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  • Doubling UpResistance and Feminist Activism in Contemporary Capoeira
  • Olivia E. Holloway (bio)

Listening to Covert Musical Messaging Activism

In 2014 Brazil's Institute for National Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) published a book presenting the history of capoeira, a globalized martial art originating in Brazil, celebrating the practice and profession of capoeira masters as a part of Brazil's national heritage.1 This moment coincided with the commemoration of capoeira as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which linked "capoeira's success … to its inclusive discourses and practices and promote[d] the 'respectful and harmonious coexistence between different ethnic groups, ages and genders.'"2 The IPHAN publication examines the known history of capoeira, centering on major states where capoeira is practiced (Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Bahia). Yet in the 151 pages of the publication, little is said about women in capoeira, except for an allusion to women and elites who participated in the art in the twentieth century.3 In 1986 Bira Almeida asserts that capoeira "has always been a male activity. … Only within the last decade have Brazilian women begun to train capoeira."4

For an art so iconic and responsible for the dissemination of Brazilian culture, part of the attraction arises from the historic significance capoeira holds for Brazilians as an art of/for resistance.5 This reputation owes itself largely to two reasons: its historical roots as a subversive practice for combative and cultural defiance, and the tradition of capoeira musicality as a means of cohesion and resistance. The latter domain has recently received critical attention. For instance, Ribeiro, Nonato, and Palhares affirm the role of capoeira in inciting the study of Portuguese as a foreign language and sustain that capoeira musicality is the art's strongest contribution to social achievements. Downey likewise emphasizes the importance of the music, which integrates dance, acrobatics, combat, percussion, and song.6 These elements are rooted in tradition, oral history, handicraft, and folklore that manifest in various settings, including live [End Page 10] performances rebroadcast via video, music albums, history books/articles, and training manuals.

Practicing capoeira, which was originally created by African slaves in colonial Brazil, was prohibited, which led to the integration of dance, percussion, and song to disguise its objectives. The crucial presence of music and the parallel social awareness it generates are major factors that differentiate this martial art.7 The songs and rhythms performed in capoeira over the centuries covered many themes, including songs to protest inequities, promote resiliency, or identify imminent dangers to practitioners who risked their safety and freedom to play the sport during its two phases of illegality (c. 1500s–1889, "slavery," and 1889–c. 1930, "marginality"). A complex code of double meanings exists in traditional capoeira lyrics, which, along with berimbau rhythms,8 were essential to communicating urgent messages among practitioners without alerting outsiders. Even in its third (and current) phase from c. 1930 to today, called the "academy" phase because of Mestre Bimba's evolution of the art from an illicit street practice into an accepted art taught in academies, the roots of capoeira's coded meanings remain important. As Owen and de Martini Ugolotti note, capoeira "is renowned for being an ambivalent and contradictory practice,"9 emphasizing that the elements of capoeira movements and song are wound up in "conflicted and malleable meanings."10 Though these double meanings are no longer necessary to provide a cohesive cover for capoeiristas evading arrest and corporal punishment, they nonetheless continue to provide nuanced significance as protest music and symbolize the doubled work that women capoeiristas (capoeira practitioners) face in the journey toward equality in the art.

This article will synthesize the subgenres of capoeira music within the context of capoeira's history, establishing the theoretical potential of musical performers and spectators as activists. To conclude, I will present a sampling of contemporary capoeira gender activists, contextualizing the utilization of historical female figures through music and other media. I aim to demonstrate that two contexts of capoeira music consumption coexist and, though they differ is some ways, they serve a common purpose: to foment gender equity in sports and educational venues and...