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.
THIS IS THE STORY OF HOW CAPOEIRA, THE AFRICAN-BRAZILIAN MARTIAL ART/DANCE, BECAME PART OF LIFE FOR A BRITISH WOMAN WHO NOW LIVES IN BRAZIL It will be told in instalments - with a few interruptions to mention present-day events - so be sure to come back and read the next exciting chapter ;-)
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Sabrina (right) playing berimbau at UCLA in the early 80s
What is Capoeira?
A martial art, a dance? More like a form of self-defence and offense camouflaged as a dance in the round. Enslaved Africans - chiefly people from the Bantu area of southwestern Africa and what is now Angola - brought a martial art used to win brides without paying a bride price to Brazil and adapted it to the harsh realities of forced labour. We now know it was originally called N'golo. Naturally, it was banned and practiced in secret - possibly in forest clearings (capoeiras). After Abolition in 1888, it was still outlawed and associated with criminal gangs. When the police rode up on their horses, the berimbau - an African musical bow that was added to the mix in Brazil - sounded out a warning (the rhythm of galloping hooves). The Angola style was preserved and taught in Bahia by Mestre Pastinha. Finally, a dictator decided to legalise (or co-opt) Capoeira by authorising Mestre Bimba to develop the Regional style in the 1930s. Now we have two main forms: Capoeira Angola - slow, sly, close to the ground - and Capoeira Regional - high kicking, flashy, popular with tourists. There are also other styles and different varieties in other countries, but Capoeira - given its melding of musical and martial arts traditions and even its indigenous name (a Tupi word that means both 'clearing' and 'chicken coop') - is as uniquely Brazilian as it is African, which helps explain why it is fast gaining popularity around the world.
The Mestre and "Gringa Mansa"
Sabrina playing berimbau alongside João Grande in NYC in February 2007