Thursday, 6 September 2012

Vamos vadiar!

This is my last blog from this piece of research. It has been an amazing experience! It has made me think not only about capoeira and security but also about the processes of learning and knowledge. The insights that I have gained have been intensely intellectually – and physically! – challenging and will continue to be so.

My final blog is dedicated to expressing thanks. I am very deeply grateful to the people who have been part of my experience of capoeira in Salvador. I have played dozens of games and I thank everyone for every single moment – in all the classes and all the rodas – it has all been brilliant.

My greatest gratitude is reserved for the teachers in the two schools in which I trained.

Mestre Nenel!
My heartfelt thanks go to Mestre Nenel, the living legend of Capoeira Regional and head of the Filhos de Bimba School of Capoeira, and to Professor Berimbau who oriented me patiently through my first Regional steps. Mestre Nenel taught me the diversity and loveliness of the musical toques that accompany the Regional game and shared the vast wealth of movements, each with a name, an objective and an escape! I am grateful to him for inspiration, for technique, rhythm and precision in capoeira and for the total magical happiness of it that makes everything possible! And for his great rodas where the extremely young, the extremely good and the extremely seasoned play – including many who trained with Mestre Bimba. Through an extraordinary charismatic power, Mestre Nenel lives, plays and teaches profoundly beautiful capoeira.

Mestre Valmir
Mestre Cobra Mansa

I extend my deep thanks, too, to the FICA team – Mestres Valmir and Cobra Mansa, Contra-Mestra Gege, Dija and Aloan. FICA Bahia introduced me to the wonder of Angola songs, the batería, the improvisation, the theatre of interaction, the diversity of games and the intricacy of convention. I am grateful for the stories that surround and work through capoeira Angola, the traces of history, and the insights into the extremes of physical expression and the variety of play. And for the experience of playing in the street, in the countryside, everywhere – everything is capoeira! 

Part of the FICA experience is Kilombo Tenonde, Mestre Cobra Mansa’s lived witness to permaculture and capoeira Angola. I spent some wonderful days weeding vegetable beds, working on an irrigation pump (!), playing capoeira and music, and swimming in the river. Kilombo is testament to the importance of sustainability and community and to how much work is involved. And it is fantastic! Another world is possible – it’s already there!


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

What are the implications for security studies?

Getting out of difficult situations

The Northern focus of security studies excludes the majority of the world’s population from discussions on security. The dominance of strategic rationality as the decision-making mechanism and the focus on direct forms of violence discount the perspectives of weaker parties and in doing so compromise the ability to understand threats faced by those who are not in positions of power. 

These threats include the threat of military attack; in the east of Congo, operations apparently designed to provide security for the distressed population have been catastrophic. There is also a lack of conceptual apparatus to address AIDS, environmental collapse, political anomie or marginalisation from a security perspective. Mitigation attempts abound but a security perspective would prioritise not ‘helping’ but changing the relationships of threat and protection that reinforce insecurity.

These shortfalls have become particularly disastrous since security programming has been incorporated into mainstream development policy. Without an understanding of the perspective of the weaker, development is unlikely to improve the security of those on whose behalf the intervention is made.

What does the perspective of the weaker party contribute to security?

The history passed through capoeira starts to fill some of the ‘historical absences’ generated by the northern dominance in security theorising and policy (Bilgin 2010). It has given insight into the tactics that are used in the strategic space commanded by others. In doing so, capoeira has provided data and analysis to map a much broader scope of rationality than is assumed by conventional concepts of strategy. This is a step towards theorising disruption and difference as counter-hegemonic discourses of resistance, rather than trying to shut them down.

A key part of the investigation has been the extension of understanding of rationality. Rationality has been seen to have communicative ends, in conserving and expressing personal and group identities and values. Instrumental rationality is diverse too: it makes tactical gains but it also employs counter-rationality and magic – including music, charisma and play – to generate meaning and reduce vulnerability. Reducing vulnerability is as important in security terms as increasing arsenal and tends to be less aggravating.
Filhos de Bimba, Salvador

Capoeira presents a further crucial challenge to dominant power in denying the inevitability of its processes. The commitment of Mestre Bimba to recuperating and codifying the art of capoeira has preserved elements that were in danger of being lost. An equal task is now undertaken by his son, Mestre Nenel, who maintains Bimba’s tradition in the face of strong pressures on the Regional style. A different form of challenge confronts the heirs of capoeira Angola. They have seen a less explosive diffusion of their art, but they also struggle to preserve the style alongside preserving the fluidity and improvisation that are integral to it. Through teaching and playing capoeira, the authenticity and integrity of the game and the forms of political expression that it gives are constantly renegotiated. The form that capoeira takes – the fact that it is situated in the present and defined by its lineage - continuously denies and outwits inevitability. Outcomes are not predetermined, they are in a constant state of becoming.

How are power, freedom and security related?

Examining capoeira has highlighted the political significance and construction of freedom. Security and freedom have conventionally been conceptualised as oppositional: populations relinquish freedom in return for security from the state. A break was made in 1994 when Human Security was defined by the UNDP as freedom from fear and freedom from want. This was a freedom from abstract threats and was not explained in political terms. Following the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, the debate about security and freedom has been reignited as many states have imposed extraordinary laws in the name of security.

Capoeira’s counter-hegemonic discourse foregrounds freedom not as a price but as a precondition for security. This is a freedom that is won from oppression, not one that is granted by the law laid down by the powerful. Capoeira unpacks the power relations and differences of interest that frame competing versions of security. It brings into focus the question of: Whose security is it? The song “vou dizer a meu senhor” – “I’m going to tell my master” recounts a slave’s lack of concern and abdication of responsibility for a pat of melted butter. The position is: Yes, the butter has melted, but it wasn’t my butter. Why should the slave care if the master’s butter has melted? In myriad ways, people whose interests are not served by dominant versions of security express lack of concern and an abdication of responsibility for pursuing it.

Without slavery there would be no capoeira: capoeira developed in the runaway slave settlements. Its form and reference is borne of experiences of powerlessness, resistance and difference of interests, and is expressed through defiant or oblique lyrics and the joy of playing despite everything. Without capoeira slavery could be condemned as unjust, but there would be no continuity of history, no cultural celebration or significance of agency. These constituent elements not only convey a particular set of historical experiences and priorities, they imply that there is no blue print for security. In drawing attention to power they also problematise the political practicality of providing security to others.

A ladainha contains the lines, “I am free like the wind, Ai meu Deus, ninguém vai me segurar” – “no one can hold me.” I am grateful to Lea Frehse, currently studying with us at SOAS, for the observation that the word ‘security’ derives its meaning from the notion of freedom from care; she explores how this can include also freedom from being cared for. Human Security promotes freedom within the hegemony of security as defined by the powerful minority, and many contemporary security policies extend the control exercised by the state. The critical angle presented by capoeira is the opposite: a need for freedom from that hegemony – the ability to choose – freedom to ACT, to BE!

The last word on rationality
Establishing communication

The strategic rationality and northern bias of security discourse faces strident and profound challenges in real world politics. Capoeira has provided a number of angles of critique and elaboration on the dominant security perspective. It is not obvious; if you see a capoeira game you are unlikely to think, ‘oh, cartwheels, what an heritage,’ or ‘magic! How liberating!’ I have written this blog alongside an intensive programme of training and playing. Capoeira’s fundamentals are encoded, as counter-hegemonic discourses must be and many counter-hegemonic discourses appear at first sight disoriented and disorienting. Most are not as fun or as beautiful as capoeira. Many are not rational in a straightforward sense, but it would be irrational to dismiss them just for that.


Bilgin, P. ( 2010). "The 'Western-Centrism' of Security Studies: 'Blind Spot' or Constitutive Practice?" Security Dialogue 41(6): 615-622.

Rogers, P. (2000). Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-First Century. London, Pluto Press.

UNDP (1994). New dimensions of human security. Human Development Report 1994 United Nations Development Programme. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

How has security been distributed through capoeira?

“Quem bate não se lembra, quem apanha não se esquece”
“The one who gives the beating doesn’t remember, the one who is beaten doesn’t forget”

Security relates to interests and power bases and, according to Fierke, "assumes a field of relationships, including a threatener, the threatened, the protector or means of protection, and the protected" (Fierke 2007, 46). This provides a helpful template for analysing the distribution of security. How have these relationships of threat and protection been changed by capoeira?


The institutionalisation of capoeira is a dominant part of the contemporary experience. In academies, rodas start on time, follow defined conventions, and there is no malicious violence. Students comply with the trappings of the institution, including the authority of the mestre, the rituals of instrumentation and music, and the use of uniforms. Institutionalisation is reinforced by the continuous assertion of identity, often through implicit or explicit differentiation with other academies, practices and strands of capoeira.

FUMEB, Filhos de Bimba in Salvador

This institutionalisation stems from Mestre Bimba who performed capoeira to the Governor of Bahia in the late 1930s. In communicative terms this was significant: through capoeira, Mestre Bimba was communicating with the non-capoeira world and with the power that posed the direct threat. There was a risk involved in opening communications: capoeira was still illegal at the time and Mestre Bimba had already founded his academy.

The communication that Mestre Bimba established with the political hierarchy and the institutionalisation that stemmed from it had the effect of reducing both the threats that the state posed to capoeira players and the threat that capoeira players posed to the state. In Cooper’s term’s capoeira was de-securitised (Cooper 2010). Regional Groups maintain communication as part of their tradition. They put on demonstrations and, within the game, the style has more extroverted elements of performance. The more ‘open’ game relies on rhythm and, in addition to its technical and competitive aspects, can allow for collaborative interaction, including the use of choreographed or semi-choreographed sequences.

Angola groups tend not to put on shows. In the 1930s, Angola groups increased their protection by playing in academies and reserving the knowledge of black history for black students. The Angola game is more ‘closed’ – the legs used to protect the body during cartwheels and handstands. It is also more crafty than Regional, with the pronounced use of feints and deception. This protective element is complemented by assertion: there are Angola street rodas, but the logic is of reclaiming the space rather than demonstrating capoeira to the people who might be in that space.

The institutionalisation of the academy era renegotiated the relationship between capoeira and the state, but also distributed security through changes in social relationships of power. Mestre Bimba was black and his students included many whites from the middle-classes. His authority over them – charismatic, reputational and physical power – contributed to the processes that were redefining social interaction and identity in early 20th century Brazil.

The popularity of capoeira Regional across Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s (at a time that Angola was in abeyance) extended the reach of capoeira across socio-economic classes and racial groups. This is seen by some as compromising in that capoeira was appropriated by the more powerful classes. It is a charge has weight in that some mestres were marginalised by the processes by which capoeira gained popularity, and also in that the cultural impact of capoeira was not matched by political or economic change. Within the game, though, the discourse is maintained and continuously re-asserted and re-communicated through the musical and somatic languages of training and rodas.  

Unimagined outcomes - what would the world be like without capoeira?

In conventional security terminology, capoeiristas relinquished some of their freedom in return for security from the state. They relinquished the freedom to live outside the law, fighting in the street and using lethal blows or weapons. Capoeira is still, though, strongly associated with freedom. Through the game, its history and community, capoeiristas enjoy an intense freedom of expression and association. It is a freedom that is meaningful in the roda and in life, because of or in spite of other constraints that people face.

Disappointed by the Golden Law abolishing slavery, freedom is purposefully investigated through capoeira, particularly as it relates to security. The stories of Zumbi dos Palmares, the fighters in the Paraguay war, and the ‘battle’ of Camugerê bring together freedom and agency: this is attack and escape! It celebrates people taking an active role in their freedom rather than having it granted to them by the powerful, and it has an enduring legacy. Attack initiates change through the challenge and renegotiation that it initiates. Escape not only frees the individual from a particular situation, it entails political escape from an inevitable future. Attack (kicks and take-downs) and escape (esquiva and negativa) comprise much of the game of capoeira.

The key strength of capoeira’s knowledge and power is that by changing individual or political trajectories, capoeira has forged unimagined outcomes, including security outcomes. At the beginning of the 20th century it would have been hard for anyone to imagine that Afro-Brazilian culture could impact on the dominant Brazilian identity. Galm writes that the “berimbau became less visible… due in part to dominant social pressures that strived to distance Brazil from its legacy of slavery” (Galm 2010, 161). At the beginning of the 21st century it is hard to imagine Brazil with no capoeira, samba or Candomblé. The security that the state would have allowed if unchallenged would have been physically, politically and culturally disempowering for people.

Creation of knowledge/power

The centrality of attack and escape to capoeira means that alongside the compromises of institutionalisation, capoeira has maintained its counter-hegemonic discourse. It presents elements of Africa and slavery, and of workers, the marginalised and the lower classes. Within the tactical counter-hegemonic narrative, there is a creative strategy.

The development of capoeira is not a random or determined event. Mestre Bimba was not simply a practitioner but a creative force in developing and promoting the Regional style as was Pastinha with the Angolan style. Both mestres created discourses of capoeira that granted players access to forms of knowledge. Foucault argues that discourses “act to both constrain and enable what we can know” (McHoul & Grace 1997); the ways in which capoeira presents and represents its origins and history reproduces knowledge of them and with it, power.

Ultimately, then capoeira embodies a (non-conventional) strategy because it generates space for identity, belonging, improvisation and expression. It performs a protective function – of the game and life of capoeira. It has established the significance of black history in the contemporary Brazilian identity. Capoeiristas adopt different relationships with power and may or may not offer resistance and defiance to the state – but in becoming a game, a cultural icon, and a way of life it states: I am me! Let’s hang out! That is a strong declaration in the face of what the state was trying to deny.


Cooper, N. (2011) Humanitarian Arms Control and Processes of Securitisation: Moving Weapons Along the Security Continuum.

Galm, E. (2010). The Berimbau. Soul of Brazilian Music. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi.

Fierke, K. M. (2007). Critical Approaches to International Security. Cambridge and Malden, Polity.

McHoul, A. W. and W. Grace (1997). A Foucault primer: discourse, power and the subject. New York, New York University Press.

Monday, 23 July 2012


Why is this so much fun?

Researching anarcho-magicalism is intellectually exciting and I’m grateful to Nathalie Wlodarczyk for her brilliant book, Magic and Warfare, which brings data from fighters in Sierra Leone. There is a lot of magic in capoeira and it is a powerful vector of security.

Security studies is not conventionally concerned with magic. Its centrepiece of strategic rationality establishes what Lacy refers to as ‘networks of realism.’ As Lacy argues, these tend to block out consideration of non-conventional threats – environmental collapse, for example. Much, much further out is the realm of magic!

It is important not to be discouraged by this! In any culture, tattoos, prayers and the attribution of power to inanimate objects (lucky socks!) are routine and can boost self-belief or give meaning to violence or sacrifice. Magic relates to security through its association with protection, and with increasing influence and liberation. From the perspective of the weaker, it can disrupt the established order of things: for this reason I am using the term ‘anarcho-magicalism.’

The what: mandinga, dendê & axé

There is no standardised rubric for any part of capoeira. Like other elements of the game – the significance of history, the tactics, the identity of the capoeirista – there are variations in people’s relationship with magic.

Pandeiro with fitas

There is remarkably little paraphernalia in capoeira; there are instruments and you need at least six foot square to play in, but beyond that there is no obligatory kit. Correspondingly, there are a few physical representations of magic: some capoeiristas wear patuas (amulets), or fitas (ribbons) that conform to or evoke certain social or religious codes, make things more fun and more beautiful, and give people identity and confidence.

There are some claims to magical powers; the quasi-mythological figure of Besouro got his name – ‘Beetle’ – from his ability fly away. This ambiguous physical form is a common motif in West African (and many other) cultures and is picked up in ladainhas: “I change into a coral-snake and give a poisonous bite that doctors cannot cure” (CD Mestres Bimba e Cabecinha). The practice of changing form, though, is not part of the game of capoeira and forms a magical atmosphere rather than the performance of magic itself.

There are, though, other forms of magic made with the body and the music that are fundamental to the mechanisms of the game. I will briefly describe three here: mandinga, dendê and axé. No attempt to place parameters on these concepts will satisfy everyone’s understanding or interpretation, but I’ll try to indicate where these forms of magic are located.

Mandinga is fundamental to capoeira and takes it’s name from a West African ethnic group. It is the magic that a person performs in the roda as a ritual honour, and to distract or spook the other player. It is released through the style of play, sometimes by tracing signs on the floor or with the hands (which bear strong resemblance to some of the moves made in Candomblé ceremonies), or by using the movement of the body to play around with the other person emotionally, and laying claim to the tone of the game. It is referred to in song, for example, “release the mandinga!” – particularly if players are engaging in too straight a game, and “I’m not giving anyone my mandinga!”

Dendê is an ingredient of the game. It is also an ingredient in food: it is a kind of palm oil used in Bahian cooking and is used in food offered to the Orixás. An English equivalent that nearly captures its meaning and use would be ‘spice.’ According to a corrido, Bahia has dendê; in fact pretty much anything connected to capoeira, including people, can be described as having dendê – and it’s a good thing!

Axé is the life force, the energy that flows during the game, when people sing unreservedly or play instruments, when they smile and hug. This is a creative force that generates fun, expresses feelings and liberates. It is not often mentioned explicitly in songs (although there is one that attests, ‘you have to have axé’), but it is present. In a song that is apparently about a pandeiro (tambourine) and a viola (small berimbau), the singer proffers, “I bring the force of the earth, I bring the force of the sea.” The ability to express this somatically and musically is axé.

The how: protection, influence & liberation

I have written about protection in former blogs and the invocation of luck is consonant with the perspective of the weaker and the quarters called on for protection. The three kinds of magic considered here, though, perform more powerful political and security roles: those of influencing others (getting others to do your will is one definition of power), and of self-empowerment.

The ability to influence others through mandinga, dendê and axé is significant in security terms because they do not rely on the use or threat of force. Magic is executed with facial, bodily or lyrical expression, by the timbre of a singing voice or by the movement of the body.

Despite a silence on magic in security studies, it is of utmost importance: charisma is possibly the unifying characteristic of political leaders and its influence exceeds that of persuasion or rational thought. People who are able to galvanise groups, stir emotions, be loved by everyone at the same time, make people belief without recourse to evidence – these people have axé. The path of history is often changed in moment of irrationality: when rational judgement is suspended by oratory powers of charisma.

The ability to empower oneself is also important to security. There is self-expression in historical continuity and identity, and capoeira has social and political functions in transmitting historical and contemporary messages. Its power as a vector, though, does not lie in its political earnestness. Capoeira persists and enthrals people because it has dendê – it is fun. It is not at all like doing history homework!

The physical exhilaration, creativity and interactive improvisation of capoeira are themselves empowering. It is acknowledged by capoeiristas that magic brings responsibilities: a common refrain is “quem não pode com mandinga, não carrega patua” – “if you can’t deal with the magic, don’t wear an amulet.” One ladainha couples this with another comment: “if you can’t improvise, leave it to those who can” (CD Mestre Canjiquinha e Waldemar). This gives a vital clue about how it all works: magic is about creativity – it comes from inside! As Mestre Valmir puts it in the video ‘Tem dendê’, “capoeira doesn’t go in – capoeira comes out” (Apolo 2011).

The why!

Magic is not defined simply by being rationally inexplicable, it also has the power to change things: noises to songs, movements to games, words to lyrics, randomness to meaning and enjoyment. Magic also makes things: atmospheres, games, camaraderie. And it is anarchic because it is not bound or defined by progress, profit or logic. Its mechanisms of elation, liberation and energy confound sterile experimentation.

Including charisma and creativity in an analysis of security brings into focus the relationship between what is profoundly valued – in others and in oneself – and action. Creativity and expression through charisma emerge through spending time doing what one values and finds fulfilling. These things generate energy, community and significance. From the perspective of magic, the irrational behaviour is the rest – the parts of life that are not lived in accordance with values; life that is conservative or containing. Life that is calculating or predicated on fear and threat. Many things that, in other circles, pass for rationally strategic behaviour.

Not magic - one of Salvador´s largest
shopping centres claims to make you happy


Apolo, F. (2011), Histórias da Bahia. A ladainha tem dendê. Capoeira Angola.

Lacy, M. J. (2003). Security and climate change : international relations and the limits of realism. London, Routledge.

Wlodarczyk, N. (2009), Magic and Warfare: Appearance and Reality in Contemporary African Conflict and Beyond. New York, Palgrave MacMillan.

Thursday, 5 July 2012



There are elements of the thief in capoeira – the use of deception to trick the other player and the tactical use of space and resources. I now want to extend the concept of instrumental rationality to include counter-rationality: forms of rationality that do not conform to the dominant notion but nonetheless render goals that are significant and valued.

Luis Renato Vieira argues that vadiação – vagrancy – and deception in capoeira generate a second reality to Western rationality and efficiency (Röhrig Assunção 2005, 116). Similarly, Abib theorises a ‘differentiated logic’ and ‘ambiguous strategy’ at work in capoeira (Abib 2004), which are deliberately baffling. These are two contributions to the exploration of counter-rationality.


Malícia is where tactics meet counter-rationality. It is akin to trickery, but it makes a virtue and an art of deception: the use of malícia in capoeira proposes a different set of values and goals.

Malícia stems from the perspective of the weaker party and aims to outwit the stronger. Capoeira is about intelligence, not brute force and there is a degree of heroism in the confidence that the weaker will find a way round or a way out. A ladainha makes the observation: God did not give intelligence to the wolf and the cobra cannot fly. What is all that body worth without a head to think with? (CD Mestre João Pequeno/ FICA songbook p7)

Micky-taking is the thin end of the wedge: “The king’s crown is not made of gold or silver, my friend – it’s made of tin!” Malícia is a constant playful presence in games: setting up expectations and then confounding them, jokey interaction followed by a forceful kick or takedown and a smile, persistent needling to confuse or wear through the other person’s resources by attrition. Malícia is not mentioned in songs – it is implicit, part of the fundamentos of capoeira, particularly Capoeira Angola.


Sign for the capoeira academy - for those arriving on their hands

Canjiquinha opens his book, ‘Alegria da capoeira’: “1. When reading this book, don’t be guided by the punctuation marks you find in it. 2. Sometimes, there are contradictory assertions on the same page. Don’t be fooled. That’s how it is. Capoeira is a game of double meaning. It has two sides that are hardly ever really distinct” (Canjiquinha 1989,2).

Riddles are a common feature of capoeira songs, and build up the counter-rationality. They reflect on the tricksy and fickle way of the world and the need to respond accordingly. Some riddling is serious, presenting the puzzles of the cosmic order and the distribution of wealth. Riddles are used in ladainhas to assert the worth, strength or innocence of capoeiristas in the face of accusations to the contrary by those in power.

There are also more light-hearted riddly statements made: ‘the chicken has two wings but it doesn’t have two gizzards’; ‘when I go, you come. When I come, you go.’ There are riddles in corridos as well. In the song ‘Paranà é’ presents two apparently unrelated riddles in consecutive verses: “I make a knot and tie the end, no one knows how to untie it” and “I am an arm of the tide, but I am the infinite tide.’ These perplexing or idiosyncratic situations are not resolved, they are simply observations on the contradictory nature of life.

There are also explicit critiques of science made in a riddly way. It is worth quoting the ladainha ‘I am free like the wind’ at length ([Cordel: Riachão] CD Mestres Boca Rica e Bigodinho/ FICA songbook p13).

“Você diz que tem ciência            “You say that science exists
Me de uma explicação                  So explain this -
Como é que em doze horas         How it is that in twelve hours
Há uma transformação.                There’s a transformation.
Não é o sol quem se move           It’s not the sun that moves
Este e fixo em seu lugar               - that’s fixed in its place.
A terra ta sobre o eixo                   The earth is on an axis
E o eixo faz rodar                           and the axis spins it.
Uma cobra tão pequena               A snake that is so small
Mata um boi agigantado”              Kills a huge bull”

Faced with such a line of questioning the scientist who is being addressed is likely to reach for a large gin. It is not quite that the questions are too difficult, but the ladainha applies a rasteira to rationality – sweeping the rational feet away. It is destabilising because it appears interested in science but then does not grace the dominant rationality with a cogent investigation (which would be submission).

A rasteira -
From Jair Moura (2009) “A capoeiragem no Rio de Janeiro através dos séculos.
JM Grafica e Editora Ltda, Salvador/Bahia.


A third aspect of counter-rationality is chance: the belief that things happen for random reasons or for no reason. The corrido ‘oh sim sim sim, oh não não não’ is defined by the verse: ‘Today I have it, tomorrow no.’ No explanation is proffered for this unhappy turn of events. Life for slaves or the severely marginalised is routinely disoriented: work is not related to money and there is no insurance or compensation in case of attack. Life itself is largely determined by luck. A ladainha recounts the disembarkation of slaves with the words, ‘Africans arriving by chance, or having died on the crossing.”

This theme is explored in the ladainha ‘Eu tive um Sonho’/’I had a dream’ (CD FICA), in which the singer relates having a dream that he was rich. It goes on to explain that in reality he works in a coffee plantation to earn money to buy capoeira clothes and to make a berimbau. But, the ladainha recounts, that too was a dream and he was robbed of his earnings. That’s the end!

Chance is linked to the cosmic order – still with no explanation. Love God, but be careful. “He makes one person rich, another poor. He makes one blind, another maimed. He made Solomon king, and he made Saint Peter a soldier.” The ladainha records no outrage at this distribution of grace, though. It ends, “I’m going a long way away. I’m going close to my God” (FICA CD).

Crooked world, crooked way

The use of malícia and riddles, and the acceptance of chance generates a consistent message: it’s not me that’s wrong – it’s the world. And a counter approach is needed in order to survive the twisted order and ‘rationality’ imposed by the powerful.

The confusion of the capoeirista is commonly expressed: Mestre Paulo dos Anjos’ ladainha ‘Fickle world’ starts out ‘I don’t know what to do to live in this world’ and lists the tensions he experiences: ‘if I’m clean [people say] I’m cunning, if I’m dirty [people say] I’m filthy” (CD Mestre Paulo dos Anjos). Others follow similar formats: “I don’t know how to live in this fickle world. If I talk a lot, I’m talkative, if I talk a little I’m sly.” (CD Mestres Cajiquinha e Waldemar). This ladainha ends intriguingly: “I’m always telling you that envy killed Cain.” Cain killed Abel, but what did Cain die of? The Bible doesn’t tell us, but we can work it out. There are whole untold truths to be uncovered by taking a counter-rational step away from the dominant version of events.

Counter-rationalities challenge conventional analyses of decision-making. The notion of ‘strategic rationality’ dominates understanding of security but assumes access to information and power. If one or both of these elements are missing, the decision-making process is changed. If underlying values do not conform to the supposition of conventional strategic behaviour the model is further adrift.

During the Cold War, US strategists established increasingly complex game-theory models to predict the decisions that the USSR would take. The need to understand the enemy has a long history in security thinking. On the other hand, attempting to understand populations for whom security is to be provided – through demobilisation programmes, peace agreements, power-sharing arrangements – is often overlooked. Frequently, too, such programmes are rejected or fail to establish security. Recognising counter-rationalities establishes the intellectual ground for analysing action that does not comply with conventional assumptions of strategy.


Abib, P. R. J. (2004). Capoeira Angola: Cultura popular e o jogo dos saberes na roda. Campinas-São Paulo, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Faculdade de Educação, Doutorado em Ciências Sociais Aplicadas à Educação.,%20cultura%20popular%20e%20jogos%20dos%20saberes%20na%20roda-Pedro%20Abib.pdf.

Canjiquinha (1989). Alegria da capoeira, Fundação Cultural do Estado da Bahia.

Röhrig Assunção, M. (2005). Capoeira. The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art. London and New York, Routledge.

Friday, 22 June 2012


Playing in the available space
Communicative rationality functions alongside instrumental rationality, and can itself be instrumental in some ways. This blog and the two that follow will explore instrumental rationalities within the game and history of capoeira. This blog looks at tactics – the gains that can be made within the available space and according to which the weaker party conforms to the same rationality as the dominant party. A destitute thief and a rich person may have different perspectives on the law but agree on the value of money.

De Certeau differentiates between strategy and tactics, whereby strategy involves the ability to command and shape and environment. Conversely, “The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power… It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow… It is a guileful ruse… In short, a tactic is an art of the weak” (de Certeau 1984, 37).

Attack! Escape!

The history of capoeira and the identity of the capoeirista derives from the perspective of the weaker party: it was developed in slave communities and then among people who were politically and economically marginalised.

Contrary to other martial arts and mainstream security thinking, there is little notion of defence. People talk about defence in capoeira but there is no block. Players swipe away kicks that have not come to full force, but they do not stand in the way. The key defensive tactic in capoeira is escape – esquiva: ducking the kick, or moving to the side or behind. This allows the game to continue. As Mestre Poncianinho observes: ‘escape is infinite.’ In security terms, having an infinite resource is helpful.

from Alexandre Robatto’s 1954 film ‘Vadiação’; photo displayed in Forte de Santo Antonio

The game of capoeira is not role-play, and there are strategies that are employed within the characteristically tactical context: players try to dominate space and the stronger player has some advantages. Of greater significance, though, is malandragem – being streetwise. Capoeira is a streetfighting art: songs celebrate no wrong step, no move in vain. The kicks are not the point; the point is to take down the other person, preferably using a rasteira – a sweep – something that goes under the radar and takes away the other person’s feet when they are attacking. As a corrido puts it, “tough guy, I’ll give you a rasteira and put you on the ground!” (FICA songbook p27).


Santo Antonio – He’s a busy man
Protection is a recurrent theme in the moves and the songs, reflecting the vulnerability of the weaker party. All moves involve an element of protection – the capoeirista can be attacked at any moment: one hand always protects the face, and the body is protected by being ‘closed’ – using the legs or arms to protect the torso.

There is a strong theme of protection in the songs too. A commonly sung corrido is ‘Saint Antonio is the protector’: firstly protector of Noah’s ark, then of capoeira, quite often of Salvador, and finally of love! Orixás, too are called on for protection, either by name or by allusion. The corrido “my mermaid, queen of the sea, don’t let my boat capsize’ is addressed to Yemanja, Orixá of the sea, often depicted as a mermaid.

Yemanja taking care of a boat
God is another source of protection: “a little with God is a lot. A lot without God is nothing” (Retrato da Bahia. CD Mestre Paulo dos Anjos). The ladainha ‘Iê Senhor Bom Deus’ (‘Oh Lord Good God’ – sorry, this one is really lost in translation!) (FICA CD track 3) makes clear allusion to the Lord’s Prayer, but is a honed-down version, especially for capoeiristas! Firstly, ‘make me a good capoeirista’ (with the usual ambiguity between the game and life). It then misses the majority of the prayer and cuts to the protective elements: deliver me from temptation, all evil and my enemies. It concludes with a prayer for protection.

Reducing vulnerability

The identity of the capoeirista is a ‘small’ one: ‘pequeno sou eu’ – ‘I’m small’ is a constant refrain, especially in chulas (the songs sung between the ladainha and the corrido). But the diminutive size of the capoeirista amplifies the size of the protector: ‘Maior e deus!’ – ‘God is great.’ That reduces vulnerability.

The animals invoked in moves and songs also signal an element of vulnerability. They are not predatory: they are frogs, monkeys and birds, not big cats, bears or wolves. In ladainhas there are frequent references to being wary or careful: ‘I don’t go to your house, you don’t come to mine’; ‘I say my prayers with a knife in my belt.’ By allusion too, the capoeirista is often threatened: ‘the German canary killed my songbird.’

Sapinho – want to play?

In this threatened role, the priority of reducing vulnerability is higher than that of increasing influence. Besouro de Mangangá – ‘Beetle’ is the name of a quasi-mythical capoeirista (some say he is mythical. Mestre Joao Pequeno, when asked about him said, ‘yes, he was my father’s cousin’). The beetle has a protective shell but is small and does not pose a threat. It can fly away though (and Besouro is credited with the ability to fly when pursued by the police), so it is able to outwit and destabilise its persecutor.


“The boat capsized, sailor! There is treasure on the ocean floor!” – corrido.

Head above water? Missing opportunities!

Nancy Scheper-Hughes has written about psychological responses to violence and theorises resilience as the ‘refusal to be negated’ (Scheper-Hughes 1992, 19). A short ladainha observes, “The miner bird doesn’t sing when it’s in a cage. It only sings when it’s by the anthill and sees an ant outside!”

Resilience is a subject that is taken up in Claudia Seymour’s ground-breaking work on young people’s experiences of violence in eastern Congo, in which she explores how people cope in various ways and to various degrees with incessant violence. She finds, amongst other things, that the way that people recount their own histories is significant in attributing responsibility and meaning to violence. In capoeira, too, the preservation of cultural identity and the tactics used in the game demonstrate a strong form of resilience: you smile in adversary, if you are taken down you get up, if you are taken down again you get up again. You look the other person in the eye. You sing.

There is a clear instrumental rationality in staying in the game (literally or figuratively) by whatever means, and this has some lessons for the pursuit of security. Mearsheimer identifies the inability of states to cooperate as the ‘Tragedy of Great Power Politics.’ The reason, he argues is that ‘it pays to be selfish in a self-help world’ – both in the short and the long term (Mearsheimer 2002, 33). The ‘tragedy’ as far as great powers is concerned, is of political stalemate and environmental collapse. But a much more immediate ‘tragedy’ faces weaker states: that of political, cultural or literal obliteration. The tactical responses offered in and by capoeira inform an understanding of the quest for security for the majority of the world. Escaping, seeking protection, reducing vulnerability and refusing to be negated are tactics that start to fill some of the conceptual void created by the assumptions of conventional security studies – assumptions of strategic rationality and power.


de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life, University of California Press.

Mearsheimer, J. J. (2002). The tragedy of great power politics. New York London, W. W. Norton.