Chapter I: Formative Years as a Student under Many Mestres
Martelo de solos, queda de rims, meia lua de compassos (capoeira movements and kicks from the ground) practiced together by agile young women and men greeted me on my first capoeira class. It was the fall of 1981 and I came to sign up for capoeira at the Mission Cultural Center in SF. Students were practicing movements and kicks on the ground that I later came to know as: Martelo de solos, queda de rims, meia lua de compassos. The mestre, Bira Almeida, Mestre Acordeon, and his students welcomed me to my first class.
I practiced for a year in the Bay area under Mestre Acordeon before moving to NYC to continue studying under Mestre Jelon.
Three mestres brought capoeira to the United States and I practiced and learned from each of them. Mestre Acordeon in SF and the Bay area, and in NY, Mestres Jelon and Loremil. The late Loremil Machado was a nephew of Mestre No and among his first generation of students to graduate. Loremil’s wildly free and expressive jogo in the roda and in life touched and inspired everyone who saw him. Perhaps, as he never taught capoeira classes consistently, he is not given credit with Mestres Acordeon and Jelon as the founders of capoeira in the US.
I went to Rio and to Bahia to experience and train capoeira under many welcoming mestres including in Rio Mestres Camisa, Pexinho, Garrincha, Sorriso and in Bahia, Mestres Bobo, Joao Pequeno, Moraes, Boca Rica, Almiro, Bamba, Falcao. I had learned well under Mestres Acordeon and Jelon. Playing hard in the rodas, singing and playing instruments, I made many friends and training buddies.
In Bahia, at the Sunday roda of Mestre Joao Pequenho, I met Mestre No. His jogo was unlike anything I had seen. Playful and relaxed, it seemed he was not really paying attention to his opponent. I was used to a more direct game with kicks, headbutts and take downs. Mestre No’s jogo confused me at first. After the roda, I was introduced to him as “Mestre No, Mestre dos Mestres, Grande Mestre da Bahia.”
Mestre No invited me to his batizado the following weekend. On my last day in Brazil, before returning to NYC, I saw the most spectacular variety of capoeiristas at his event. Diverse, powerful, creative, spontaneous and dangerous yet playful, effortless, and full of malandragem (the art of deception), dozens of capoeiristas impressed me that day. The next day, before boarding the plane for NYC, at the Lagoa de Abaete, Mestre No invited me to return to Bahia to study capoeira under him and to live with his family in their home.
In 1987, I returned to Bahia for a year to begin a master-disciple relationship with Mestre No. I went to classes at his academia Capoeira Angola Palmares, I participated in rodas and batizados around Salvador, in the interior of Bahia, in Maceo and in Paraiba. Keeping a journal, with Mestre No as a patient and articulate teacher, I learned fluent Portuguese. By the end of the year, most people thought I was from Bahia.
I went into the woods with machetes, learned to identify biriba, to cut it, clean it of its bark and prepare quality berimbaus. I designed many silk screens for academy and event t-shirts. At the Feira de Sao Joaquim, Salvador’s huge market for produce, fish, meat, I bought food for my new family. In the kitchen I helped Dono Sonia prepare moquecas de peixe, camarao, mariscos, and my favorite, polvo. She was the daughter of a fisherman, grew up on the Island of Itaparica and knew how to make the most delicious meals from scratch. We ate everything with Molho, a fresh hot sauce prepared with limes, cilantro, malagueta peppers, sweet onions, salt, pepper and cumin.
The capoeira training under Mestre No was less physically intense than I was used to. Less of a “work out” and more of a game to play relaxed. I was confused. Most of my training until then, had emphasized speed and force. Now I was acquiring a relaxed and calm way of playing. “Capoeira e de dentro ‘pra fora,” as Mestre No says, from the inside out. He was showing me the path towards a more internal practice and expression of capoeira. A traditional expression of capoeira that he learned from his mestres. A capoeira that emphasizes above all, malandragem. Technique, timing, creativity, intelligence were important, in addition to speed and force. As Mestre No often says, “Capoeira used to be more dangerous and less violent.”
Every evening, I went to classes. Tuesday and Thursday with Mestre No. Other nights, I was visiting academias in the center of town, in the periphery, and in nearby towns. Weekends were spent traveling and participating in capoeira rodas and events. In Salvador, especially in the streets, most rodas featured capoeiristas from regional, from angola and from unrecognizable and diverse styles. Too many times I saw the fastest, strongest, meanest capoeiristas defeated by smarter, more malandro jogadores. Defeated without violence or aggression.
Thirty four years later, my love and gratitude for capoeira, continues to grow. I wanted to play like those guys who were calm and confident without being arrogant, who using simple movements well done, who were able to control anyone in the roda using elegance with minimal effort. This I chose as my new capoeira path.