This article was compiled by Jodi Phillips May 2014, for the Institute of Black Academics
concerning Black Under achievement.

PUBLISHED 09 MAY 2014  04:26


Although there are numerous cultural connections linking Cuba and Brazil through the Black Atlantic, surprisingly little has been written about the similarities in performance cultures between the two countries. In most parts of the world, the capoeira diaspora has been expanded since the 1980s by Brazilian mestres travelling abroad and opening new capoeira schools. In the Cuban context, however, no capoeira mestre ever arrived with the sole purpose of opening a capoeira academy. When capoeira finally arrived in Cuba in the 1990s, through Brazilian telenovelas and through student-capoeiristas studying at universities in Havana, Cuban practitioners connected capoeira to their own lived experiences and sense of Cuban identity. For capoeira practitioners in Cuba, learning to embody and relocalize Brazilian capoeira has created an incentive for reencounter with their own Afro Cuban traditions via an Afro Brazilian art form. An analysis of the historical documentations of the movements and instrumentation styles of capoeira in Brazil and Cuban folkloric practices such as el baile de maní reveals a transnational dialogue played out through embodied ideas of being. The capoeira practiced in Cuba today is not only a recent phenomenon of globalization, but is an ongoing reconfiguration of the circular movement of ideas, people, and practices that emerged in the New World and have continued into the present.

When members of the Cuban capoeira group Caiman Capoeira were asked what the world should know about their group, almost unanimously they responded, “Let the world know that in Cuba we practice capoeira…Here we feel it because of what we have inside ourselves” (Cobrinha May 28, 2013). Capoeira has become an international sport, yet the consequences of its global movements are just beginning to be appreciated. In the discussions about global capoeira (mostly referring to academies in the United States, Canada, and Europe), the processes of globalization have been associated principally with the ease of world travel as Brazilian mestres open capoeira schools abroad and their dedicated students travel to Brazil. Cuban culture has evolved under a radically different set of social, political, and economic parameters. However, no culture can be hermetically sealed off from other cultural influences, and least of all Cuban culture with its “supersyncretic archive” (Benítez-Rojo 1996, 155). Cuban capoeiristas both consciously and subconsciously create a style of playing capoeira that is Brazilian in practice yet Cuban in essence. By focusing on parallels between the Afro Atlantic cultural contexts of Brazilian capoeira and Cuban Afro-Diasporic traditions, Cuban capoeiristas insert themselves into dialogue with both an international capoeira community and Cuban cultural performance traditions.

Although there are numerous cultural connections linking Cuba and Brazil through the Black Atlantic, surprisingly little has been written about the similarities in performance between the two countries beyond simply acknowledging similar ethnic makeup.[1] In most parts of the world, the capoeira diaspora has been expanded since the 1980s by Brazilian mestres travelling abroad and opening new capoeira schools. In the Cuban context, however, no capoeira mestre ever arrived with the sole purpose of opening a capoeira academy. When capoeira arrived in Cuba in the 1990s, through Brazilian telenovelas and through student-capoeiristas studying at universities in Havana, Cuban practitioners connected capoeira to their own lived experiences and sense of Cuban identity. Learning to embody and relocalize Brazilian capoeira has created an incentive for a reencounter with their Afro Cuban traditions. As the last societies to abolish slavery in the Americas, Cuba and Brazil (1886 and 1888, respectively) have both engaged in historic cultural discourse around the integration of a large African Diaspora into the concept of a national identity.

El contrapunto histórico entre africanos, cubanos, y brasileños tuvo lugar, a nivel simbólico, en los relatos contados a ambos lados del Atlántico, que así conforman una cuenca épica. Esos lugares comunes del imaginario afro-románico sobrevivieron gracias a los continuos intercambios entre América y África. (Leo 142)

The capoeira practiced in Cuba today is not only a recent phenomenon of globalization, but is an ongoing reconfiguration of the circular movement of ideas, people, and practices that emerged in the New World and has continued into the present. National consciousness is an imagined expression of “people” in its collective form. In both Cuba and Brazil this imagining played itself out in the realm of performance. The myths and icons of nationality in Cuba and Brazil, often embodied through the mulato or creole figure, personified the social inversions, hybrid cultures, and the violence of colonialism.

Contextualizing Capoeira

In the words of Floyd Merrel, to define what capoeira is, it is necessary to define it by saying what it is not (2003, 279). It is not just a Brazilian martial art, although its characteristics are very martial and its history is in self-defense. It is not a musical tradition, although all the movements follow a distinctive rhythm and capoeiristas (capoeira players) must learn to be equally skilled on the berimbau, atabaque, pandeiro, agogô, and reco-reco. It is not a dance, although many moves are so fluid and graceful that you would think that the players were dancing. And it is not a ritual, although the roda of capoeira (the place where capoeira is performed) follows the traditional characteristics of ritual in that there are predetermined and symbolic actions that reoccur in a particular environment and sacred space.  Capoeira is all of these things and none of these things. And this enigma has been what has drawn practitioners and helped preserve this art form for hundreds of years.

Although capoeira is a Brazilian art form, it has origins in different dances and martial traditions of Africa. The Angolan martial arts n’golo, basula, and gabetula may have been influences in the creation of capoeira. It may also have picked up elements of West African culture such as the use of the agogô instrument and references to Yoruba orixás (sacred deities of nature in the African religion). (McGowan 118) Mathias Assunção explains that history is paramount in contemporary capoeira through the invocation of its historical roots and its performative reenactments of the resistance techniques used by the first practitioners of capoeira who were living under oppressive institutions. “The belief in the remote origins of the art, coupled with the conviction that an unaltered ‘essence’ of capoeira has been transmitted from that foundational moment down to the present, confers greater authority to contemporary practice, and is therefore shared by many practitioners” (McGowan 5).

Some of the first documentation of capoeira is among enslaved Africans and Creoles in colonial Brazil as early as the 18th century. Despite periodic clampdowns by the police, the martial art continued to spread to the free underclasses in Brazilian cities throughout the nineteenth centuries (Assunção 1). While many of these legends come from the rural setting of capoeira during plantation life, much of capoeira’s development actually took place in the urban centers where there was obviously a tension between public authority figures and lower class Blacks (Chvaicer 546).  The fact that the performance of a historical past is at the very core of the game of capoeira means that its past has serious implications for its current practice in global settings worldwide. In the case of Cuba, practitioners are able to draw parallels with their own Cuban performative traditions of resistance, feeling a connection to capoeira’s history through a circum-Caribbean dialogue.

Capoeira in Cuba

The few foreigners who have come to Cuba and have made their mark on the capoeira community have not stayed in Cuba to create a new diaspora, rather they have been part of transnational flows, coming and going for brief periods of time over the years. Capoeira in Cuba has developed through sporadic encounters with these foreigners (who are mostly not Brazilian nor capoeira mestres) who come to the island for short periods of study or tourism and, in periods of their absence, Cubans continue training by improvising movements learned through studying the CDs, DVDs, books, or flash drives of capoeira music and videos left behind by these visitors. As Cubans inevitably learn about capoeira’s historical myths through playing capoeira and through media that has been left for them, Cuban players begin to find similarities with their own Cuban experiences of resistance to oppressive systems from their remembered historical past and from their present conditions.

Derrida argues and Stuart Hall elaborates that identity formation can be captured by the term, différance. According to Derrida, this term can refer to both French verbs “to differ” and “to defer.” Not only does identity describe a difference, but also characteristics of identity are often “deferred” or “postponed” as we focus on the more sounding likenesses. This creates bonds of commonality.[2]  The capoeirista historically has embodied this idea of différance. During times of slavery, traditions of different tribes and African nations were melded and incorporated into a system of resistance made solely for the context of the New World. As players and the game developed, this différance was reoriented to unite people of different social classes, ethnicities, countries, and languages. Today Cuban capoeiristas defer what may be seen as differences in Cuban and Brazilian cultures and instead focus on their imagined likenesses.  Capoeira evokes the struggles of resistance of Afro Brazilians throughout history and holds the healing powers to confront injustices committed against a group so often overlooked and forgotten. The processes of transculturation and globalization then make it so that the transformative powers of capoeira performance are not confined to a solely Brazilian experience; Cuban capoeiristas are able to connect its history to their own present and historical struggles, both real and imagined.

Transnationalism is defined as “the flow of people, ideas, goods and capital across national territories in a way that undermines nationality and nationalism as discrete categories of identification, economic organization, and political constitution” (Braziel and Mannur 8). Transnationalism is often talked about in parallel with diaspora; however, diaspora refers specifically to the flow of people. The arrival of capoeira in Cuba is transnational but it is not diasporic since there has not been a relocation of Brazilian mestres or Brazilian capoeira academies to Cuba. Cuban capoeiristas, thus, are processing their capoeira training through their own lived experiences in Cuba. The processing of capoeira through a Cuban lens, however, is an example of an African diasporic connection. In Cuba, as in Brazil, the ritualized violence of social inversion is an important allegory of national culture. According to Jossianna Arroyo, both Cuban and Brazilian national culture is found in spaces where creole masculinity is performed.

…es un discurso sobre la necesidad de hacer un performance de la supervivencia del más fuerte y del más apto. La masculinidad se funda, entonces, a partir de la articulación de la ansiedad de subvertir espacios sociales y negociar las divisiones raciales y de género, y de obtener la libertad.” (Arroyo 177)

Arroyo points out that the performative and violent concept of masculinity in the Americas is represented through the often criminalized and carnavalized creole performer.

Creating a linkage between the similar images of embodied culture in Cuban and Brazilian tradition has meant that the Cuban capoeira group, Caiman Capoeira, has made a conscious decision to define its practice as a cultural expression rather than as sport, even though capoeira in Cuba was first registered as an official sport and as a martial art under the Federación Cubana de Artes Marciales, which is a subdivision of Instituto Cubano de Deporte (INDER). After the revolution in 1959, the right of the population to practice sports took a central place in the imaginary of Cuba and INDER was created to regulate all sport activity within the country. In 2008, La Escuela Superior de Educación Física, “Comandante Manuel Fajardo,” which was created in 1961 as the school to train and graduate professionals in physical education, began to teach capoeira as part of its curriculum. It now organizes community projects in Havana and in the neighboring provinces of Pinar del Rio, Matanzas, and Ciego de Ávila.

However, even though there is a central governmental institution (INDER) given the duty of promoting capoeira in Cuba, focusing on capoeira as culture rather than sport allows Caiman Capoeira to access funds and visibility as a cultural group through the Cuban Ministry of Culture and through the Brazilian Consulate in Cuba (both of which provide more access to prominent cultural [and touristic] performance spaces than would be available solely through INDER). Capoeira as culture is parlayed into a resource for accessing and debating rights and capital among capoeiristas on an island where culture is a powerful economic resource.

Ultimately, the way and the extent to which a cultural identity is performed in the minds of a public and a governing body have dramatic effects on policy, capital flows, and the extent to which a people’s way of life is to be performed.  This point is articulated in George Yudice’s The Expediency of Culture when Yúdice argues that what is considered cultural, as well as the very concept of multiculturalism, has become a resource in the sense that they are endowed with near-quantifiable values, and that the value imposed on the cultural by an audience has a direct effect on how culture is performed (1). Yúdice’s linkage of cultural practice with political and economic access foretells Cuban capoeiristas interest in performing Brazilian capoeira as an expression of a cultural linkage between Cuba and Brazil. While capoeira’s arrival in Cuba may not be a diasporic experience, the imaging of this linkage of Brazilian capoeira to Cuban soil is elaborated through the diasporic experience of the Black Atlantic where performative acts of resistance are part of cultural survival tactics of those affected by the slave trade. They are, thus, expressions that can be both Cuban and Brazilian simultaneously and increase practitioners’ cultural clout within the Cuban performance space.

When enslaved Africans arrived in the New World, their direct connection to their countries of origin was cut off. When the transatlantic slave trade ended in 1850, memory and oral tradition became paramount in communicating these individuals’ sense of their past and their history. Furthermore, they adapted to their new social environment, adapting people from other ranks of society and incorporating other worldviews into those of their own.  The process of transculturation, the malleability of culture to fit the local context, is ever-present in the capoeira game.[3] Cuban capoeirista Daniel says, “We respect the Brazilian culture and we mix it with what we are able to get here in Cuba” (Daniel June 30, 2012). In practice, this means players construct berimbaus out of local bamboo wood, sew their own abadá (uniforms), or cut and dye their own chords at capoeira batizados[4] that they organize without the direction of a Brazilian mestre. Such an attitude embodies these fundamental ideas of transculturation employed in the New World.

Even though no Brazilian mestre has ever come to Cuba to teach classes formally for any extended length of time and although Cubans face limitations in access to the Internet, a tool usually utilized by capoeiristas abroad to exchange information about the sport, the capoeira community in Cuba is training regularly, expanding their presence on the island and developing a style of play that is unique to Cuba. We often think of Cuba mostly as an exporter of cultural traditions, since the Afro Cuban musical traditions based around the beat of the clave are at the basis of so many Latin musical rhythms. Also, because of the isolationist position of the Cuban society exacerbated by the US embargo, we often think of Cuban culture as developing independently from the same global influences on popular culture that are common throughout the world. But while the processes of this consumption may happen under different parameters, Cubans are constantly consuming popular culture from abroad and making it their own.  There is no such thing as a fixed or static national cultural identity, especially when this culture comes in contact with imaginings of an outside eye.  What does arise is a connectedness between cultures, identification with a set of imagined cultural norms, and a self-understanding that is negotiated within the overlapping of the convergences. In discussing these convergences, one member of Caiman capoeira said the following:

I see many comparisons between Brazilian culture and Cuban culture because of the African influences. It is a mixture that comes directly from Africa. It makes me think about how cultures so far away from one another could have so much in common. They are different, but the essence is the same. The ideas about trying to get energy out of the earth, for example, are the same. (Haisa July 1, 2012)

Uprooting and transplanting a cultural form is followed by compromise, sharing, and ultimately a transformation into a new cultural whole based on the conglomeration of various cultural traditions within a new territorial space. Fernando Ortiz explains this process through transculturation, a complex process of cultural transmission and diffusion. Fernando Ortiz’s classic work Cuban Counterpoint emphasized individual agency in selecting parts of dominant discourse and reworking this discourse into something new (1947: 102-103). Meanings are always adapted to fit the local context. While Fernando Ortiz’s work is cited as a fundamental text for understanding Cuban culture, it is important to note that his social and intellectual links with Europe and other parts of the Americas meant that his definitions of Cuban culture were in a transnational dialogue. There are many comparisons between the theoretical arguments of Ortiz who aimed to systematize the geographic origins of Africans in Cuba with the work of ethnographer Raymundo Nina Rodrigues in Brazil, for example. “Assim, o conhecimento etnográfico dos africanos vindos escravos para o Brasil, o qual não me consta tenha sido tentado antes de meus estudos, projeta larga e intensa luz sobre todos estes fatores, conferindo a cada qual uma fisionomia histórica justa e racional” (Rodrigues 70). The works of Raymundo Nina Rodrigues in Brazil and Fernando Ortiz in Cuba theorize “un sujeto masculino ‘de color,’ delincuente, excesivo y atávico” who is an important figure in defining nation in the respective countries (Arroyo 19). These founding ethnographers, who were so important in recording cultural performances seen as being “Brazilian” or “Cuban” respectively, communicated that the tastes, sounds, smells, and dances produced by the African Diaspora were paramount to creating and defining national identity. This was especially the case in terms of performances in which the black (and especially the mulatto) body used creativity to escape, at least during the space of the performance, his marginal position (Leo 29-47). [Source :].

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