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  • Capoeira: The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art
  • Robert N. Anderson
Capoeira: The History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art. By Matthias Röhrig Assunção. New York: Routledge, 2005. Pp. xiii, 267. Maps. Illustrations. Glossary. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $24.99 paper.

This book explores the complex and contentious definitions of capoeira and provides the best historical overview in English to date. In all, it is a thorough and nuanced presentation of the art's history and its attendant debates. That Routledge chose to publish the work in its Sport in the Global Society series immediately underscores one of the problems in defining capoeira: is it a sport and, if so, a martial art or a combat game? Or is it a dance form? Capoeira, in fact, is usually labeled with a hyphen, as a dance-martial art. The book's subtitle privileges the facet of sport, perhaps because of the publication series, but its analysis treats this ambiguity in detail. The subtitle broaches another topic of debate in the study of capoeira: in what senses is it Afro-Brazilian, as opposed to African, Brazilian, or even global? Again, the book's subtitle belies the complexity of Assunção's discussion.

The book's scope is ambitious. It traces the history of capoeira beginning with its continuities with African practices and its similarities to cognate practices in the African World. It then presents capoeira's emergence in Brazil and the formation of modern styles in the mid-twentieth century. The account also summarizes the dramatic expansion of capoeira as a global and globalized art form in the last generation. Throughout the presentation, the author treats the major debates about capoeira's genesis and nature that abound both in the scholarly literature and among practitioners.

The treatment of the remote antecedents of capoeira has a solid grounding in theories of the African Diaspora and the Atlantic World, especially in the tension between creolization and Africa-centered models of explanation. Assunção prefers to see creolized continuities with African practices, while rejecting ahistorical or monogenetic theories of capoeira's origins. For example, whatever its genetic debt to the Angolan N'golo or "Zebra Dance," neither capoeira's sole origin nor its modern forms and functions are found in that Central African dance.

The middle chapters trace the early historical period of capoeira—the nineteenth to early twentieth century—in two key cities, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. The exploration of this period and these locales presents the complex alignments of the precursors with variables of 'race,' ethnicity, class, and marginality. It also exposes [End Page 145] the ambiguous relation to the police, the military, and elites within a dynamic of repression and co-optation. These early developments set the stage for the codification of modern capoeira in its Regional and Angola styles during the mid-twentieth century. The next two chapters relate the complex social meanings, the details of formal techniques, and the narratives of the great Regional and Angola mestres, Bimba and Pastinha, and their followers.

The final chapter surveys the globalization of capoeira, a topic of much interest to capoeira communities, but one which has not received enough scholarly attention, at least in English. Using both historical and anthropological perspectives, the chapter describes how capoeira has changed as it grows from a national art form to a global one, one whose ethnic meanings are sometimes reinforced on the global stage. There is also an interesting if brief discussion of gender dynamics as women increasingly join the ranks of practitioners and even instructor and mestres.

Assunção has made judicious, thorough and ecumenical use of Brazilian, U.S., and even some European secondary sources. Although he is a historian, his inclusion of sources and methods from other disciplines, especially cultural studies, musicology, and anthropology, enriches his analysis. Even so, the theses of the work still adhere closely to a historian's faith in the archival record. A greater generosity toward the "etic" vs. "emic" differences in the capoeira's "master narratives" is warranted (cf. John Lowell Lewis, Ring of Liberation [1992]). That is, the mythic narratives bear their own truths quite apart form the "proofs" of the historical...


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