When Capoeira Would Land You In Prison


(Source, click to see more visual references)

Between 1890, after the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil, and the final years of the 1920’s, capoeira references could be found, not in cultural literature of the time, but in the Penal Code of the Republic. The name capoeira itself became a pejorative term applied to vagrants, thieves and undesirables, but let’s return to this theme later while we take a look at the possible etymologies of the word.

Etymology

The word capoeira was registered for the first time in 1712 by Rafael Bluteau in a dictionary he made called “Portuguese and Latin Vocabulary”, though its exact etymology is unknown. Several theories exist, the first of which was proposed by Brazilian author José de Alencar in his novel Iracema when he suggested that “capoeira” is Tupi for “caa-apuam-era” (a small, virgin forest). Another Brazilian lexicographer’s theory was that the word was connected to the name of a small partridge bird and the distinct way the male would defend his territory.

Yet another theory comes from author Brasil Gerson who believed capoeira referred to large baskets for saving wood and carrying chickens which slaves would transport to the marketplace. During their breaks, they would enjoy themselves by “jogando capoeira” (jogar meaning both play and throw). In much the way that the –eiro in brasileiro is associated with a profession (those who transported brasil-wood), the name of the big baskets may have been passed onto those who transported them.

While all these possible explanations are good and interesting, the most likely scenario for the origin of the word is that it’s simply a mixture of these theories. In the same way we use familiar, yet opposing phrases for just about any situation that requires a solution (“two heads are better than one”, but also, “there are too many cooks in the kitchen”), each possible explanation for the etymology of capoeira could very well have been popularly believed notions among different social groups. We have to remember, though, that these were tumultuous times for slaves in Brazil and just like the “-eiro in brasileiro” example, perhaps the slaves sought freedom upon escape in the small forested areas the Amerindians called capoeiras, and thus the slaves took the name of the areas they typically hid in.

Road to Criminalization

The resistance of the maroon communities along the northeastern coast of Brazil in the 18th century showed just how important capoeira was. As the Dutch invaded, thousands of slaves took advantage of the confusion and escaped their masters. They formed groups called “maltas” in order to defend themselves and their territory with capoeira.

Rio de Janeiro also played an important role in capoeira’s history as most slaves in Brazil resided either there or in Bahia. The Calabouço prison, located in a military installation at the bottom of the Castelo hill in front of Guanabara bay, was the landing place for any slave that misbehaved or was thought to have misbehaved. As per an agreement between the State and the slave owners, any slave could be brought there to receive a “corrective whipping” of 100 lashes for the price of 160 réis. Prison records from 1857, for example, show that 80 slaves were jailed that year for “capoeira” while only 30 were jailed for running away. A few years later, in 1862, the capoeira-related arrests totaled 404. Eventually, what may have been considered a suspicious reason for arrest became a nationwide law signed by Brazilian president Deodoro da Fonseca.

The 18th chapter of the Brazilian Penal Code of 1890 deals with the subject of “Vagabonds and Capoeiras”. Under the 487th Decree (Article 402), one can find the following:

“Decrees of the Provisional Government
Art. 402. Performing, on the streets and in public plazas, exercises of agility and bodily skill known by the denomination capoeiragem: to attack quickly, with weapons or instruments capable of producing bodily lesions, provoking commotions or disorder, threatening a specific or unspecific person, or instilling fear of harm: Penalty — sentencing to a jail cell for two to six months.”

(Art. 403. states that if a foreigner is caught doing capoeira, they will be deported after serving jail term.)

Something that may have contributed to the criminalization of capoeira is the “malandragem“, which refers to trickery, malice or deceit. As a martial art, being able to trick one’s opponent can be a matter of life and death, so if a slave could make a fight seem like a dance, that could have been quite advantageous when viewed by, or enacted against, their masters. In a way, it was the darker sense of malandragem, as seen by those in power, that led to capoeira being criminalized. The lighter malandragem that existed within the game, among players, was just one of the intrinsic values that eventually helped in giving capoeira a better name.

Bimba

In the late 1920’s, times were changing and one man took notice. His name was Manuel dos Reis Machado (better known as Mestre Bimba) and by making capoeira a sport that offered all of the training and discipline that any other athletic endeavor required, he uplifted the game and gave those who played it something to be proud of.

Mestre Bimba succeeded in getting the ban lifted after he performed for the governor of Bahia and he went on to open the first capoeira school in 1932 in Salvador da Bahia where he taught Capoeira Regional. In making students wear white and earn their skill level, in the form of a belt, Mestre Bima gave capoeira a wider appeal with the public and thereby demarginalized its practice. Today, he is still spoken about with a mix of respect and emotion by the many students he taught. It could be said that our modern concept of capoeira, and the fact that it is practiced in over 150 countries on 5 continents, is because of him.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

Advertisements

Maculelê – Capoeira’s Wild Cousin

Maculelê (Pronounced: mah-koo-leh-LEH) is an Afro Brazilian dance where a number of people gather in a circle called a roda with one or more atabaques positioned at the entrance of the circle. Each person brandishes a pair of long sticks, traditionally made from biriba wood from Brazil. The sticks, called grimas, traditionally measure 24 inches long by 1 and 1/8 inch thick. As the Maculelê rhythm plays on the atabaque, the people in the circle begin rhythmically striking the sticks together. The leader sings, and the people in the circle respond by singing the chorus of the songs. When the leader gives the signal to begin playing Maculelê, two people enter the circle, and to the rhythm of the atabaque, they begin striking their own and each other’s sticks together. On the first three beats, they strike their own sticks together, making expressive and athletic dance movements, and on each fourth beat, they strike each other’s respective right-hand stick together. This makes for a dance that looks like “mock stick combat”. (Also, traditionally in Maculelê, the players wear dried grass skirts).

In some capoeira schools, Maculelê can be played with the use of a pair of facões (literally big knife) which are large knives of about 40 cm, used primarily to cut way through tall grass areas. However this style of play is only practiced by graduated students and masters. It is characterized by the loud noises and flying sparks when the players strike the knives.

Origins

The origins of Maculelê are obscure, and there are many stories, theories and beliefs that claim “this is how Maculelê came to be”. Here are two:

  1. During the slavery era in Brazil, the slaves in the sugarcane plantations would gather and play Maculelê as a game to vent their anger and frustration from being slaves. At this time, machetes were used instead of sticks. Sticks were later incorporated for safety reasons. However, some experts still use machetes.
  2. There were two tribes in Brazil: a peaceful tribe, and a warlike one. The warlike tribe would repeatedly attack the peaceful tribe, who had no way of defending themselves. One day, during an attack, a young boy named “Maculelê” picked up a pair of sticks and fought off the other tribe. The other tribe never attacked again. The boy didn’t manage to fight them off completely, but did die trying. His home tribe then made a mock combat dance using sticks and named the dance “Maculelê” in his honor and memory.

Maculelê is sometimes practiced by itself, but is quite often practiced alongside Capoeira, and featured in many Capoeira performances. It should be noted that Maculelê and Capoeira are fairly similar in style.

Here’s another show.

Abadá – Colorful Shirts vs. Colorless Pants

Abadá is an African word, from Yorubá, brought to Bahia by Arabic-speaking Africans. It is a type of white bedtime dress used by the Muslims that came to Brazil as slaves.

Abadá is also the name of the pants worn by capoeiristas (players of capoeira). It is probable that this form of dress that served for prayers was also found suitable for capoeira circles. There is a legend that speaks of capoeiristas using white as a form of demonstrating their abilities: the best players would be those that maintained their abadás in impecible condition after the fight.

Yet another use is seen going back to the Carnival of 1993, when a Carnival designer launched a new type of dress to substitute the old costume sheets. In homage to a capoeira master and friend called Mestre Sena, the designer baptized the new ‘costume’ as abadá. This new name caught on and spread rapidly through Brazil aiding in the popularization of the term. Some dictionaries merely cite one of the terms while others cite both.

For Carnival

909dd_1jpg

For Capoeira

Instruments for Brazilian Rythyms

Below are a few instruments widely used to make Brazilian rythyms in music.

Pandeiro – How to Shake It

The pandeiro is a type of hand frame drum commonly found in many types of Brazilian music.

Much like the distinctions between the ukelele and the cavaquinho, there are two important distinctions between a pandeiro and the common tambourine. The tension of the head on the pandeiro can be tuned, allowing the player a choice of high and low notes. Also, the platinelas (metal jingles) are crisper, drier and less sustained on pandeiros than on the tambourine. This provides clarity when swift, complex rhythms are played.

It is held in one hand, and struck on the head by the other hand to produce the sound. Typical pandeiro patterns are played by alternating the thumb, fingertips, heel, and palm of the hand.

A pandeiro can also be shaken to make sound, or one can run a finger along the head to create a “rasp” noise. The pandeiro is used in a number of Brazilian music forms, such as Samba, Choro, Coco and Capoeira music (see Capoeira songs).

Some of the best-known pandeiro players today are Paulinho Da Costa, Airto Moreira, Marcos Suzano, and Carlinhos Pandeiro de Ouro.

Examples

In the video below, a percussion major at Northwestern University, give a great description of the pandeiro and how to play a basic beat.

If you are looking for a little more information while still focusing on the basics, Cassio Duarte has some tips for you.

Berimbau – Afro-Brazilian Rythyms

The berimbau is a single-string percussion instrument, a musical bow, from Brazil. The berimbau’s origins are not entirely clear, but there is not much doubt on its African origin, as no Indigenous Brazilian or European people use musical bows, and very similar instruments are played in the southern parts of Africa. The berimbau was eventually incorporated into the practice of the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira (which I will speak about in a later post), where it commands how the capoeiristas move in the roda (circle). The instrument is known for being the subject matter of a popular song by Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell, with lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes. Below is a short intro. to the aesthetic history of the berimbau.

Cuica – Strange Sound in the Samba

The Cuíca (pronounced KuWEE-kah) is a Brazilian friction drum often used in samba music. The tone it produces has a high-pitched squeaky timbre which is why it has been called a ‘laughing gourd’ and even the ‘lion’s roar’ due to its deeper sound.

The body of the cuíca is normally made of metal. It has a single head, normally made of animal skin. A thin bamboo stick is attached to the centre of, and perpendicular to, the drum head. To play the cuíca, the musician rubs the stick up and down with a wet cloth held in one mão (hand), using the thumb of the other hand to press down on the skin of the drum near the place where the stick is attached. The rubbing motion produces the sound and the pitch is increased or decreased by changing the pressure on the thumb.

The cuíca plays an important rhythmic role in samba music of all kinds. It is particularly notable as a fixture of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival groups, which feature entire sections of cuíca players. It is so commonly used in radio-oriented samba music that in the absence of a cuíca player, Brazilian singers or other musicians imitate the sound of the cuíca with their voices.

Examples of the cuíca in popular non-Brazilian music include:

  • Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”
  • Beck’s “Tropicalia”
  • Barenaked Ladies’ “Enid”
  • Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved”
  • Jamiroquai’s “Music of the Mind”
  • Dido’s “Thank You”
  • Stevie Wonder’s “Bird Of Beauty”

I find it always interesting what wealth of intruiging information I am able to find by reading about things in their language of origin, in this case Portuguese. Upon reading the English Wikipedia article on the Cuíca, I found the above information, but by reading just a few sentences from the Portuguese Wikipedia article, I found this…

“A cuíca é um instrumento cujas origens são menos conhecidas do que os outros instrumentos afro-brasileiros. Ela foi trazida ao Brasil por escravos africanos Banto, mas ligações podem ser traçadas a outras partes do nordeste africano, assim como à península Ibérica. A cuíca era também chamada de “rugido de leão” ou de “tambor de fricção”. Em suas primeiras encarnações era usada por caçadores para atrair leões com os rugidos que o instrumento pode produzir.”

The cuíca is an intrument whose origins are less known than the other Afro-Brazilian instruments. It was brought to Brazil by African slaves from the Banto tribe, but connections can be traced back to other parts of Northeastern Africa, and even the Iberian Penninsula. The cuíca was also called “the roar of the lion” or “the friction drum”. In it’s first incarnations, it was used by hunters to attract lions with the sounds it can produce.

Cavaquinho – Cousin to the Ukelele

The cavaquinho or little cavaco (piece of firewood) is part of the small string European guitar family. It’s cousin to the ukelele (or “jumping flea” in Hawaiian), differing only by certain small modifications made when brought to Brazil from Hawaii. The ukelele in turn was brought to Hawaii from Portugal. The cavaquinho is mainly used in Samba music.

Tupi-Guarani – Tribes & Tongues

The Sound of Conquerers

There’s a book in Portuguese called “Triste Fim de Policarpo Quaresma” by Lima Barreto in which the main character (Policarpo Quaresma) is a nationalist who revolts against the Portuguese language, dismissing it as the language of the colonizers. His answer is for all Brazilians to return to their native linguistic roots, in this case, Tupi-Guarani.

A possible flaw in Policarpo’s reasoning can be found in the fact that the Portuguese, the Tupis and the Guaranis were all conquerers of “lesser” peoples and tribes. For all intesive purposes, Tupi-Guarani wasn’t the only native language of Brazil, but due to both the Tupi and the Guarani violent way of life, it was the dominant language of the time.

With the release of Barreto’s novel in 1911, there have been pushes by select groups of nationalists and linguists alike over the years to bring Tupi-Guarani back as the official language of Brazil. The issue has however only been taken as far as the educational system, where attempts have been made to get it accepted into the school systems as an elective class. The general marginalization of the tribes have taken their tongues with them making Tupi-Guarani virtually non-spoken among modern Brazilians.

The meaning of Tupi is “the great father” or “leader” and likewise, Guarani means “warrior”. Their language still can be seen in an extremely large number of geographic locations throughout Brazil. A few of these names were mentioned in the post on State Etymologies on this site. Tupi-Guarani is actually a sub-group of the Tupi langauges, which encompasses 53 langauges in 11 groups, of which Tupi and Guarani are the most widely used.

A Little History

When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil, they found that wherever they went along the vast coast of this newly discovered land, most natives spoke similar languages. Jesuit missionaries took advantage of these similarities, systematizing common standards then named línguas gerais (general languages), which were spoken in that region until the 19th century. The best known and most widely spoken of these languages was Old Tupi, a modern descendent of which is still used today by Indians around the Rio Negro region, where it is known as Nheengatu, or the “fine language”.

In the neighbouring Spanish colonies, Guarani, another Tupian language closely related to Old Tupi, had a similar history, but managed to resist the spread of Spanish more successfully than Tupi resisted Portuguese. Today, Guarani has 7 million speakers, and is one of the official languages of Paraguay and Bolivia.

The Tupis, Guaranis and other tribes had many advantages over the Portuguese and could have put up quite a fight if they so desired, instead they aided in the founding and building of São Paulo (Portuguese for Saint Paul), or as it was known by the Indians, Piritininga (Tupi-Guarani for Dried Fish).

Some Tupi-Guarani Words

English speakers know…

– Jaguar

– Tapioca

Other examples include…

Capoeira – Old Forest

Carioca – White Man’s Hut

Tijuca – Mud

Guanabara – Bottom of the Sea

Ipanema – Bad Waters