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The BerimbauSoul of Brazilian Music$

Eric A. Galm

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9781604734058

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781604734058.001.0001

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Historical Connections and the Emergence of a National Symbol

Historical Connections and the Emergence of a National Symbol

(p.19) Chapter 1 Historical Connections and the Emergence of a National Symbol
The Berimbau

Eric A. Galm

University Press of Mississippi

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a historical introduction to the berimbau and capoeira. Topics discussed include the history of capoeira in Brazil; the berimbau’s survival and formal association with capoeira; the strong connection between African-derived religious beliefs, capoeira, and the berimbau; and capoeira and gender.

Keywords:   berimbau, capoeira, Brazil, religious beliefs, gender

Descriptions of the berimbau de barriga in colonial Brazilian life were a favorite subject of foreign travelers to Brazil, beginning in the early 1800s.1 Musical bows appeared in marketplaces and were played exclusively by black street vendors and beggars until the 1888 abolition of slavery. Unique African-derived musical instruments were employed with the intention to increase sales; instruments such as musical bows functioned as novelties and had an exotic appeal at a relatively early stage in Brazilian history.

European chroniclers who traveled to Brazil were frequently enchanted by the sounds that emerged from the berimbau. They captured its various physical components and performance techniques in paintings and travel journals. One such account attempted to equate the berimbau with a violin and Orpheus’s lyre. Peppered with romantic Classical analogies, French chronicler Ferdinand Denis’s account reported that he was impressed by how a black servant constructed a “violin” using a turtle shell and a string made from part of a whale. Combined with vocal accompaniment, the musician produced some “singular low sounds” that were “monotonous.”2

Nineteenth-century colonial attitudes towards berimbau musicians can be observed in the following example cited by Alfredo Brandão, who researched Afro-Brazilian culture in Alagoas in the early 1930s.3 Although Carneiro4 believes that the type of berimbau referenced in this passage is a mouth bow, Brandão describes this instrument as “a bowl, which the musician places against his chest,” a performance technique directly associated with the berimbau de barriga.5 Describing the context in which the berimbau was used, Brandão reports that it (p.20) produced “melancholical and sad” music in the middle of the night that permeated the quiet nights on slave plantations. He continues: “when the ‘saudades’ [bittersweet recollections] of the distant homeland caused grief within the soul, they chased these feelings away with the vibrations of musical instruments.”6 This passage also highlights public perception of the berimbau within the colonial and early republic eras, as well as how it was used to demarcate class and racial distinction among Afro-Brazilians. Brandão notes that people of lighter complexions (“mestiços and mulattoes”) looked down upon people of darker complexion (“Africans”), and that the latter were the only ones who played the berimbau, resulting in the following taunting refrain:

Sua mãe é uma coruja  Your mother is an owl

Que mora no oco de um pau;  Who lives in the hole of a tree stump

Seu pai negro da Angola  Your father is a black man from Angola

Tocador de berimbau  A berimbau player7

The allusion to an owl in the first line of the verse draws upon a strong Brazilian association between owls and bad luck. Moreover, this phrase is one of many derogatory references of this nature. It is a play on the popular Brazilian expression é feia como uma coruja (you are as ugly as an owl), thus reflecting poorly upon the subject’s mother. This reference could also signify that the mother is a witch, since many superstitions are associated with owls. The comment regarding the father might draw upon imagery of the vendor, storyteller, or beggar playing the musical bow in the Brazilian marketplace, thus suggesting that this man is a lower-class skilled laborer. Nonetheless, the allusions to mother and father are both strongly connected with notions of blackness and a close interrelationship to the earth.

Although there is an abundance of information regarding the separate traditions of the berimbau and capoeira, capoeira scholars have concluded that there are no direct references to the berimbau in conjunction with capoeira prior to the 1900s. Oral tradition and many capoeira practitioners suggest that, during the colonial era, capoeira training survived within the confines of slavery. Capoeira practitioners would train for combat, including the use of navalhas (razors) held between the toes, and when a field hand or slave owner approached the activity, it (p.21) instantaneously transformed into a recreational dance.8 Gerhard Kubik suggests that the berimbau was not incorporated into capoeira until after the abolition of slavery in 1888, when capoeira slowly began to change from a combative fight into a non-contact game. According to this theory (adopted by several scholars),9 the berimbau came to be integrated into capoeira around 1900 as part of a migration of non-Yoruba Afro-Brazilians from southern Brazil to Bahia, which created conditions for the blending and reinterpretation of several similar African traditions. Capoeira tradition bearers resisted external cultural influences in order to preserve an Angolan identity.10 As a compromise, additional musical instruments were brought into the practice of capoeira, but they also incorporated a musical bow of Angolan origin.11 The following examples offer a brief glimpse into alternative perspectives of the berimbau in Afro-Brazilian life prior to Kubik’s discussion.

Descriptions provided by nineteenth-century chroniclers demonstrate how the berimbau was used as musical accompaniment for dance long before the late 1880s as Kubik suggests. In French chronicler Ferdinand Denis’s diary written between 1816 and 1819, he reveals a moment in which the musical bow is used to accompany dance during an impromptu interaction between a berimbau musician and a passing pedestrian. This meeting takes place in a marketplace, and the berimbau musician is described as playing the string in “diverse manners.” As one person passes by a berimbau musician, he is drawn to the music, and places the bundle that he is carrying on the ground, and begins to dance. The musician and dancer then interact with improvised music and lyrics, and corresponding expression through the dance. After a short while, the passerby picks up his bundle and resumes his errand without speaking to the musician or other onlookers.12 This interaction could have easily taken place with a drum or other musical instrument, but there is evidence in this passage to demonstrate that the berimbau was indeed used in association with dance, whether formal or informal, in the early nineteenth century.

In 1858, forty years later, Charles Ribeyrolles separately documented the berimbau and capoeira, the latter accompanied only by a drum. In his observation of the batuque (a central African dance of Bantu origin), he not only observed that the berimbau provided musical accompaniment, but it also controlled the speed of the dance, a prominent characteristic (p.22) of the berimbau within contemporary capoeira practice.13 There is also mention of a possible reference to capoeira being accompanied by a musical bow as early as the 1880s, and perhaps earlier. João da Silva Campos describes a Bahian popular celebration surrounding a religious procession. Although Campos’s work was published posthumously, he provides a timeline for the development of the celebration and procession for the Senhor dos Navegantes (Lord of the Navigators) in Bahia prior to the 1890s.14 “The excited dark crowd performed Batuques. Samba. Capoeira circles. One heard pandeiros [Brazilian tambourines], cavaquinhos [four-string guitars similar to ukuleles], violas [ten- or twelve-string guitars] …, berimbau and cadential hand clapping. It was a pandemonium.”15 It is plausible that Campos divulges the musical genres and associated musical instruments in sequential order. In this respect, “Batuques” and “Samba” would be accompanied by pandeiros, cavaquinhos, and violas, many of which continue to be used in samba today. The music that Campos identifies with capoeira would therefore include the berimbau and cadential hand clapping, two fundamental aspects that exist today within capoeira musical practice. If accurate, this account provides clear evidence that the berimbau was used in conjunction with capoeira prior to the arrival of the twentieth century.


From Public Menace to National Icon

Capoeira is an African-derived art form with qualities of dance, acrobatics, and play incorporated into its movement style. The jogo (game) of capoeira takes place in a circle, formed by capoeiristas (capoeira practitioners). Within the roda (circle), two capoeiristas launch into an array of attacks and corresponding defenses. One of capoeira’s advantages over other hand-to-hand styles of combat is that practitioners possess a much larger range of motion, allowing them to be farther away from their opponents. The master of the game controls various facets of the dance with a berimbau, by dictating the tempo and duration of each game. The capoeiristas surrounding the dancers provide musical accompaniment, playing instruments, hand clapping, and singing in a call-and-response manner alternating between leader and chorus.

(p.23) The capoeira musical ensemble generally consists of one or more berimbaus, pandeiro, agogô (double bell), reco-reco (scraper), and atabaque (single-head, conical drum similar to a conga). If there is an ensemble of three berimbaus, each instrument is distinguished by the size of the resonating gourd. The largest and lowest-pitched is the gunga, and the smallest and highest-pitched is the viola. The remaining berimbau is called the médio (middle); when there is only one present in the musical ensemble, it is simply called the berimbau. These instruments also have separate musical functions in which the gunga plays a basic motif with little or no variation. The médio plays a combination of the basic motif with more variations than the gunga, although the médio rarely plays any extended variations. The viola is free to either improvise or reinforce the melodic rhythms established by the other two berimbaus.16

The name capoeira is believed to have many origins. One of the most popular is related to new secondary growth that appears after a virgin forest has been clear-cut. The word capoeira is believed to have derived from the South American indigenous Tupi language caá (forest) and puêra (extinct). Others believe that the name is derived from the Portuguese capão (castrated male chicken) and refers to a chicken coop, perhaps in an allusion to cockfighting.17

The history of capoeira in Brazil can be viewed in four major phases: (1) the rise of the colonial and imperial era (1500s to 1888, during slavery); (2) the early republic following the abolition of slavery (1889 to 1930s); (3) the rise of Getúlio Vargas, followed by his Estado Novo (beginning in the 1930s); and (4) the globalization of capoeira (from the 1970s to the present). The third stage features the establishment of formal training academies.18 Oral traditions assert that capoeira was a fight utilized by enslaved Africans to overtake their masters and escape from slavery. Identified by authorities as a threat to society, capoeira was outlawed during these first two phases and its practitioners suffered severe repression by police, and were sometimes punished by death.19 Negative associations and the marginalization of capoeiristas were so pervasive in Brazilian society that the word capoeira “became a synonym for bum, bandit and thief.”20 Beginning in the 1930s the practice of capoeira was legalized and allowed to operate behind the closed doors of academies, and through this structure it has developed into a dance that features moves without contact between opponents. This transformation was (p.24) promoted in large part by the Brazilian government, and is discussed later in this chapter.

The most recent phase of capoeira has spawned two distinct ideological disciplines representing traditional (capoeira Angola) and modern (capoeira regional). Capoeira Angola, promoted by mestre Pastinha (Vicente Ferreira Pastinha, 1889–1982), is seen by many capoeira practitioners as the preservation of a traditional art form that has been passed along from generation to generation, and is envisioned primarily as a game. Although capoeira is an artistic expression developed in Brazil from various African martial dances, the name capoeira Angola suggests that it has come from a specific location on the continent of Africa.21 Capoeira regional, philosophically viewed as a fight, was developed by mestre Bimba (Manoel dos Reis Machado, 1899–1974), who incorporated external movements from the batuque (a central African dance of Bantu origin) and structural modifications such as the graduated belt advancement system from Asian-based martial arts. It appears that the term regional was principally developed in reaction to a sports-oriented Brazilian gymnastics based in capoeira movements by Anibal Burlamaqui in 1928.22

Differences between capoeira Angola and capoeira regional are evident in both dance movements and musical instrumentation. Capoeira Angola is characterized as a slower game, played low to the ground, and closer to a dance, whereas capoeira regional tends to be faster, higher, and closer to a fight.23 Moreover, capoeira regional has developed as a dance for public display; this style of capoeira is almost exclusively featured in folkloric shows. Capoeira regional tends to have an unspecified number of berimbaus, whereas capoeira Angola maintains a fixed number of three, somewhat similar to the three atabaques in the sacred drumming associated with candomblé (an African-derived religion based on a pantheon of spirits that represent elements of nature).24 Capoeira regional also tends to have a broader variety of berimbau melodic-rhythmic toques performed within the roda.25

The incorporation of capoeira academies began a process that introduced capoeira into the Brazilian mainstream in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a result of this process, the social stigma and marginalization associated with capoeira and its practitioners was de-emphasized as it was transformed from an African-derived fight into a national Brazilian (p.25) sport. Today, capoeira has become a hallmark of Bahian culture that has maintained its identity after having been absorbed into a national context. Ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Travassos calls this a form of “social rehabilitation” that can simultaneously represent a national Brazilian sport and be a reinforcing agent of Afro-Brazilian identity, which most likely has helped support philosophies of capoeira Angola as a natural component of an African-descended cultural heritage.26 In recent years, capoeira Angola has become internationally recognized as an expression of “authentic” Brazilian capoeira, as represented by its assumed direct link to an African heritage.27


The Berimbau’s Survival and Formal Association with Capoeira

Other African-derived musical instruments, such as the marimba (ten- or twelve-key portable xylophone with gourd resonators), have disappeared from use in Brazilian musical practice.28 In a comparative study between these two musical instruments, Travassos suggests that the berimbau benefited from a process of urbanization, and thus successfully moved from a marginalized universe to one of prestige within and beyond Brazil’s borders. In contrast, the marimba remained in rural communities and became disassociated from processes of modernization, and therefore became extinct in Brazil. It is also possible that the berimbau’s compact size and ease of construction may have also played an active role in the perseverance of this musical bow in comparison to the cumbersome marimba. Perhaps the performance technique of holding the berimbau’s resonating gourd against the body may have enabled a more intimate connection between musician and instrument. With the transformation of traditional forms over time, boundaries become blurred, but all of the elements do not necessarily disappear. While they may lose their direct association within the context of a ritual, they may diffuse into other realms, and become symbols that are representative of national or ethnic identity; or they may become active agents in the preservation of an idealized folkloric past.29 In these terms, the berimbau’s symbolism has come to represent a broad range of locally constructed identities as well as national folklore.

(p.26) As the berimbau has become inseparably intertwined within the capoeira ritual, both have served to reinforce capoeira as a public spectacle. Moreover, it is a central focal point of both Angola (traditional) and regional (modern) schools of capoeira, thus affirming its identity as an integral component of all capoeira forms, regardless of philosophical orientation. Kay Shaffer suggests that the union between the berimbau and capoeira worked in tandem to ensure each other’s survival, the music preserving the dance-game, and the movement exhibition keeping the berimbau from fading away.30

Musician Dinho Nascimento, who was born and raised in Bahia—where he learned how to play capoeira on the street, as opposed to within the structure of academies—believes that the berimbau was incorporated into capoeira as an agent to instill a sense of order into the tradition. After the abolition of slavery, capoeira was essentially a street fight with no established rules. As capoeiristas encountered each other on the street, order was established through the development of mutual respect for the berimbau. Participants were obligated to follow rules that were dictated by an object—the berimbau—rather than the person who was responsible for directing a particular game.

I think the berimbau came to give the rules. Who gave the rules to capoeira? It wasn’t either Bimba or Pastinha. It was the berimbau. Because when you play the time [i.e., establish the rhythm], you go there together with me, because this guy’s playing [the berimbau]. So I say that the berimbau is the mestre … And this resolves whatever fight, whatever thing, because it has to be respected, … and the dance goes with the music. You dance the part of the music. So the game is supported by the music, and the berimbau gives it [order].31

Within the capoeira academy of mestre Nenel, mestre Bimba’s son, the berimbau’s music dictates the pace and style of dance movements, yet the berimbau also embodies historical, symbolic, and emotional qualities that form the basis for deeper, more complex expression. The berimbau retains its importance within capoeira because all of the practitioners follow its melodic rhythms as an unquestioned basic element of the discipline. The berimbau is relevant for any practitioner who observes these (p.27) rules, listens to its music, and can therefore be emotionally affected by its stimulating soundwaves.32

Oral tradition suggests that the berimbau toque cavalaria was used in the 1920s to warn capoeira practitioners of mounted police who approached on horseback.33 Nestor Capoeira recalls mestre Pastinha’s description of how sharp objects were attached to each end of the berimbau, thus converting it into a weapon: “In the moment of truth it would cease to be a musical instrument and would turn into a hand sickle.”34 Capoeira scholar Letícia Vidor de Sousa Reis believes that this use of the berimbau as a defensive instrument against police repression is an invention of Bahian capoeira tradition that is maintained within the collective memory of black resistance in the region. She hypothesizes that the berimbau’s connection to capoeira serves as a powerful symbol of distinction from white Brazilians. As a result of the berimbau’s strong representations of African culture, themes of capoeira’s African origins have been reinforced through this association. In this context, the berimbau presents a dual nature that is “simultaneously sacred and profane, weapon and musical instrument,” and as a result of these ambiguities has become “an ethnic symbol of the black Brazilian.”35

For capoeira practitioners and some Afro-Brazilians, the berimbau and capoeira also represent active agents against racially motivated oppression, perhaps derived from oral traditions that cite capoeira as an effective means to escape from slavery.36 If the berimbau is considered a symbol of black resistance, its portability, shape, and pitch range should be considered significant factors in this equation. A single berimbau can be symbolically equated to the vocal range of an individual person. When this is combined with others of varying sizes and ranges, and played in contrasting ways, a broader range of sound and stronger group unity can be conveyed.

Berimbau and Capoeira

Emergence of the National

In the 1930s the Vargas regime targeted symbols of black culture as a means to incorporate symbols of resistance into a national scheme. Certain forms of African-derived cultural expression such as capoeira, (p.28) candomblé, and neighborhood carnival parading groups had been repressed by the authorities in the early decades of the twentieth century and deemed a public menace, or a public threat. The Vargas government legalized the practice of capoeira with the restriction that it was confined to indoor “academies,” which were then registered with authorities. In conformation with his nationalist agenda, Vargas supported the concept that “physical education could be used to instill a sense of discipline in children if taught at an early age.”37 In 1953, he declared capoeira “the only truly national [Brazilian] sport.”38

In the 1950s and 1960s, Bahian capoeira masters began to move southward through Brazil and to establish academies in large urban areas such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Capoeira began to expand to areas outside of Brazil, such as Europe and the United States, in the 1970s. Promoted principally as a sport, capoeira was able to shed some of its social stigma within Brazil. Elizabeth Travassos comments that capoeira captured the attention of the middle classes in urban settings, who adopted it as a musical sport or a national pastime, devoid of connections with Afro-Brazilian culture.39 The prominent status of the berimbau has been maintained as capoeira has spread throughout the Brazilian nation and the world, and as a result, the musical bow has been exposed to other cultures that have expanded its musical presence in genres beyond the context of capoeira. In this sense, capoeira has undergone a transition, moving from an impoverished Afro-Brazilian lower class to a more economically and racially diverse middle-class population, where it is casually practiced as a sport. In recent decades capoeira has continued to be incorporated into the country’s nationalist agenda, as variants of capoeira regional are currently taught at military police training academies in Brazil.40 Moreover, capoeira apprenticeship is increasingly being utilized in Brazil as a social service program to work with homeless and at-risk youth populations.41

Clearly, both the berimbau and capoeira have assisted with each other’s survival through transformation into prominent icons. As a result, the berimbau has gained an international presence and has been incorporated into a broad range of musical contexts. Following a process of cultural appropriation, the berimbau and capoeira have been transformed into national symbols of folkloric expression.

(p.29) Although capoeira has emerged as a national sport, it is not necessarily accepted in the Brazilian mainstream as a cultural expression that is distinguished from African-descended tradition. As it has transformed toward a recreational exercise activity, its identification has been distanced from its African heritage and has become a “Brazilian” art form.42 This is due in part to a complex interrelationship between definitions of race and class in Brazil. Political scientist Michael Hanchard discusses how contradictory and confusing racial categories and terminology have developed in Brazil, explaining that once a common framework of racial identity has been constructed, it can then be reinterpreted and redefined by all participants, thereby thwarting unified political organization along racial lines.

The Berimbau and African-derived Religious Beliefs

There is a strong connection between African-derived religious beliefs, capoeira, and the berimbau. Capoeira embodies many African-derived religious practices and concepts, as evidenced in the songs and rituals of the discipline. In the introductory portion of a game of capoeira, the symbolism of the berimbau can be seen in both physical and spiritual realms. Many capoeira practitioners believe that the berimbau is the solitary element that directs the pace and style of each game, and functions as a referee; the berimbau that is held by the oldest mestre must be obeyed and respected by all participants. This respect moves to a deeper level when the berimbau is perceived as a musical instrument that brings spiritual forces of the past and future together in the present.43

The berimbau is played during funeral ceremonies of some capoeira practitioners, and its sound is believed to help the spirit move to another realm. Examples of supernatural beliefs in conjunction with musical bows can be seen in African and African diasporic cultures. Capoeira mestre Nestor Capoeira cites an example from oral tradition: “It is said that in certain parts of Africa it was forbidden for the young who cared for the livestock to play this instrument; it was thought that the sound would take the soul of the youth—which was still inexperienced—to the land of no return.”44

(p.30) This concept may have broader pan-African implications, as Fernando Ortiz notes that Cuban musical bows such as the burumbumba (similar to the Angolan styles of musical bows found in Brazil) are believed to be instruments that “speak with the dead.” Ortiz gives the etymology of the term burumbumba as coming from buro (to speak or converse) and mumbumba, related to nganga (a cauldron that contains spiritual powers—and is used in the Afro-Cuban religious practice of Palo Monte), which captivates the familiar spirit and keeps it near.45

Moreover, some capoeira practitioners believe that through the process of paying proper respect to the berimbau—by kneeling at the foot of the berimbau musician(s) before entering into a game—they will attain a corpo fechado (closed body) and will not be susceptible to cuts or injuries.46 Carneiro notes that at this moment, a ladainha (litany, an introductory solo) is being sung by the mestre, and the participants are esperando o santo (waiting for the saint).47 This concept is borrowed from candomblé practice when an initiate is preparing for spirit possession. Mestre Negoativo48 suggests that many of the spiritual belief practices associated with the berimbau have emerged from various forms of African-derived religious systems, including umbanda (a mixture of various Afro-Brazilian and indigenous religious practices and Catholicism) and candomblé.

After slavery was abolished, [Afro-Brazilians] didn’t have anything to do. They ran away to the morros [hills], they created the favelas [impoverished urban neighborhoods], and the religion that they had was African religion, which is candomblé. And capoeira was [one of their] manifestations—it was their art, their manner to defend, to rob, to attack, to celebrate, to train, so it mixed all of this through the African cults, like candomblé. [Capoeira also] had chants, percussive instruments and handclapping. So the connection is very strong.49

Reis suggests that both the game of capoeira and the berimbau exist in an ambiguous space that encompasses the sacred and profane. The capoeira circle simultaneously represents the world and “a different world,” where practitioners must receive permission to enter and exit at the foot of the berimbau. Moreover, the berimbau is simultaneously a (p.31) “musical instrument and a spiritual authority” whose melodic rhythms feature names of Catholic saints, other people, and regions of Africa and Brazil.50 Reis also conducted an interview with Seu Tomás, a berimbau artisan based in São Paulo, who related that the colors of his painted berimbaus possessed fundamental relationships with some divinities within the Afro-Brazilian religious practices of umbanda and candomblé.51 He noted that the blue berimbau represented Yemanjá (the goddess of the sea), and two other berimbaus represented Oxumaré (orixá of the rainbow) and the Preto Velho (Old Black Spirit).52

Three recent examples demonstrate how symbolic associations of the berimbau are utilized to incorporate elements of Afro-Brazilian culture into Bahian Catholic and evangelical religious services. In Rio de Janeiro in 1990, a black Pentecostal church began formally practicing an “inculturated” or “Afro-Mass,” developed from ideological models in preceding decades.53 This movement later spread to some of Brazil’s other large cities, and in 1997 the Archbishop of Salvador, Dom Lucas Moreira, announced that an Afro-Brazilian Pastoral would be composed as a part of Brazil’s 500th anniversary celebration, with the aim of introducing Afro-Brazilian cultural traits into the Catholic Mass. He states, “The berimbau and other Afro-Brazilian cultural instruments can be incorporated into a diocese that embodies this type of influence, such as in Bahia.”54 In the year 2000, during the commemorative celebration, an individual Catholic church held a mass to ask forgiveness for its association with colonial Brazilian oppression. The African component of this mass included a berimbau, which was played in the church as a part of the service.55 During the March 2001 inauguration of the evangelical sanctuary of Mãe Rainha e Vencedora (Victorious Queen Mother), a group of adolescents brought altar offerings of berimbaus, Bahian fruits, and flowers, which complemented the traditional offering of bread and wine.56

Capoeira and Gender

Capoeira is a male-dominated sphere, although women have greatly increased their presence in recent decades, leading to new demographics that challenge established practices and assumptions within the discipline. Metaphorically, notions of gender have been intertwined with a (p.32) metaphysical berimbau that appears in legends and stories. For instance, Oliveira recounts a legend about a girl who fell by the side of a stream, died, and upon her death, various parts of her body transformed into components of a berimbau.57 Mestre Nô made similar associations, by comparing the wood of the bow to his skeleton, the resonating gourd to his head, the wire to his hair, and the rattle as the same one that he played with as an infant.58

Prominent women capoeiristas have occasionally been mentioned in capoeira literature, but they have been exceptions, often viewed as “tough” women who were not considered to be authentic capoeira practitioners.59 It is widely believed that mestre Bimba trained his daughters how to play capoeira, and there is photographic evidence from “approximately the 1930s … that shows various black women training capoeira in a yard, under the command of mestre Bimba.”60 As of the early 1990s, informal estimates suggested that less than one percent of women played capoeira in Salvador, and possibly five to ten percent participated in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo academies. Lewis observed that women generally participate at dance studios and academies, as “capoeira is generally considered more socially acceptable by middle- and upper-middle-class people.”61 North American women trained with Bira Almeida’s capoeira group in California and won formal competitions against Brazilian women capoeiristas.62 Although Lewis never encountered a female maestra during his fieldwork in Brazil,63 capoeira maestra Edna Lima established a successful academy in New York City.64

Gender-based insults are frequently used in capoeira songs to challenge the masculinity of male participants. Lewis believes that this follows patterns of machismo found throughout Latin America and the United States. Women are often cited as promiscuous in capoeira song texts, which suggests one of the reasons why the sport has encountered limited female participation. In general, references to women are designed as insults to challenge male masculinity and they are used as an incentive for more aggressive play. For example, the common phrase quem bate palmas é uma mulhé (who claps their hands is a woman) implies that if someone only provides the musical accompaniment, they always remain at the periphery and are afraid to enter into combat. These types of challenges extend to equating women with children, thus suggesting that inexperienced practitioners do not possess the physical or (p.33) emotional capabilities to survive within the ring. Of course, the presence of women practitioners within the ring inverts these meanings in practice. As capoeira masters are attempting to attract more students, they are faced with changing potentially offensive song texts and stereotypical attitudes. Lewis believes that the “conscious change in image is one of the factors influencing the creation of new songs in the capoeira repertoire.”65

Capoeira practitioner and musician Dinho Nascimento observed the practice of capoeira on the streets of Salvador, Bahia during his youth, and recalls that he had heard about a few women involved with capoeira in the 1930s. He occasionally saw women informally playing capoeira on the beach in the 1950s, and many women began to play capoeira by the 1970s. Nascimento recalls that capoeira masters carefully guarded the berimbau from all inexperienced students regardless of gender, so access to the berimbau within capoeira was limited for all lower-level students. He remembers that “a student couldn’t pick up the berimbau, because the berimbau wasn’t for a kid. It was a special instrument that principally the mestre picked up … [because he] had to know how to play a good berimbau to be a good capoeirista…. And today, this has changed in the contrary. The mestres want to have students playing berimbau, and the more students playing the berimbau, the better.”66

Nascimento is aware of the changing attitudes about women’s participation in capoeira, observing that today, “there are women playing berimbau. And the masters are accepting it. This is a great evolution in capoeira.”67


(1) . For historical surveys of the berimbau in Brazilian culture, see Carneiro (1981), Fryer (2000), Galm (1997), Graham (1991), and Shaffer (1982).

(2) . Denis [1816–1819] in Scheinowitz (1993:328).

(3) . Brandão (1988). This work by Brandão was originally presented at the 1 (p.189) Congresso Afro-Brasileiro (First Afro-Brazilian Congress) in 1935. Although this research was conducted in the early 1930s, Brandão clearly worked with historical documents, as can be seen in the title of his 1914 publication Viçosa de Alagoas: O Municípo e a Cidade (Notas Históricas, Geográphicas e Archeólogicas (Exuberance of Alagoas: The municipal district and the city [Historical, Geographical and Archeological Notes]).

(5) . Brandão (1988:48).

(6) . Ibid.

(7) . Verse collected by Brandão (1988:48). An adaptation of this verse is directed at Caboclos (mestiços of indigenous and European ancestry), which uses the berimbau to reinforce stereotypical indigenous imagery: Caboclo dorme no chão / no oco do pé de pau / com seu arco e sua flecha / tocando seu berimbau (The caboclo sleeps on the ground / in the hole at the foot of a tree / with his bow and his arrow / playing his berimbau) (Bola Sete 1997:106).

(8) . Lewis (1992:40).

(9) . See Kubik (1979), Almeida (1986), and Lewis (1992), for example.

(10) . Both the berimbau and capoeira are believed to have descended from Central African cultures, primarily Angola. There was a direct trade of enslaved Africans from the Angolan Portuguese colony to Brazil.

(11) . “This might be … how the gourd bow, in Angola and Brazil of past centuries a solo instrument, became a group instrument in Brazilian capoeira” (Kubik 1979:31). Although Kubik’s observations derived from his own fieldwork, a more comprehensive investigation into historical studies may deepen understanding of how the berimbau’s musical function changed from a solo instrument in central Africa and colonial Brazil to a capoeira instrument in the late nineteenth century.

(12) . Denis [1816–1819], in Scheinowitz (1993):329). I thank capoeira scholar Frederico de Abreu for providing this reference.

(13) . Ribeyrolles in Fryer (2000).

(14) . The first specific date Campos provides is 1891, when he notes a series of official attempts to separate the church from the public celebration. This eventually resulted in the procession being limited to the space immediately in front of the church. Campos then speaks of earlier Senhor dos Navegantes celebrations (demonstrating that this was a well-established tradition by 1891), in which the statue “traditionally began its procession at 7:00pm” (Campos 1941:131). Pierre Verger (1981:7) bases his study on official documents from the mid-nineteenth century, and utilizes more recent documents, such as Campos, as a guide for the knowledge of religious and popular festivals from this era.

(15) . Fervilhava a multidão fusca. Batuques. Sambas. Rodas de capoeiragem. Ouviam-se pandeiros, cavaquinhos, violas, harmônicas, berimbau e palmas cadenciadas. Um pandemônio (Campos 1941:131).

(16) . The master who is directing the game may play any one of these three berimbaus, although they usually play the gunga or médio in this capacity (D Ferreira 1997-int:24 Jan, Grande 1997-int). (p.190)

(17) . See Lewis (1992:42–43) and Rego (1968:21–24).

(20) . Almeida (1986:25).

(22) . For a detailed analysis of the meaning of the term regional, see Assunção (2005). Lewis (1992:60) posits that the name was initially used to demarcate the region of Bahia, and later represented all of the students who have studied with mestre Bimba. A 1972 interview with mestre Bimba in the Jornal do Brasil, suggests that he adopted the name capoeira regional in response to a bureaucratic process that would not openly support its African heritage. When he went to the Education Secretary of Bahia to officially register the name capoeira de Angola, the term Angola was rejected. As a result, it was necessary for Bimba “to re-submit the term luta regional [regional fight] in order for it to be accepted” (Gropper 1972). This statement is contradictory to Bimba’s philosophy of creating a type of capoeira that was distinct from capoeira Angola as promoted by Pastinha, and Assunção (2005) demonstrates that Bimba was continually forced to justify the validity and relevance of his regional style.

(23) . Reis (2000) presents a good discussion about differences between capoeira Angola and capoeira regional.

(24) . Capoeira scholar Ricardo de Souza (1997) suggests that capoeira Angola musical ensembles did not consistently employ a fixed number of three berimbaus until the 1970s. Capoeira academies in the northeastern United States generally exhibited an unspecified number of berimbaus in the 1980s and early 1990s. There was movement to a fixed number of three berimbaus following the release of the Smithsonian Folkways recording Grupo de Capoeira Angola Pelourinho (1996-disc), which promoted a strong presence of capoeira Angola in Brazil and throughout the United States (Galm 2001).

(25) . Mestres of capoeira Angola have acknowledged that they play capoeira regional berimbau toques in non-capoeira settings (such as informal celebrations). Within the ritual of the roda, they adhere to toques that correspond to the practice of capoeira Angola (D Ferreira 1997-int:24 Jan, Grande 1997-int).

(28) . Variations of the marimba are prominent in music cultures throughout Central America. See Scruggs (1998) and Kaptain (1992). The marimba has been revived by folkloric groups in the state of São Paulo.

(30) . Shaffer (1982:33).

(31) . D Nascimento (2001-int). This hypothesis is concurrent with conflicts between people that I have observed during my time spent in Brazil. When a problem arises, it is much more appropriate to channel your anger through an inanimate object, rather than accuse a person directly. The problem is then viewed as a common problem between the two parties, which they can attempt to resolve together. (p.191)

(32) . Nenel (2001-int). Capoeira scholar and practitioner Nestor Capoeira reinforces this notion: “according to the old mestres, ‘the berimbau teaches.’” Capoeira (1995:42).

(33) . For a description of how this is discussed by mestre João Grande, see E Galm (1997:57). Grande demonstrates this concept musically in a berimbau video documentary (Ornellas and Tourinho 1989-vid).

(34) . Pastinha in Capoeira (1995:41).

(35) . Reis (2000:198–99).

(36) . This view is extremely prevalent among capoeiristas. In contrast, Lewis (1992) questions the practicality of the use of capoeira as a weapon in the quilombos (encampments of escaped slaves), as he believes that a strong focus would be directed toward developing traditional weapons. However, historical evidence from the twentieth century confirms that capoeira has been utilized as a military strategy in Brazil’s war against Paraguay and to quell isolated domestic conflicts in Rio de Janeiro (Almeida 1986:27–28). Perhaps capoeira was most effective as a psychological weapon, or as a symbol of resistance. When this resistance was given a physical form, it could, in certain circumstances, turn into true physical resistance.

(37) . Capoeira (1995:12). Vargas was closely aligned with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. His physical education aspirations were derived from Mussolini’s and Hitler’s emphasis on youth, body, and athleticism (C Nascimento 2004-int).

(38) . Lewis (1992:60).

(40) . See Sansone (1999).

(41) . See Sansone and Santos (1999). Also, organizations such as the Fundação Pierre Verger in Salvador, Bahia, employ education literacy programs emerging from capoeira music and dance.

(42) . On the other hand, capoeira’s African-descended heritage is a key component within practitioners, and this is a fundamental aspect within contemporary practice.

(43) . For this aspect relating to the berimbau, see Galm (1997); in Kongo Mythology, see Thompson (1983).

(44) . Capoeira (1995:41).

(45) . Ortiz (in Rego 1968:74–75). In this reference, Ortiz cites a song accompanied by the burumbumba, directed towards the “mbumba:” Buru mbumba, mamá / Buru mbumba / Buru mbumba, mamá / Buru mbumba, é.” He notes that there are three voice ranges that correspond with each word: “Buru” is sung in a low register, “mbumba” is sung in a medium register, and “mamá” is the in the highest register.

(46) . Silva (1997-int).

(47) . Carneiro (1981:213).

(48) . Mestre Negoativo is a co-founder of the music ensemble Berimbrown (discussed in chapter 3).

(49) . Negoativo (2001-int). (p.192)

(50) . Reis (2000:172).

(51) . Oxumaré’s colors are green, yellow, blue, pink, and white, or the principal colors of the rainbow; Yemanjá’s colors are blue and white; and the Preto Velho’s color is white (Cacciatore 1988).

(52) . S. Tomás in Reis (2000:172). The Preto(s) Velho(s) represent the purified spirits of ancient enslaved Africans in Brazil within the religious practice of umbanda. “They are the example of humility, simple knowledge, kindness and forgiveness…. They do not represent orixás, but some are connected along these lines” (Cacciatore 1988:215). Lewis (1992) also suggests a connection between the components of the berimbau and corresponding deities as practiced in umbanda, although this particular scheme was not related to him directly by capoeira practitioners. Edison Carneiro (1981) discusses the use of the berimbau in the musical ensembles of various Afro-Brazilian religious manifestations, and D’Anunciação (2001-int:13 Jun) notes that the berimbau is often utilized in the pajelança (religious curing rituals) in the state of Maranhão, although the musical instrumentation is very flexible. For a description of berimbaus being used for religious purposes in Maranhão, see Eduardo (1966).

(53) . Burdick (1998:55).

(54) . Moreira in Anonymous (1997).

(58) . Nô in Lewis (1992:142–43).

(60) . Capoeira (1999:183–84).

(61) . Lewis (1992:73).

(62) . Almeida (1986:60). Almeida was one of the first capoeira masters who opened an academy in the United States.

(64) . It could be argued that, although women enjoy a dramatically increased presence in capoeira within recent decades, they have encountered a glass ceiling in terms of advancement toward top-tiered status within the discipline.

(65) . Lewis (1992:175). He does not state whether this is in Brazil, the United States, or both.

(67) . Ibid.