Tuesday, 31 July 2007


I'd like to thank Faisca (what a great name!) for his kind words about this blog in "The Capoeira Blog" at thecapoeirablog.wordpress.com

He also mentions

Bahia-Capoeira Blog - This is a promising blog with some great content. Be sure to check out their tutorials on how to string the berimbau. They also have a store, always a good thing.

Jogo Log - This one hasn’t been updated since April, but it has some good stuff. Check out the Learning Portuguese for Capoeira post.

Generic Capoeira LJ - A LiveJournal community for capoeiristas.

We met through CapoeiraEspaço, which I found through the Capoeira group on Facebook. What a great way to work together and make Capoeira as viral (and vital) on the web as it is in real life!

Sunday, 29 July 2007

João Grande

I first met João Grande when I went to a restaurant in Salvador - now defunct, fortunately - called A Moenda. It was a tourist trap that served forgettable food. The main attraction was a stage show that included scantily clad dancing girls - more often found in Rio than Bahia - and a bit where an unwitting tourist was invited to join a conga line of said dancing girls. The catch - he was blindfolded. At some point, to the audience's delight, someone dressed in a gorilla suit would replace the woman behind the "mark" and dance salaciously. Since the victim thought it was a beautiful, half-naked woman, you can imagine how he responded. Some might say he deserved it, but that's really up to him and his conscience.

Towards the end of the show, there was a flashy Capoeira exhibition, and at some point a sparely built, older, dark-skinned man in an oversized Mexican-style hat played berimbau.
I was told that, after each show, he also swept the stage. Clown and janitor - that was what A Moenda had tried to make of Mestre João Grande. After working till the wee hours - about 3 am - at the restaurant, he would grab an hour or so of sleep before heading to his day job at a car wash.

In an act of tremendous self-sacrifice, due, no doubt, to his passion for Capoeira,
Mestre João spent his day off - Sunday - teaching anyone willing to learn, for free, at the GCAP space in Fort Santo Antonio alem do Carmo. I had the privilege of being one of those students. When I arrived for class, he'd be taking a nap on a bench, sitting up. The man seemed to be made of leather and iron. He said he rarely if ever drank water and fuelled himself with "mingau de cachorro" - a mix of manioc flour, water and garlic. He also said he never went anywhere without his berimbau - according to him, he used it to "espantar cachorro" (scare off dogs).

Fortunately - especially for us - GCAP was able to get him the documents he needed to get social security benefits and a government pension. That meant that he could teach full-time. Unfortunately - for us - he found a place that truly valued and rewarded his talents and viewed him as what he really is: a living national treasure. It should have been Bahia or at least somewhere in Brazil, but it turned out to be the Big Apple.

When I saw him earlier this year at his school in New York City, I asked one of his students how old she thought he was. She said, "About 60?" He must have been nearly that age when I met him 20 years ago. He looked younger and sprier in 2007 than I remembered him in 1987 - the spirit and soul of Capoeira Angola in flesh and blood.

Friday, 27 July 2007

More about Cobrinha

Anyone who reads the Wikipedia entry on Mestre Cobra Mansa, better known as Cobrinha, will know that he is a well-established master, and co-founder of the International Capoeira Angola Foundation (FICA). What it doesn't say - and it may or may not be true - is that he started life as a "street kid." He certainly learned "street smarts." When I first met him in Salvador in 1987, he earned a living as a street vendor, but was more like a medieval mountebank.

He would set up a bicycle rim with large knives inserted point inwards, and offer to dive through the small hole in the middle. A crowd would inevitably gather round to witness this feat, but Cobrinha and his assistants managed to keep them going for hours with a sales pitch for a "massage ointment" laced with a local anesthetic, xylocaine (lidocaine) - a precursor of Viagra - and otherwise manage to avoid taking the deadly plunge between the knife points for as long as possible. It seemed impossible, because the hole was smaller than the breadth of his shoulders.

I only saw him do it once. He literally dove through the hole with his arms stretched well above his head, reducing his shoulders to their narrowest point like a diver into a pool. It was brilliant, and people were willing to hang around for hours - and even buy his product - on the off chance he'd do it again. He later started using his acrobatic and Capoeira skills at the Picolino circus school, both teaching and performing.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Moraes, Cobrinha and GCAP

Fortunately, I rarely throw anything away (though my cats have been known to do so inadvertently). I've found a 20-year-old notebook that I used when I was taking my first one-hand-washes-another Portuguese lessons from Moraes. It includes a short essay, written in Portuguese, that describes how we first met. Every detail matches my recollections, so there was little to correct in the previous entry, but the essay did remind me that the day after my fateful first visit to Fort Santo Antonio Alem do Carmo - now called the Capoeira Fort - I not only saw my first roda, but met Cobra Mansa, better known as Cobrinha. This is as good a place as any to say a few words about Moraes and Cobrinha, saving the great João Grande for later on.

Moraes told me that he was born on Ilha do Maré (literally "Island of the Tide") in All Saints Bay and later moved to Massaranduba, then an infamous slum on the outskirts of Salvador. When he did his obligatory military service, he joined the Marines and was sent to Rio de Janeiro. While there, he met Cobra Mansa, or Cobrinha. Moraes taught Cobrinha and others, like Mestre Braga, the form of Capoeira he had learned from João Grande at Mestre Pastinha's school in Pelourinho as a young man, and that is how the Grupo de Capoeira Pelourinho (GCAP) got its start in Rio.

When he returned to Salvador, Bahia, Moraes found that the older mestres were not being given their due, and Capoeira Angola was losing ground to the Regional style. With Cobrinha as his assistant, or contra-mestre, Moraes started teaching students and organising special bouts, or "rodas", for the "mestres antigos" who had trained alongside or under the late great Pastinha. Therefore, Moraes, Cobrinha and their students deserve most of the credit for the revival of Capoeira Angola that began in Bahia in 1981.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

"Jack of all trades, and master of none"

Now that I've run out of diary material to copy, I have to rely on my memory again. The photo I've added above shows a corner of Fort Santo Antônio além do Carmo (now the Capoeira Fort) with the eponymous church in the background

I don't remember what day it was - but it was sometime between January 1, 1987 and Bonfim Day that I finally met a real-life mestre in Bahia and started learning Capoeira Angola.

It was one of the many days that I'd taken the Lacerda lift up to the upper city and hastened to Terreiro de Jesus plaza, which I'd mistaken for a Candomblé temple (or the site of one) when I first arrived because they are also called terreiros. I'd been there many times before, and wandered as far as I dared in Pelourinho, long before it was turned into a relatively safe tourist theme park.

But this day was different. I know it was in early January 1987, on a Friday, because I was wearing white, in honour of Oxalá (Obatala). I had the wind at my back - perhaps a divine breeze - and it was pushing me towards the plaza with churches on three sides and a fountain in the centre. Some capoeiristas were playing a bout, surrounded by onlookers, and I joined the ring. Standing beside me was a man - slightly built, about my height - dressed all in white except for a black fedora hat.

I heard several people call him "mestre," with obvious deference and respect. Normally shy, I spent some time working up the courage to talk to him. "Are you a capoeira mestre?" I finally asked, in halting Portuguese. "According to some," he replied (modestly or deviously, I wasn't quite sure). After we'd spoken for a while, I discovered two things - one, that he spoke English, and two, that he had founded the Grupo de Capoeira Angola Pelourinho (GCAP), and held classes in a large space in a ruined fort on the very edge of the historic district, in Santo Antonio Além do Carmo. Even better, he offered to trade Capoeira classes for English lessons.

I told him that I'd learned bits and pieces of Capoeira Angola and Regional in LA, and he replied dryly, in perfect English: "Jack of all trades, and master of none". I was impressed.

Then he had me follow him through the maze-like streets of Pelourinho, past the blue church built by slaves for slaves, and up a sloping street that led to the Carmelite Convent. I was surprised to find that it seemed to be a perfectly safe, residential area, and wished I'd ventured there earlier (later Z explained that she meant it was dangerous at night, which is still true).

Then we walked down a long straight road that led to a large square overlooking the bay, with Bonfim church in the distance, and up to the gate of the crumbling fort. It opened onto a short dark tunnel, beyond which I could see a rubble and rubbish-strewn courtyard. For the first time since I'd met my new guide, I hesitated, but felt reassured by the presence of an elderly guard sitting near the entrance.

"Mestre Fedora" took me down the passage, across the courtyard, and up some steps to a grillwork door covered with a sheet of plywood and closed with a chain and padlock. Through a chink, we were able to get a glimpse of the room inside, with its distinctive black-and-white tile floor.

I was disappointed to find that he didn't have the key on him, but he said, "Come back tomorrow. We have class Tuesdays and Thursdays, with rodas on Saturdays and Sundays." I could see my first real Capoeira Angola roda the very next day!

As we walked back out of the fort, past the slumbering guard, and into the reassuring sunshine of Santo Antonio plaza, "Mestre Fedora," better known as Moraes, turned to me with a sharp look and gave me my first painful lesson in Capoeira Angola and life: "Never, ever, let a stranger take you into a place like that again!"

They say that God protects innocents, fools and drunkards. Which, oh Lord, was I?

December 21, 1986

I've been depressed most of the afternoon, despite a spectacular sunset, seen from the window of the bus. Can't help worrying about what's going on back at the flat in LA, and I miss Lily, my Siamese cat. If I come back for a longer period, I'll have to give up the flat and bring Lily with me. Then, who knows? Perhaps I'll stay.

Salvador is a city of unsettling squalor in the most gorgeous of settings. Most of the beaches have outcrops and islets of black rock, upon which the waves surge and foam, and out to sea, somewhere beyond the horizon, is Africa - so much akin to the dark brown folk of the Northeast (I feel like an albino here).

The lighthouse, picturesque churches and colonial buildings are enchanting. Then, of course, there are the shanty towns, the stench of urine and faeces, rivers made sewers, the sick, aged and mutilated, persistent beggars of all ages, the occasional body (alive or dead?) in the street. Even blood on the pavement near the beach; rust-coloured dew, spattered by a violent night.

I've committed myself to staying here until March 2nd - almost imprisoned myself in this gorgeous cell, Brasil. My greatest task and responsibility are to observe and learn as much as possible of the life and people of Salvador. If riding buses is a means to that end, then I'm well on my way. I think I've squashed up against half the bodies in Bahia!
[the diary ends here]

December 20, 1986

I've been in Salvador a week now. Practically a native, eh? Two days ago, I had lunch with Consuelo Novais, a historian I met at UCLA. Our conversation was initially tense while I struggled with the Portuguese subjunctive, then relaxed and finally very enjoyable. Her secretary was extremely helpful and walked me to the bus for Praça da Sé.

After that, my day deteriorated considerably. In Terreiro de Jesus, a character nicknamed "Robo" (not his real name, short for Robocop) latched onto me. It was hard to shake him loose. If I were a man, I'd feel freer to make "friends in the street".

I was trying to get a good rate for $20 and one shopowner (or clerk?) was patently insulting, "talking down" to me in a garble of Italian, English and whatnot. I'm afraid I lost my temper. Then Robo stepped in and took me to another shop. He probably got a commission.

Robo has one eye and dreadlocks. He said he makes berimbaus for Naná Vasconcelos, the famous percussionist. That may be so, but I seriously doubt that his motive in taking me over was entirely pure. [I finally got rid of him by letting him follow me into a coffee shop, and ordering for myself without offering to buy him anything.]

I took off for the Lacerda lift, and was once again assaulted by vendors in the Mercado Modelo - I began to feel dazed. In the end, I bought trinkets for most of my friends, t-shirts (one for me) and postcards. I also found Waldeloir Rego's book Capoeira Angola!

To buy it, I had to exchange $$ in the Mercado Modelo at a bad rate, go back up the lift to the bookshop, then down again, wait 1/2 an hour at the bus stop (which is gorgeous, right in front of the Navy headquarters looking up at the old buildings climbing the precipice that divides the old city from the commercial sector and facing the massive lift) and cram myself into a bus along with 100 other bodies, one of them very wet, for an hour's ride back home. I went to bed early and slept profoundly.

Yesterday, I went to Z's workplace for a Christmas party, which consisted of carols, mass read by a fire-and-brimstone priest, Brazilian snack food, including shrimp and shredded chicken in savory pastry and Arabian meatballs, as well as Coke and Fanta (ubiquitous here). [After eating those snacks, I'd had lunch, as far as I was concerned, which is why snacks are called lanches in Brazil.]

In the evening, we went to a student dance concert at the Castro Alves Theater as the guests of a teacher at the federal university.

Apart from the evenings, it's very hot and humid here. That contributes to my exhaustion. There was a prolonged attack of mosquitoes here too - at night, of course. I looked for a while as though I had chicken pox!