Capoeira lineage

“Who are you?” a boy asked his father.
The father replied, “I am the link between you and your grandfather.”

There’s so much to learn in capoeira that the process can be overwhelming. Oftentimes, we get shortsighted and focus only on the here and now – on the cool move we’re trying to master or the new song we’re trying to learn. But in capoeira, the concept of lineage is very important. The art is passed from mestre to apprentice, as a precious inheritance is passed from father to son. Your lineage shapes your game, your philosophies, and your manner of learning and teaching capoeira. In other words, much of who you are in the capoeira world is defined by who passed the art down to you.

If you know little about your capoeira lineage, I’d encourage you to find out. After all, without the people who preserved and taught the art, you would not be playing capoeira today. Ask your teachers and do some research about your capoeira ancestors – who are/were they? How did they learn capoeira? What were their struggles? What were their ideals? Remembering those who came before us is one way we honor them and preserve their legacy.

Here’s a little bit of my own research. Although much of my training was received elsewhere, I am so proud to have been adopted into the FICA family:

Mestre Valmir

My mestre, Valmir, has a real gift for teaching capoeira. He strikes a great balance between seriousness and playfulness in his training… training with him is focused and informative yet also full of fun and laughter. He somehow runs a single class with everyone from first-class newbies to ten-year veterans, and everyone learns something new. Valmir has a theatrical flair in the roda, and the best singing voice I’ve ever heard. His academy is on Rua Carlos Gomes 111, Salvador, Bahia.

I owe Mestre Valmir much of my strength in the musical aspect of capoeira; I have never met anyone who makes music a priority more than him. His music classes are not for the timid; he WILL make you lead corridos in your first class and learn a ladainha by your third. Already know how to do all that? Good! Then he challenges you to improvisation and singing duels. In 2004, I could barely sing and play the berimbau at the same time. His music classes forced me to learn and practice at home so that I could hold my own. By 2006, I knew at least 20 ladainhas – had even written a few – and countless corridos; I could even manage the lyrical duels.

It is a privilege to sing “Iê, viva Valmir… / Iê, quem me ensinou…”

Mestre Cobra Mansa

If Valmir as my mestre can be considered my father, then my “uncle” is Mestre Cobra Mansa. The nickname “Cobra Mansa” means “Tame Snake,” and describes well his sneaky and agile style of playing. Mestre Cobra Mansa formed FICA (International Capoeira Angola Foundation) in Washington D.C. in 1994. Approximately ten years later, he moved back to Bahia to establish the Kilombo Tenonde, a space for capoeira, cultural activities, and organic farming.

Mestre Jurandir

My other “uncle” – who I’ve never met – would be Mestre Jurandir, who established himself on the West Coast with academies in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Oakland.

Mestre Moraes

Moving back in the genealogy, my grandfather is Mestre Moraes:

The rules in Mestre Moraes’ academy are strict and the training is intense; he describes his classes as “guerrilla training.” His is not an easy roda to play in; games tend to be quite challenging and even rough as he and his students are quite skilled and like to test visitors. Moraes is also a stickler for perfection in his bateria.

Some of Moraes’ hardline methods and strongly-held views make him quite controversial in the capoeira community. However, he has undeniably played a key role in the history of the art. Moraes revived capoeira angola almost single-handedly in the 1980s, at a time when this style was in serious danger of extinction. He’s a figure as important in capoeira as Bimba and Pastinha. His academy is in the Forte de Santo Antônio, Salvador, Bahia.

Mestre João Grande

Continuing back a generation, here’s great-grandpa João Grande:

Mestre João Grande was the pioneer of capoeira angola in the United States. At 74 years old (in 2007), he still plays and teaches capoeira at his academy in New York City. I owe Mestre João Grande my introduction to the chamadas since he was the first one to teach them to me when I visited his school in 2005.

Mestre João Pequeno

Great-grandpa’s “twin brother,” who would therefore be my great-uncle, is João Pequeno:

João Pequeno is the oldest angola mestre in the world (89 years old in 2007). These two Joãos were the main students and right-hand men of Mestre Pastinha, who made a song about them: “In my group I have two boys / Both of them named João / One is called ‘Tame Snake’ / And the other is called ‘Hawk’ / While one of them flies in the air / The other slithers along the ground.” The nicknames reflect the fact that João Grande tended to play high while João Pequeno tended to play low. Today, Mestre João Pequeno’s academy is in the Forte de Santo Antônio, Salvador, Bahia.

Mestre Pastinha

Finally, my great-great-grandfather is Mestre Pastinha, known as “the philosopher of capoeira” and universally admired as one of the wisest men to practice the art. Mestre Pastinha began learning capoeira at age 8, from an African named Benedito, in order to defend himself from a bully. He practiced and preserved the traditional capoeira during a time when it was still prohibited by Brazilian law. In 1941 Mestre Pastinha founded the Sporting Center for Capoeira Angola and instituted the yellow-and-black uniform in honor of his favorite soccer team, Ypiranga. He and his students presented capoeira at the First International Festival of Black Arts, held in Senegal in 1966.

The Brazilian government eventually took Mestre Pastinha’s academy from him, promising to return it after renovations – but the space was instead turned into a restaurant. Pastinha lived the rest of his days in poverty, bitter about the injustice he suffered, but he did not regret having dedicated his life to capoeira angola. He died on November 13, 1981.

Angola, mother capoeira. Sorcery of slaves in the longing for freedom; its beginning has no method and its end is inconceivable to even the most knowledgeable capoeirista. 
– Mestre Pastinha.