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.

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