"Bahia, my Bahia,/ Bahia of Salvador,/ who doesn't know capoeira can't value it./ All can learn,/ general and even doctor./ But for this it's necessary/ to find a teacher. Who doesn't want doesn't learn./ It was made for man,/ boy, old, even women./ If you want to learn/ come here to Salvador,/ find mestre Pastinha/ since he is a good teacher."
It's a fight, it's a dance, it's Capoeira
Text Roberto Freire
Photos David Drew Zingg
"She can kill, already has"
[photo caption: The dance hides the violence of the leg and head kicks which, if these were to hit the adversary, would be mortal. These are striken with the fighter crouching, with a foot or upside down. Over the wall of the Lighthouse Fort, on the Barra beach, in Salvador, mestre Pastinha's students have public shows of capoeira de Angola. These photos show some of the basic kicks: ginga, meia-lua, aú, bananeira, chapa de frente.]
Two men will start to fight. They are squatting facing each-other, captured by the rhythm of a strange music. Behind them, an old man plays a berimbau and sings a song which is repeated by other five instrumentalist. All of his verses end with word companion. The name of the old man is mestre Pastinha. The fight takes place in his Academy, in Pelouinho neighborhood, in Salvador, in Bahia. One of the musicians takes the berimbau from the mestre, who extends his arms to find the heads of the fighters. He says the last verse: this is the keyword for the start of the fight. The two men start to fight capoeira, and bless themselves when mestre removes his hands from their heads. The first kicks are made. Mestre Pastinha doesn't see these, but looks to be sensing. He is almost blind, but knows everything about capoeira, which he fought, invincible, until he was 78 years [in 1967] old. The history of his life covers almost all the history of capoeira in Brazil. He tells it like this:
"Who sees the fight, understands it better. She resembles a dance, but is not. Capoeira is a fight, and a violent fight. It can kill, already has. Beautiful! The violence is hidden in its beauty. The boys are only showing, the kicks are passing scraping or are held back before hitting the adversary. But nevertheless it's beautiful.
"All I think of capoeira I one day wrote onto this painting which is on the door of the Academy. On top, only these three words: Angola, capoeira, mother. And, in the bottom, a thought: The sorcery of the slave in search of liberty; It's beginning has no method; It's end is inconceivable to the wisest capoeirista.
"But there's a many stories about the start of capoeira and nobody knows what is true or not. The zebra game is one. They say that in Angola, long time ago, centuries, there was a feast every year to honour the girls who became yound women. First they were operated by the priests, in this way becoming similar to the married women. Later when the people sang, the men fought in the way the zebras do, giving headbutts and kicks. The winners had the right to choose the most beautiful girls from the operated ones. It might not be true, but today's capoeiristas would like it to be so, so that their victories would have the same prizes...
"Well, there is one thing that nobody doubts: the ones to teach capoeira to us were the negro slaves that were brought from Angola. It can even be that it was quite different from the fight that these two men are showing now. They told me that there is alot written that proves this. I believe it. Eveything changes. But what we call capoeira de Angola, what I learned, I haven't allowed to change here in the Academy. This has at least 78 years. And will have more than 100, because my students take care of me. Their eyes are now my eyes. They know they have to continue. They know that the fight is to protect the man.
"The negros used capoeira to defend their freedom. It can be that the name of the fight comes from exactly this.
"I learned that each one is each one"
[photo caption: In the Pelourinho neighborhood, the Capoeira Academy of Pastinha functions in an old colonial house. With 78 years, almost blind, he still is the mestre always: "I direct everything through the eyes and rigor of my boys". But there are moments of solitude and sorrow in mestre's life. Things of the past and things of the future. The berimbau, however, will always be the greatest mestre, and the student Pastinha's heritage.]
The negro ran to the forest. If some of the chasers reached him, if it was one to one, in a clearing, in capoeira - then, there, the negro was more open to defend himself.
"And they also say that this way of fighting playfully as we still do today, was the way of the salve to exercise himself, disguised as a dancer in front of the overseer. I think it is even the truth, capoeirista is very disguised, wily and cunning. Against the force, only this. That's certain.
"But what serves for defense, also serves for the attack. Capoeira is as agressive as dangerous. Who can't fight always loses unprepared. Malandros and unhappy people found in these kicks a way to assault others, to revenge the enemies and to face the police. It was a sad time of capoeira. I knew, I saw. In the port gangs... A violent fight, nobody could contain it.
"Now that the rhythm is faster, I feel the agility of these two men and imagine each of their kicks hitting the adversary fully. I imagine anger, fear, spite, despair, pushing these feet... Once I saw a capoeirista chasing a whole patrol. Another thing: a dark place, a woman, comes a guy wanting things - man wanting a woman is aleays unprepared - so, suddenly, he receives a kick, only one and falls wounded, blacked out or dead. Yes sir, there where capoeiristas malandros who wore women's clothes to rob the Don Juans.
"I know that this all is a dirty stain in the history of capoeira, but can a revolver be blamed for the crimes it practises? And the knife? And the cannons? And the bombs? What I like to remember always is that capoeira appeared in Brazil as a fight against the slavery. In the songs, that remain until today, you can perceive this. One of them is this that they are singing and what I will sing along: Eh, protect me Lord, comrade. / E, water to drink, comrade. / E, what you gonna do, comrade./ E, he's a mandingueiro, comrade. / E, he's a strong guy, comrade./ E, dagger, comrade. / E, knife to kill, comrade./ E, the rooster sang, comrade./ E, có-có-ró-có, comrade;/ E, the turn of the world, comrade./ E, what the world does, comrade.
"Understand who wants, it's all in these verses that we kept in from these times. There's fun also; I'm gonna have one on these two fighters. My voice, being low and loud, they listen: E, protect me Lord,/ protect me Our Lady of Victory./ I saw this boy just now/ there in the kingdom of glory. / Boy if I wanted to, / (ha, ha, ha) I would have thrown you out. Because capoeira is a fight, yes, but is also folklore and a beautiful tradition. And we kept it pure, everybody making schools, creating academies and gaining the people's, the artists', the students' and the government's respect. When I say we, I remember the great capoeiristas of the past. They are already dead. Each of them has history: Bigode de Seda, Américo Ciência, Bugalho, Amorzinho, Zé Bom Pé, Chico Três Pedaços, Tibirici da Folha Grossa, Doze Homens, Inimigo Sem Tripa, Zé do U, Vitorino Braço Torto, Zé do Saco, Bené do Correio, Sete Mortes, Chico Me Dá. From the nicknames alone you can know who they were, how they fought. And there were two women also: Júlia Fogareira and Maria Homem.
"All of them practised the pure capoeira de Angola as I and these boys there do until today. There are great capoeiristas alive who changed the way of fighting, but continue to be great mestres. I speak of Mestre Bimba who practises capoeira regional, and about Carlos Senna, who invented the stylized capoeira. Now that I don't fight any more, I trust my two contra-mestres to conserve capoeira de Angola: João Oliveira dos Santos and João Pereira dos Santos - João Grande and João Pequeno. That is what is the best, in Bahia...
"These verses I made to pay them tribute: I have two boys/ who are called João/ one is a tame snake/ and the other is a hawk./ One plays in the air (ha, ha, ha)/ and the other coils up on the ground.
"These two learned with the Academy, but I learned with luck. When I was 10 years old - I was very skinny - another stockier boy became my rival. I was only to go outside - I went to shop in the store, for example - and we always started to fight. I always lost. So I cried in hiding, out of shame and sadness. One day, from the window of his house, an old african watched our fight. Come here, my son, he said to me, seeing that I cried of anger after losing. You can't beat him, you know, because he is bigger and older. The time you waste flying the kite come here in my house and I will teach you a worthy thing. That's what the old man said to me and I went there. So he taught me to play capoeira, every day a little, and I learned it all. He always said: Don't provoke, boy, make him slowly aware of what you know. The last time the boy attacked me, I made him aware of what I was capable of with only one kick. And my rival was gone, the boy became even my friend out of admiration and repect. The old african was called Benedito, he was a great capoeirista and when he taught me he was older than I am today.
"When I was 12 years old, in 1902, I went to the Apprentice School of Sailors. There I taught capoeira to my classmates. Everybody called me 110. I left the Marines 20 years old. Hard life, difficult. Due to the things young and poor people do, I had the police after me couple of times. Noise on the street, boasting. When they tried to catch me, I remembered of Mestre Benedito and I defended myself. They knew I was playing capoeira, so they wanted to desmoralize me in front of the people. For this, I gave the police a beating couple of times impudently, but to defend my moral and my body.
"That time, from 1910 to 1920, the game was free. I went to take care of a gambling den. To maintain order. But, despite being a capoeirista, I didn't neglect to have a little double-sided 12-inch knife that I always carried with me. A professional player that time was always carrying a knife. So, in the midst of these was without a weapon, was pretending to be a fool. I saw many street riots, some blood, but I don't like to tell about my fights. Well, I only worked when my art didn't provide me. Besides capoeira, I worked as a shoe-shiner, sold newspaper, went gold-digging, helped to build the port of Salvador. Everything as a pass-by, I always wanted to live off my art. My art is to be a painter, artist.
"It was in 1941 when my life changed. It was in the Pedra hillside, end of Liberdade, in the Gingibirra neighborhood. My ex-student, called Aberré, a good capoeirista, already dead, called me to see a capoeira roda. In the roda there were only mestres. The biggest mestre of mestres was Amorzinho, a civil guard. Giving me his hand he offered me to take care of an Academy. I gave a no, but all the mestres insisted. The confirmed I was the best to run the Academy and to preserve capoeira de Angola. So I founded the Sport Centre of Capoeira de Angola, in 1941, and registered the Academy in 1952. I gave the capoeiristas a license. My boys have diplomas.
"They leave here knowing everything. Knowing that the fight is very cunning and full of crafts. That we need to be calm. That it is not an attacking fight, she waits. A good capoeirista has to cry in front of his agressor. He is crying, but the eyes and the spirit are active. Capoeirista doesn't like to hug and to give hand. It is always better to doubt kindness. Capoeirista doesn't turn a corner with an open chest. He has to add two or three steps to the left or to the right to see the enemy. He doesn't enter throught a door of a house that has a dark corridor. Or he has something to light the hidden in the shadows or he doesn't enter. If he's on the street and notices that he's see, he disguises himself, comes aroung creeping and sees the companion again. Well, if he's watching again, he's an enemy and the capoeirista prepares for what may come.
"Capoeira de Angola can only be taught without forcing the essense of a person, the thing is to take advantage of the free gestures of each one. Nobody fights my way, but in their fight is all the knowledge I learned. Each one is each one.
"Nobody has put me on the ground yet"
"You can't forget about the berimbau. Berimbau is the primitive mestre. I teaches through sound. It give the vibration and the swing to our body. The percussion group with berimbau is not a modern arragnement, no, it's there from the start. A good capoeirista, besides playing, has to know how to play the berimbau and sing.
"And capoeira has to be played without dirtying the clothes, without touching the body on the ground. When I play, they even think that the old man is drunk, because I become all soft and rickety, as if I was going to fall. But nobody has put me on the ground yet, nor will.
"I have a motto in life: I like to enter underneath, to see how I come out. I haven't married yet, I had many children, but all have died. I have a girlfriend who is crazy about marrying me. I don't know if I can escape this. But it is still very early to decide. Later, until now I haven't got resources to be able to marry. Hunger gives space to many bad things. If I at least had a house to live in, I would marry. Because the house is what kills the poor the most, kills in the head, it eats the manioc meal the children should be eating. Because of this I don't marry and the rest I leave in Jesus's disposal. Without Jesus I would be in the gutter, begging.
"And all this in Brazil! Brazil that has to give, to sell, to throw away and to deny to its children. But everything depends on the law. The laws are passed and they lapse, lapse, like the cry of Independence lapsed.
"I studied only the first book, but I studied it good. The rest the life taught me. Taught to see. There are things we see and the literate, the teachers, the politicians, don't write about. I would like to have learned more, but can the one who doesn't have bread to take home keep reading the dictionary?
"The man can speak two languages, but one of these is false. I am not catholic nor from candomblé. I believe in God, in one only. I respect the religious people when there's respect.
"I've traveled plenty around Brazil, I even went to Africa. Not to Angola, but I want to go. Only to compare capoeira of here and there. When it's time to give praise, it's Pastinha here and there, but when it comes to a trip and to the government to help capoeira de Angola, I am forgotten. It's always like this: the work if for the ugly one for the pretty to eat. I am speaking like this because it's a way of thinking. It's not a revolt against the nature. The nature isn't bothered.
"I will sell my book about capoeira de Angola and eat.
"Who helps me the most is Jorge Amado. Jesus give him strenght and courage. It's very bad to say that I am Jorge Amado's friend. He is who's my friend. Who needs Jorge Amado is me.
"Now what still needs to be said is something beautiful. What will be published in the magazine I can read because my Academy's boys are collecting money to pay for my eye surgery. They say they need what I can still see. Beautiful, isn't it?"
The three schools
[photo caption: Mestre Bimba, the creator of the bahian regional.]
There are three styles of capoeira that are nowadays practised in Salvador, however having among themselves fundamental similarities: capoeira de Angola, the bahian regional and the stylized capoeira.
CAPOEIRA DE ANGOLA - This would be the purest form, of great importance to the folklore. The fight is accompanied by an instrumental group, made of berimbau, pandeiro, reco-reco, agôgô, atabaque and a rattle. The berimbau is the main and indispensable instrument. The melodies that the capoeiristas sing are genuinely of folk origin, without bigger worries regarding the metric or rhyme in the lyrics which are often improvised. The rhythm follows the fight, obeying traditional variations.
Capoeira de Angola starts with the berimbau rhythm which is straight away followed by other instruments. After some time the solo singer will sing, accompanied by others who repeat his verses.
The capoeiristas who are doing the demonstration stay squatting at the foot of the berimbau, listening respectively the singing. It is the solo berimbau that gives the start to the game. The capoeiristas bless themselves and move from the position they were, turning the body towards the adversary, starting the low game, sweeping movements, always with turns. The body cannot touch the ground and it is important not to leave the head exposed to the adversary's foot kicks. All capoeira kicks are allowed in the low game.
Later, the rest of the fight develops in the standing position. The fight becomes more violent, while the rhythm rises. The capoeira kicks are: meia-lua - it has this name due to the spinning movement, that the foot executes when the capoeirista gives it. Bananeira is when the capoeirista balances himself on the hands with the feet in the air: in this position he can attack with the feet, from up to down and move to any direction. Aú differs from bananeira because the body turns, sideways, with an energetic impulse, allowing the capoeirista to do jumps of some meters of distance. It's a great resource when the capoeirista is attacked by many people. Chapa de frente: it's a very dangerous kick not only because of violence, but for the organs that can be hit by it; it's a kick with a straightened thigh, launched against the adversary's chest or belly; it's a cunnning kick because the victim is hit when he thinks that the agressor retreats. Cabeçada: striked as preferred at the thorax or the face and, even, from low to high, at the jaw. Rabo de arraia: a kick which is applied in the low game. It's movement is in the form of a whip of a foot in a rapid spinning movement, looking to hit the victim with the side of the foot, usually in the head. Cutilada: done with the hand, in the form of a cleaver, at numerous parts of the body; it's only possible to apply it when the capoeiristas are very close.
BAHIAN REGIONAL - It was created by Manoel dos Reis Machado, mestre Bimba, who during ten years practised Angola and later resolved to add to it some kicks of savate, jiu-jitsu, greco-roman fight and judo. He composed, this way, a method that has 52 kicks, of which 23 - if are applied well - are mortal. It's also accompanied by an instrumental group and by the songs. Mestre Bimba is today 66 years old and was the one who took to the academies a large number of young people of middle and upper classes. There around 150 students practise yearly. Bimba only accepts students who have a diploma and prove that are employed or studying. He invented also - 35 years ago - a drink that has a little alcohol which helps the students after the fight, to reanimate them. It's called the bearded woman.
STYLIZED CAPOEIRA - Carlos Sena leaving capoeira de Angola, passing by regional, ended up creating the stylized. Keeping the basic kicks, more the ones of other fights, sought to create a complete ethics for capoeira, like the one of judo. Senavox - this is the name of Carlos Sena's Academy - aims fundamentally for educative purposes besides athletics, asking from the student an intellectual, physical and spiritual preparation. It has a severe regulation and a comparable disciplinary demand. He created a greeting before the fights, the contendors use jackets and the level of aprenticeship is shown by the colored belts, as in judo. It is the most modern of all the academies and, also, publishes a little illustrated newspaper about it's activities.