Lost Tribes and a Dancing Guise: The Dramatic Beginnings of Capoeira

By Brianna Duggan

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Something about it really captures the human imagination. Part Old Testament, part Jungle Book, the idea of a lost tribe feels just as make-believe to me as, say, a singing monkey (“I wanna be like you-ou-ou”).

But lost tribes are a thing of fantasy, of bedtime stories. No lost tribe could ever exist in an era of Asian fusion and twitter.

But prepare yourselves: They do exist!

Just last week the BBC released the first detailed photos of an uncontacted indigenous tribe living in Brazil near the Peruvian border. This news excites me (Yeah! Stick that to our over-connected society!) and scares me at the same time (Ah! The world is so big!).

In 2007 the Fundação Nacional do Índio, a Brazilian governmental organization that protects indigenous interests, confirmed the presence of 67 uncontacted tribes within the country. The number of such tribes has actually grown in recent years and Brazil has now surpassed Papua New Guinea as the region with the highest concentration of such people.

How could this be?

Well first of all Brazil is huge. To this day any measurement of its land area is still a “best guess” and that guess is 3,286,488 square miles. And because these numbers never really mean much to me either, this means that Europe could fit into Brazil with room to spare. And don’t forget: this would be a Europe cloaked in one of the densest and most dangerous rainforests known to man.

So when Portugal first began colonizing the area in the 16th century they really…what is the phrase? Oh, yes. “Bit off more than they could chew.”

I can imagine it now. Faced with this massive territory teeming with resources and strange animals, the tiny Portuguese state had to come up with some way to populate it. So they brought in African slaves for labor. The majority of slaves were destined for sugarcane farms—an industry that continues to be a central driver of the Brazilian economy even today.

Mmm, not so sweet.

You don’t need me to tell you that the conditions on these farms, called engenhos, were bad. Tropical heat, impossible workloads, and dirty and crowded conditions amounted to infamously high mortality rates. So they fled.

Danger loomed from all sides. Disease! Ferocious animals! And worst of all: Bandierantes!

Gasp! Brazilian slave hunters.

The runaway slaves hid in the vast Brazilian expanse. Groups of runaway slaves bound together and formed lost tribe-style settlements known as quilombos. These were a form of active resistance in the times of slavery where freed and runaway slaves often lived alongside indigenous and even white settlers. The largest and best known community, Quilombo Palmares, at its peak had a population of 30,000 and existed for almost a century until 1694. And can I stress this again – this was while slavery was still legal.

How were they able to do this? They must have been doing something right.

Many believe that a particular art form they developed here allowed for their longevity: capoeira. Disjointed from their homeland and threatened from all sides, renegade slaves developed the martial art as a way to defend themselves against attack. Later capoeira became an offensive technique and capoeiristas raided engenhos with the purpose of freeing all the slaves. The best part was that it could be disguised as a dance and practiced in public without worry, even in front of slave owners. But it could also be deadly; dancers were said to place razors between their toes when in a fight.

With someone they especially didn’t like, I assume.

So capoeira came to symbolize freedom against oppression for its practitioners and the wider Brazilian public. It was a way for slaves to practice and assert their independence in an unequal society. Capoeira was seen as a dangerous and revolutionary art form and was banned in Brazil for hundreds of years until the 1940s.

Lucky for us, no longer! We will be seeing plenty of this impressive and revolutionary art form on Saturday night at our A NIGHT IN RIO celebration. No razors this time, thank goodness.

A NIGHT IN RIO happens Saturday, February 18th, 2012 at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte. Tickets are $15 at the door and the show begins at 7:00 pm

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