The Art of Capoeira in the Shrines of Bahia
Magazine Geográfica Universal
Text by REYNIVALDO BRITO
Photos by TADEU LUBAMBO
BEING a product of happiness and creativity of the black africans that were brought to Brazil, capoeira came about probably in the slave huts of Bahia as a game which is a mixture of dance, rhythm and songs, becoming later a form with which to assure the survival of those who pratised it. From Bahia, capoeira was spread to and, little by little, gained a considerable number of adepts among the slaves, speacially in Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro.
Today, this game can be learned in sophisticated schools all over the country, but the true capoeira and the principles according to which the physical craftiness is sufficient to conquer any force when well used are still practised in the alleys and on the slopes of the old Salvador. Despite its strong bahian roots and the clear african influence, ethnologist Waldeloir Rego says that it can't be precisely said where the game comes from.
According to Rego, there is no evidence that the so-called capoeira de Angola had come about in that african country. Capoeira regional was shown to be created by a bahian, the black Manuel dos Reis, known in Salvador as "the terrible Mestre Bimba", who died in 1973 [1974 - velhosmestres.com]. Mestre Bimba and Vicente Ferreira Pastinha, Mestre Pastinha, who died in 1981, were the main responsible ones for the spreading of capoeira all over the country.
Mestre Bimba said that regional was the real capoeira, while mestre Pastinha defended that of Angola as the most authentic. But they respected each-other alot. I knew Mestre Bimba up close, and during more than three years I frequented his regional academy, which operates until today inside the architectural ensemble of Pelourinho, exactly in Maciel, a feared location because it's located in the zone of merititious conduct.
I lived there with people of all social statuses and could feel closely the strenght of his personality. I still remember that, one the first day that I arrived at the academy, he put a chair in front of me and ordered me to kick my leg over it multiple time. I repeated this movement many times, feeling a little idiotic, until he came and threw me on the ground with a bênção (a kick with which the capoeirista strikes the thorax of the adversary with the base of his foot). That was the first lesson I received.
I became a friend of Mestre Pastinha and his inseparable companion, Maria Romélia. When the old mestre was about to die, in a damp flat of a dump on Alfredo Brito Street [n. 14], in Pelourinho, I went to Maria Romélia to try to help. But it didn't help much, because Pastinha died poor and almost forgotten. Today [in 1983], the majority of the great masters are more than 50 years old, and there are some, as Mestre Cobrinha, who is 74 years old.
Photos: in the same in which the first capoeiristas practised, the old masters of the game met each-other. On the left photo (from left to right) João Grande, João Pequeno, Gato, Canjiquinha, Waldemar e Cobrinha Verde. On the bigger photo, part of an old house of Pelourinho, in Salvador, considered until today the great center of capoeira of the counrty, and Mestre Cobrinha Verde, 74 years old. Located in the zone of the merititious conduct, Pelourinho continues to attract tourists from all over the country due to its architecture and capoeira
Recently [in 1982 - velhosmestres.com] the masters Rafael Alves França (Cobrinha Verde), Waldemar da Paixão (Waldemar), Washington Bruno da Silva (Canjiquinha), José Gabriel Góis (Gato), João Pereira dos Santos (João Pequeno) and João Oliveira dos Santos (João Grande) met in a capoeira roda. Together they went to Pelourinho, the old stage of fights of famous capoeiristas during the slavery.
The roda formed, when the berimbaus started to play, the old masters didn't contend only to orient their students and entered the game. It was maybe the last time
Photos: despite being practised in the Pelourinho area, capoeira is played all over the bahian capital. Some of its adepts prefer the beaches, because the soft sand eases the falls.
that they met themselves, because most of them live in almost inaccessible places, making their living doing odd jobs that don't make them obey working schedules or habe any kind of commitment.
The old masters are people who carry with them the marks and the sorrows of the life they chose and are not really worried about the future. In the old days the lived playing on the streets and bars, where they were respected and loved. But the times have changed and they have abandoned their academies, giving chance to the other schools to appear, more sophisticated schools and "full of fancy people", as mestre Canjiquinha affirmed.
It's true that the capoeirista was always considred a marginal, a delinquent. The society kept an eye on him and there were laws to corner and punish them. The Criminal Code of the Imperium, in 1830, considered capoeira a vagrant, without definate profession, a reason for which he was automatically fit into the IV Paragraph, article 295, which treats vagrants and beggars. The Penal Code of the Republic, from 1890, condemned a specific treatment to the capoeiristas in the XII Paragraph, titled "About vagrants and capoeiristas". Whoever was in these cathegories could go to jail precautionarily for a minimum of two and maximum of six months, and in the case of chiefs (masters) the penalty doubled.
This type of treatment which the legislation gave to the practitioners of this game caused a series of conflicts between the capoeiristas and the authorities, in various brazilian states, to the point that the subject was treated in the last days of the imperium and in the first of the republic as being of "national security". The clashes were such that Marechal Deodoro da Fonseca felt compelled to destroy his gabinet after an episode which involved the timid capoeirista Juca Reis (José Elísio Reis), son of the first count of São Salvador de Matosinhos. Juca Reis challenged the authority of Joaquim Sampaio Ferraz, the first chief of police of the republic, who punished the activity of the capoeiristas. The case ended with a session of the Council of Ministers.
In Bahia there was also a police chief who became famous as a persecutor of the candomble shrines and the capoeira rodas. He was called Pedro Azevedo Gordilho, Pedrito. His actions were held back the then inspector of Bahia, Juracy Magalhães, who invited Mestre Bimba to his palace and asked his to register his academy in the General Office of Education and Culture. Little by little, capoeira became more respected and gained importance among the afro-brazilian cultural manifestations.
There are capoeiristas in all the brazilian states and many of the academies are run by ex-students of the old masters of Pelourinho. Capoeira today is a national fight, but its practise is still deeply connected to the bahian roots. For a roda to happen it's needed before anything a good player of a berimbau - an instrument which is made of a piece of wood, which could be araçá, pombo or any other wood that has the elasticity and which could be bent into a half-moon arc by using a steel wire which is streched between the two ends. To get the ressounance, to one of these ends a small gourd of a regular size is attached. To complete the instrument, a copper coin, a stick and a caxixi give a good percussion.
The litany during the fight is sung by the master, who becomes a soloist. To each berimbau rhythm corresponds a type of game. The verses don't have a metrics nor rhyme. These are usually improvised and always connected to the themes that show it's folk roots. The melody of the binary rhythm and the quite simple harmony complete the compelling climate of the capoeira rodas.
The capoeiristas say squatting in cocorinha, how the call it, while they listen to the sound of the berimbau and the ladainha of the master. When the ladainha ends, all shout: "It's a knife to kill/comrade/Ê, ê, ê, sourcerer, comrade/Ê, ê, ê cock-a-doodle-doo, comrade." The capoeiristas cross themselves with signs which are characteristical to christianism or make gestures which originate from candomble rituals and, then, great each-other with a handshake to start the game.
The black and fast bodies launch into the air and on the ground, each seeking to strike
the companion with rasteiras, bênçãos, martelos, cabeçadas or rabos-de-arraia, besides an infinity of the kicks that are always introduced by the masters. The kicks are thrown while the capoeiristas stay swaying their bodies, trying to free themselves from the adversary.
This sway is a part of fundamental inportance, while a capoeirista looks for an exact time to attack and the other stays is defence, counter-attacking with what is called a negativa - a kick of defence and counter-attack, because the capoeirista denies the body of the adversary, falling backwards and pulling with his foot the supporting foot of the other to make him fall.
Capoeira is such a strong manifestation and so authentic that, even in the luxorious academies of the middle of the country, she can't lose its essence: the cunningness. Besides that, it has bravely resisted the attempts of folklorization and even the economical weakening of some old and traditional academies. And the new masters follow the schools of its teachers, maintaining even the personal disputes and technical differencies.
The two great masters, Pastinha and Bimba, disagreed in relation to the origin of capoeira and also when it came to the manner of playing. While Bimba defended vehemently that capoeira (which he called regional) had come about in the sugar mills of the bahian bay area, Pastinha affirmed that the game came from Angola and got this name to call the type of capoeira that he teaches to his students. The basic difference between the two is that regional takes more advantage of the low-lying game and has a mixture of kicks from other fighting styles, while capoeira de Angola uses higher kicks and florishes, which is more for the tourist exhibitions.
Until today the great centers of capoeira are Bahia, Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro. The old masters are little by little substituted in the academies by their ex-students, but they are all men who are accustomed to the difficulties of the life and using their own bodies as weapons of defence and attack, thanks to the cunningness and agility..
Photos: With the old Salvador to the back, Mestres João Grande e João Pequeno show (on pages 64-65) their skills in the fight. On the bigger photo, Mestre Waldemar, reponsible of the best berimbaus used in the bahian rodas. Thanks to the continuity of the work by the old masters, there exists today in Bahia a group of new capoeiristas as skillful as the ones of the past. Among the names of the new generation can be highlighted Mestre Vermelho [27, de Bimba - velhosmestres.com] (the bald one of the left photo).