Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian art form that appeared sometime in the sixteenth century. Its origins are hotly debated, but it is clearly linked to the story of slaves brought forcibly to Brazil to work the plantations from all over Africa. Although some proponents claim that the slaves brought capoeira with them, it is more likely that capoeira is a blend of many African cultures (with a particularly strong influence from the Angolan slaves), and also draws from Portuguese and Indigenous roots. Other similar mock-fight slave dances, each with their own unique flavour, are found in the New World and seem to support this hypothesis: The ladje is found in the Martinique and the Mani in Cuba are two such examples.

In the 18th and 19th century, capoeira developed in various Brazilian urban centers, taking on particular local characteristics. During this time, it mushroomed in these emerging cities, particularly in the larger coastal cities of Rio de Janeiro (the capital at the time), Sao Paulo, Recife and Salvador da Bahia. It appears to have been a very violent capoeira, one in which gangs fought each other over territory or were hired by political parties to intimidate their opponents. This capoeira was brutality repressed by the authorities and mostly disappeared from Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Recife. It was formally made illegal in the penal code of 1890, punishable by imprisonment or by whippings.

For a variety of reasons which probably had to do with its less centralized form of government and its high percentage of African descendants, one style of capoeira survived: Capoeira from the Recôncavo area of Salvador da Bahia. Although here too capoeira was declining by the early 1900's, one Bahian man's efforts changed the story of capoeira forever, and made it into an immensely successful art form inside and outside of Brazil. The form of capoeira that we see today, although it has changed significantly in the past decades, is therefore a descendant of Bahian capoeira, where the use of the berimbau, the bow-like instrument that has come to symbolize capoeira, the songs that accompany capoeira, and the rituals in the roda – the capoeira circle –just to name a few aspects, originate.

The older style of capoeira in Bahia, originally simply called "capoeira", had by the early twentieth century, begun to morph into something of a folkloric expression and was rapidly losing its martial aspect. It was in the 1930's, that a capoeira Master called Manuel dos Reis Machado (Mestre Bimba) began to make modifications to the art form. His aim was to bring capoeira out of its marginalized status and to create a recognized Brazilian martial art, equal to martial arts from Asia that were well-known in Brazil. Thus, Mestre Bimba created Capoeira Regional, an amalgamation of those elements from the old capoeira that he deemed useful, and other elements from batuque (another Afro-Bahian fighting art that his father and he, champions of batuque, had excelled in).

In the 1930's, Bimba opened the first ever official capoeira academy between four walls. (Previously, capoeira had only been practiced informally on the street.) Mestre Bimba dreamed of helping his fellow black Bahians out of their marginalized status - he wanted Afro-Bahian culture to be valued and respected and thus, he welcomed people of all races and backgrounds to his classes. Many sons of the elite - young, white, educated men began to practice capoeira alongside his working class students. Bimba thus ushered in a new era for capoeira and won recognition by the government for this previously illegal art form.

Sketch by Justin Lee - 2006

Mestre Bimba received many criticisms from other practitioners, who felt that he was betraying the art form. Without his work, however, the old capoeira would undeniably have disappeared. Instead, this old capoeira began to enjoy a revival – practitioners came together under the guidance of the famous Mestre Pastinha, who was influential in reorganizing it. They began calling this old capoeira "Capoeira Angola" to distinguish it from the newer "Capoeira Regional". Thus, thanks to Mestre Bimba's far-reaching vision, capoeira has thrived and spread throughout Brazil and the world to a degree that no one could have predicted. Today, it is practiced in places as far and wide as Japan, England and Israel, and takes many different forms.

The son of Mestre Bimba, Mestre Nenel, runs a school in Salvador, Bahia, that he has named the Filhos de Bimba (Children of Bimba). With the help of some of Mestre Bimba's former students, Mestre Nenel strives to keep his father's legacy alive. A lot of confusion has arisen with the name "Regional" - it has come to designate any style that is not Capoeira Angola (the older form of capoeira). In reality, the traditional Capoeira Regional movements, music, rules and philosophy differ quite strongly from contemporary offshoots. Traditional Capoeira Regional, as Mestre Bimba practiced it and as his son continues to practice it, does not for example incorporate the flashier, acrobatic movements that have come to define modern styles. Bimba's Regional is based instead on rhythm, technical precision and dialogue with one's partner, with the philosophy of creating harmony within the group and individual well-being, rather than focusing on personal performance.

Sketch  by Dale Hayward - 2006