Capoeira in Recife: the Tough Guys & the Troublemakers

We know much about the history of capoeira in Rio de Janeiro thanks to work of Jair Moura and Carlos Eugênio Líbano Soares. Likewise, we have a lot of information about its history in Bahia thanks to the research of Frede Abreu, Antonio Liberac Cardoso Simões Pires, and others. However, there is significantly less known capoeira's past in the city of Recife, the capital of the state of Pernambuco, despite being one of Brazil's largest metropolitan areas and a major port city.

Bernardo Alves, a researcher who wrote a book about capoeira in Pernambuco discussed his findings in an interview with the group CICA (Centro de Instrução de Capoeira Angola) that was published in their journal, Biriba, in April 2002.

In the interview, Alves touches on many different themes: the various identities of capoeiristas of early twentieth century Pernambuco, the consequences of the lack of organization, and the "ethics" of capoeira.

Here is an excerpt of their conversation:
CICA: The fact that the maltas came together to fight, this rivalry between them, shows us that there was not solidarity around this work, but only a shock. Do you think that this also determined the lack of development of capoeira in Pernambuco?

Alves: I don’t believe so. It was more like partisanism. So, there were those that supported the more famous groups of the 4th Infantry Battalion and the guys that supported the other one that was famous, the band of Pedro espanhol, the Espanha. There were the criminals doing security for the officials. They would go there cheering and the capoeiras in the front were doing security work. In truth, they weren’t interested in doing security. They wanted to play. If you took out the capoeiras who were supporting this group, the others would come in and make trouble, breaking it up with clubs. But I will answer your question. So, there was this partisanism. In Bahia, capoeira was preserved because the Bahian preserved capoeira in the academies. If the academies had not been created, the same thing would have happened there that happened here [in Recife]. Those from here were expelled and those from there stayed around. A large majority of capoeiras from Bahia stayed there. So, they transformed this thing into a dance, or something; they disguised it; there was this disguise that did not happen here. I believe that they stopped passing capoeira from generation to generation and it ended. There wasn’t this passing down between generations, and there in Bahia this happened because of the existence of academies… you always have those guys that say no, this is a thing of the people, it has to be spontaneous, it can’t happen in the academies. But if there had not been academies, it would have disappeared in Bahia as well.

CICA: Did you not find any references to organized groups? Be it on the stage or in fights?

Alves: It was a neighborhood thing. The capoeira from Madalena didn’t enter in Coellos. He wouldn’t go under any circumstances. They are tribes. This is a very primitive thing.

CICA: Without a system nor an academy, capoeira here was more about malandragem… So, in the past the only people who practiced capoeira were the tough guys and bullies?

Alves: Yes. Remember that there were these two currents of capoeira in Pernambuco. That this here was the tough guy, and this here was the troublemaker. The tough guy was the guy who was more ethical, had more scruples. And the troublemaker was the guy who wanted to create trouble. He arrived and started fighting. But the tough guy, no. The tough guy was more dangerous than the other. It wasn’t a technical dispute. It was a fight to really knock the other out. Nascimento Grande was a very interesting guy. He was funny, that is, he would knock the other guy down and afterwards, he would carry the guy on his shoulders to the hospital and say, “Look, take good care of this friend of mine, here is some money, ok?”

CICA: Was there any kind of ethics between the capoeiristas in hand-to-hand combat?

Alves: Among the tough guys.

CICA: And among the troublemakers?

Bernardo: Among the troublemakers it was anything goes and a little more.
Extremely interesting! Would you be as genteel as to carry on your shoulder and pay the medical bills of the person you knocked down?

We'll be presenting works that highlight the history of capoeira in other cities over the next few months.

Do you know anything about the roots of capoeira in your city (perhaps you are the roots - especially if you are reading this side of the blog!)?

The whole conversation (in Portuguese) can be found in the FICA-DC archives.

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