Categorized | ANGOLA, ARTICLES, General History, HISTORY

CAPOEIRA- AN EVOLVING MARTIAL ART

Posted on 01 October 2008 by chan

Was Capoeira influenced by other martial arts? how was it developed? how has it evolved? and where will it go?

These are questions that have not really been fully answered, and may never be.

However, I have found it interesting to research the POSSIBILITIES of various influences that Capoeira may have been subjected to.

Capoeira, like many other martial arts, has been constantly changing, to keep within a cultural and practical relevance to society. Whilst some practicioners struggle to maintain important traditions, others are constantly testing and experimenting with Capoeira. I find it important to adhere to both causes, in the aim to give back something to the art that we recieve so much from.

Over the coming weeks, I wish to provide some basic information on some other arts that have had similar histories, movement base, or could have maybe even influenced capoeira in its earlier stages. This is to give you a door to explore capoeira in a much wider context.

N’golo or Engolo

This is probably the most widely discussed African artform with Capoeira circles.
It is said to have been performed at a festival called Efundula which was traditionally a huge gathering of the community. It was a passing of rites ritual, where the girls would undergo tests and preparations to be accepted as women ready for marriage and procreation.

THE EFUNDULA CEREMONY

The efundula ceremony varied between communities and over time. This is just a brief overview of some of the things that were involved.

Firstly the girls would enter into a closed house called ondjuo. A ritual leader called the namunganga would feed them and they would wait until they were summoned. After the sacred initiation they would finish by crawling through the legs of the namunganga and step over a cleft stick. These were tests performed to see if the women was pregnant. If they stumbled when stepping over the stick this would be a sign they were pregnant and would be outcast and rejected by their community. They would then be given some beer mixed with a herbal brew. This was a second test. If they vomited, the woman would have deemed to be pregnant.

The next stage of the initiations would be more ‘endurance’ type tests, that were often tasks like pounding millet in mortars for hours. This would also be a process of weeding out those that may have been pregnant. Previously this process could last for days.

The next stage was called the oihanangolo where the initiates (ovafuka) would become boy-like (ovamati). They would cover themselves in white ash, dress in skirts and go around demanding food from other households and sometimes even beat up men who crossed their paths. The community would have to comply and subdue. They were even allowed to insult the men, make them prepare the food for them and beat them up if the man was caught sleeping with a women, even if it was their own wife! This process could last from days to weeks.

efundula dance

(from an essay: Efundula and History: Female Initiation in Pre-Colonial and Colonial Northern Namibia by Patricia Hayes)

The final stage was a public event. The men would drum and the girls would dance and sing. The men would approach the women and propose for their hand in marriage. The marriages were usually prearranged.

(note: this is a wedding ceremony from an ovambo tribe, It was all I could find, so it may not at all be similar to the efundula).

NOTE: Within my brief research of Efundula, I did not encounter any mention of n’golo being a part of this particular ritual or ceremony. So I am unsure to whether Capoeira researchers have linked N’golo with Efundula through presumptions or historical evidence…

ovombo dance
(from an essay: Efundula and History: Female Initiation in Pre-Colonial and Colonial Northern Namibia by Patricia Hayes)

N’golo Origins

The name N’golo, (which they say mean the dance of the zebras), I believe originally came from Barama N’golo and Nia N’golo. They were two brothers who led an animist group called bambara, which later became a very powerful community. Barama was a great hunter and warrior.

The brothers introduced into their community a social conduct structure, consisting of various rituals. Among them was for work to be carried out by association and based on age-sets. All boys would be initiated by being circumcised at the same time, mainly to establish hierachy. I believe that it was within these traditions and probably the passage of rites to manhood, that N’golo as an artform may have been developed/performed/named. There is no evidence to support this claim, so further research is welcomed.

However, the current research is based on a couple of key figures. An angolan artist by the name of Albano de Neves e Souza went to Brazil in the 1960’s. He had claimed to have seen the N’golo being performed in southern Angola and believed it was very similar to Capoeira.

N’golo, the Zebra Dance, is possibly the origin of the Capoeira, the fighting dance of Brazil. It is danced at the time of the ‘Mufico”, a puberty rite for the girls of the Mucope and Mulondo regions. The object of the dance is to hit your opponent’s face with your foot. A rhythm for the dance is beaten by clapping hands, and anyone who attempts a [b]low while outside the marked arena is disqualified. The ‘Angolan Capoeira’ in Brazil also has its special rhythm, which is one more reason to believe that it originates with the N’golo. N’golo means ‘zebra’, and to a certain extent the dance originates from the leaps and battles of the zebra: the blow with the feet while the hands are touching the ground is certainly reminiscent of the zebra’s kick.

(Neves e Souza, Da minha Africa do Brazil que eu vi, p.57)

drawings by neves e souza, 1965, da minha africa e do brasil que eu vi

It is interesting to note that in 1964 Mestre Pastinha wrote a book on Capoeira Angola but does not mention N’golo as being the main ancestor of Capoeira.

There is no doubt that capoeira came to Brazil with the African slaves. It was a form of fighting presenting its own characteristics, maintained up to our days… The name “Capoeira Angola” comes from the fact that it was the Angolan slaves in Bahia who mostly distinguished themselves in its practice.

(Mestre Pastinha, Capoeira Angola, p. 26-27)

If Mestre Pastinha had known about the theory of N’golo before the publication of his book I would have presumed that he would surely have mentioned it.

Whilst Neves e Souza was visiting Brazil, he made friends with a Brazilian folklorist named Camara Cascudo. They maintained contact and eventually Cascudo published some of his notes in 1967. It is believed that Mestre Pastinha either had contact with Neves e Souza or Cascudo and used their theory to link Capoeira with N’golo, or one of Pastinha’s students found the published letters and showed Mestre Pastinha.

In any case, the most likely theory is that the first link between Capoeira and N’golo came from Neves e Souza’s accounts alone.

The slaves of the Southern tribes who went there [to Brazil] through the trading post of Benguela took along their tradition to fight with the feet. With time, what was initially a tribal tradition was transformed into a weapon of attack and defence, which helped them to survive in a hostile environment. [This is the] reason for its continuity in the urban context. The worst bandits of Benguela are generally Muxilengues, which, in the cities, use the N’golo steps as a weapon. In Luanda, these steps, possibly brought from the South, are called Bassula. Even in the name there is something suggesting that the fight originated among the pastoral people of the South. Ba-ssula, those from the South.

(Camara Cascudo, Folklore, p. 186)

It is interesting to note that when Camara Cascudo went to Angola he was unable to find n’golo or bassula.

T.J. Desch-Obi is the only other person I have found that has seen and written accounts of the n’golo practice. He describes his experience as follows:

The music begins with clapping and a rhythmic humming that can take the place of a response in the call-and-response songs that someone will begin to sing. Soon after the mantra-like song and humming has fully formed, with a shout a practitioner will enter the circle dancing and often shouting again to accentuate the techniques he begins to demonstrate. When a contender joins the challenger in the circle the two will continue to dance to the music as they square off and one adept will launch a kick or sweep at the other. This attack will be defended by dodging or ‘blending’ in such a way that will then allow the defender to launch a smooth counter-attack. The two will continue in a cycle of attacks, defenses, and counter-attacks in a smooth continuous flow.

(T.J. Desch Obi, ‘Engolo’ p.56)

Because of these accounts by T.J. Desch Obi and Neves e Souza, and the presumed links between Capoeira and N’golo, Capoeira today uses these accounts to concrete Capoeira’s African ancestry. Many Capoeira Angola groups will use N’golo as a certain proof that Capoeira was created in Africa and refined in Brazil. However, to me this may be, unfortunately, an over-simplification.

Conclusion

I believe that Capoeira was influenced by many different African martial arts, rituals and tribes. I also believe that Capoeira was formed in brazil by many ethnic groups that influenced society at the time and who were also influenced by society and its situation. There existed a huge number of African tribes over the centuries, each with their own traditions, languages, rituals and beliefs. They all developed different ceremonies that sometimes lasted and were passed down through the years, faded away, or over time, moulded into completely new traditions. There is still a huge amount of research to be done and I believe the search for answers and links, although seemingly sparse, is not yet over.

There are, in reality, only a certain amount of ways the human body can move. We are only born with two arms and two legs. If we were born with maybe three arms, movement possibilities could maybe be different but we weren’t. When there is similarities in social oppression, similarities in environment and culture, I believe there is also similarities within fighting systems. But we will touch upon this in the upcoming articles.

References:

1.Nestor Capoeira, Capoeira: Roots of the dance-fight-game
2.Mattias Rohrig assuncao, Capoeira, the history of an afro-brazilian martial art
3.Patricia Hayes, Efundula and History: Female Initiation in Pre-Colonial and Colonial Northern Namibia
http://www.gwsafrica.org/knowledge/patricia/efprint.htm
4.Mestre Pastinha, Capoeira Angola
5.T.J Desch Obi, Engolo
6.Neves e Souza, Da minha Africa e do brasil que eu vi
7.L. da Camara Cascudo, Folklore do Brasil
8.Waldeloir Rego, Capoeira Angola
9. Ousmane Sako, The Heart of the Ngoni By Harold Courlander
10. T.J. Desch Obi, Fighting for honor

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5 Comments For This Post

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  2. Julian P. Says:

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  3. Brandon Says:

    The distinction you draw between Capoeria being created and refined in African and Brazil respectively or – on the other hand – being a fully Brazilian art form seems overly subtle. If indeed the roots of Angola are to be found in Africa as so much of the tradtion seems to affirm, why would that preclude the influence of other African traditions. The in mixing of those influences could be otherwise called “refinement” to use your terms. Am I missing something?

    Best,

    Brandon Brown
    Oakland, CA

  4. konto w banku Says:

    Thx for this site. Very good.

  5. Kevwe 'Sombra' Okiti Says:

    This has been extremely helpful and I’m discovering more and more valuable information on this site about Capoeira and its history. Thanks for posting. It’s appreciated!

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