Written by Luiz Renato Vieira
From Capoeira Magazine #7, year II (pages 46-50)
Translation into English: Shayna McHugh
By writing about Mestre Waldemar da Liberdade, also known as Waldemar da Paixão and Waldemar do Pero Vaz, we face the difficulty of tackling the life of a great capoeirista, someone who had the same status as Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha. So we want to make it clear that we don’t intend to trace, except in general lines, the biography of this great figure. We will only detail some points in order to reveal a little of his personality to the newest capoeiristas and to those who did not have the opportunity to see him play, sing, and speak of capoeira.
For this, we will use some references to Waldemar from the literature, but our main source is the interview he recorded 1989 for a project developed by the Minister of Education, in which I had the opportunity to participate, together with other capoeiristas and researchers such as Mestre Itapoan and Mestre Ezequiel. On that occasion, Mestre Waldemar, 71 years old and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, received us in his house with all the kindness and simplicity that characterizes the Bahian people. It was one of the most unique and important moments in my life.
We’ve seen that the attention of the capoeira community has awoken to Mestre Waldemar’s life and enormous contribution to the development of our art-fight. A good indicator of that is the songs sung in the rodas, many of which refer to the importance of this man, who for a long time was almost forgotten by us capoeiristas.
Little by little, we break the limits of the Mestre Bimba/Mestre Pastinha duality in search of other real persons, with extremely rich histories and stories about their daily lives and their lives in capoeira. In the book Bahia: images of the land and of the people, published in 1964, Odorico Tavares describes a Sunday afternoon roda in Mestre Waldemar’s shed in Corta-Braço, on the Estrada da Liberdade, highlighting the mestre’s qualities as a singer:
With the instrument players at his side, the mestre raises his voice, beginning the song. Two capoeira players are crouched in front of him. The song that the mestre sings as a solo is slow, and the capoeiristas accompany him with even slower movements, like snakes that begin to move: watch carefully, as these men don’t even have bones; their limbs appear to receive an almost imperceptible impulse, from the inside to the outside. (…) The men perform defenses and attacks that follow each other in unexpected seconds, all without touching each other. It is a miracle that the violence of an attack results in another attack, that no one is touched, no one is injured, no one is insulted. It is combat, it is ballet that lasts two hours.
Mestre Waldemar, who began the practice of capoeira in 1936 at 20 years old, was a student of Canário Pardo, Peripiri, Talabi, Siri-de-Mangue and Ricardo of Ilha de Maré: “I asked those men to teach me, so that I could become professional. So that I could say that I knew, and now I know. I learned capoeira,” stated the mestre. He began to teach capoeira in 1940, the year in which the demonstrations on the Estrada da Liberdade began: “Earlier, it was in open air. Later I made a shed of straw and the capoeiristas of Bahia all came there to play.”
Little by little, Mestre Waldemar’s roda became one of the most important meeting points for Bahian capoeiristas. Other capoeira meeting places were, as we stated in the previous article, the Alto de Amaralina, where Mestre Bimba organized Sunday rodas; the traditional Largo do Pelourinho, where capoeira occurred under the direction of Mestre Pastinha; and Chame-Chame, where the also-famous roda of Mestre Cobrinha Verde occurred. Waldemar tells us a little about the personages of the old rodas, speaking of the “tough guys”:
“There were some who played with a hat that had a razor hidden in it. They bought a hat at the store, and they didn’t make a zig-zag on the top, nothing. They used it just the way that it came. The hat had a round top, where the razor was held with a strip of rubber. I played with a hat, but I didn’t use any weapons. I didn’t want to use those things. I always wanted to stay out of brawls, out of trouble. (…) I hold this value even today. Everyone appreciates me, everyone likes me. If you go here and there, you won’t find anyone who speaks badly of me, in any subject. I know how to treat everyone well, I don’t mistreat anyone.”
It is interesting to observe that in the old capoeira rodas – and the literature confirms this – eventually conflicts provoked by those called “tough guys” occurred. But these figures experienced the environment of capoeira within determined limits, above all respecting the oldest and most well-known as mestres. Respect for the mestre is, truly, a distinguishing characteristic of the good tradition of capoeira, and we see the old mestres speak proudly of the position that they achieved in the rodas of their time:
“I didn’t have trouble with anyone because I was always respected; no one ever challenged me. If a mestre who appeared here challenged me to play, I used my head to think of a way to resolve it (…) My students respected me very much. And there was no trouble because I saw them this way. They came to my feet and no one fought.”
The mestre became emotional upon telling his story, and the emotion was strongest when he told us about the times when he played:
“When I was playing, I would tell the orchestra: play angola dobrado. It is entangled, no one does a flip. It is one player inside the other, passing through, arming a tesoura, playing low. It seems that I will play. I played a lot. (…) I liked playing slow, so that I know what I’m doing. You will go by my song. I sing for any kid to play, and he plays perfectly. For my students I say that I will sing and they already know what I want: São Bento Pequeno. It is my first toque. To the other instrument player I say: ‘From high to low,’ and he knows that it is São Bento Grande. To the viola I say: improvise, and he makes the viola cry out.”
Thus, little by little we try to transport ourselves to that universe of the traditional rodas, in which the figure of the mestre was almost sacred, respected by all for his knowledge and his qualities demonstrated in the roda, in the toque of the musical instruments and in the songs. Mestre Waldemar, besides being a great player, was also known as being one of the greatest singers of Bahian capoeira:
“I still have pride in my throat, for singing my ladainhas. Songs of capoeira angola. I didn’t find anyone who sang more than me. I still don’t.”
When asked about how the capoeira “orchestra” was formed, the mestre told us:
“First a good berimbau playing. Three berimbaus: a berra-boi, a viola, and a gunga. Later – this is a new trend – the atabaque appeared, but it used to be three pandeiros, three berimbaus, and a reco-reco. And the instrument that accompanies the berimbau, to help the berimbau, the caxixi, and there was the agogô. Later on they put the atabaque in capoeira rodas, but we didn’t used to have that.”
An observation about that passage: we know that we cannot establish a strict standard about how the old capoeira rodas were organized in terms of musical instrumentation; this is confirmed by the testimonies of other old mestres such as Caiçara, Bobó, Canjiquinha, Ferreirinha and others. We understand these differences, as we state elsewhere in this magazine, as inherent in popular culture (of which capoeira is part). We cannot forget that improvisation is also an essential characteristic of capoeira.
The richness of the old capoeira traditions is found in its ethical and cultural values and fundamentals, which are much more important than details such as the exact number of each instrument that the mestres chose to use in their rodas.
Another comment that can be made about the passage above regards the use of the atabaque: it is known that the atabaque’s association to the practice of capoeira precedes that of the berimbau, as can be seen, for example, in the drawing of Rugendas published in 1835. In this drawing, capoeira appears with a drum, but there is no berimbau.
However, it is probable that the practice of capoeira in the streets as a popular pastime had, for practical reasons, occurred for many years without the use of atabaques. That could explain Mestre Waldemar’s reference to the use of the atabaque as a “new trend.”
Returning, then, to the testimony of the mestre of Liberdade, we have an important account about how his classes occurred. There is a tendency to think that in the circles of traditional capoeira, learning was restricted to informal experience with the mestre. It’s true that the systemization of capoeira classes, with more rigorous teaching methods, originated in capoeira regional. However, among the oldest mestres of capoeira angola there were various and interesting ways to pass on their knowledge in the 1930s and 40s.
Regarding this topic, Mestre Waldemar informed us that, during teaching situations, he signaled to his students with gestures, determining the movements that they must do:
“I taught in the roda, but there were also training days. They would play and I would make a signal to do tesoura, I would make a signal to do chibata. I would make a signal for the other player to duck.”
Mestre Waldemar thus gave continuity to the tradition of teaching capoeira angola as he learned it with various mestres, as we stated earlier. Referring to his learning with Siri-de-Mangue, an old capoeirista of Santo Amaro, Waldemar told us:
“He went around and said, ‘grab the mouth of my pants leg.’ I used to get up to grab it and he would turn around in that amazing trick and do a rabo-de-arraia. When I would get up he would say: ‘No, don’t get up, here comes another!’ His students played with us as if we were already good. In that time there was capoeira.”
Observations of this nature are very important in this moment of capoeira’s great growth in the sporting, school, and university arenas, when many of the new researchers and professors (often because of difficulty accessing the historical information) focus on elaborating teaching methods in some cases without taking advantage of all the knowledge accumulated in old traditions.