Capoeira Music

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Music is integral to capoeira. It sets the tempo and style of game that is to be played within the roda. The music is composed of instruments and song. The tempos differ from very slow (Angola) to very fast (São Bento Regional). Many of the songs are sung in a call and response format while others are in the form of a narrative. Capoeiristas sing about a wide variety of subjects. Some songs are about history or stories of famous capoeiristas. Other songs attempt to inspire players to play better. 

Some songs are about what is going on within the roda. Sometimes the songs are about life, or love lost. Others are lighthearted or even silly things, sung just for fun. Capoeiristas change their playing style significantly as the songs or rhythm from the berimbau commands. In this manner, it is truly the music that drives capoeira. The instruments are played in a row called the bateria. Three instruments are berimbaus, which look like an archer’s bow using a steel string and a gourd for resonance.

It is played by striking the string with a stick, and the pitch is regulated by a stone. Legend has it that, in the old times, knives or other sharp objects were attached to the top of the berimbau for protection and in case a large fight broke out. These three bows are the Berra boi (also called the bass or Gunga), Medio, Viola, and lead the rhythm. Other instruments in the bateria are: two pandeiros (tambourines), a Reco-Reco (rasp), and an Agogo (double gong bell). The Atabaque (conga-like drum), a common feature in most capoeira baterias, is considered an optional instrument, and is not required for a full bateria in some groups.

In capoeira, music sets the rhythm, the style of play, and the energy of a game. In its most traditional setting, there are three main styles of song that weave together the structure of the capoeira angola roda. The Angola roda represents the most strict and traditional format for capoeira and is ideally suited for an introduction and discussion of the music. 

Though we may consider the music traditional, because it has been passed orally from one to the next until the early – mid 20th century when songs and rhythms began to be notated and recorded, there is no record of to what extent and exactly how the music has evolved over time. Capoeira’s African heritage plays a heavy role in the way capoeira is perceived by its practitioners and understood at a subconscious level. 

It is a common feature of many African ethnic groups, for instance, as well as others throughout the world, that music is not so much a form of personal entertainment as it is a medium to bring about group cohesion and dynamic.

Music in the context of capoeira is used to create a sacred space through both the physical act of forming a circle (the roda, which has a spiritual significance in itself) and an aural space that connects the world of the spirits/ancestors and the world of the living. This deeper religious significance exists more as a social memory to most capoeira groups, but is generally understood as evidenced in the use of sacred ngoma drums (the atabaques of Yoruban candomblé), the berimbau whose earlier forms were used in rituals in Africa and the diaspora in speaking with ancestors, the ever-present term axé which signifies force that gives life to man, animal, and spirit ever present in capoeira, the invocation of both African and Catholic spiritual objects and people, and certain semi-ritualized movements used in Capoeira Angola that bring “spiritual protection” up from the ground, from the instruments in the bateria, and from the sky and heavens. The instruments are:

up to 3 berimbaus
up to 2 pandeiros
1 agogô
1 reco-reco (notched wooden tube similar to a Guiro)
1 atabaque or conga

Not every roda will contain all these instruments. Mestre Bimba ,for instance, preferred only one berimbau and one pandeiro in his rodas, but there will always be at least one berimbau in any roda.

The berimbaus preside over the roda, and specifically the gunga, the lowest sounding of the three berimbaus. The roda begins and ends at the discretion of the gunga, who may determine who plays next, can stop games, set the tempo of the music, and calm the combatants if they get too rough.

On Song Meaning and Importance:
The understanding songs of capoeira is a good way to understand and put into some historical context early afro-Brazilian life, and history. If one can identify with the music on a personal level, it goes along way in adopting the heritage vital in the maintenance of capoeira as a cultural force. The songs of capoeira partly play the role of cultural guide and teacher.

The songs, whether ladainha, corrido, or quadra, can be placed in many categories for comparison. The following list is not exhaustive

Folk lessons
Acknowledging folkway
ex, the corridos Bate Dendê, Marinheiro Sou
Acknowledging Slavery
ex, the corridos Návio Negreiro, a Manteiga Derramou, the interjections iaia and ioio (daughter and son of the slave master respectively)
Acknowledging symbolic aspects of capoeira
ex, vadiação, mandinga/mandingueiro, malandro/malandragem
Acknowledging roots through place
ex, Angola, Aruanda, Bahia, Pelourinho
Acknowledging Religion/Spirituality/Religious Syncretism
ex, references to Catholic saints, god, orixás, Nganga, etc…
Biographical, Autobiographical, Mythological
Songs that comment on the game metaphorically
ex, the corridos a Bananeira Caiu, a Onça Morreu
Songs that comment on the game directly
ex, the corridos Devagar, Donalice Não Me Pegue Não
Greeting and Fairwell songs (Despidas)
ex, the corridos Camungerê, Boa Viagem
Songs that welcome women into the roda to play
ex, the corridos Dona Maria do Camboatá, Sai, Sai, Caterina

Many songs can be considered cross categorizational, as well.

The roda commences with the ladainha (littany), a solo often sung by the most senior member present, usually the one playing gunga. These songs may be improvised on the spot, but are most often chosen from a canon of extant ladainhas. 

The ladainha varies in from as little as two lines, to 20 or more. Topics for this song type include moral lessons, stories, history, mythology, can be topical for a particular occasion as well as pure poetry, and almost always metaphorical. The song is loosely strophic and the melody is pretty much the same throughout the entire ladainha repertoire, with some variations here and there. The ladainha uses quatrain form as a template, with the first line almost always repeated.

Eu já vivo enjoado
Eu já vivo enjoado
de viver aqui na terra
amanhã eu vou pra lua
falei com minha mulher
ela então me respondeu
que nos vamos se deus quiser
Vamos fazer um ranchinho
todo feito de sapé
amanhã as sete horas
nos vamos tomar café
e o que eu nunca acreditei,
o que não posso me conformar
que a lua vem à terra
e a terra vem à lua
todo isso é conversa
pra comer sem trabalhar
o senhor, amigo meu, colega velho
escute bem ao meu cantar
quem é dono não ciuma
e quem não é vai ciumar

I am sick
of living here on Earth
Tomorrow I’ll go to the Moon
I said to my wife
And she responded
Then we’ll go, God willing
We’ll have a little ranch
All made of straw
Tomorrow morning at seven
We’ll have some coffee
What I never believed
Nor could I ever confirm
The moon would come to Earth
And the Earth to the Moon
This is just talk
to eat without working
Sir, good friend, old colleague
Listen well to my song
He who is the master of his land doesn’t envy
And he who isn’t certainly will

An interpretation of this song could be: Nothing comes easy without hard work. The person who sings the ladainha cries out “Ieeeeeeee” (pronounced YaaaaaaaaY) to call to order the attendees of the roda, that the roda is starting. The ladainha ends with “Camará”, “Camaradinho” (fits better rhythmically), or conversely, “É hora, hora” (It’s the hour). This tagline marks the end of the ladainha and the beginning of the chula, or more properly louvação (praise).

The louvação begins the call and response section of the roda. The louvação invokes God, Mestres, capoeira, and gives thanks. (Italicized line is te chorus)

Iê, Viva meu Deus
Iê, Viva meu Deus, camará
Iê, Viva meu meu Mestre
Iê, Viva meu Mestre, camará
Iê, quem me ensinou
Iê, quem me ensinou, camará
Iê, a capoeira
Iê, a capoeira, camará
É Água de beber
Iê, Água de beber, camará
É ferro de bater
Iê, ferro de bater, camará
É ngoma de ngoma etc…

Long live my God
Long live my Master
Who taught me
It is water for drinking
It is Iron for striking
It is from the sacred drums

The content of the louvação can be improvised as well, so having a good ear is critical to singing the chorus. The louvação, just as the ladainha, is strophic, but there is no variation in the melody from one louvação to another. However while it is most often sung in a major tonality, sometimes it can be heard in minor if the ladainha is also minor. The chorus is sung in unison, though an occasional harmonization, usually a third above, is sometimes used as a punctuation by one of the singers.

The two players/jogadores having sat at the pé-de-berimbau, or foot of the berimbau, during the ladainha, begin the game at the start of the corridos.

The corridos are overlapping call and response typical of African singing, and influenced by, and borrowing from the Sambas de Roda of Bahia. Unlike the Mexican Corrido which is a form of folk ballad, the Bahian corrido is a short song with a usually static response. The chorus is often indicated by being used as the first line in the song:

Ai, ai, aidê
oiá Joga bonito que eu quero ver
Ai, ai, aidê
oiá Joga bonito que eu quero aprender
Ai, ai, aidê
oiá nossa senhora quem vai me protejer

Ai, ai, aidê (a girl’s name) Play beautifully so I can see
Play beautifully so I can learn
Our Lady will protect me

The corrido communicates with the action in the roda (though without the level of interaction in a traditional samba de roda) to inspire the players, to comment directly on the action, invokes, praises, warns, tells stories, and teaches moral values. There is a corrido for welcoming the roda, for closing the roda, asking for the players to play less aggressively, more aggressively, to not grab the other person, and the list continues. Corridos can also be challenges (desafios). The lead will sing a corrido then after some time sing one very similar, requiring the chorus (everyone else save the two playing in the roda) to be paying close attention to sing the correct response or two singers can switch corridos on a certain subject. 

This use of the corrido in a roda is more rare, requiring a bit more expertise on the part of the singers than normal. The desafio/challenge can be used with ladainhas as well The corridos have the broadest melodic variation from one to the next, though many corridos share the same melodies. Thus a vast repertoire of corridos can be learned and improvisation within corridos becomes a less daunting prospect. Like the louvação, the corrido response is sung in unison, and like the louvação an occasional harmonization, usually a third above, is used as a punction by one of the singers.

An innovation of Mestre Bimba, quadras take the place of the ladainha in some Regional and Contemporânea capoeira schools. They are four verse songs sung solo followed by the louvação. The main difference between the ladainha and quadra is that the quadra, like the corrido doesn’t have a standard melodic model and exhibits a greater variety melody. Quadras also exist as a special type of corrido with four line solo verses followed by the choral response, such as the following:

O meu mano, o que foi que tu viu lá
Eu vi capoeira matando
Também vi maculêlê, Capoeira!
É jogo praticado na terra de são salvador
É jogo praticado na terra de são salvador
Eu sou discipulo que aprendo
E o mestre que dá lição
Na roda de Capoeira
Nunca dei meu golpe em vão, Capoeira!
É jogo praticado na terra de são salvador
É o Manuel do Rei Machado
Ele é fenomenal
Ele é o Mestre Bimba
Criador da Regional

The Chula Controversy:
The term chula is often given to the call and response louvação immediately following the ladainha. By comparison, traditionally in Bahia the chula is the free form song text of the Samba de Roda sung between the dances (as in the samba parada) and defines the structures of the various other “styles” of samba de roda, while the samba corrido lasts as long as the singer feels like singing it before moving on to another.

The chula is a poetic form based on the quadra (quatrain) form (which may have influenced Mestre Bimba’s replacement of ladainhas with quadras) with its roots in Iberia. The word chula is comes from the word chulo meaning vulgar, common, rustic (similarly the Spanish word chulo/chulito is used for peasant Indians in the Americas), being often pastoral and sentimental.

How the term chula came to refer to the louvação isn’t currently known. But its similarity to the ladainha and the use of corrido songs from the samba de roda tradition probably played a large role.

Melody and Rhythm: 
The melodies range from a fifth above (sometimes up to a sixth) and a third below the tonic: A (B) C D E (F) G (A), where C is tonic, the leading tone (B), fourth (f) and the sixth (A) are generally avoided. See Degree (music). The ladainha may include the fourth below the tonic at the cadence as a tagline with “camaradinho” to signal the beginning of the louvação.

Rather than a tonic-dominant relationship, the ladainhas exhibit a tonic-supertonic progression (incidentally bossa nova exhibits a similar tendency for unrelated reasons) where harmonic tension is always on the 2nd scale degree, D in the key of C.

  • NB. The berimbaus have a harmonic potential, but are not necessarily tuned to the singers’ voices. If they are, then it will be generally the high note of the gunga as that is where the ladainha begins and as such doesn’t create a dissonant 2nd interval between the two. That’s not a strict rule in that many examples can be found where the singer tunes his or her voice to the low note instead. This has the effect of categorizing the music as mixolydian, a common feature of Brazilian music in the Northeast of Brazil. Whether or not one hear’s it in mixolydian or major is debatable The beginning yell of Iê is always a fifth above the tonic and this sets the key (music).

Rhythmically, the music is in 4/4 time, common for music in the Angolan region of Africa, where the rhythms of both Brazilian samba and Cuban guaguancó have their origins. The singing is in Portuguese with some Kikongo and Yoruban words and phrases. The lyrics align themselves with the rhythm of the music, sometimes coming in on the strong beats, sometimes on the weak beats and pickups, depending on the vagaries of the song. It is theorized that the rhythms of capoeira are indeed from Angola, however, the introduction of the berimbau to capoeira was relatively recent (at least since late 19th century) and the original songs, instrumentation, and rhythms are now lost. Capoeira in its earlier form was accompanied by singing in kikongo, hand clapping, and percussion accompaniment on a transverse hand drum. Since then, a number of instruments, including whistles, castanets, and violas (small Brazilian guitars), and likely any instrument available, have been used into the early 20th century.

The berimbau itself has been a folk instrument for solo song accompaniment and worship and became a mainstay of the roda when metal wire was widely available for use as a string. Before then, berimbaus were strung with plant fibers and thus could not project as loudly as with metal (nowadays, the wire is culled from used car and bicycle tires). Brass wire was observed being used on berimbaus, though, as early as 1824 in Rio. The caxixi’s inclusion with the berimbau is another recent innovation that gives the berimbau an extra bit of punch. A theory goes that berimbaus were fitted with metal blades at the top which made them a defensive weapon when playing capoeira openly (which was essentially outlawed until the 1930’s) was a dangerous affair.

Minor Tonality Ladainhas:

The minor tonality ladainhas are rarer but have precedence. Mestre Traira demonstrates their use in his CD, Mestre Traira: Capoeira da Bahia. He uses a minor pentatonic scale:

(G) A C D E G (tonic at A)

This produces an interesting variation on the more common Ladainha melody. The Louvação is in the same pentatonic with the correspónding corridos reworked in the pentatonic as well.


Unlike the majority of Brazilian music, the syncopation in this music is a bit more subtle, relying on the interplay between the rhythm of the lyrics and the weak and strong beats of the isorhythmic cells played by the instruments, shifting the feeling of the downbeat from corrido to corrido, and interlocking/overlapping call and response driving the music forward. Below are two musical bars separated by the bar line |. The downbeats are defined as 1 and 3, the upbeats as 2 and 4, and the anticipation, or pick up, lies between 4 and 1.|

The Angola and São Bento Pequeno rhythms for which capoeira angola is known for, create a syncopation through silence on 3, and stressing 4 with two short buzzed notes (see berimbau). The São Bento Grande rhythm stresses both downbeats on the berimbaus which has the effect of a driving march (played in a quick double time tempo). The atabaque serves as the heart beat of the music, providing a steady pulse on 1 and 3 with open tones, often with an anticipation to 1, and a muted bass on 2.:

O.B.O..O|O.B.O..O, O = open tone, B = bass.

The agogô, a double bell tuned to an open fourth or fifth, plays:

L.H.L…|L.H.L…, L = low bell strike, H = high

Reco-reco, likewise

X.X.X…|X.X.X…, X = scrape

The pandeiro, has a bit more freedom than the other instruments

O.S.O.xx|O.S.O.xx, O = open tone, S = slap, xx = shake.

Another version provides

O.S.Otpt|O.S.Otpt, where t = strike with ring, middle, and index finger near the rim, and p = palm

The final t can be replaced with an open tone using the middle finger a little further away from the rim.

The effect of the supporting instruments together, is to build tension from an anticipation just before 1 (the third open note played by the atabaque) to 2, and resolution on 3, which then pushes the cell forward with the anticipation at the pick up to 1. As the berimbaus play with and against this framework along with the song verses, a surprising amount of syncopation results, despite the simple nature of the patterns. There is very little room allowed for improvisation in these supporting instruments. To allow otherwise would tend to distract too much from the content of the songs and the action inside the roda, as well as compete for attention with the berimbaus. There is still room, however, for occasional variations on the basic rhythms by the supporting instruments, especially when the overall energy of the roda is fairly high.

The berimbau toques follow the pattern of the supporting instruments, but with a broad arena for improvising. The above on syncopation also follows with the berimbau. In the case of the Angola toque (the half notes below in this case represent unmuted quarter notes):

The silence at 3 gives a lilt to the feeling of resolution, while the São Bento Grande toque

contrasts with a greater sense of finality at 3.

The viola berimbau, the highest pitched of the three, adds a layer of rhythmic improvisation, similar to the role of the quinto in Cuban rumba, though without the layer of rhythmic possibilities allowed for in rumba (which uses at least nine subdivisions of the bar). The following illustrates the possible subdivisions for improvisation in capoeira music in a single four beat bar:

0_______0_______0_______ 1/2 time triplets
0_____0_____0_____0_____ Melodic Pace (0 represents 1, 2, 3, and 4 respectively)
0___0___0___0___0___0___ Triplets
0__0__0__0__0__0__0__0__ Basic subdivision
0_0_0_0_0_0_0_0_0_0_0_0_ Double time triplets (used in calls by the Gunga, tempo permitting)
  • N.B. The performance of the supporting instruments, and indeed the berimbaus and songs themselves can and have changed over the years, becoming highly codified, while exact performance standards can still very from group to group. Mario de Andrade’s Missão de Pesquisas Folcóricas recorded in 1938 show an interpretation of the music that is slightly different, with two atabaques with a more active role in one example. For better or for worse, one is not likely to see two atabaques in one roda.