THREE CONTINENTS, TWO STYLES, ONE SOURCE
How the Slave Trade Shaped Cultural Arts in Brazil and the United States
BY: Lianna Patch
In fall 2014, the tradition of capoeira — a Brazilian martial art fusing combat with elements of dance, music, and games — was awarded protected status by Unesco, the UN’s cultural agency. American blues music has long been afforded similar distinction by scholars and laypeople alike.
These art forms, now considered cultural hallmarks, both find their roots in African slave culture. To appreciate where capoeira and the blues merge and diverge, let’s take a look at the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Differences between slavery in Brazil and the U.S.
For nearly three centuries, both Brazil and the U.S. depended on African slaves to support their economies. Author Leslie Bethell notes in his book, The Abolition of the Brazilian Slave Trade (Cambridge University Press, 1970) that Brazil “was one of the greatest importers of African slaves in the New World.” Slaves mainly worked on large sugar plantations and other agricultural centers, as well as in diamond and gold mines. They were treated unconscionably poorly and died in large numbers from sickness, abuse, exhaustion, and malnutrition.
However, unlike in the U.S., African slaves in Brazil were still considered people, according to Nathan Glazer in his introduction to Stanley M. Elkins’ 1963 work, Slavery (Grosset and Dunlap). “In Brazil, the slave had many more rights than in the United States,” Glazer says. Among these were a slave’s rights to be baptized, marry, and buy his or her own freedom.
None of these rights were accorded to slaves in the “[In the United States,] the slave was totally removed from the protection of organized society … his existence as a human being was given no recognition by any religious or secular agency, he was totally ignorant of and completely cut off from his past, and he was offered absolutely no hope for the future,” Glazer continues.
In both countries, slaves regularly escaped, becoming fugitives. Whereas Brazilian slaves often formed their own communities in rural Brazil, called quilombos, fugitive slaves in the U.S. were usually forced to flee to Canada or Mexico due to the States’ stringent fugitive slave laws.
Capoeira’s beginnings in Brazil, and the origin of American blues music
Though there is some controversy between groups like the Mestre Moraes, Abada, and Senzala de Santos about the earliest origin of capoeira, all of these organizations agree that capoeira as we know it today was shaped in the quilombos of rural Brazil.
As more slaves were brought to Brazilian cities in the early 1800s, the practice of capoeira grew in secret — because fighters often used martial arts to fight the colonial guard, those caught practicing capoeira were harshly punished. Regardless, capoeira continued to gain popularity throughout the 1920s, especially with tourists who enjoyed the showier aspects of the style. It took until the late 1930s for the martial art to become legal in Brazil.
Capoeira is traditionally accompanied by music, the tempo and character of which can vary depending on the jogo, or game, of the fight. A match is known as a roda de capoeira, or simply roda, meaning “wheel” — this refers to the circle of onlookers who observe the combat. Instruments like the berimbau, a single-string musical bow, and the pandeiro, or tambourine, join with onlookers’ voices to create a hypnotic atmosphere for the roda.
Interestingly, this rhythmic call-and-response form also forms the basis of the American blues form. African slaves’ “field hollers” and work songs were simultaneously a way for slaves to get through their daily labors, and an outlet for their pervading sorrow, misery, and anger.
In his 1979 documentary, “The Land Where the Blues Began,” folklorist Alan Lomax calls the blues “the powerful bitter poetry of a hard-pressed people.”
At first, the blues form was characterized by the repetition of a single line of lyrics four times. Later, this form shifted into an “AAB” pattern, with one line repeated twice and a longer, different line concluding the verse — this is the pattern that we often recognize as “the blues” today.
The spirit of survival
Though African slaves in Brazil developed a fighting style, while slaves in the U.S. developed a musical style, both capoeira and the blues were based on survival — and on slaves’ determination to preserve their culture even when all of their rights and freedoms were denied.
The blues has both directly and indirectly given rise to innumerable other musical genres and subgenres, including bebop, swing, and jazz, while capoeira has become one of Brazil’s most-loved cultural exports.
Born of slavery’s fundamental divisiveness, racism, and cruelty, these two art forms have risen above their origins to speak to the enduring ability of the human spirit.
Lianna Patch is a writer and editor from New Orleans, LA, whose portfolio spans copywriting, cultural publications, and literary journals.