Capoeira and security: the view from upside-down

Through an account of capoeira, the Brazilian dance-fight-game, we uncover two simultaneous stories of security: first, the gradual monopolisation of violence by the state; second, a somatic, lyrical representation of a history of violence, oppression and liberation.

Zoë Marriage
1 February 2012

The study of security has been dominated by the perspective of how to govern strategically from a position of strength, conventionally measured by military capability. Human Security, which brought human populations to discussions on security, and global security, which mooted the possibility of a common security, have entered the development policies of northern countries. However, both these were devised in the global north and reflect the nature of north-south relations; even critical security studies, which analyses how definitions and patterns of security are reproduced, has routinely excluded voices from the global south where the most diverse and severe forms of insecurity are experienced.


Flickr/Eduardo Otubo. Some rights reserved.

Rectifying this perspective involves not simply critiquing the power relations that reproduce patterns of insecurity but reconceptualising power and insecurity. Reaching new levels of awareness involves, as Michel Foucault proposed, unpicking the knowledge that constitutes power, exposing and making legible data that can generate new awareness. Capoeira, the Brazilian dance-fight-game that has its roots in slavery, gives us an opportunity to explore this by issuing two immediate challenges to north-south power relations: it stems from the perspective of the weak and it involves attack and escape, rather than attack and defence.

In The Little Capoeira Book, Nestor Capoeira writes, “Capoeira is the culture of the oppressed! It was created… by men enslaved in Africa and brought to Brazil. It was further developed by men living in the underworld of banditry and on the margins of an extremely unfair society during the 19th and 20th century.” He continues, “Facing a stronger opponent who controlled the power and made the laws, capoeira had to learn to be flexible and avoid confrontations… Capoeira learned the guerrilla way of fighting… It learned the value of lies and deceit, of ambush, surprise and treason.”

In their book on living as a subversive art, The practice of everyday life, Michel de Certeau and his fellow-authors differentiate in a similar way between strategy, as ‘the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships’ from the position of the stronger, and tactics, ‘the art of the weak’, to which timing and deception are key. Many capoeiristas – capoeira adepts – are physically strong but the arsenal of capoeira lies in axé (life energy), malícia (trickery), and malandragem (being streetwise). Unlike military or sporting activities, capoeira does not conform to the norms of competition; on the contrary, as Nestor Capoeira asserts, “Life is much more than just winning or surviving – it involves the joy of being alive”.

Story one: State monopoly of the use of force

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, capoeira was outlawed by the Brazilian state along with other elements of African culture and was associated with the lower classes, vagrancy and street fighting. A turning point came in the 1930s when Mestre Bimba – the title mestre signifies that he was master of the art – established an academy and developed the Regional Fight of Bahia, known as ‘capoeira Regional’, which favoured the combat and sport elements at the expense of artistic and ritual elements.

Mestre Bimba was influential in moving capoeira from the legal and social margins to the mainstream. The  move was contentious but interactions between capoeiristas and the establishment date back to the nineteenth century, when the National Guard, known as the ‘armed fist’ of the aristocracy, and Rio de Janeiro’s police force concurrently persecuted and hired capoeiristas. From the early twentieth century, there were capoeira manuals for military training and in the 1930s and 1940s military and naval cadres promulgated capoeira as a form of physical training. Anecdotes from Mestre Waldemar’s roda (the circle of participants within which capoeira is played) in the 1940s suggest that police allowed Waldemar to regulate the violence during play, and to discipline unruly capoeiristas, operating as a force multiplier for the police.

A counterweight to Mestre Bimba’s capoeira Regional was established around the same time by Mestre Pastinha, who also taught in an academy, but accentuated the African roots of the art. The Rastafarian movement was growing in Jamaica and Pastinha’s ‘capoeira Angola’ involved the development of a neo-African identity. While many of his students were black, they did not trace their ancestry specifically to Angola. Capoeira Angola foregrounds aesthetics and ritual and is self-consciously inclusive. Mestre Pastinha insisted, “Capoeira is for men, women and children; the only ones who don’t learn are those who don’t wish to.” But it was not until the 1980s that capoeira Angloa gained its popularity. In Brazil’s increasingly militarised polity of the time, capoeira Angola could not match the appeal of capoeira Regional. 

The institutionalisation of capoeira – both in its Regional and Angola forms – allowed the state to increase its control of violence in society. The use of lethal blows, blades and guns had been common in capoeira, and regulation of this increased state reach over the gangs that had threatened legal authority. Meanwhile, capoeira became more interesting to the middle classes as prejudice and the suppression of African cultures gave ground. African music and religious elements became accepted as part of a Brazilian nationality that acknowledged, rather than denying or rejecting, the slave roots of much of the population.

The compromise involved in this process is characteristic of how security is forged. Over the twentieth century, capoeira has undergone a transformation from being a violent street fight to a national product that is deployed in social projects in deprived areas in Brazil, and extends soft power abroad through cultural exports. Capoeiristas have played ‘tactically’ in Michel de Certeau’s use of the word: they have made concessions and stayed in the game.

Story two: Non-written allusive knowledge – and power

In 2003, Nestor Capoeira noted the increased interest in the history of capoeira and warned that researchers will “look down at players who do not have orthodox western education. The shitty ‘academic talk’ will try to make itself more important than the body dialogue (the Game) itself.” With this admonition in mind, how can insights be drawn through capoeira itself?

Bosco De Oliveira’s work on the heritage of samba and Congado music gives an intellectual steer by introducing rhythmic cells and the ‘feel’ of the music as data sources. He side-steps the dominance of the recording industry and Brazilian nationalism that locate the origins of samba in Bahia or Rio de Janeiro by tracing the rhythms to Bantu roots. In a related investigation he identifies similarities between the composition and functions of music used to accompany Lunda kings in Congo and Congado music associated with the crowning of symbolic African royalty in NE Brazil. By analysing these elements from within an understanding of the musical discourse that they comprise, de Oliveira is able to trace not only their reference but also their purpose and power. He concludes that Congado music, “was born out of the necessity of African slaves in Brazil to find new identities, to be accepted by the ruling society and at the same time to keep values and institutions from their original culture.”

In a complementary study, Pedro Abib has presented capoeira Angola (as opposed to capoeira Regional) as a celebration of vadiação (bumming around), that is contradictory to the efficiency demands of capitalism. Lowell Lewis’ exploration of capoeira as a ‘ring of liberation’ captures a related concept, arguing that the game of capoeira provides the environment for physical, musical and lyrical play to take on serious cultural meaning.  The alternative discourses that are generated by capoeira remain varied as knowledge passes from mestre to student rather than through a standardised rubric.

The violence of slavery and oppression defined the space in which capoeira developed. For her part, Nancy Scheper-Hughes argues that people whose work is physical, such as slaves, are more likely to express themselves somatically: “To raise one’s voice in active political protest is impossible and wildly dangerous. To be totally silenced, however, is intolerable… Into ‘impossible’ situations such as these, the nervous, shaking, agitated, angry body may be enlisted to keep alive the perception that a real ‘state of emergency’ exists.” 

The somatic discourse of capoeira is characteristically tactical; according to Nestor Capoeira the rasteira, an opportunistic sweep used to take down the other player, “represents the victory of knowledge over brute force, of shrewdness over strength. It is the weapon of the weak against the strong… simultaneously dodging the attack and pulling the support leg of the aggressor.” The perspective of the weaker is fundamental to many moves: the bênção – blessing – is a forceful kick that mocks the hypocrisy and violence of the social system in which a slave owner alternately blesses and whips a slave; the esquiva – escape – involves ducking to avoid confrontation and allow play to continue (as Bimba said, “Only cliffs face the tempest”); the negativa evades the kick and thereby denies its power; while the – cartwheel – celebrates the upside-down, fun and chaotic aspects of capoeira and of life.

The lyrics to the songs that accompany capoeira are similarly tactical in their use of allusion, rarely recounting whole, ballad-like narratives, but making sidelong comments. In the song, “I’m going to tell my master that the butter has melted,” the text tells us, ‘it’s not my butter’; but the subtext is, “I don’t care!”. Commonly, scraps of stories of Africa, the sea, slavery and capoeira itself are represented in these liberating lyrics. The expression ‘valha me Deus’ occurs frequently; it means ‘God protect me’ and ‘God free me,’ the two being synonymous for the slave. These lyrics give space to and also place parameters on knowledge and ultimately power: their statements are functional rather than descriptive and the function is emancipation.

Implications for security

The second story of capoeira suggests that it is possible to reformulate insecurity in new ways, allowing it to be surmounted without being disregarded. As Mestre Poncianinho, a pre-eminent capoeira teacher in the UK, put it to his students at the Cordão de Ouro school in London recently, “you may like order and routine, but a capoeirista must also be ready for change, ready to improvise and change situations, because that is what a great capoeirista does in the roda, and that is what can be done when life gets hard. Whenever something goes ‘wrong’ it is time to find strength and make it positive.”

What are the implications for security theorists and policy-makers who have routinely overlooked the question of how to gain security from a position of weakness? The first story warns us that ‘providing security’ is always inadequate. Security rests in interests and power, which means that it is either forged through compromise or it is imposed to the detriment of the weaker party. The inclusion of security in development policy has underwritten a governance regime of containment and control that reinforces political hierarchy. In Congo, the use of aid has systematically reflected northern interests. Through management and surveillance aid has maximized economic opportunities and minimized the threats of diseases or migrants spreading. This has increased insecurity for some people, thereby undermining the commonality and universality that the global and human security policies claim to promote. Problems at the level of implementation mean that the security priorities are at once imposing and permissive, rather like the early twentieth century Brazilian state’s incarceration and exploitation of capoeiristas for the physical and cultural well-being of the nation (in which, by implication, they were not included).

The second implication is that attaining new awareness from the perspective of the weak necessitates a break from strategic rationality. It is irrational for the weaker party either to challenge the stronger through conventional means, or to conform to its security demands. The language of universality and communality central to human security and global security masks a hegemony of economic supremacy. Confrontation is incompatible with this expansionism and is necessarily categorised as terrorism. The more usual response from the relatively powerless is a negativa: a denial of power. In eastern Congo, for example, Alex Veit has identified a ‘bricolage’: “a crooked, contradictory, and situational tactic of embracing some offerings of interventions while opposing others.” Policy discourse often couches these tactics in terms of deviance: ‘corruption’ and missing targets. But akin to capoeira’s interaction with power, they are a reply to the failure of programming in Africa that has engrained insecurity.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the denial of claims of shared security has been disordered and disorienting. Alongside protests in Europe and the USA and the political upheaval of the Arab Spring, the longstanding disruption of northern definitions and patterns of security by those countries locked in positions of weakness can start to be interpreted from upside-down: even though they do not make strategic gains, they preserve at least the possibility for alternative empowering discourses to emerge that redefine security – as liberation. 


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