira has enormous potential for inclusion. Men and women of all origins, ages, faiths, incomes, and cultural levels are brought together by the capoeira roda. To the beat of the berimbau, they are all citizens of the world striving to improve their quality of life and bring about social justice.

The origin of Capoeira

The origin of the word “capoeira” is as shrouded in mystery as the origin of the art itself. Overall, there are three possible definitions and etymologies of the word capoeira  —  one Tupi-Guarani, one Portuguese, and one African. Each etymology contains a corresponding theory about the association of the word “capoeira” with the dance-fight-game.

Tupi-Guarani: nascent underbrush growing on an area of recently cleared scrubland. From caá or kaá (underbrush) + coêra, poêra or puêra [a form of the past tense that says that the current underbrush is not the one that it used to be; i.e. the scrubland was cleared and then reborn]. The theory is that slaves played capoeira in the scrubland, and that escaped slaves fleeing from the capitães-do-mato (officers sent to recapture them) hid in the underbrush and even used capoeira to defeat the slave hunters.

Portuguese: big basket or cage in which capons and other birds are kept. From capão (capon, a male chicken castrated when young) + the suffix eira. This etymology suggests that slaves bringing cages of birds to sell at the market used to pass their time there by playing capoeira.

African: from the Kikongo word kipula or kipura. In the cultural context of the Congo, these words referred to sweeping ground movements used in martial arts. The connection of this etymology to capoeira is through the movements, since the art of capoeira uses many ground movements and sweeps.

Is Capoeira African or Brazilian?

Both. The art clearly has African roots, but it grew and flourished in Brazil. Capoeira evolved from a combination of various African traditions and rituals. The musical instruments originated in Africa, the musical rhythms are based on the ijexá rhythm of candomblé, and the pattern of call-and-response songs/chants is an African one. The movements came from African dances and martial arts such as n’golo, bassula, and batuque, among others.

However, the Brazilian influence on Capoeira cannot be denied. Capoeira as we know it did not develop in other countries that also used African slave labor. The songs are sung in Portuguese. Mestre Bimba, a Brazilian of African descent, developed the style and teaching method known as Capoeira regional. Finally, it was Brazilians who spread capoeira throughout the world. Since capoeira would not exist without either Brazil or Africa, the art is best described as “African-Brazilian.”

Capoeira’s main philosophies

There are many philosophies that guide the movements, music, and rituals of capoeira. Some of the art’s underlying principles are understanding the complexities of human interaction, the importance of being ready for anything, the value of cleverness, and the strength of indirect resistance. These fundamentals are useful not only in capoeira, but also in day-to-day life.

Interaction. Capoeira is a jogo  —  a game. This means it can be playful and cooperative, intense and competitive, or anywhere in between. A good way to think of capoeira is as a conversation  —  it could range from a friendly chat to a heated argument. A key element of capoeira is interaction; you can’t have a conversation by yourself! The capoeira game is like a series of physical “questions” and “answers,” and one player ‘wins’ when he asks a question that his partner cannot answer.

Movement and versatility. Capoeira places a high value on movement and versatility. The basic “stance” of capoeira is not a rigid and immobile one as in some other martial arts, but instead a fluid, swinging movement called the ginga (meaning to swing or to sway). Capoeiristas should always be moving, and strikes in capoeira are dodged rather than blocked. Capoeira teaches one to attack and defend from any position — while standing, while on the ground, while upside down — and with any part of the body, including the head. It is a three-dimensional art; its players practice moving in all directions in many different ways. A good capoeirista is adaptable and ready for anything.

Deception and trickery. Deception, trickery, and cleverness are encouraged in capoeira. It is better to be smart than strong; a good capoeirista is skilled at fooling the other player. Some strategies include faking one kick but doing another, or pretending to be hurt so that the opponent lets down his guard. Floreios (fancy movements) are used to trick the other player into thinking that one is vulnerable, when in reality one is fully prepared for defense and attack. Players may also distract their partner by looking at or pointing to something outside the roda… the tricks one can use are limited only by one’s imagination. Capoeira songs praise players who play with malandragem (cunning).

Indirect resistance. Finally, capoeira’s philosophy retains roots in the goal of survival at all costs and in surprising ways. The art was created by slaves and developed on the streets by the poor and “undesirable” people living at the margins of Brazilian society. These people battled their oppressors through a resistance that was necessarily indirect, since it was the fight of the weak against the strong. Thus, the capoeirista understands the futility of fighting force with force; instead, he uses his creativity to get around the ‘established rules of the system’ and win.

Capoeira’s relationship to religion and spirituality

Capoeiristas are not required to practice a certain religion or any religion at all. Capoeira is very loosely connected to candomblé (an African religion) and Catholicism: references to both orixás (the deities of candomblé) and Catholic saints appear in Capoeira songs.

Why candomblé and Catholicism? Well, the African creators of the art brought their religion with them to Brazil. They were forced by the European slave masters to adopt Catholic practices; however, they used Catholicism as a façade behind which to practice their own religion. For example, each orixá of candomblé was associated with a Catholic saint, so that a slave could say a prayer to the Virgin Mary but in reality be praying to Iemanjá.

The role of music in capoeira

Music is an essential part of Capoeira, fulfilling multiple roles: it gives energy to the players, directs the speed and style of the game in the roda, and orally transmits information and knowledge.

The speed and rhythm of the instruments tells the players whether to play more cooperatively or more competitively, whether to use close ground maneuvers or fast acrobatic movements.

The songs sometimes comment on the game (for example, if one player gets taken down, the leader might sing a bananeira caiu (the banana tree fell) or give instructions to the players (for example, if the players are going too fast, the leader might sing devagar, devagar (slowly, slowly).

The song leader might also improvise lyrics to speak specifically about the capoeiristas or the situation in the roda. Capoeira songs represent a rich oral tradition. Their lyrics express much history, philosophy, and wisdom, often through metaphors.

The figure of the “mestre” In the words of eleven Capoeira teachers

Mestre Mão Branca: “The word ‘Mestre’ is very strong. The Mestre is a symbol, a guide. It’s not just the great capoeirista or one who is untouchable in the roda, but someone who works for the benefit of capoeira and its place in society. To be Mestre is to take on a responsibility with the art that you love. For this, one must respect the hierarchy, with the philosophy and roda experience.”

Mestre Nacional: “I think that the first thing is to persist in humility, leave vanity to the side and participate in more of the traditional capoeira rodas. There’s no such thing as the ‘best,’ there only exists he who does capoeira with his heart.”

Mestre Ananias: “To be a Capoeira Mestre you have to have many years in capoeira. One can be called Mestre when one is at least 40 or 50 years old. It’s not overnight that you become a Capoeira Mestre. Today we see a ton of young kids who don’t even know how to tune a berimbau, or even respond to the berimbau’s call, and they’re said to be Mestres; they don’t know how to play instruments at all! It’s a shame, so I say that these people should return to the academy and re-learn everything that they forgot! Inside them, you only see toughness, trickery, and nothing else. One must also have clean work with Capoeira.”

Mestre Baiano Anzol: “To be Mestre it is necessary to have at least 10–12 years of research, training, and discoveries. Capoeira involves your feelings, your sensibilities, and becomes part of your life.”

Mestre Celso: “To become a Capoeira Mestre you need time in Capoeira, work, and age; because a 20-year-old kid without experience, what is he going to teach others? One must be educated and pass on this education.”

Mestre Suíno: “Today what’s happening is that first the person becomes Mestre of his Group and then later he obtains recognition of the capoeira community as a whole. So inside each Group, the Mestre sets the curriculum. The Mestre must have a little didactic education, know a bit about child psychology, also know a little of first aid in order to be able to help a person who has an accident, and mainly aim to study, thus having scholarly graduation because today society is requiring this. The requirements are a little stricter to be a Capoeira Mestre today; it’s not just learning Capoeira but diving deep into it, having a serious purpose, and not being a wishy-washy person who today believes one thing and tomorrow believes something else.”

Mestre Camisa: “Work and time are necessary. No one can be a Capoeira Mestre if they are under 40 years old. One must have life experience; one must live with capoeira and be an excellent capoeirista.”

Mestre Hulk: “One must train for a good long time, have knowledge of everything that Capoeira involves in all its aspects (games, history, culture…), know how to give lectures about capoeira, teach humility, have life experience and good conduct as a citizen. Know how to be a good citizen.”

Mestre Joel: “One must train and have at least 15 years in capoeira. One must understand that being a Capoeira instructor means one is a professional; one must have awareness, be Brazilian and take care of this sport, which is the best sport we have and is already spread throughout the world.”

Mestre Açapê: “The capoeirista must be at least 30 years old and know how to enter wherever he is called.”

Mestre Suassuna: “A Capoeira Mestre must be a special person; it can’t be just anyone who gives capoeira classes who becomes a mestre. Mestre must be a person who is consecrated by the people, both the people in capoeira and the people in general, because of the work he does. The Mestre is someone who represents the father or mother of the student, the teacher of the student. The student trusts him a lot. It’s the guy who coordinates a social life and has a very great influence in the maturing process of a boy, of a young person.”

Capoeira is about freedom (Mestre Cobra Mansa explains why Capoeira cannot be institutionalized)

Most capoeiristas in Brazil and all over the world are construction workers, teachers, students, wives, husbands, doctors, lawyers, bums, bankers, administrators, unemployed, musician, artists etc. In brief, most capoeiristas, if not all, are part of that thing we call Society. Most capoeiristas live within that society and follow many and most of the practices that society has.

We are unavoidably the basic element that constitutes that society; it exists because we are there. But at the same time we are not absorbed or assimilated by force by that society and I believe that this is where capoeiristas, like many other groups in society, make a difference. We do the things we must do as part of that society, however, there is another part of our lives that simply do not “fit” into that same society that we follow.

Capoeiristas are by nature and by choice a different kind of individual who desire freedom at the deepest levels of their being. A man once said: “If you want to be free, you just have to start being free.” Freedom is a state of mind and not a state of the body. We are part of this society and we will continue being part of it.

However, we will also continue to grow in our greatness within that same society. No system or society can swallow an individual’s greatness once that individual has come to consciously acknowledge that greatness and uniqueness. This is why the concept of institutionalization of Capoeira has not grown so deeply in most Capoeira communities, specifically in Capoeira Angola communities.

The Capoeira way of life is music to our ears, because it is creating our own space within that society we are part of but many times despise so much. Capoeira is everything that your mouth can eat. Capoeira is like the air. We all know it is there and we breathe it and need it; however, we cannot seize it. Capoeira cannot be limited by a group of practitioners, by a formal organization and not even by a group of mestres that may claim a monopoly over it. Capoeira goes beyond all of us. No society, no community and no individual will ever control Capoeira.

So, if we practice Capoeira to move away from that traditional repressive society we so strongly disapprove of, why do we want to institutionalize Capoeira? It seems like a contradiction since institutionalization means indeed following all societal protocols and detailed laws in order to fit within administrative and corporate schemes with some practical and real purposes: fiscal independence, grants opportunities, group and administrative cohesion, etc.

Different Capoeira groups throughout history and even more within the last decades have tried to create a parallel institution and organization only for capoeira and become as restricting and repressive as the original institution they moved away from. All over the world we see corruption and scandal that institutions and individuals have done.

The system now controls many sectors of society with a small group of people having a monopoly over it. If we look at Brazil as an example, we see carnaval and other manifestations created by the people becoming institutionalized. The people who originated it were the ones who lost the most.

Before we think about institutionalization of Capoeira we need to question why do they want to organize us? Why do we want an institution to control our way of life? Who will gain from that? The Capoeira? The Capoeirista? The bureaucrats? Is this institution really necessary? Who controls them?

Why are they so oppressive, elitist and dictatorial? Can we trust this institution and their leaders morally, financially, physically and spiritually? Do we want institutionalization, or a Capoeira community that works within “the system” to obtain honestly what we need without bending what the system has to offer?

Even though we are all open to growing within the spirit and knowledge of Capoeira, we want to avoid the imposition of values from a group of people and bureaucrats that have already developed their scale of values. We want a community that celebrates and encourages individuality and cooperation among its members. We want a world Capoeira community that respects different values, beliefs, views, and practices.

In brief, it will be a community that respects our different stories and histories, our different lives and our growth in different directions for its strength is and will be what we all have to offer through love and understanding under the Capoeira spirit and practice.


Thanks to Meyre Ribeiro, Marco Tardio, Capoeira Connection and Mestre Cobra Mansa / Sponsored by Cultour