Os grandes mestres da capoeira
A Tarde, 2nd May 1982-
text and photos by Reynivaldo Brito
Photo: João Grande, Cobrinha Verde's son, João Pequeno, Cobrinha Verde, Canjiquinha and Waldemar on the Pelourinho Square
The "roda" is formed and all clap hands. Squatting, two black youngsters greet each-other with a handshake. The berimbaus are operated by capoeira mestres Rafael Alves França (Cobrinha Verde), Waldemar da Paixão (Waldemar), Washington Bruno da Silva (Canjiquinha), José Gabriel Góes (Gato), João Pereira dos Santos (João Pequeno) and João Oliveira dos Santos (João Grande), who were reunited together with their main students. Together they went across the Pelourinho Square, the old stage of fights between great bahian capoeiras and also the Terreiro de Jesus and many streets that belong to the architectural ensemble of Pelourinho where during the times of colonial Brazil the barons and their slaves concentrated that practiced capoeira during their free hours and almost always were persecuted by the police.
All are more than fifty years old and the oldest is Rafael Alves França, Cobrinha Verde, who's with his 74 years of age [69, born 24/10/1912 - velhosmestres.com] is one of the most famous capoeira of Bahia, today with serious cardiac problems, but he couldn't contain himselg when the berimbaus started to play. He rolled his jacket sleeves up and went to the centre of the roda to wait for an opponent. He fought for a few minutes, it's true, but showed the ability and the malandragem that he still has, being old and sick. Yes, it's because capoeira is a mixture of dance, fight, music and above anything, faith. The ones that play capoeira called capoeiristas or capoeiras have extreme confidence in their ability, in the agility of their bodies and mainly the malandragem that is the hight of this fight when the capoeirista always catches his adversary by surprise and is himself never surprised.
José Gabriel Góes, Gato, and Vermelho , Bimba's follower have capoeira academies; Waldemar da Paixão makes berimbaus for the stall owners of the Model Market who sell these to tourists and also special berimbaus to the great capoeiras, Washington Bruno da Silva, Canjiquinha had an academy and today is a humble worker of Salvador's Town Hall, João Oliveira dos Santos, João Grande, washes cars in a gas station and during his free hours works playing berimbau in a folk group which is run by a capoeirista called Vermelho 27 [Vermelho de Pastinha, not 27], an ex-disciple of mestre Pastinha, Rafael Alves França, Cobrinha Verde is sick and living in his son Júlio's place, who's his student and a great capoeirista, who replaces him with force.
It's true that the capoeirista was considered a marginal and a delinquent from the moment it appeared and the society was on its guard and there were penal laws to frame and punish it. The Criminal Code of the Brazilian Empire from 1830 considers capoeira a vagrant, without defined profession, which was the reason he was implicitely added to the Chapter IV, Article 295, which talks about vagrants and beggars. Penal Code of the Republic of the United States of Brazil however which was established by the Decree Number 847, on 11th October 1890 and gave it special treatment in the XIII Chapter, titled: Of vagrants and capoeiras and stipulated a prison cell for two to six months and to the chiefs (mestres) the penalty would be double. There were various conflicts between capoeiras and authorities to the point that the subject was discussed as a national security in the last days of the Empire and first days of the Republic. The conflicts almost obliged the marshal called Deodoro da Fonseca to destroy his office the trigger being the feared capoeira Juca Reis (José Elísio Reis), son of the first count of São Salvador de Matosinhos. He challenged the authority of Joaquim Sampaio Ferraz, the first chief of police of the Republican Police that punished the capoeiras and the case ended with the session of the Councel of Ministry. In Bahia, the chief of the Police Pedro de Azevedo Gordilho, Pedrito, became famous for persecuting candomblé and the capoeiras. But in 1937 Manoel dos Reis Machado, Bimba, managed to register an academy in the Board of Education. The rise came when the takecarer governor Juracy Magalhães sent a soldier to Bimba's academy to give him an official letter asking for his appearance in the palace. Bimba told his students that if he's not back, he's been sent to jail. There he was surprised by an invitation to show his capoeira to different authorities that visited Bahia. From being persecuted capoeira conquered the colleges, the squares and today is one of the strongest manifestations of afro-brazilian culture.
THE RODA AND THE BERIMBAU
To make a capoeira roda before anything a good berimbau player is needed. The berimbau is an instrument that consists of a wooden stick which can be araçá, pombo, or any other wood that has the elasticity that allows it to be curved in a half-moon like form, because in its ends a steel wire is put under tension. The ressonance box is a regular size gourd and according the great berimbau maker, mestre Waldemar da Paixão - the gourd needs to be fixed, besides a copper coin, a stick and a caxixi. The berimbau dictates the game and the music coming from various seduces the ones present. But, the mestre sings a ladainha and acts as a soloist, and is always accompanied by the choir of his students. Beside berimbau what's needed is a good pandeiro, reco-reco and the handclaps of the ones present so that the "game" or the "play" could heat up. Each berimbau rhythm corresponds to a type of game. The verses don't have metric or rhyme. Most of the times these are improvised and are always connected to the themes that reveal its folk roots. The melodie is of binary beat and the harmony is simple, although catchy.
The squatting capoeiristas, in "cocorinha" as they call it, listen to the music attentively and when the ladainha ends they start to fight, and the choir starts: "It's a knife to kill with, buddy/Ê, ê, the rooster sang, buddy/Ê, ê, cocorocô, camarada". The capoeiristas cross themselves, with signs characteristic to christianism or candomblé and then shake hands and go with a cartwheel go to play, fight, to do capoeira. The black bodies launch themselves in the air and in the ground each trying to hit the friend, with rasteiras, bênções, martelos, cabeçadas or rabos-de-arraia and an infinity of kicks that are always introduced by capoeira mestres. The kicks are executed while the capoeiristas keep swaying the body from one side to another. It's a fundamentally important part of capoeira. The negativa is a kick of defense and counter attack. The capoeirista refuses the body to the adversary's kick, falling back and, with the foot, catches the supporting foot of the other making him fall. The bat's flight consists of a jump with two feet to the adversary's chest, taking him down.
Capoeira is so strong and authentic that it resists the try of folklorization and even the weakening that happens in some capoeira academies is not able to end its authenticity. On the contrary, its traditional masters are stubborn to teach their sons and most beloved friends, each within their own viewpoint defending this fight, in their academies that are run in place that are difficult to access and even in places lended by the public entities located in the outskirts of Salvador. This fantastic black guys' ballet is made with lots of drive and cunning. And nobody knows its exact origin. The two great mestres that have died, Manoel dos Reis Machado, Bimba (1900-1973) and Vicente Ferreira Pastinha, Pastinha (1889-1981) disagreed about its origin. Bimba, who didn't agree with Pastinha, defended that capoeira had come about in the mills of the bahian bay area and Pastinha said that it came from Angola, so he named the capoeira he taught Capoeira de Angola and Bimba baptized his capoeira Regional. The basic difference between the two schools is in the original kicks, since Regional takes advantage of the low and creeping game with mixture of other figths, while Angola uses high kicks and flourishes [Angola - low game, Regional - high game with mixture of other fights].
For the etnologist Waldeloir Rego, author if the socio-etnographical studt Capoeira Angola, "everything leads us to believe that capoeira was the invention of angolans that came here". There are many kicks to know:
Tesoura is a kick to throw off balance. The capoeirista uses the legs as if these were open scissors. When the adversary reaches him he closes the legs and spins his body to take him down. Rasteira - a good capoeirista needs to know good and fast rasteiras.
It's a traditional throw-down kick when the adversary is surprised and falls to the ground receiving then other kicks. The capoeirista supports himself on the ground with two hands and catches the adversary. Bênção - with the foot on the ground and a leg stretched the capoeirista hits the adversary's chest with force and pushes him. Martelo - this kick consists of a side kick trying to hit the adversary to his kidneys or face. It's a traumatizing kick and hurts when received in full. Cabeçada - other highly characteristic capoeira kick which consists of hitting the adversary with the head. There are various types of cabeçadas, out of which the most dangerous is the escurrumelo, taught by the fearsome mestre Bimba, when the capoeirista hits the chest and the jawbone of the adversary at the same time. Aú - this is a defensive movement, of flight and attack. The capoeirista puts his hands on the ground and spins in the air, falling a few meters from the adversary.
Rabo-de-arraia - another traditional kick, here the capoeirista puts the hands and one foot on the ground and spins the body quickly with one leg straightened, trying to hit the adversary in the face. These are the main kicks of capoeira, but as this is a fight that is a fruit of its own informalism other kicks are always created and incorporated in every capoeira roda by its respective mestres.
When it comes to the rhythms that are the most famous in capoeira, there are: São Bento Grande which is a fast, high and violent game. Banguela is an inside game, with a slow ginga and fast kicks. Iúna is a low game, slow and full of flourishes. Cavalaria is a warning rhythm, when the capoeiristas were persecuted by the police and warned with this rhythm the presence of soldiers. São Bento Pequeno was considered by mestre Bimba the hymn of capoeira. Amazonas is the knife game, very dangerous and finally São Bento Grande de Angola is a slow game where the flourishes dominate and it's made for demonstrations because the spectators will be smitten with the agility of the capoeiristas' flourishes.
FAMOUS CAPOEIRAS OF BAHIA
The great focal places of capoeiristas were Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, where since it's appearance large portions were used in newspapers and magazines to report about the delinquency of capoeiristas. There were great names as Nascimento Grande registered in the book of Odorico Tavares and also Gilberto Amado. In Rio there was the fearsome Manduca da Praia who, according to Melo de Morais was "known by all the population of the Rio de Janeiro state, considered as a man of business, feared as a celebrity capoeirista, constituent of the São José parish, responded only to 27 processes of light and serious injuries, getting away with all of these using personal influence and friends' help". In Bahia the old ones talk of Besouro and Nagé. More recently mestres Bimba and Pastinha, both deceased. The most important living ones traveled through historic places with this reported, places which were stages to many fights and demonstrations of agility of capoeiristas. They went to the Pelourinho Square, to Terreiro de Jesus, to Barra Lighthouse, to Humaitá and to the neighborhoods of the outskirts. Whereever they arrived, the rodas started with the berimbaus and pandeiros heating up the "play". Among them was Rafael Alves França, Cobrinha Verde who by 74 years of age, despite having said "I'm already out of form" didn't contain himself when the roda was formed in Terreiro de Jesus and so could show for a few moments his malandragem and skills. He was recently teaching students in a special school with the help of one of his most experient student. Remembering his feats and bravery he told that one night when coming from a ball called "Baile da Jega" a police patrol intercepted him and asked for his documents. They were fighting when there was a curfew sound at 21 hours. Then Cobrinha Verde put the two on the ground and took a pistol putting the rest on a run.
But the most beautiful fight is certainly between João Pequeno and João Grande. João Pequeno who was the second guy of mestre Pastinha, was João Grande's mestre. Among the mestres he is one that knows the most tricks of attack and defense. The fight between the two is a real class of ballet. João Pequeno has an exeptional character and humility. He speaks little and always when he remembers Pastinha he tells praises to the biggest capoeira Angola mestre, most of all in the talk maintained by the oldest capoeiristas.
Other scholars affirm that possibly the angolan blacks invented or even brought capoeira with them since they weren't affected by the slave labour, as they were the first slaves to be brought and were insolent, talkative, imaginative and without much persistence at work, yet very skillful. And capoeira is most of all about skill. But capoeira is one, despite the little differences and the disagreements between the great mestres still alive. Yes, because capoeira whether it be angola or regional, has ginga, cunningness, berimbaus, pandeiros, rhythms and kicks that serve to create new variations. But, the playing style, the envolvement and other elements that characterize it are present in any capoeira roda. This position disagrees with Edison Carneiro who affirms that nine types of capoeira exist. It is one and the disagreements between angola and regional aren't able to divide it. That's why, the hip or connected kick used in regional, can also be sometimes be used in capoeira angola to improvise. These in reality come from the same tree.
THE MISSING MESTRES
Bahia had great mestres who are by now deceased. And the two most recent who became known all over the country were Manoel dos Reis Machado, Bimba and Vicente Ferreira Pastinha, Pastinha who died on the 13th November in Salvador, at 92 years of age. Bimba started doing capoeira Angola and later learned kicks of other fights adapting them to capoeira. This created lots of disagreement among hte capoeiristas. Bimba was friends with the unknown ones and a singular person with his students and friends. He was shouting with ease and calling his adversaries to duels. He created the first capoeira academy, until today called the Centro de Cultura Física e Capoeira Regional, in the 1930-s when the authorities still considered capoeira or the capoeirista a dangerous delinquent. But despite event not completing the first class of a school Bimba was sufficiently intelligent to use his disciples and managing to register his academy with the Board of Education. He was heavy handed and expected alot from his students like not allowing to smoke cigars or drink. He recommended his students to avoid showing their friends outside the academy their progress because to his understanding the surprise was the best weapon in a fight. So he lived fighting and teaching what he had learned.
Pastinha was a short mulatto, skinny and talked with ease. He created his Sport Centre of Capoeira Angola in 1941 and for many years it was located in an old house with number 19 on the Pelourinho Square. However with the renovation of the place his academy was closed and when he was already blind in his last months of life they gave him a room in a place he didn't like. He died poor as a destitute in the Shelter of Salvador last November. Both Bimba and Pastinha died almost in misery, a fruit of their own informality of capoeira. The more they try to organize it the more it looks to resist to return to the streets and alleys where the strong elements exist that made possible its creation. The black guy, the poverty and the opression. But in an interview from many years ago to a southern magazine Pastinha reveals that neither [João Pequeno or João Grande] were his students. They came to his academy already playing good capoeira and became his contramestres in a few years.
Mestre Waldemar da Paixão is very respected. None of the great capoeira mestres dare to speak about capoeira in Bahia without mentioning him. Today he is the main maker of good berimbaus, maker of "berimbau that plays", because many of these are tourist decorations. His academy was situated on the Liberdade Road and nowadays doesn't want hear about an academy. "I had a lot of displeasure with students". Sometimes you prepare a students and when he is at his best come the bosses of these folk groups and take the students away offering money and clothes. It was then that the other mestre, Canjiquinha (Washington Bruno da Silva) interrupted and said: "We make the effort and they get sweaty".
Canjiquinha was a student of Aberré who was a fearsome capoeirista, now deceased. He is 56, retired and at the moment works as an employee in an office of Salvador's Town Hall. He is the biggest joker of all the living capoeiristas. He likes to sing and with two beers in a bank is capable of demonstrating his agality. He improvises rhythms and capoeira songs with great ease and is according to Waldeloir Rego, a capoeira scholar, the one who most contributed to the adaptation of other folk songs to capoeira.
Mestre José Gabriel Góes, Gato, was born in 1929  and is therefore 52 years old, although he looks younger. He is still the fastest - the cat-like cunning gave him his name. It's his weapon which helps him escape his adversaries' kicks. His academy continues to operate and he has good students. There are many capoeira mestre with many students and new offers. But the ones who reunited for this report represent what is most important that exists in the capoeira of Brazil. These are old mestres that have the great folk knowledge acquired in the alleys and streets. They are the real wisemen of their profession and there are always little disagreements between them, which needed to be overcome so that they could be photographed and interviewed together. They forgot the past and played together. The griefs, the challenges and other resentments gave room to the strong pandeiro beat, to the reco-reco and caxixi roll and mainly to the indescribable berimbau sound, that always gives them strenght to continue the battle, together with the force of all the lived years.