Capoeira and the distant horizon

I set a rule for myself some years back that I should be training in a martial art for about twice the amount of time that I teach it. This is not easy to maintain, especially given all of the things that have been happening of late. However, tonight I set myself up about 30 minutes before teaching my Capoeira class to practice and decided to start with the music. I became fixated on perfecting the timing of a variation of one particular toque (rhythm) and spent the whole time working on it.

Recently, another malandro reminded me of a quote from our teacher (Mestre Preto Velho) that essentially says that Capoeira is a jealous companion. I believe it. I have realized that I could spend all of my time working on some movement or another, or on the music, or on studying the philosophy, and so on. Capoeira is a world unto itself. It isn’t a vacuum, but rather is vast sea whose waters are fed by the ancient tributaries of our people’s history and culture.

I was once content to play on the beach and to stick close to the shore. But now I find myself drawn to the distant horizon. Of course, that horizon is only a reminder of the unattainability of that totality of knowledge. It is like the Swahili proverb which states, “Elimu ni kama bahari haina sahili” (Knowledge is like an ocean that has no shore).

Africans Kung Fu Fighting

Recently I stumbled upon this video. It shows a group Africans who journeyed to China to study the martial arts. I’ve seen other videos like this, including one where an African decided to create a Shaolin Temple in his community in Africa.
While I appreciate that these sisters and brothers are training, I do worry that the idea of “martial arts” as an Asian cultural practice necessarily devalues our engagement with our own martial heritage, which is often endangered. Clearly the practice of Capoeira in Brazil is well organized, but this is not universally true of African combat arts. Many are quite marginal and the preserve of an aging group of practitioners.
I say this as someone who practices both African and Asian arts. To my thinking, our engagement in the martial arts, as people of African-descent, should include some engagement with, even if on the level of historical and philosophical knowledge, the rich martial heritage of African people as a way of centering our ancestors’ development of combative systems to confront the reality before them.
In my presentation at ASCAC last week I discussed three ways of engaging with the African martial arts. These include:
1. Studying and internalizing the history and philosophy pertaining to the African arts.
2. Incorporating specific elements/techniques of the African arts into one’s existing practice.
3. Practicing the African arts.
To my thinking we can both study the martial arts of the world, while also being mindful of our own legacy and its value.

The “Asian-ness” of the martial arts

A year or so ago I journeyed to Madison, Wisconsin to purchase a book from Dr. Edward Powe. The book was entitled, “Combat Games of Northern Nigeria“. My interest was to learn more about the combat traditions of the Hausa people. The Hausa have one of the most rich martial cultures that I know of on the continent with traditions of boxing, wrestling, blade-fighting and stick-fighting.

In truth, I only recently learned of their stick-fighting through a friend, Da’Mon Stith. This was very enlightening and increased my interest in the combat traditions of the Hausa. Interestingly, while I did locate videos of this art online, they were curiously labled as “Karate”. This is what I mean by the “Asian-ness” of the martial arts. Not that there are no African martial arts, but that the concept of “martial arts” as a kind of social activity is generally dominated by Asian representations. This can be attributed to the film industry (beginning in the 1970s), the formalization of the arts (beginning perhaps with Jigoro Kano in the early 20th Century), and their commercialization (primarily in 20th Century) in places like Hong Kong, the US, and Europe. As a consequence of these developments, for many of our people, “martial arts” inherently refer to Asian combat traditions, so much so that many Black fighting traditions are sometimes not perceived as such. This is true throughout the African world.

The game, the fight: Thoughts on the teaching and practice of Capoeira

I have been thinking about the dichotomization of Capoeira into the luta (fight) and the jogo (game) and the implications of this to the teaching of Capoeira. While this dichotomy is does capture broad contours of the art, there are nuances, dimensions within these that I fear are not fully explicated therein.

As stated, the jogo is the game of Capoeira, however there are different types of games. I am reminded of games that I saw in my early days in Capoeira with groups that played at high speeds, employed many acrobatic floreiros, but also played so far apart that neither person’s attack necessarily required a defensive response from the other player, that is they were too far from each other for their strikes to connect, thus reducing the game to a very animated but inert visual spectacle.

This was quite different from other games that I saw where everything was close and low to the ground. Strategy was valued over floreiro, and one had to maintain awareness over one’s position in time and space relative to one’s adversary. I also saw and participated in games that defied these supposed binaries.

These encounters taught me that the game is not one-dimensional and can be played with different types of intentionality, such as dazzling onlookers, cultivating a mindfulness of the body, employing strategy, et cetera.

The luta or the fight is another matter, one that I argue is closely related to the game depending on how one enters into it. In my first 12 years in Capoeira I was constantly searching for the martial approaches to the art. What attracted me to it was that it was African in origin, but I was continually frustrated by what I felt was an inattention to how one would apply it in self-defense, such as how one would defend against a knife attack, how one would fend off a grappler, how one would beat back a horde of flesh-eating Zombies in a post-apocalyptic urban wasteland, et cetera (of course that last one is offered in jest). At any rate, I felt that there was a chasm in the lore of Capoeira’s potency as a combat art (which is attested to in the historical record) and how it is taught today. In fact, my conversations with Dr. Edward Powe, who studied in Bahia under Mestre Pastinha in the 1960s, have affirmed that even in the mid-20th Century, the art was still taught as a martial discipline, rather than strictly as a cunning game. This is not to suggest that such deficits are universal in the present context. My first teacher, Tebogo Schultz, gave me a solid foundation in the art reflective of his confidence in Capoeira as a comprehensive tool. Nor is this to suggest that the game itself is fundamentally divorced from the self-defense aspect of the art, rather that explicit discussion of the latter is often absent.

One of the things that I have gained from my studies with Mestre Preto Velho, is an understanding that such knowledge has not been abandoned, as he has been keen to note the importance of the Capoeira of Rio de Janeiro (including his teacher Mestre Touro) in preserving such combative traditions. He has also emphasized something that I have seen eschewed by many exponents of Capoeira as a combat art. Whereas their “combat” Capoeira has taken the form of a kickboxing-grappling art—something that resembles Capoeira perhaps only nominally, Mestre Preto Velho has proposed an approach that reflects Mestre Pastinha’s assertion from decades before that “Capoeira is perfect in itself and has no need for additions or modifications.” Suggesting that what has been missing has been an understanding of the art’s fundamentals and their applications. And while some selective adaptation of the art may be necessary as one applies the art to various combative situations, its underlying principles remain constant. In fact, Mestre Preto Velho has stated,“The tradition has been adaptability.”

It is in this vein that the jogo and luta converge, as the game becomes a means to refine certain technical and philosophical principles, principles that are indelible to the fight.

The multi-dimensionality of Capoeira

I remember Ahati Kilindi Iyi saying once that in traditional contexts martial artists derived their spiritual development and physical conditioning from their art. As a consequence of this, the martial arts became holistic tools of personal development.

I was inspired by this idea and years ago adapted it to how I taught in practiced Capoeira. I decided to eliminate the separation between stretching, conditioning, and Capoeira technique. Herein, we would use kicks like ponteira, meia lua de frente, and queixada to stretch the legs and hips, while using hand strikes like galopante and godeme for stretching the arms, shoulders, and waist. We would fall into negativa and from this position do push-ups. We would use cocorinha in place of squats. We would use lateral movements like esquiva and esquiva with au as a side bend, while using resistencia as a type of back bend.

Somehow I stopped using this in my classes in the 2010s. I think in the time that I was in Ghana, when I was not teaching Capoeira, and when I resumed teaching it regularly in the late Summer of 2017, I forgot about this approach. I have begun slowly reviving it in my personal practice over the last two years, and decided to revisit it today with greater intentionality. Hence I did this this morning. My practice is focused on three objectives:
1. To cultivate suppleness in the body
2. To strengthen the body
3. To help to restore areas where there is soreness or injury
A fourth outcome of this practice has been the cultivation of mind-body unity, that is a type of mindfulness wherein one has greater awareness and control over mind and body.

This is slow and methodical practice, a moving meditation if you will. At any rate, today went well, resulting in a feeling of physical and mental peace comparable in some ways to when I practice Yoga.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Da’Mon Stith and Khalil Maasi, who have also stimulated my thinking in this regard. Like Ahati has suggested, and as I am desirous of embodying, these arts are rich in layered potentials which can be directed towards our holistic development.

Averting extinction and being true to tradition

Every African combat art is a critical reflection of the dynamic mosaic that comprises our history and culture. Sadly, many of our combat arts have passed into oblivion and others teeter on the brink of doing so. However, in Trinidad and Martinique determined efforts were made to institutionalize and propagate Kalinda and Danmyé respectively. There is much that can be learned from this.

One of the things that is critically important in the work that I and others are doing is that we sustain these fighting traditions. This means taking the time to learn these arts and to teach them to others. This is the only means whereby they can survive. For my part I practice about a half a dozen African arts. Some of these arts I am actively learning, some I teach publicly, others I teach privately. Each one is a piece in larger puzzle that is the African warrior tradition. Each one connects me to a lineage of practitioners through which these knowledges have been transmitted. For some I can name this lineage going back six generations. In every instance, I see myself as an inheritor of this knowledge and recognize the obligation that such an inheritance represents–that is the perpetuation of the lineage going forward.

I recognize that every African martial artist will not commit themselves to this work, many having situated themselves in the domain of Asian combat traditions. Others will embrace the African arts, but not necessarily the propagation of a lineage. To each his own. However, for those of us concerned about the survival of African culture, a different set of commitments is required. Herein, fidelity in the transmission of these arts does necessitate commitments to the legacy of the traditions that we have inherited.

Adaptation in the martial arts

Years ago, while watching videos of Kung Fu practitioners sparring against each other, I noticed that many of these arts tended to look like kickboxing during sparring. Sometimes this was a rather rough transition. At other times, depending on the art, it was more seamless.
My take on this is that some of these arts are difficult to apply in real-time against a resisting opponent due to the manner in which they are traditionally trained. Some arts have footwork and stances that may only works under certain rare conditions. Others, due to training with insufficient resistance, fail to acquaint their practitioners with the proper approaches to apply them in real-time in a self-defense or combat sport situation. Others styles have strayed from the combative and reside firmly within the realm of the ritualisitc–wherein the combat theory of the art becomes a matter of religious conviction and the mythic history of the art’s past glories and champions becomes the basis of its legitimacy as a fighting art, rather than the ability of its living practitioners to “show and prove” that their progenitors’ skills are alive and well in the current generation. Some stylists train to fight against low-skilled opponents and are unable to apply their training against high-level opponents. Finally, too many arts only train against practitioners of the same style. This may not be a problem if the parameters of one’s fighting (in tournaments or in the street) is limited to one’s fellow practitioners of this same art. However, it become an altogether more complicated matter when faced with stylists of other arts with which one may have limited familiarity.
My thoughts are that this problem of translation, that is of transiting from training to combat, can only be satisfied by building the combative into one’s training–that is of (1) training with varying degrees of resistance, (2) by regularly sparring against various styles or approaches to fighting, and (3) of relinquishing doctrinaire mindsets that prevents one from thinking critically or analytically about one’s art, its combat theory, its strengths and weaknesses.
Interestingly enough, those arts renowned for their effectiveness, particularly in the context of sport, such as Western Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, or Judo reflect the principle of training in a manner that approximates combat application. This is achieved via training with varying degrees of resistance. These arts are key parts of the skill set of mixed martial artists due to their interoperability with and effectiveness against other styles. Finally, these arts’ histories evidence various changes and adaptations over time as new knowledge and technique came into play. It is not to say that this has not occurred in many other traditional arts, but often quasi-religious commitments prevent such adaptation. However, where it has taken place, such arts continue to demonstrate their relevance as combat arts.

When an elder dies: Reflections on Ahati Kilindi Iyi’s life and legacy

I first met Ahati Kilindi Iyi in 2005. My encounter with him came after years of wanting to study the African fighting arts, but not being certain how. By this time I had studied Wing Chun, Choy Lay Fut, mixed martial arts, Kendo, and Kali. While I did feel confident in my training, that is in its practicality, what was lacking was a sense of connection to the fighting traditions of my ancestors.

So in April 2005, after watching his two video tapes “The World of African Martial Arts”, I decided to send him an email inquiring about additional training materials. In his response he told me about an upcoming martial arts training in June, which I was fortunate enough to be able to attend.

The camp was edifying, providing a great deal of clarity pertaining to things that I saw in his videos, while also exposing me to other arts—such as Capoeira Angola de Sao Bento Grande via Mestre Preto Velho. I returned from the camp energized, determined to continue to grow in the African fighting arts. I also continued to stay in contact with Ahati Kilindi.

Inspired by his example, I too sought to become an exponent of the African arts and in 2007 I was able to invite Ahati Kilindi to Saint Louis, Missouri where I was a sociology professor at Saint Louis Community College. This was the first of two programs that I coordinated in the hopes of exposing more members of our community to the African fighting arts.

Later that year I travelled to Detroit to attend his World African Martial Arts conference. It was a great opportunity to see the national and international community of scholars and practitioners interested in and devoted to the African arts.

In the ensuing years I would converse with him via social media and see him occasionally at conferences. The last time that I saw him was at the 2019 conference of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations in Brooklyn, NY. We had an interesting conversation about African American styles of prison fighting. He told me about a Michigan prison, Jackson State Prison, that was renowned for being a hotbed of skilled fighters. He went on to link the popular expression “Jack you up” to the prison’s legacy.

In 2018 I helped to coordinate an interview with him via Abibitumi. It was a good dialog about the African combat arts and their revitalization and popularization today.

Ahati Kilindi Iyi was one of the people that gave me a foundation in the African arts. Two of the styles of stick-fighting that he taught continue to be foundational to my practice. What’s more, I have been able to share this and other knowledge pertaining to the African arts with youth in my community. I would impress upon them that these were our traditions, our combat arts, and that we should both cherish them and build upon the foundation that they represent. I would often think of Ahati Kilindi Iyi, inspired by his example, and contemplate ways that I could both continue to grow my knowledge of African combative traditions while also working to institutionalize these arts in our community.

His passing is truly a monumental loss for our community. It is as A. Hampâte Bâ said, that every time an elder dies, it is as if a library has burned to the ground. Ahati Kilindi Iyi was a cultural treasure, and it is most appropriate that we reflect on his legacy and seek ways to expand it and to build upon it by creating a place for the African martial arts in our communities globally.

Asante sana Ahati Kilindi Iyi for your many contributions to our cultural revitalization. We will seek to honor that legacy in both word and deed.

How to study the African combat arts?

There are a few paths into the world of the African combat arts.

First, identify what resources that you have access to now. There are traditional African combat arts within many of our communities–some of these are, in fact, endangered. This is true both on the continent and in the Diaspora. These forms of combat may be boxing arts, wrestling arts, weapons arts, and so on. Often they can be found among older men, so inquiring among one’s familial and communal elders is a great starting point. However, they may not think of what they know as “martial art”. The term itself evokes images of Asian combat arts like Karate or Kung Fu. However, they may be more responsive to queries pertaining to “ways of fighting”, “ways of punching or wrestling”, et cetera. Also, in some traditions, secrecy remains a key protocol, and this may also be something which may impact your exploration.

Second, learn Capoeira. It is by far the most accessible African combat tradition. Of course, if you are like me you have two concerns–learning the art from an African/Black instructor and learning it as a combat art. Both of these are challenges as many Capoeira groups are dominated by non-African teachers and students. Also, many schools focus on the jogo–the game, but not the luta–the fight. Sadly, many teachers are not qualified to transmit the art in this manner.

Fortunately there are some good learning resources and teachers out there. My teacher, Mestre Preto Velho is knowledgeable of the combat dimension of Capoeira in addition to other African and African Diasporan combat arts. He was recently featured in the San Diego Union Tribune ( and his school’s website is

Additionally, Bro. Da’Mon Stith has become one of the leading exponents of these arts. You can visit his website here: Also, his YouTube channel ( is a wealth of information. He’s also extremely approachable and would love to field questions from folks interested in understanding the combat science of the art.

Third, read books and articles on the subject. There are a few relevant texts.

Desch-Obi, T. J. 2008. Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art Traditions in the Atlantic World. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

This book is a very good exploration of the interconnections between Africa and the Americas as it relates to the combat arts.

Powe, Edward L. 2011. Black Martial Arts VIII: The ABC & “Bay-ah-Bah” of Capoeira de Angola. Madison, WI: Dan Aiki Publications.

This is an excellent historical and technical overview of Capoeira Angola (the traditional Capoeira of Bahia, Brazil). In addition to this book, Edward Powe has published several very important books on the African combat arts. Visit his site to see more

The Blac Foundation has an archive of articles on this subject. You can access them here:

Fourth, explore 52 Blocks. This art has grown in prominence and various folks have posted information about online including Professor Mo ( and, Lyte Burley ( and, and so on.

Fifth, visit teachers abroad. There are teachers of machete arts in Columbia and Haiti, stick-fighting in Trinidad, South Africa, and Egypt, wrestling in Senegal, Sudan, and Nigeria, empty-hand striking in South Africa, Martinique, Cuba, and Nigeria, and so on.

Sixth, study African methods of warfare. Below are some relevant texts.

Barcia Paz, Manuel. 2016. West African warfare in Bahia and Cuba: soldier slaves in the Atlantic world, 1807-1844. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Carruthers, Jacob H. 1985. The Irritated Genie: An Essay on the Haitian Revolution. Chicago: The Kemetic Institute.

Price, Richard. 1996. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Seventh, stay focused. Studying our combat traditions is considerably more difficult than studying the combat traditions of Asia, but it is a rewarding sacrifice, for in studying the African arts, you are both helping to preserve our culture, while also demonstrating its relevance to our people in the present.

Three paths, one destination

To my thinking there are three paths to the African warrior tradition. The first path is characterized by both the practice of the African combat arts, as well as the internalization of the highest ethics and discipline of the culture. Herein, one is not simply employing technical principles, but also seeks to reflect African cultural ideals in various ways.

The second path is where one incorporates select principles and techniques of the African combat arts into whatever warrior discipline one practices. This may entail using one or more kicks from Capoeira, or several blocks from 52 Blocks. Here one also draws on the philosophical principles of these arts and of African culture more generally.

The third path consists of the incorporation of the philosophy of the African warrior tradition into one’s practice of non-African martial arts. For years when I did Kung Fu, before I started learning Capoeira, various African proverbs informed my thinking about what it meant to be a martial artist. Whether it was the Odu which states, “It is at home that the war is lost before even reaching the battlefield” or another that states “The constant soldier is never unready, even once”, these statements greatly informed my thinking about these arts and the type of consciousness that must accompany their practice. They gave me a way of conceiving what warriorhood meant in the African milieu and how such principles are vital to the present context.

Hence, even absent the African fighting arts, the African warrior tradition remains a vital area of personal and community development that ultimately should inform our work.

Those seeking further insight into the aforementioned topic should consider the following texts:

Carruthers, Jacob H. 1985. The Irritated Genie: An Essay on the Haitian Revolution. Chicago: The Kemetic Institute.

Desch-Obi, T. J. 2008. Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art Traditions in the Atlantic World. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Green, Thomas A. 2003. “Freeing the Afrikan Mind: The Role of Martial Arts in Contemporary African American Cultural Nationalism.” In Martial Arts in the Modern World: Transition, Change and Adaptation, edited by Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth, 229-248. New York: Praeger.

Green, Thomas A. 2003. “Surviving the Middle Passage: Traditional African Martial Arts in the Americas.” In Martial Arts in the Modern World: Transition, Change and Adaptation, edited by Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth, 129-148. New York: Praeger.

Green, Thomas A. 2004. “African Roots in the Martial Arts: An Interview with Kilindi Iyi.”  In Yo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives (Nov 2004).

Karenga, Maulana. 1999. Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.

Maasi, Shaha Mfundishi. 2008. Essential Warrior: Living Beyond Doubt and Fear. Baltimore, MD: MD&H Publications, LLC.

Maasi, Shaha Mfundishi, and Nganga Tolo-Naa. “The Liberation of Consciousness Through African-Descended Martial Culture in the Americas: The Truth About Kupigana-Ngumi.” accessed December 10, 2015.

Powe, Edward L. 2011. Black Martial Arts VIII: The ABC & “Bay-ah-Bah” of Capoeira de Angola. Madison, WI: Dan Aiki Publications.

Price, Richard. 1996. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.