A Breakdown Of Capoeira: An Afro-Brazilian Martial Art

Capoeira is an extremely empowering tool for Afro-Brazilians.

Are you looking for a change in your workout routine ? Something that will challenge you? Transport you to another part of the world? Introduce you to a different culture? Now is the perfect time to try the Brazilian martial arts, capoeira! First, to learn more about capoeira, you must get to know the different rhythms. So, here is a playlist exclusively curated for our readers to listen to while you read along or try out your new capoeira move.

Capoeira’s history is extremely fascinating and holds great significance for the Afro-Brazilian population. During the colonial period in Brazil, enslaved people, primarily those who descended from Bantu ethnic groups, planned rebellions to escape from plantations. Enslaved people had to learn how to fight, in order to defend themselves, escape, and survive.  They also, however, had to be very discreet about their fighting so that plantation owners wouldn’t find out and suppress their rebellions. This is why the blurred lines of capoeira as a dance and a fight is so important. At first glance, you probably would not be able to tell what was happening. Are they going to eventually hit each other? Or are they just walking around the idea? This blur between a fight and a dance is what made the art so effective and powerful during Portuguese colonial rule.


Many Afro-Brazilian’s escape plans took them to the interior of the country where they lived in quilombos, independent communities made up of former enslaved people. The most famous quilombo was the Palmares led by Zumbi, which lasted for over 67 years. In quilombos, Afro-Brazilians continued to use self defense forms like capoeira to battle against the Portuguese colonial rule. The death of Zumbi is celebrated in Brazil today as the Dia da Consciencia Negra (Black Consciousness Day) on November 20th.

As you can see, capoeira is an extremely empowering tool for Afro-Brazilians. The Portuguese elite saw capoeira as a threat and later banned the art form. After the 1888 Lei Aurea, which freed enslaved people, the policing of capoeira still continued and was labeled as criminal activity. Thankfully things changed in 1932 when the infamous capoerista, Mestre Bimba, opened his new school of regional capoeira with support of the local government. Because of Mestre Bimba’s capoeira school, the art form gained widespread popularity across the nation and restrictions loosened up. At the same time, President Getulio Vargas was trying to create a cohesive Brazilian national identity in his Estado Novo (New State) (1930-1945). While doing so, he was sure to take note of the role that capoeira had in the nation. So in 1937, capoeira was designated as an official national sport.

Moving on to the musicality of the genre, there are several key traditional instruments required for capoeira. At a roda (circle of capoeiristas) you will likely see the agogô (bell made out of coconuts), an atabaque (drum), a pandeiro (tambourine), and a berimbau. The berimbau is the key instrument that produces the twangy core rhythm and monitors the speed for capoeiristas. The instrument originally comes from Africa and there are three different types, viola berimbau (high tone), medio berimbau (medium tone), and gunga berimbau (low tone). The berimbau is made out of a wooden bow with a steel string and the musician uses a metal stone to hit the string.


The capoeira fight can get intense and the key to avoiding a strike is to listen and react to your opponent’s body language. Watch how this group from Bahia (Northeastern Brazil) communicates and executes the art form:

Now it’s your turn to give it a try! This YouTube channel below is the perfect place to get started. The ginga rhythm is the first thing you will need in your back pocket to help you follow the berimbau beat. After that, you can move on to the defensive and kick moves. Take it slow and be patient. You can’t become a capoeira professional overnight.

Divirta-se e boa sorte! Good luck and have fun!

Vivian Bauer


Vivian is passionate about everything related to music, art, and language. When traveling, she loves to walk for miles, try all kinds of food, and visit every museum. She has lived in Singapore, Belgium, and Brazil while hoping to one day travel to Mongolia and East Timor.

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