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The wheel of life

Capoeira master mixes Bahian martial art and globalization in New York

Reproduction Mestre João Grande: ‘fishing’ for future followers of capoeiraReproduction

Born in Itagi, in Bahia, João Oliveira dos Santos grew up as a farm laborer and liked to watch the movement of animals in the wild – later he would associate this movement with that of “capoeira”. His mother died and he never went to school. He became a cattle herder until one Sunday , when he was 20 and resting on the steps of the church in the town, a couple of peddlers asked him whether he wouldn’t like to go to Salvador. He wasted no time thinking about it and left with his clothes wrapped up in a bundle. When he arrived he came across a “capoeira” Angola circle and recognized something he had seen in his childhood, but didn’t know what it was. Curious, he asked Mestre [Master] Barbosa what the dance was and he replied: “It’s ‘capoeira'”. João asked Mestre Pastinha to teach him.

This is how Mestre João Grande was born. Along with João Pequeno, he became the guardian of “capoeira” Angola; a title by which Mestre Pastinha was known. He distinguished himself so much in “capoeira” Angola in Salvador to the point that Mestre Canjiquinha, an exponent of the art, said: “It was God who made João Grande dance ‘capoeira'”. But he didn’t live from his dancing; he worked in civil construction, until he decided to put on folk shows. He joined Viva Bahia, Emília Biancardi’s pioneering folk group, and he traveled to Europe and the Middle East in the 1970’s. Before this, in 1966, he went to Africa with Mestre Pastinha to take part in the Dakar Black Arts Festival in Senegal. In the following decade, while Pastinha was dying poor and blind in a slum in Pelourinho, João Grande worked in a gasoline station.

The mestre was no longer practicing “capoeira” when a movement for rescuing the martial art started up in Bahia during the 1980’s. He returned to teaching at the Santo Antônio Fort, where Mestre João Pequeno was already installed. The place started to be frequented by North American intellectuals who were interested in the dancing and who saw it as the legacy of the African Diaspora. Such was the case of Ken Dossar and Daniel Dawson, who invited him to take part in the Black Arts Festival of Atlanta, New York, in 1990. At the end of the event he received an invitation from a “capoeira” performer called Nego Gato to give lessons in Harlem. Mestre João Grande accepted and thanks to an English student, university professor, Tisch Rosen, whom he called Risadinha [Little Smile], he managed to open his own Capoeira Angola Center academy on 14th Street in Manhattan.

Today at 75, Mestre João Grande may not be the best known “capoeira” performer from Bahia, but perhaps no one else has received such important titles and relevant tributes as he has. In 1994 he became an honorary PhD from Upsala College, in New Jersey. Seven years later he won the National Heritage Fellowship. These are just two of his honors. He ended up becoming the theme of a PhD thesis “On the world’s wheel: Mestre João Grande between Bahia and New York”, that was defended at USP by Maurício Barros de Castro, whose tutor was José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy. The study tries to relate globalization and the impact of ancestral capoeira Angola on the modern cosmopolitan American city. The author explains the importance of traditions in the vertiginous modern world from reflecting on the role of “capoeira” in the Brazilian historical process, when faced with the conflict between African ancestral ties and the construction of national identity.

FLÁVIO FLORIDO/FOLHA IMAGEMCastro says his research arose from a question: How did Mestre João Grande manage to maintain his traditions in a city like New York, where “all that is solid melts into air”, according to an expression from Karl Marx used by Marshal Berman, who wrote a book with this title and who, among other subjects, deals with the question of modernity in the biggest American city. “The question was important because ‘capoeira’ Angola is a culture that’s based on preservation and the transmission of traditions and New York is considered the center of the globalized world”, he explains. On the contrary, he continues, traditions form part of modernity. “The discourse of tradition was delivered precisely at the time modern society appeared on the scene as a form of resistance to it. Modernity itself is hundreds of centuries old and can be defined as a modern tradition, as Octavio Paz and Renato Ortiz say.”

For the researcher, in modern society the cult of tradition is stronger than ever. “One of the pillars of the success of Mestre João Grande in New York is  valuing  the traditional culture that exists in the city, despite the fact that it reflects global modernity and produces scenes like the explosion of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.” The “capoeira” Angola of Mestre João Grande is valued by the intellectuals and young of Manhattan because it is considered an important form of cultural resistance to a globalized capitalist society. “But it’s clear that Mestre João Grande, for example, is also favored by globalization. He travels to various places in the world and has students in various countries, but this doesn’t stop him cultivating tradition.”

So globalization serves Mestre João Grande, making it possible for him to travel round the world and publicize his art. On the other hand, it places traps in his path. “The question of identity is fundamental in ‘liquid modernity’, as Berman defines it. We have a multiplication of identities, according to Homi Bhaba.” The challenge for Mestre João Grande, therefore, is to maintain his identity as a master of ‘capoeira’ Angola – a situation that goes back to keeping up his Afro-descendent rituals – in a globalized environment in which everything is imposed, including language. “He says he never needed to speak English to teach ‘capoeira’ ? his students learn to speak Portuguese in order to sing in the circles.”

In globalization, observes Castro, there is a hegemonic multi-culturalism that tries to reduce everything to a common culture. “This is the case with attempts by some ‘capoeira’ groups to introduce songs in English in the circles. Mestre João Grande resists this, and not only because he doesn’t speak English, but because he sees that this weakens the identity of ‘capoeira’ Angola more than it strengthens it”, says the researcher, who mentions the interviews that he did as the main sources of the work. Other references were the music of ‘capoeira’, news in newspapers and magazines and a wide bibliography.

The researcher points out that normally the debate between “capoeira” Angola and regional “capoeira” is associated with the discussion about purity and mixed-blood, which was much in vogue among intellectuals of the time, like Gilberto Freyre, Edison Carneiro and Roger Bastide. “But I think that in fact Pastinha and Bimba had very similar ideas; both wanted to socialize and teach ‘capoeira’ to a broader public; they defended its sporting aspects and there were strong black references.” Bimba, was the son of blacks, even more so than Pastinha, who was the son of a Spaniard with a woman from Bahia. “The difference between them was that Pastinha maintained the discourse of African ancestral ties and Bimba said that ‘capoeira’ had been born in Bahia and was local culture.”

CAIO GUATELLI/FOLHA IMAGEMArt made to be practiced by all races from any social stratumCAIO GUATELLI/FOLHA IMAGEM

According to the researcher, Pastinha also defended the traditions of “capoeira”, while Bimba wanted to modernize it. “These were two different strategies for affirming black culture in Brazilian society.” Another important aspect that is worth highlighting, he adds, is that this is a study dedicated to capoeira Angola and not capoeira generally, which is more common to find in research on the theme. “Capoeira delights people from all over the world and has already spread to more than 150 countries on all 5 continents. This was one of the reasons that led the government to recognize it as a Cultural Heritage of Brazil, in July 2008.”

The preparation of Castro’s thesis on a mestre of capoeira can be seen as an example of the growing interest in academic circles in popular themes, particularly those that lend themselves to the consideration of public manifestations, like soccer, religion and festivals. “These subjects are gradually starting to concern growing sectors and a good dimension of this can be seen in the number of academic dissertations and theses that sit alongside articles in newspapers and magazines about behavior”, says José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy, Castro’s tutor. “Anthropology, as might be expected, has moved out in front, opening up the way for sociology and history, and today studies extend to the areas of psychology, sport and leisure.”

In this scenario, adds Meihy, the case of capoeira is significant, since the historical perspective suggests that the structuralist analyses limited to synchrony have been overcome. “Dependent on diachrony, through history new interpretations have been awakened that question present models, indicating the reconstruction of despised aspects. In the specific case of capoeira, the domination of regional capoeira, as the hegemonic standard, challenges our understanding of the historical phases of the appropriation of lines that have received official support – particularly under the Getúlio Vargas government – and so stifled the other branch.”

Capoeira Angola, says the tutor, the less favored modality, “was exiled” to the memory of a few people, but has recently reappeared as a growing and parallel manifestation of its sister, regional capoeira. “The history of the strange relationship between these two modalities is important for an understanding of the schools of government sponsorship and also for the popularity that has even eclipsed the adjectival difference between the two. The institutionalization of a cultural policy that guides the selection criterion of models must be contrasted with the resistant memory of the manifestation that was passed over. However much capoeira Angola was sidelined, it didn’t die; it survived in obscurity, but is coming to the forefront again now with a strength and prestige that defy explanation.”

Another interesting factor in his opinion is the success of capoeira Angola, particularly in New York. “With its incredible popularity among North Americans, the person of Mestre João Grande is exemplary. The northeastern Brazil master, who speaks no English and lives in the sophisticated New York district of Soho, exercises his function as a capoeira teacher as if the scenario were Brazil.” His “students” come from the most varied of places in the world. “The survival of capoeira Angola in the most modern city in the world, in New York, is a phenomenon that exposes the selection criteria promoted by globalization which welcomes this modality as if it were universal.”