Capoeira & Blues


How the Slave Trade Shaped Cultural Arts in Brazil and the United States

Capoeira game

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.Capoeira Slaves

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.

American Slaves

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. Capoeira History

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.

 White square

blues folks

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 Pacht Lianna Patch is a writer and editor from New Orleans, LA, whose portfolio spans copywriting, cultural publications, and literary journals.


30 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. I don’t even know how I finished up here, but I assumed this
    publish was good. I do not realize who you might be but certainly you’re going to a well-known blogger
    should you aren’t already. Cheers!

  2. This is very interesting, You are a very skilled blogger.
    I have joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your fantastic post.

  3. Hey I am so delighted I found your blog, I really found you by accident, while I was browsing on Yahoo for something else, Anyways I am here now and would just like to say thanks a lot for a incredible post Capoeira, all round entertaining (I also love the theme/design)

  4. Great post. Very interesting connection btw Capoeira and Blues. No many other cultural manifestations came from African, is so much part of our culture.

  5. I was very pleased to find this web-site.I wanted to thanks for your time for this wonderful read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you blog post.

  6. I am not sure where you are getting your information, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more about Capoeira. Thanks for wonderful information I was looking for this.

  7. Wow, this piece of writing is pleasant, my
    sister is learning capoeira, thus I am going to inform her about this piece.

  8. Hi Dear, are you genuinely visiting this website regularly, if so afterward you will without doubt obtain nice
    experience. I really enjoy reading about the connection of Capeira & Blues

  9. Aw, this was an extremely good post. Finding the time and actual effort to generate a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a lot and never manage to get nearly anything done. At least, now I know the connection between blues and capoeira

  10. That is really attention-grabbing, You’re an overly professional blogger.
    I’ve joined your feed and stay up for searching for more of
    your great post. Additionally, I have shared your web site in my social networks

  11. Admiring the persistence you put into your website and detailed information you offer.
    It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed material.

  12. Great post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed!
    Very useful information specially the last part 🙂 I was looking for this particular info on Blues for a long time. Thank you and good luck.

  13. Hi! I simply want to give you a huge thumbs up for
    the excellent info you’ve got here on this post.
    I very passionate about blue and capoeira but I never thought of them in this perspective, African culture have so much influence in so many different cultures is unbelievable.

  14. Hey there! I’ve been following your site for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Texas!
    Just wanted to say keep up the excellent job!

  15. Admiring the commitment you put into your site and
    detailed information you present. It’s great to come across a blog every once
    in a while that isn’t the same unwanted rehashed material.
    Excellent read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my
    Google account.

  16. I started training at Capoeira about 4 months ago. I’ve always been fascinated with capoeira and anti gym, so when I realized I needed to get more active, I decided to give it a go. The great workout drew me in, but a few other things kept me coming back. There is a great sense of community with Capoeira pratice. Everyone is quite friendly and eager to help out. I’ve never been made to feel bad or embarrassed for not being able to do something because I’m new (or otherwise.) Additionally, there is a great focus on culture. It’s not just about kicking and doing cartwheels, equally important are the history and music associated with capoeira. It’s a great all around character building experience.

  17. Neat blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere?

    A design like yours with a few simple adjustements would really make my blog
    shine. Please let me know where you got your design. Thanks a lot

  18. I started to practice Capoeira two years ago, I´m in love with the dance and the music. I feel more like a dance than a fight.

  19. Hello I am so excited I found your blog, I really found you
    by error, while I was searching on Askjeeve for something
    else, Anyways I am here now and would just like to say
    cheers for a tremendous post and a all round entertaining blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t
    have time to read through it all at the moment but I have saved it and also added in your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be
    back to read a great deal more, Please do keep up the great job.

Comments are closed.

Follow on Feedly