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  • Writer's pictureCsaba Marton

3 things probably you didn't know about capoeira

Updated: Apr 9, 2019

[Hungarian version: link]

1. The Forbidden Fight

The most common knowledge about Capoeira is that it is a secret martial art of slaves from Africa, hidden in dance. However, most of them didn’t know that it was really banned in Brazil until 80 years ago. At that time, capoeira was a stigmatised, persecuted thing that was done only by criminals and rogues. That's why there was no any capoeira academy. These people who came from poverty learned capoeira on the street, watching each other's games (Jogo).

Once, the most famous capoeira Mestre Bimba told about these times:

At that time, Capoeira was a thing for pickpockets, ragmen, dockworkers, and scoundrels. I was a dockworker, a jack of all trades.
The police chased capoeiristas like stray dogs. One of the punishments given to capoeiristas who caught fighting was to tie them between the tails of two horses; then set the horses to race to the barracks.

However, Mestre Bimba was outstanding in other martial arts as well and he was well-known by prominent members of the upper-class.

Still, it took years of effort to change the image of capoeira and its practitioners. One of the turning-point was in 1928 when the governor of Bahia, Juracy Magalhães let him to make a presentation in the palace.

After that presentation capoeira finally lost its criminal connotation and was legalised.


2. A Brazilian Achilles

Slavery and inequality, of course, made their own Brazilian Robin Hoods.

One of the most well-known figures of Capoeira was Besouro Preto (black beetle). He was a semi-mythical character from the Brazilian Folklore. There is even a movie about his life:

capoeira besouro movie

About Manuel Henrique Pereira we can be sure only two things: the time and way of his birth and death.

We have written evidence only about these. Besides, what we have is the stories about his life passed down through generations.

However, what highlights Besouro from other outlaw heroes is the legends about his abilities.

One of these abilities was the invulnerability: Manuel was also called Besouro Mangangá. “Mangangá” is a word of African origin, which refers to a type of magical spell, which is used to create a “closed body” (corpo fechado), making it invincible against attack, even from knives and bullets.

But every story must have an end. Besouro also had a weakness: He could be killed only by a magical wooden knife (tucum).

We know from the criminal records that at his age of 29, Besouro was mortally wounded, and died in the street killed by treachery.

That's how Besouro became a folk legend, the Brazilian Achilles in capoeira.


3. Background of the Stupid Simple Songs

Another popular thing about capoeira is the simplicity of the singing songs. Even after many years of practicing capoeira, sometimes We still laugh when somebody start to sing a very sophisticated "Oh yes-yes, no-no" chorus.

However, if somebody digs into the background stories of these songs, he often finds interesting and exciting things.

The following song is a good example:

In a simple translation: I’ll tell my master The butter has melted And butter is not mine And butter is of the master

This song is a good example of having a hidden, deeper meaning behind the stupid lyrics:

During the slavery, until they reached a certain working age, the children of the slaves were often allowed to play together with the children of their white masters. Of course, the superior-inferior relationship remains in this situation as well: the master's son often used his power of his origin and punished the slave child.

As a kind of a "passive resistance” tactic, slaves often knocked over a container full of butter and told to the master that it was his son who did it accidentally.

That's how the slaves could have a revenge on someone who make him remember day-by-day where was his place in this unequal relationship.


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