Brazilian capoeira is undoubtedly the most well known and widely disseminated of a complex of New World martial arts that rely primarily on kicks and head-butts as weapons and that are usually practiced to musical accompaniment. The origins of capoeira are recorded only in the traditional legends of the art, which invariably focus on African influence. Considerable debate exists among practitioners and historians as to whether capoeira is the New World development of an African martial art or a system originating in the New World with African influences ranging from terminology to the berimbau, the primary musical instrument used to provide accompaniment for the jogo (“match” or “game”).
Scholar and practitioner J. Lowell Lewis maintains that capoeira manifests an “undeniably African esthetic” by virtue of body mechanics and music among other features. The customary label for the earliest form of the art, Capoeira Angola, pays homage to its legendary African origins, usually in dances whose movements were converted to martial applications. One candidate for the ancestor of capoeira is the ngolo (zebra dance) performed by young Mucupe men of southern Angola in conjunction with girls’ puberty rites. Robert Farris Thompson, perhaps the strongest advocate of the theory of African origins, notes the similarities between capoeira’s cabe$ada (head-butt) and the ngwindulu mu-tu (striking with the head) of African Ki-Kongo. At any rate, some scholars argue that the similarity among the various New World arts is due to common origin, generally somewhere in Bantu Africa.
Capoeiristas practice to a beat that is set through various percussion instruments, the most important of which is a musical bow with a gourd resonator known as a berimbau. The rhythm that is developed by these instruments determines the cadence in the fight. There is a school of thought among capoeira practitioners that the use of these musical instruments developed to hide the martial function of the physical movements from the Portuguese overlords in Brazil. However, the historical foundations of African arts noted above seem to argue that the use of musical accompaniment for martial arts practice is a strong tradition. This would make the music used with capoeira part of a much older tradition.
Songs involving a leader and a response pattern are sung during play. The words of these songs embody, for example, comments on capoeira in general, insults directed toward various types of styles of play or types of players, or biographical allusions to famous capoeiristas. The sense of capoeira as a dance is established by this musical frame for the action and completed by the movements taking place within the roda (Portuguese; “wheel”—the circle of capoeira play). The basic stance of capoeira places one foot forward in a lunging move with the corresponding hand forward and the other back. There is, however, considerable variety in the execution of the stance (both between individual players and between the Regional and the Angola traditions), and stances rapidly shift, with feet alternating in time to the tempo of the musical accompaniment in a dancelike action called a ginga. The techniques of capoeira rely heavily on kicks, many of them embodied in spectacular cartwheels, somersaults, and handstands. Players move from aerial techniques to low squatting postures accompanied by sweeps or tripping moves. Evasion rather than blocking is used for defense. Head-butts and hand strikes (using the open hand) complete the Many African combat systems relied heavily on the rehearsal of combat movements through dances. Here, game preserve guards in Ndumu, South Africa, practice a martial dance using rungu (knobbed sticks) in conjunction with the rhythm from percussion instruments, 1980. (Jonathan Blair/Corbis)
unarmed arsenal of the capoeirista. Again, there is a distinction between Angola and Regional, with the former relying more on low kicks, sweeps, and trips “played” to a slower rhythm.
As an armed fighting art, capoeira has incorporated techniques for the use of paired short sticks and bladed weapons (particularly straight razors, knives, and machetes). Even in those cases in which the art has moved from the streets to the training hall, training in weapons remains in the curriculum in forms such as maculele, which entails a rhythmic clash of short sticks while performing a dancelike action. Stickfighting persists on the streets of Trinidad during Carnival as kalinda.
Though not as well known as capoeira, other similar martial arts have been noted throughout the African Americas.
In Martinique a particularly well-documented form exists, which is called ladjia in the south, damie in the north, and also ronpoin and kokoye. Tike capoeira, ladjia is played to the accompaniment of percussion instruments (primarily drums, but also sticks that are clashed together) and leader-and-response songs, and it is characterized by vigorous acrobatic movements. The music controls the pace and character of the fight and therefore is of major importance to the event. Practitioners echo the sentiments of capoeiristas in claiming that without song there is no ladjia. With movements guided by the tempo of the music, the combatants maneuver in ways that are reminiscent of the ginga (Portuguese; from gingar, “to sway, to waddle”). When an opportunity develops, they kick, punch, and eye-gouge. When one lifts the other and throws him on his back, the winner is proclaimed. There are regional variants of the play, the most striking being the bloody ferocity of combative ladjia in the south versus the dancelike performance of damie in the north. The various regional forms of Martinique have been successfully compared to the kadjia of Benin, a similar ritualistic form of activity practiced in conjunction with agricultural ceremony, but one that emphasizes grappling and throwing actions rather than the striking, kicking, and gouging of the New World form. A combat form of kadjia, designed for use when a warrior loses his weapons, incorporates a wider range of techniques.
In Venezuela, broma (literally, “just joking”) is played among Venezuelans of African descent, particularly in the coastal city of Curiepe. Contemporary broma does not maintain a structured curriculum, accepting a variety of new influences at the whim of practitioners. The traditional essence of the style, however, consists of kicks, head-butts, and sweeps.
Other African Caribbean and South American fighting arts such as mam (Cuba), cbat’ou (Guadeloupe), and susa (Surinam) may already be extinct. The same may be true of the last vestiges of a similar African American art that had at least one surviving master in the 1980s.
The art of “knocking and kicking” developed in the southern United States. According to Jackson Jordan Jr. of North Carolina, a master of the style, it was widely practiced by African Americans, particularly in the Car-olinas and the Georgia Sea Islands, during his youth at the turn of the twentieth century. One hundred and fifty years earlier, Henry Bibb, a runaway slave from Kentucky, reported that slaves were forced by their masters to fight. In these contests, “The blows are made by kicking, knocking, and butting with their heads; they grab each other by their ears, and jam their heads together like sheep” (1969, 68). Bibb may well be describing the core repertoire of knocking and kicking. His description also may be the best surviving description of this martial art.
Just as little is known regarding susa, an activity reported from Sara-makan Maroon groups in Suriname (Dutch Guyana) by Dutch sources in the late seventeenth century. The obviously martial activity was accompanied by percussive music (drumming and hand-clapping). The goal of the “game” was to knock down one’s opponent. The folk history of this group, whose members claim African and African Indian descent, remembers susa as a dance derived from an African martial art called nsunsa.
The African martial arts in the Americas obviously share a common set of characteristics. It has been suggested that similar features developed as a result of similar circumstances. There are equally strong arguments, however, that martial arts, like many other cultural traditions, survived the Middle Passage (the transport of Africans to slavery in the Americas) to be adapted to the changed cultural context of the Americas. Under less constrained circumstances, the process continues, as contemporary Senegalese immigrants compete in their traditional wrestling art of laamb in parks in Washington, D.C., on the Muslim holiday of Tabaski.