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Roots of Brazil: The Martial Art Form 'Capoeira' Is Preserving History And Tradition

Indigenous to Salvador, Brazil is the fighting form known as Capoeira. From the outside, it might appear as an acrobatic dance, or some sort of karate incorporating music and roundhouse kicks. The presentation is more theater than fighting to the outside observer. It is deceptively clever and excels at trickery. No mats are used here - this dance takes place on the streets.

If you visit Salvador, it won’t take you long before you stumble among a capoeira circle, or a roda. Citizens of all walks of life are welcome in these circles, wherever they form. Young women, older gentlemen, the inexperienced and experienced alike. The players sway back and forth, avoiding a variety of kicks and handstands and cartwheels. Little kids mimic the moves from the fighters from the sidelines. Musicians hand off instruments to another and jump into the center. The enthusiasm is unmatched. The audience is quickly enveloped in the intensity of the martial art and power of the music.


While in Salvador, the Utah State University crew had the privilege of speaking with the local capoeira maestre, or master. Maestre Cabolinho grew up and learned capoeira in Salvador and now teaches extensively in the United States. He spoke of the important role that capoeira has played in his life, and in the lives of all Brazilians.


“For me, capoeira is deep meditation. It can bring you to a lot of things, and bring people into your life. The same thing capoeira gave me, it gives to the kids in Brazil. Education, discipline, balance, respect. And I meet everybody. Black, white, Indian, Jamaican. Because of capoeira, I am safe and I am happy. I teach because I want to share this.”

By American standards, capoeira is an unusual martial art because it requires it practitioners to learn instruments alongside the techniques. Drums, tambourines, and iron bells accompany the singing and chanting of the audience. The star of the show, however, is the simple musical bow made of wooden wire, called a berimbau. The berimbau has a distinctive sound that dictates the rhythm and speed of the players in the center of the circle. Maestre Cabolinho gives us a first hand look to how it’s played.


“This instrument here... is called the berimbau. The songs are very primitive here.”

Maestre Cabolinho had much to say about capoeira, but he was adamant about cautioning us about not getting caught up in what is called ‘tourist capoeira’.   


“The wrong capoeira for me, is when you follow the tourists. But many are involved in this tourism. So people start forgetting about their past. When you give up your past, it is difficult to bring it back, because in reality, it is forgotten. I think tourists want to know the truth.”

The truth of capoeira is that it is a reminder of Brazil’s difficult and complex past. It was developed by colonial slaves to look like a dance, so that the slave masters would not know they were learning self defense. According to Cabolinho, preserving primitive, or traditional capoeira is important because it is such a fundamental piece of Afro-Brazilian history.  


“The true history is only found in primitive capoeira because it has the right philosophy. It accepts everyone. No discrimination. Contemporary capoeira confuses this idea. Everything is setup to sell. If people do not learn the traditional way of capoeira, the way it is supposed to be, then it stops being a martial art and starts to become something less valuable.”

In the end, Maestre Cabolinho made it clear that to really understand the power of capoeira, you have to respect its history. You have to take the bad with the good. It is about making a deep connection with the past and bringing it forward. In essence, you have to make it your own.

***Maestre Cabolinho plays the Berimbau, an instrument used to keep the pace during a Capoeira fight, while singing an impromptu song about Utah for the USU crew. 

Reporting done by USU Professor of Global Communication, Jason Gilmore, from the Department of Languages, Philosophy and Communication Studies with help from students Brieann Charlesworth, Mckayle Law and Elizabeth Thomas.

Support for "Roots of Brazil" on Utah Public Radio is made possible by the USU Office of Global Engagement.