Martial Arts to a Brazilian Beat in Colorado Springs
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Colorado Springs Martial Arts

Chapter 3 Capoeira

What does "Capoeira" mean?

Just like much of the history of capoeira the etymology of the word capoeira is elusive. Probably the most common belief among capoeiristas in Brazil is that the word is formed from two other words "capim," meaning short grass, and "poeira," meaning dust. When new brush was cleared on the fringes of the plantation the dusty grassy space left behind was an appropriate place to train hidden from the eyes of watchful masters. Because of this pervasive belief the meaning of the word capoeira is often given as "mato ralo," or light brush.

There is also evidence that the word capoeira is of Tupi, native South American, origin "ka puêra." The meaning implies cleared or burned brush like the above example.

The word capoeira was used to describe the baskets used by slaves to carry roosters and chickens to market. It was common to host cock fights between the roosters as a form of entertainment. The similarity in the movements of the fighting roosters and the mock, ritualized combat of their owners may also have lead to this name being used to describe the game.

Today the only common use of the word "capoeira" is in the context of the ritualized dance fight. Only very rarely would the word be used to describe anything other than the game or it's practitioners.

Prohibition

During the slave trade in Brazil much of African culture was repressed. Prohibition of music, dance, religion, and artforms like capoeira was common. It was generally understood that allowing the practice of such activities led to rebelious tendencies. It was also not uncommon for slaves to be injured, and therefore not as productive in their work.

The prohibition of capoeira continued even after the abolition of slavery in 1888. Newly freed slaves found themselves without much support from the newly formed republic. Unemployed slaves were seen as vagrants, and undesireables. The first penal code produced by the new republic specifically prohibitted vagrancy, idleness and capoeira. Punishment for being caught practicing capoeira could lead to up to six months of imprisonment and hard labor. Multiple offenders and leaders of capoeira gangs (maltas) were punished more severly.

When capoeiristas discuss this post slavery period of repression they often refer to the fact that capoeira was "marginalized." The black lower class was pushed to the periphery of the society, and therefore the artform that was popular among this class was also marginalized. There was nothing innately immoral about capoeira, but it was practiced by the undersireable element of the community.

Capoeira remained illegal in Brazil until about 1937. During the Getúlio Vargas era much of the prohibition and persecution of capoeira by the government finally subsided. Still today capoeira maintains a stigma in Brazil.

Mestre Bimba

Manoel dos Reis Machado, or Mestre Bimba as he was know in the community, was born on November 23, 1899. He was born in Salvador, Bahia in a neighboorhood called "bairro do Engenho Velho." He began his training in capoeira with a man named Bentinho when he was twelve years old.

Bimba's father was a master of "batuque" a rough style of fighting that involved low kicks and sweeps to the shins and thighs. There is little doubt that this had an influence on the stylistic developments Bimba would later add to the game.

Mestre Bimba felt that the capoeira being practiced at the time had been changed too much from its original form. It had become more of a show for the tourists and lost much of the martial element. Mestre Bimba created a system for teaching his style of capoeira that he called "regional." He had set sequences his students were required to learn. Students were also required to meet stiff requirements regarding their work and schooling. Much of the work done at this time helped to alleviate some of the stigma against capoeira, allowing it to become a more socially acceptable sport.

Mestre Bimba is credited with being the first person to open a capoeira studio. His first studio was opened in Salvador, Bahia in 1932. Ten years later he opened his second studio in a historic region of Salvador called the "Pelorinho." The studio still exists today, and functions as a capoeira school.

Feeling like he had received little recognition and support from the government of Bahia, and after the promise of financial reward Mestre Bimba moved to Goiania, the capital of the state of Goais. Mestre Bimba died only a year later never having found the financial reward promised. After receiving notice of the death the capoeira academies (and other businesses) in Salvador closed for seven days as a sign of respect for the great mestre. His body was originally buried in Goiania, according to his own wishes, but was later moved back to Salvador.

Mestre Bimba is considered by many to be a major reason that capoeira survived the persecution it went through after the slave trade had ended. There is no doubt that his influence on modern capoeira is great, though much of his work was very controversial at the time.

Mestre Pastinha

Vicente Ferreira Pastinha, better known as Mestre Pastinha, was born on April 5, 1889 in Salvador, Bahia. While in his late seventies is introduction into capoeira was recorded as part of his entire life history. Pastinha described himself as a small, weak boy who, when he was ten years old, found himself the victim of a local bully, another boy older and larger than he. The older boy's mother would egg him on proud to see her son take advantage of his victims. After one such encounter Pastinha hid himself crying on the street where he lived. A large African man named Benedito called out to him from a window.

"You can't fight that boy," he said, " he's much larger and older than you." Benedito invited Pastinha into his home, moved the furniture and gave him his first capoeira lesson on the spot. Pastinha claims that after a year of training with he encountered the bully again.

"Hey," yelled the bully, "have you been travelling, or just hiding from me?" Pastinha responded that he had been afraid. From her front door the bully's mother was eager to see her son once again take advantage of the smaller boy. This time Pastinha made short work of his persecutor, so quickly in fact that he claims the bully was impressed and eventually became his friend.

Mestre Pastinha opened his capoeira angola academy in 1941 and called it Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola. Pastinha required his school to be a place of order and respect. He felt it important to maintain tradition and philosophy.

Mestre Pastinha served in the Marines for eight years. He worked both as a musician and also taught capoeira. He also had a short career as a soccer player for his favorite team Ypiranga. When he created uniforms for his capoeira students he chose the colors black and yellow, the colors of his favorite team. Still today many schools that practice Capoeira Angola maintain this tradition using black pants and yellow t-shirts.

Pastinha died November 13, 1981 at the age of 92. He had been blind for several years and in poverty. His community, and even his students had already forgotten the great philospher and teacher.

Capoeira Today

As capoeira gains more widespread acceptance inside and outside of Brazil it continues to develop. The contemporary capoeira of today that is played by a huge majority of its practitioners is significantly different stylistically from the capoeira of as little as ten years ago. Though the physical characteristics of the sport may continuously evolve, the social and philosophical lessons that it teaches remain consistent.

Mestre Pinati, the first mestre to teach capoeira in São Paulo describes capoeira as Brazil's next great ambassador. "Coffee was the first, and then soccer." Part of what makes capoeira great is its ability to fill so many niches in so many different cultures. Everyone who first sees capoeira appreciates it at some level. It serves as a tool to help people develop their weaknesses and exploit their strengths.

Click here to try out the workbook section for Chapter 3 "Capoeira."
Martial Arts to a Brazilian Beat in Colorado Springs
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