The history of capoeira is somewhat elusive because there are no written records. Many of the written accounts of slavery were destroyed. There are differing opinions of the story of how capoeira came to be.
The Brazilian slaves that were imported from West Africa, from the 1500’s to slavery’s abolishment in 1888, brought a variety of rich cultural traditions with them. Many of their fighting traditions were prohibited by the slave masters for fear of the slaves uprising in revolt against their masters. The slaves disguised their fighting practices by mixing the movements with singing and dancing. This was the birth of a new art form- Capoeira. Although it is not known exactly where, when or how capoeira was formed, it is certain that capoeira was born in Brazil- but has ancestral roots in West Africa.
Capoeira was consequently used by the slaves to protect them and revolt against their masters. The famous “Quilombos”, settlements of slave runaways, were protected for many years through the use of capoeira. One famous Quilombo, named Palmares in a remote mountainous area of Recife, was led by a man named Zumbi. He was a runaway slave known for leading revolts and training his “army” of slaves in the art of capoeira in order to protect themselves and gain their freedom from slavery. Palmares was reported to have at one time approximately 20,000 inhabitants of runaway slaves. Because of capoeira’s reputation for being a sometimes brutal and dangerous form, it was outlawed in Brazil from 1890 to the 1920’s. Weapons, such as knives, sticks, or razors, were often concealed by capoeiristas when they fought. Although capoeira was illegal, it continued to be practiced in secrecy and in disguise. Capoeirstas often were known by their nicknames rather than their legal names on the streets to confuse police and hinder their captivity.
Mestre Bimba, born as Manuel dos Reis Machado in 1900, from Salvador do Bahia, is considered the father of Capoeira Regional, the modern form of capoeira. In 1932, Mestre Bimba opened an official capoeira school in Salvador. In 1937, Mestre Bimba was invited by the president of Brazil to demonstrate his art of capoeira. President Getulio Vargas legalized capoeira in order for it to be recognized as a national sport. Capoeira was finally fully recognized as a national sport in Brazil in 1974, the year of Mestre Bimba’s death.
Mestre Pastinha, born as Vicente Ferreira Pastinha in 1889, was also from Salvador do Bahia, Brazil. He opened a capoeira academy in 1941 in Pelorinho, Salvador. He is considered the father of Capoeira Angola- the more traditional form of capoeira. Mestre Pastinha died in 1981 at the age of 92. Two of Mestre Pastinha’s most famous students, Mestre Joao Grande and Mestre Joao Pequeno are known worldwide. Mestre Joao Grande’s capoiera school is in New York City. Mestre Joao Pequeno continues Mestre Pastinha’s legacy in Pelorinho, Salvador, Brazil. Capoeira was introduced into the United States in the 1970’s by different mestres from Brazil, such as Mestre Acordeon, Loremil Machado, and Jelon Vieira. Mestre Acordeon (Bira Almeida) was a student of Mestre Bimba. He is one of the most famous mestres in the US. He has had a capoeira school in Berkley, California for many years.
Capoeira schools can found all over he United States, and in fact, all over the world. The media has as well caught the capoeira fever. Movies such as Only the Strong, The Quest, Cat Woman, Run Down, Oceans 12, and many others feature the art of capoeira. There are TV commercials that use capoeira music, such as the car company- Mazda’s Zoom Zoom theme. Capoeira clothing and shoes have even impacted the fashion industry. Capoeira is one of the fastest growing sports.