Afrikan=Black Combat Forms Hidden in Plain Sight: Engolo/Capoeira, Knocking-and-Kicking and Asafo Flag Dancing.

Author:Kambon, Obadele


In this paper, I will discuss Afrikan combat forms hidden in plain sight with specific reference to Engolo/Capoeira, Knocking-and-Kicking and Asafo Flag Dancing. In terms of the structure of the article, I will give a background to the topic. Then I will show all of these arts as a dance, as you may have seen them before, and look at the ideas of combat forms disguised as dance as reactions to repression. Then, I will give a demonstration of danced combat from all around Afrikan world and contextual manifestations of repression and encouragement as they are found in the literature. Then I will look at combat applications of seemingly innocuous "dance" movements and, finally, I will present our conclusions and future directions.


In this section, I will briefly discuss the origins of combat sciences--often inappropriately referred to as martial arts--in the world. As such, in (1) we have a video of esteemed scholar Ashra Kwesi (2009) who expounds upon the ancient Afrikan origin of what is termed contemporarily as martial arts:

  1. (Kwesi 2009)

    The significance of the clip is that Kwesi discusses the fact that the term martial is derived from Mars, the name of a Roman god of war. This is a misnomer given that these arts and sciences existed long before there was anything called a Rome or a Mars. Indeed, the earliest depictions of combat arts and sciences come from [??] Kmt(yw) 'Black people' from [??] Kmt 'Nation of Black People.' (2) These arts and sciences were linked to the divinity of [??] Kmt 'Nation of Black People' known as [??] MnTw 'Montu.' In other depictions in the video, we see stick fighting, open hand combat, grappling, etc.

    While Kwesi (2009) goes into these combat arts and sciences from just three thousand years ago, we can go back much further than that.

    Figure 1 is a photograph of the very first depiction of any so-called "martial art," or as we prefer, [??] MnTw 'Montu' arts and sciences, or the more neutral term, combat arts/sciences. This depiction can be found at Monet-khufu (modern-day Beni Hasan) and dates back to ca. 3000 BCE. According to Leonard "Not far from the banks of the Nile in the temple tombs of Ben Hasan wrestlers are depicted in almost every position now known. We need but to look at them to realize that we have made no material advancement over the ancient Egyptians" (1897, pp. 4-5).

    Thus, it is quite ironic that when people think about so-called "martial arts" they think about Eurasians like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. However, given that we invented these arts, it behooves Afrikan=Black people to think about ourselves.

    Much of this research was through embodied participant observation and reflection. In terms of personal background, as a youth growing up in the North Carolina, I slap-boxed and wrestled informally and also got into my fair share of physical altercations. At the time we never thought of these fighting skills and techniques as a formal art. We would look at karate dojos with that level of esteem, but we did not have the same appreciation for our own arts and sciences, irrespective of how effective they were. But in doing research, I found that what we were practicing had cognate forms from Angola such as khandeka, and kambangula. I began training Capoeira (3) around 1998-9 and I also trained in Brazil in 2007. While my beginning was in the non-contact form of Capoeira as a game/ritual/dance/aerobics/acrobatics, I started my training of Capoeira as a combat science in Chicago under Valentao of Capoeira Akebelan. During the time of my training in the mid-2000s, this group focused on the practical usage of Capoeira. Over the past nine (9) years in Ghana, I have continued this thrust by engaging in sparring and fighting with practitioners of karate, boxing, wrestling, taekwondo, judo, jiu-jitsu, Capoeira and others. (4) This background has placed me in an ideal position to research into the similarities and differences between Afrikan combat sciences of the continent and elsewhere in the Afrikan world in contrast to non-Afrikan martial arts and sciences.

    As such, we will now turn our attention to the research questions to be addressed in this paper as listed below:

    * Are the dance-like aesthetics of Capoeira, Knocking-and-Kicking and/or Asafo flag dancing due to external repression, intrinsic qualities, both, neither?

    * Were these Afrikan Combat Sciences repressed and/or encouraged?

    * Do the "dance" movements have any practical military/combat function?

    Dance-like Aesthetics of Afrikan Combat Sciences

    In the literature, oftentimes in Capoeira circles, one will hear that Capoeira was disguised as a dance. We find quotes from scholars and practitioners alike, such as the following excerpt from the 1996 Jornal da Capoeira thus, "Without weapons or munitions, the slaves turned warriors again using that sport born during the filthy nights of the slave huts, and the sport which had been disguised as dance was transformed into a fight, the fight of the men of the capoeira" (Jornal da Capoeira, 1996, p. 8 quoted in Assuncao 2004, p. 5). According to Assuncao:

    A number of other myths about capoeira circulate within the different spheres where discourses about its history are elaborated. Many practitioners claim that capoeira is played to music, because during the times of slavery it had to be disguised as a dance in order to fool the slave owners. Unfortunately, all the early sources on capoeira make quite clear that the masters were only too aware of the potential danger of capoeira practised by slaves. Another popular story explains that capoeira uses mainly foot kicks because slaves were chained together by their hands and had therefore only the feet left to use. Historical evidence, however, suggests that slaves had their feet in shackles to prevent them from running away, leaving their hands free to work. (Assuncao 2004, p. 8) Assuncao goes on to debunk these and other common myths about Capoeira that are promulgated by authors and practitioners alike. Other scholars articulate similar understandings thusly:

    Capoeira in the early and mid-nineteenth century was depicted by travelers as a war dance accompanied by drumbeats or hand clapping. Later the music and the musical instruments disappeared. Police records do not mention musical instruments. Consequently, in the early twentieth century it was assumed that capoeira originally lacked the element of music and was a martial art that the slaves tried to disguise with music, dancing, and singing. The idea of music as concealment was encouraged by two teachers of modern capoeira, Manuel dos Reis Machado, better known as Mestre Bimba, and Vicente Ferreira Pastinha (Mestre Pastinha), creators of Capoeira Regional (1932) and Capoeira Angola (1941), respectively, who believed that the music and the African dance movements were intended to deceive slave owners. Other scholars have supported this assumption. Iria D'aquino, for example, described capoeira as a martial art that African slaves created and developed in Brazil in order to stand up to their better-armed adversaries: Because it developed and was practiced under the watchful eye of white masters and plantation supervisors, capoeira was disguised as a diversion, as an innocuous dance performed for their own as well as their masters' enjoyment (Talmon-Chvaicer 2008, p. 30). Thus, we find that practitioners and scholars alike support myths about Capoeira being disguised as a dance in the past. In this paper, per our first research question, we will interrogate this idea. When we think of the danced aesthetics, the following examples are paradigmatic:

  2. (Rica 2009)

    In the video in (2), we find Capoeira as it was practiced in the late 1940s and early 1950s. When we observe the practice, the question that comes to mind is "Is it a dance, a fight or both or neither?" We will examine this question throughout the paper.

    There is a similar idea of Knocking-and-Kicking being disguised in the North American context. In the literature we find articulations such as the following:

    In the performance circles of closed societies, knocking and kicking was performed by two competitors exhibiting their kicking prowess in ritual contests before a closed community. In these cases, the art was performed to the rhythms of drums or clapping or was accompanied by reed pipes called "quills." Movements such as the cross step, cartwheels, and the dynamic inverted kicks of the art done to music made knocking and kicking inseparable from dance. In these society gatherings, the art's combative potential was openly displayed among trusted members of a closed community. In other contexts, the art's martial side could be disguised within dance and thus safely demonstrated in the open. For example the kicks were openly shown in a covert form in a lowcountry dance that to the uninitiated supposedly represented 'a fisherman dramatically kicking mud off his shoes after fishing.' (Desch-Obi 2008, p. 94) So, just as in the case of Capoeira, we again find the same idea of disguising Knocking-and-Kicking as a dance. As there were no videos of this type of kicking dance from the period of chattel enslavement, the earliest we can see the type of movement described above comes from the 1920s as shown below in (3):

  3. (MfalmeBwana 2010)

    In (3) we see the dance-like movement that resembled kicking mud off of shoes as described above. Again, as we look at the movements, one may ask whether it a dance, a fight, is it both or is it neither. I will return to this for our third research question dealing with whether or not these types of movements have any type of combat applications. It is also worth noting that when they flip upside-down it is very much like the movements seen in Capoeira. We will also return to this point about physical inversion and its significance to the combative traditions...

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