The Master & the Capoeirista: a wild old soul to guide me 

Acrobatic grace & deadly playfulness aside, Capoeira draws people because of its story. Capoeira is a dance / music / martial art / folklore which is not only based on the culture and history of Brazil and Africa but the culture and history of resistance, survival and friendship.

Many Capoeiristas believe that their connection to this story depends on their connection to their mestre. “The Master sets the personal tone of every school, studio or academy or the group.” explained by Mestre Vaguinho Bueno in his website Capoeira San Jose. “In Capoeira you don't do things alone.”

Capoeirista or not, we have all had teachers. As well, most of us have had to choose when to go with somebody, when to find a new path or when to go it alone. When we make those decisions, does our ‘lineage’ follow through in those actions? Does our ‘training’, or lack of, show? And of all our teachers, can any of us trust one mestre above all others to guide us through our lives, like our own conscience? If we’re going to be romantic about it, what about the idea that this wise sage is cultivated from within?  

But the ideal of mestres is beautiful because we trust that they will still be wise and free when we are not or don’t feel it.

According to a translation by Shayna McHugh on Mestre Bola Sete’s work, Capoeira Angola: Do Iniciante Ao Mestre,  “Less experienced Capoeiristas must look for the oldest mestres, of confirmed knowledge, so that later they will become capable of exercising their profession with the knowledge that the responsibility requires …  Unfortunately, not all of us are in areas where Capoeira mestres are as common as in Salvador... but since the mestre-student relationship is so deep, one should choose one's mestre with care.” Mestre Bola Sete is from the Associacao Brasileira de Capoeira Angola.

In the same translation, Mestre Bola Sete said, "Today, the student changes mestres as though changing suits, literally. With this behavior, he naïvely thinks that he will acquire greater knowledge, which is not true, much to the contrary. As soon as the mestre discovers that the student already passed through various academies, not staying in any of them, certainly he will not pass on to him his knowledge, until he is certain that the student has found his path."

Shayna McHugh, aka Shadowcat17, calls herself a ‘ronin’ (masterless) Capoeirista in that she trains wherever she can get some good training.

“One mestre told me flat-out, "the reason your game is not developing is because you train here and there with various people." To these criticisms I have three things to say: 1) Saying my Capoeira is not developing is simply untrue. Every year I have made progress in my movements, my game, my abilities to sing and play instruments, and my understanding of the art; 2) I have no other option. Roberto (Roberto Andrade, Hamilton College Capoeira Club) is the most experienced Capoeirista within a two hour drive... and I have no car; and 3) Roberto may not be a mestre, but he's far from "unqualified."  He's a solid Capoeirista and an excellent and patient instructor. He has never charged us for classes, but instead gives generously of his time and energy to share his knowledge of Capoeira with us.” Shayna believes being a ronin Capoeirista has made her more versatile and immune to the petty politics and rivalries that exist between schools and groups.

She quoted another mestre by the name of Mestre Suassuna who has often referred to Capoeira as a "chameleon". "It adapts itself to fit its historical/cultural/social environment.  It flows with the times.”

According to Doninha (Kris Lanham), “What you need to learn Capoeira?  A roda. A place to play the game and people to play with. Otherwise it's like learning to play the piano with a drawing of the keyboard. There will be no music."

"You can learn Capoeira from many sources; many different instructors, Masters, even average Capoeiristas have things to show ... one would be remiss to pass up the opportunity to learn from as many teachers as possible.” Doninha is an instructor for Grupo Ondas – BCV Capoeira of Northern Virginia. He trained under Professor Tigri.

“For those who have never seen or heard of Capoeira, the roda is where everything happens," according to Mestre Boneco’s website of Capoeira Brasil, Los Angeles. "Capoeira is played (not danced, nor fought) in a roda; it is the climax of the art of Capoeira.  The word "roda" means "circle" in Portuguese … What makes the roda exciting is the energy that the players, musicians and singers put into it.  It becomes a living entity, as everyone's energy focuses on the center where the two Capoeiristas are engaged in a physical dialogue.  In the roda participants raise their voices in song, clap, and rock to the beat, celebrating the spirit of the art form.” Mestre Boneco developed the form of Capoeira known as Capoeira Regional Contemporanea. 

Manhoso113 from Gingarte Capoeira - Chicago, suggests that although a Capoeirista can learn from many sources, there is one mestre to which every Capoeirista should devote him/herself to.

“As far as jumping around from mestre to mestre, I don’t understand it.  Each group, for the most part, has a particular "flavour", shall we say. There might be some branch offs but they still keep the style/flavour of the original.  While I have taken, and visited, quite a few different groups, I still keep my original flavour (extra crispy).”

“A good example is this:  I’m Greek. I grew up in a heavily influenced Greek household. Presently, I speak Portuguese and Spanish. I cook gumbo, love me some cornbread and greens, eat sushi like crazy, etc. But I never lose who I am because of my strong base. I might adapt my game, but I still keep the original flavour which was passed on to me by my Mai de Capoeira.”

Manhoso113 trained under Contra Mestranda Marisa, the Director of Gingarte Capoeira. Marisa trained at Cordao de Ouro Capoeira Academy in Sao Paolo with instructors such as Mestre Suassuna, Mestre Canguru, and Mestre Urubu Malandro. Marisa first came to the United States in 1989 as a performer with the renowned international group Oba Oba.

Meninao (Kevin Moloney) commented that “once you become a formado it is important to train with different mestres in order to form your own flavour that is distinct from that of your teacher and grupo.” Meninao started training with Mandinga do Sertao and then joined Capoeira Malandragem from Tucson.  Capoeira Malandragem was founded by Professor Dondi "Enxu" under the direction of world renowned Mestre Acordeon, Mestre Rá and Mestre Suelli.

Shannon, aka "Bali Bali", from Capoeira Brasil, Los Angeles, believes that although a mestre is necessary in a Capoeirista’s training, not all mestres are qualified, “There are a number of 'mestres' who are not truly Graduated mestres. They come from wherever and call themselves mestre. This is how the tradition of Capoeira and the music is being destroyed.  My mestre has walked out of batizados because of this. Tradition is so important and upholding that tradition is a key to being a great Capoeirista.” Shannon trains under Mestre Boneco.

Doninha’s instructor Professor Tigri is a ‘self-taught’ Capoeirista who admits the malandragem in Capoeira is extremely difficult to understand alone and he suffered many injuries due to lack of formal training in his apprenticeship. He could not afford formal training and learned by attending the open rodas and batizados, where he was often criticized for his self-taught style.

Literally, malandragem means trickery or cleverness. When asked about the challenges of the malandragem, Professor Tigri responded, “It [malandragem] requires the Capoeirista to know his or her own abilities and tricks and be able to read others with the same precision. This is one of those things you have to sit down with someone and talk about for a little bit. The instructor guides the students and helps the student differentiate between a movement and malandragem. This, I guess, is one of those things that only Capoeiristas can really grasp.  I help my students by explaining over and over and over and try to watch tapes with them; looking at the difference between someone tricking someone and someone being a trickster.”

Today, Professor Tigri is a fulltime instructor with Grupo Ondas – BCV Capoeira and the coach of the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame Demonstration Team – Capoeira, Sports Karate and Tae Kwon Do.

Greg Downey is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in the study of Brazilian contemporary culture, especially Afro-Brazilian and other popular movements.  
“A lot of students switch over time, something that kind of annoys the Brazilian instructors who seem to think (or at least try to convince their students) that apprentices should be loyal. But especially in the U.S. and with middle-class students, they move around and switch instructors. Most Capoeira mestres get very tense if you try to work with more than one at once, and they often feel betrayed if you leave them and go to someone else.”

"In the past," he continued, "most Capoeira practitioners picked up the art informally through a kind of learn-by-doing approach. When Mestre Bimba opened the first Capoeira school in the 1930s, his basic course was about two years after which a student was "graduated." Only rarely did he hold additional seminars on self defense and advanced techniques for his "graduated" students. Over time, the "learning" period has grown and grown; mestres have created belt systems with many stages that take years, even decades, to complete. Part of this is that the art was once a traditional practice, done in the street on popular feast days. The whole transformation into a formal "martial art" that could be learned in schools has created an industry of Capoeira education and professionalized instruction.”

Greg Downey is the Assistant Professor of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. He has recently published a book called Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art with Oxford U. Press.

Despite being ‘ronin’, Shayna still esteems the ideal role of the mestre in the Capoeirista’s development. This is apparent in her meticulous translation of Mestre Bola Sete on the role of the mestre:

"The mestre must be an experienced Capoeirista, fully conscious of his function, with deep knowledge of the fundamentals of Capoeira Angola, and who always work in favor of his art, fighting for its preservation and aiming to emphasize the therapeutic benefits that its practice provides."

"Not every mestre is a good Capoeirista and not every good Capoeirista is a mestre. Mestres can recognize the Capoeirista who knows the fundamentals of Capoeira Angola. They aim above all for self-perfection and the spiritual and philosophical aspect of his art, and not just his performance in the game and in the fight."

And in answer to all the mad questions that this article began, so we end with as good an answer to any question, from the wisdom of Mestre Bola Sete:

“As paradoxical as it may seem, certain people, as much as they expand their horizons of intellectual knowledge, diminish their perception about the simpler things life offers, finding greater difficulty in accepting them. It is similar to people with the visual deficiency that allows them to see things that are far away, but to see things at a short distance, they need the use of corrective lenses. If they would analyze the lessons they receive with the critical spirit, and not the spirit of criticism, they would certainly find in these things many answers to their inquiries.” 

© lyw

Commentary by Lindenberg Jr. Soul Brasil Magazine:

March 24th, 2005

I have read your article and really liked the theme as well the way you develop it with many opinions of the different groups.

About my opinion:

I just had a few class of Capoeira when I still lived in Recife, Brazil, 20 years ago. Since then I have not practised Capoeira, but sometimes "play as a kid" with my 9 year old son Giovanni (aka Cantador, Mestre Amen - Capoeira Batuque Los Angeles). Since I introduced Capoeira to him in 2002, I became very interested in the Capoeira world as journalist and researcher.

One of the controversies, is how you become a "mestre" or "contra-mestre", or "professor". There are a lot politics between the different groups in the four corners of the planet. Anyway, the importance is that the student continues to practice Capoeira - playing in different rodas for recreation, improving the knowledge, relaxing and networking, and of course respecting each other, as well the traditions and the history of Capoeira. Finally, I would like to mention that Capoeira can be always in evolution, maybe "comteporanean", without forgetting your origins and your traditions. All depends on those who transmitted the secrets of the game for love of the art without the prestige and shelter that comes with the authorities or political entities.

Lindenberg Jr.
Soul Brasil magazine editor,
Los Angeles /

Commentary by Greg Downey, Assistant Professor of the Dept of Anthropology, U. of Notre Dame

March 27th, 2005

I read the piece and enjoyed it. I'm generally pretty bored with hearing yet another author rehash the same origin myth of Capoeira -- it was really interesting how you showed the place of Capoeira in the dancer's life and discussed some of the issues relating to teaching authority and personal relationships of apprenticeship in the art. I felt like I was reading something new and interesting from your research and analysis.
Greg Downey is the Assistant Professor of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. He has recently published a book called Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art with Oxford U. Press.

"On Mestres" by LoboGuara (aka Paul Bielak)

During the interview stage of this article I posed many questions to many Capoeiristas about mestres. Although LoboGuara's comments came after the article was finished, I think they are valuable to this topic of Capoeiristas and their mestres and offer a candid look at his own personal journey through Capoeira and his mestres.

April 15th, 2005

I am a Capoeira Instructor with a small, yet well respected association based in Rio de Janeiro, led by Mestre Decio.

I started learning Capoeira eight years ago (with 9 years of Martial Arts experience) from someone who abandoned me as a student without showing me the different sides of Capoeira. Having fallen in love with the art, I remained training with my partner from class. We both had martial arts backgrounds, so we were able to direct ourselves in the practice of basics. That year I left to live abroad in Tokyo for a few years. There I began to learn a Capoeira that flowed more beautifully than I've ever seen. I learned from Professor Samurai of "Cordao de Contas".

Two years later I lived in Sydney for six months where I practiced with all the groups I could find. I could not find my place. I settled for practicing by myself, as well as with an Olympic Gymnastics coach. So here is your first answer: You do not need a teacher at every step of the way if you are patient enough to practice the basics by yourself. You must, however, make sure that the basics you are practicing are correct or you may end up with bad habits ingrained. As you can see, I was stranded by myself twice during my Capoeira experience. However, I was already a martial arts instructor, so I had a safer base to work from than most beginners.

I was happy to return to my group in Tokyo and soon made up my mind to go live with our Master in Brazil. It was good timing because I began to plateau. Luckily enough, my group's master was the right one for me. Apart from playing a beautiful flowing Capoeira, he was very application oriented.

Being a martial artist, I needed this more than anything else. The best way to choose your Master is according to your goal. Each Master has a specialty. Some are better at acrobatics than others. Some can use Capoeira as a fight. Others excel in music, or the cultural aspects of contemporary Capoeira. It all comes down to you as a practitioner. Find what you want, then seek someone who can guide you down that path.

Remember that Capoeira can be many different things to many different people. It all comes down to how you practice it and why.

Can you have many masters? You can learn various things from different masters and the common illusion is that this will make one more rounded. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For most beginners, this type of training will add to the confusion. It makes them a jack of all trades who knows a little about many things, but not much about one. I have seen many people remain beginners for years because they don't know to which approach they belong and want to do it all. So choose your master or teacher according to your own agenda. Choose one who suits you best.

A Capoeirista performing successfully without a master? It depends on how you define success. Making money? Sure... I've seen it all over the world, but now we get into the most important question. Are you performing Capoeira or are you dancing? Capoeira is more than just a dance and more then just a fight. You can be successful pulling off fancy movements within a dance, but you cannot call it Capoeira. Just like Tae Bo is a mockery of Karate, so can be such "performance" to Capoeira. You must consider that Capoeira is not two people rolling around in front of each other. That is less than a dance. Capoeira is the involvement of each player with the other; feeding off of the other's movement to flow. Timing, weight distribution, balance, awareness and meaning of movement are only some of the things involved. It is very, very difficult to perform it properly without guidance. You can, however, wow the crowd with flashy movement. No doubt!! It looks great as a show but it's acrobatics; not Capoeira.

I find it essential for the practitioner to have a Master or teacher to guide their progress. There is a fine line between performance art and Capoeira. In your application, I understand that the dance aspect comes before the martial aspect, however, you can dance with a sense of correct timing. What I mean by that is you can create a basic awareness of movement and escapes, so that you can remain neutral as a dancer but not get caught by the other "player". If you're both dancing to put on a show without the intention of catching each other, you must still understand timing, and transition movement well, otherwise it becomes less than Capoeira. It becomes stale and uninvolved. You see, it is one thing to see a beautiful Capoeira movement. It is another to see it applied during an exchange in a game. The latter will please your crowd more.

In short, it is essential to have an experienced guide to give form to your intentions. Finding the right one can be tricky because most teachers have their own agenda on their mind. If your teacher understands, however, the reason for your practice, they can aid your growth tenfold. Without them to mediate between expression and tradition, you can become lost in a world of performance-oriented ShaolinBalletCapoeiraNinjaDance or something like that with no meaning other than eye candy.

It all depends whether you want to promote yourself and the art, or use the art for your own gain. The choice is yours. One leads to respect from all sides making people remember you, the latter makes you like every other skater kid who can do a cool flip. In the end, although people appreciate it, you don't get any more than: "Wow!! Clap, clap, clap." And then it's over... Why? Because there is no meaning... Just flare.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I teach classes on Tue and Thurs nights in Mississauga (All Canadian Martial Arts Academy - Dixie and Dundas) from 7 - 8:30. I also get together with my students on Saturday afternoons, and sometimes on Sundays for games and personal instruction.

LoboGuara (aka Paul Bielak) is a Capoeira instructor at the All Canadian Martial Arts in Mississauga, Canada under the tutelage of a small, well-respected association based in Rio de Janeiro called Cordao de Contas, lead by Mestre Decio.

Check out his demo reel. A compilation of a few rodas in Rio, Tokyo, and Toronto. Mestre Decio, RJ. Cordao de Contas demo reel