Written by Lúcia Correia Lima
Translation into English by Shayna McHugh
“Iêêêêêêêê!” Whoever hears the call of Natalício Neves da Silva (Mestre Pelé) along with the first notes of the berimbau, never forgets it. His expressive voice is capable of taking us through 500 years of history and making us aware of the liberating power that the Capoeira roda represents.
Mestre Pelé was born in 1934, in the days when Capoeira was played on weekends and holidays. He was part of a generation divided between the marginalized Capoeira of the street and the institutionalized Capoeira of the academies.
As a child, Pelé helped his father in the battle for survival. He made charcoal, he harvested manioc, and he worked the earth. Later, he would sell his wares in the Bahian capital. This was how he arrived at the ramp of the Mercado Modelo, next to the church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia, where he encountered Capoeira.
“I saw Capoeira when I was 12 years old, when I would go to the popular festivals of the Bahian recôncavo. I went with my father to Muritiba, São Félix, and Cachoeira to sell charcoal. At the end of the day, the ‘lords’ of the whole region would arrive and start to play for fun. It was the people who gave the capoeirista the title of mestre, and the title would be disputed right there in the game, the hard game,” he recalls. It was in one of these rodas that Pelé claims to have met the legendary Besouro Mangangá. He confirms the legend: “He could disappear when he wanted to.”
For the mestre, it was between the church of Conceição and the ramp of the Mercado that the best Capoeira rodas of the era took place. He remembers people such as Waldemar da Liberdade, Caiçara, Zacarias, Traíra, Angolinha, Avani, Bel and Del (brothers), Onça Preta, Sete Mola, Cabelo Bom and Bom Cabelo (twins), and Bugalho, who mesmerized him with his agility.
“There were many important people in those days besides Bimba and Pastinha. Their students didn’t play much in the street. They avoided it because of the fights that broke out; they didn’t want to damage their reputations. The shit would hit the fan and the police on horseback would come to scatter the capoeiristas and end the rodas. The capoeiristas, in turn, beat up the police. Bimba and Pastinha wanted to evolve beyond that, to do away with that image of Capoeira.”
The majority of the capoeiristas in that generation learned in the big rodas of the Mercado Modelo and in the street festivals, which began with the festival of Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia – in the heart of the lower city, next to the Elevador Lacerda – on the first day of December and went until the 8th day of the same month. Then there was the festival of Santa Luzia, attended by the dock workers, many of whom were capoeiristas.
“It was the whole day: swimming in the sea, samba de roda, samba de viola – which was a tradition. All the rhythms came from the Bahian recôncavo. In these festivals, the best mestres of Capoeira and the best berimbau players came together. It was at one of these that I began to play instruments and sing,” he remembers.
It was Bugalho, a porter, who taught the boy to ginga in the sands of Preguiça Beach during his free time. “I followed the tradition of my mestre, Bugalho, a great berimbau player. He was one of the best, he really played São Bento Grande well, especially on nights with moonlight. We would sit in the sands of the beach, and when he played, you could hear him in the upper city.”
In addition to the rodas in Liberdade on Sunday afternoons, which the civil guard Zacarias Boa Morte “looked after,” Pelé played in the rodas of Waldemar da Liberdade, in a shack made of straw and circled with a bamboo fence. “I was quick, I had good footwork. They didn’t pay me to play in the roda. And when I would arrive in the rodas in the invasion of Corta Braço, in the Pero Vaz neighborhood, Mestre Waldemar would say, ‘Here comes Satan!’”
Pelé taught Capoeira for 25 years, including teaching in the Fifth Battalion of the Military Police. “In those days, it was common for the police to train Capoeira.” In addition, Mestre Pelé participated in important folkloric groups like Viva Bahia. He performed with Mestre Canjiquinha’s group in the Belvedere da Praça da Sé, where he did shows for tourists of Capoeira, maculelê, puxada de rede, and samba de roda.
Smiling a lot, Pelé explains that “in Capoeira, everything comes out of the ginga. Ginga, molejo, and flexibility are important for the capoeirista, for both defense and attack. Capoeira is also a dance: there is the meia-lua de compasso, a low movement that is different from the rabo de arraia (faster and higher); the ponteira, a blow with the tip of the foot that aims for the jaw; the martelo, hitting the shoulder, the ponta de costela, which is a lower martelo; the benção, which aims for the chest; the giratório – the capoeirista falls back and escapes while turning; the parafuso, a turn on the ground with the head; the crabwalk, a forward and backward movement with the stomach to the air and te feet open; canivete – with one of the hands on the ground, the whole body curles in the direction of the hands; relógio, in which you spin on a queda de rim; the mule kick, which is falling forward on your two hands and lifting up both feet, etc.”
Mestre Pelé stopped playing Capoeira for twenty years. He was brought back to the rodas by a project to rescue and respect the old mestres, created by the Brazilian Capoeira Angola Association. Today, he is part of the association’s Council of Mestres and participates in important events. He sang at the burials of the mestres Caiçara, Bom Cabrito, and Zacarias Boa Morte, and at the seventh-day mass for Caiçara.
In the association, Pelé wants to make possible a retirement plan for mestres who are over 65 years old and have over 35 years in Capoeira. “A government official has already voted in favor of retirement for mães and pais de santo [priests of candomblé] who, like the capoeiristas, had their activities prohibited and persecuted. In addition, we will prove that Capoeira Angola is popular culture, and not a martial art,” concludes the singer.
Source: Revista Capoeira
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