Interview with Poloca conducted on Wednesday, September 1, 2004, at Ponta de Areia / Itaparica. Translated by Shayna McHugh, October 2005
Source: Nzinga website
Expressing in words the emotions felt in these last fifteen days of August, during Mestre João Grande’s majestic passage through the city of Salvador, can seem difficult if we choose our words too carefully. On the other hand, the task becomes easy if we allow simplicity and sincerity to guide our feelings. Mestre João Grande is simple in his innocent profundity and in the precision of his movements. Despite being such a celebrity, he was one of our mestres there earlier, blessing us with his Ngunzo (strength/force) and baptizing our land with his mandinga.
I had the privilege of being with him in many situations, in both public places and in more personal situations. He arrived on Thursday, August 12th and made contact with Paulinha and myself, saying that he wanted to visit Grupo Nzinga on Sunday 15th at 2:00 P.M., taking advantage of a break in his agenda. On Saturday the 14th, he went to Mestre René’s roda in the afternoon. At night, he went to Mestre Moraes’ and also Mestre João Pequeno’s rodas. He went to a thousand rodas. On Sunday at two o’clock, he was there in Nzinga, ready for yet another capoeira roda.
He is a happy person, and we laughed a lot together. We had a small, intimate roda. There was no parade of vanities. It was pure positive energy. At the end, the general feeling was that everyone was even happier than when they arrived, including the Mestre. From there, we went to the Terreiro Tanuri Junsara (Angola); it was a party for “Tempo.” It was a time of pure enchantment, since the party was one of the most beautiful ever. According to Mestre João Grande, it was one of the most unforgettable moments of his trip.
Wednesday, August 18th was my birthday, but we did a commemorative roda the following day at seven o’clock in the evening. I asked Mestre João Grande to give me his presence at that roda as a birthday present. It seemed impossible, since he had to follow the schedule of the event that had brought him to Salvador. But I am lucky, and he was there on that day, arriving even before the other invited guests. There was a new explosion of joy, because it was a privilege to have him visit our space twice. That roda was very beautiful and joyful. Other famous people present included Mestre Valmir (FICA), CM Boca do Rio (Zimba), Cris (ACANNE), Marco Aurélio, Janaina, Linda, and others. At the end we even had birthday cake.
In the course of the following week, the Mestre went to enjoy the tranquility of his beautiful retreat on Itaparica Island.
I sensed in him the desire to infuse himself with the things of the land, the things of the daily life of the people, of religion, of the Bahian accent, of the simple things in life, whether the song of a bem-ti-vi bird in his backyard or the shout of the aipim vendor passing the door of his house, which is where I visited him and conducted the following interview. It’s too bad I can’t include the audio, with his bursts of laughter.
How did you discover capoeira angola? When did you first see capoeira?
It was the corta-capim! This is what happened: two guys about 19 years old passed in the street and did corta-capim. There were two men in the doorway of a store. Chico said to Pedro: “Pedro, that there is the dance of the Nagô negro. Do that movement to a person and the person will fall.”
The man who spoke stayed, and the one who listened went away. I stayed there listening to their whole conversation. I am very curious. I was ten years old at the time. Later, I asked the man who stayed: “What is the Nagô dance?” And he replied: “I don’t know; it’s the people who came from Africa, who work in the sugarcane mill.” And I left seeking to find out what corta-capim was.
I went on from there and I worked in a livestock ranch as a cowhand’s assistant, and as a farmhand planting beans, trees, rice, coffee, cocoa, everything. I worked in other jobs. I sought to know what corta-capim was, but no one told me. In 1953 I was twenty years old and I came to live in Salvador, on the street Amparo do Tororó, number 19. I lived there for a year working in the house of a family: sweeping the floors, washing the dishes, shopping, everything.
What family was this?
The man was named Edgar and the woman was named Julia.
Were they rich?
No, they were poor, but the husband worked as a peddler. I worked there for one year. Later I went to work with a Spaniard on the Avenida Vasco de Gama, in a cachaça warehouse. I lived in a little room in the back. I carried cachaça and vinegar. One day, I passed by the bridge that linked Tororó to Garcia, near the Roça do Lobo. Underneath the mango tree, there was a capoeira roda. I arrived there and met João Pequeno, Barbosa, Gordo, Cobrinha Verde, Tiburcinho, Manoel Carregador.
And the roda was going on. I saw the three sticks of the berimbaus. I asked Barbosa and João Pequeno: – What is this? And they replied: – This is capoeira! At exactly the moment I was asking, one guy did the corta-capim and I remembered from when I was ten years old. I asked where they learned and João Pequeno said that he would take me to the neighborhood of Brotas, where Mr. Pastinha gave classes.
How old were you at that time?
I was twenty years old. There, João Pequeno said:
– Mr. Pastinha, here is a guy who wants to learn capoeira.
He said: – Sit there. What’s your name?
– My name is João.
– What do you do?
– Well, I play soccer, I train…
Mr. Pastinha said: – leave all that behind, because it’s useless. Follow capoeira because you will grow in capoeira (he was exactly right!).
I thought: – This man knows nothing… (Laughter). I paid twenty mil-réis at the time and sat. Then all the old guys arrived: Traíra, Valdemar, Totonho de Maré, Livino, Daniel. All the people of the old guard.
And Mr. Pastinha went to play… it was after he played that I believed in his game. I thought: – This old guy knows things.
He told me: – Come train here on Tuesday.
Pastinha trained me, João Pequeno trained me. One day, the Mestre wanted to move to a bigger space and a dock worker arranged a mansion in the Pelourinho, number 19, where the Dance occurred every Saturday night. Dockers, workers, and common people came to this dance. I trained Tuesdays, Thursdays, and on Sundays was the roda. Little by little, the other old capoeiristas came to frequent the mansion.
Was everything you learned in capoeira in Mr. Pastinha’s class, or did you take classes with another Mestre?
Mestre Cobrinha Verde trained me in the morning, in his academy in Chame-chame. I went there on Sunday mornings. I practiced capoeira there in the morning. It was me, the late Gato Preto, Didi, Bom Cabrito, Rege de Santo Amaro…
So in other words, you drank from the fountain of Cobrinha Verde and also that of Mestre Pastinha?
Exactly. I used to stay with Cobrinha Verde until noon. Then I went home and grabbed a bite to eat. I went to Mestre Pastinha around 2:00 P.M. There, I ate meat. Traíra also gave me “things.” Valdemar gave me, the late Livino gave me, and Noronha gave me, all in words.
Did you also go to Mestre Waldemar’s hut?
I always went to Waldemar’s roda. The thing caught fire. Mercy! There were only snakes, experts, bred there. It was Evanir, Tatá, Bom Cabelo, Chita Macário, Sete Molas, Zacarias. All were extremely good. When I had three months of capoeira, they threw me out of that roda. Antonio Cabeceiro was as wicked as anything. I was playing with Evanir. Getting into the game with Evanir, and then he bought the game without me seeing, exactly at the time when I did a meia lua de costas without looking, and he threw me out of the roda, into the middle of the street. I didn’t even see it coming. I got all dirty and had to leave.
I went again on another Sunday. I went to see how Evanir played. I watched first, and went to play with him again. He entered and I gave him a rasteira; he retreated and returned the rasteira and I stepped on his leg, which ripped his pants from top to bottom. He went crazy afterwards… priiii they whistled to stop the roda. They had a whistle there.
Who was it that whistled, was it Mestre Waldemar?
No, it was an old guy who was there. He whistled to begin or end the games. There was a roda at Conceição da Praia on December 8th. Waldemar’s group arrived, and there were around ten of them. I walked with no one but God and my Saint. I entered and later Bom Cabelo bought in. I gave him a meia lua and he gave me a meia lua and I retreated and then gave him a cabeçada and he lightly gave a knee strike to my jaw. I closed my game and adjusted, adapted, and when he was careless I touched him with my head.
Then Evanir bought the game. There was still the debt from the barracão, and we did rolê, pá pá pá… we rolled here, we rolled there… I used sport shoes, without shoelaces. Mestre Pastinha always told me that when I entered, I should close my guard with my two arms protecting my stomach and chest. Then, Evanir entered in tesoura. I removed one of my arms from the guard in order to adjust the shoe that was almost falling off my foot, and at that moment Evanir turned rapidly and hit my face with the tip of his foot, in a chapa de frente just below my eye. It injured my face but the game continued.
Mestre Bugalho was on the berimbau with a lit cigar in the corner of his mouth. He played only accelerated São Bento Grande. I played here and there, I tumbled down and he fell over there and then the berimbau stopped. The bateria stopped. I went to go put salt on my eye, I cleaned the injury. Evanir and I were on bad terms for a year, without speaking to each other.
When I went to Carnaval, sometimes I hung around the Cantina da Lua restaurant, in the middle of the street. I went up there and they told me that Natividade, a student of Pastinha, was getting beaten up by Evanir in the roda. I went there. He saw me, stopped and asked: Who will play? Whoever wants to play with me can come. He stood there challenging.
I let him restart the game and then I went and bought in with him. Then it was a battle! He played low and didn’t get up. He did everything low. We played a full two hours, in the battle. And then after the game we congratulated each other and the bad terms ended and we became friends.
Mestre, which old capoeirista most impressed you playing capoeira? And which capoeirista of today?
Of the old ones, all of them. And of the newer ones, from 1950 on, I liked seeing Waldemar’s students: Diogo, Chita, Evanir. There was Virgílio…
Mestre Waldemar’s hut was frequented by great capoeiristas. In the book of the “capoeirologist” Frede Abreu – O Barracão do Mestre Waldemar – it’s said that those who went there armed had to leave their weapons at the entrance to the hut, in the hands of people who the Mestre trusted. Did you witness this scene as well?
I saw that often. I went to play with Chita, Macário, Diogo; those guys were good! Virgílio was also very good. There was a Cobrinha there who… gave an aú and from the aú got João Pequeno in a rasteira. He has passed away. They called him Cobrinha. In Pastinha’s academy I bought the game with him and he wanted to do this to me too and I threw him out. His father then bought the game with me. He was the son of Espinho Remoso. The three together: Cobrinha, Espinho Remoso, and Diogo were there. We played and I didn’t get him nor did he get me. It was a tough game that had no winner.
Do you notice any difference between the capoeira as it was played in the old times and the capoeira today?
Lots of difference! In the game, in the song, in the rhythm. Today ladainhas are almost never sung. Sometimes it’s just one at the beginning of the roda and that’s it. In the chula there are some verses that should not be forgotten: iê volta do mundo, que o mundo deu, que o mundo dá; iê menino é bom; iê é cabeceiro; iê é mandingueiro.
Capoeira is losing its roots because of these things. The pandeiros want to play louder than the atabaque, without respecting the hierarchy of the instruments. The rhythm is very fast. It makes the game accelerate and all the beauty of the game is lost. The game is only beautiful when you play to the rhythm of the berimbau. I used to play very beautifully when Waldemar played berimbau. We advanced and retreated and the berimbau kept the beat.
Today very few Mestres call the pair of capoeiristas to the foot of the berimbau to make an observation, give a hint, this type of thing. What do you think of that?
It’s true. They don’t call them. Sometimes one is stepping on the other’s clothes and even then the berimbau doesn’t call. Any little beating in the game, and the players should be called to the foot of the berimbau, they shake hands and begin again; nothing even has to be said, but they have to be called. We have to insist on the value of tradition.
How is it for you to teach Black Culture mainly to Americans?
Ah! I feel very satisfied. Very well. Capoeira is for the whole world. It is for men, women, and children. It is for black, red, blue, and yellow. It is in our blood. There are people who say: capoeira is for blacks… No. It is for whoever wants to learn. We are born with capoeira already in our bodies: whether white, black, red, or blue. Risadinha’s son is blonde and blue-eyed and everything, five years old and is already playing capoeira great. He plays with everyone there.
And Americans? Do they give much value to capoeira?
They give lots of value to capoeira. Mainly the women. They dedicate themselves very much. The men train too but not more than the women. In Europe when there is a capoeira event, as many women show up as men, and each one with her berimbau.
Why haven’t you formed Contra-Mestres or Treinels in your group?
Because the time has not yet arrived…
Do you remember women playing in the old days?
I saw one woman play… she was from Sergipe… in 1952, she played with Joel, student of the late Daniel. She was a short woman, wearing pants, and she played great.
After your experience of giving classes in the CECA (Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola) and in GCAP (Grupo de Capoeira Angola Pelourinho), what other experiences of teaching capoeira have you had here in Bahia?
When I left GCAP in 1987, after staying there for three years, I gave classes in Docas, in a partnership with the Liceu de Artes e Ofícios in which I taught 70 youths. For this to happen I counted on the help of Frede Abreu, Mestre Itapoan, and César Barbieri.
You remained at least five years separated from capoeira. What role did GCAP have in your return?
Well, GCAP gave strength to bring the old Mestres back again. Those meetings and workshops with the old guys made capoeira grow. There was a period when GCAP also helped me with expenses.
Do you think it is easier or harder to teach capoeira in the United States?
For me it’s the same thing. It’s all the same here as there. Did you see the event for which I came to Bahia to work? Two hundred people signed up and how many came? Few. If the event was over in Europe, it would certainly fill up.
You are also a great source of capoeira music. So much so that the main songs sung in angola rodas come from you. Do you write these songs? How do you do it?
Sometimes I remember one thing or another… but I also create the majority.
We have a great preoccupation with what we sing. Can you talk about that?
We must be careful with the fundamentals of the music. I don’t want to speak badly of anyone, but there are some old Mestres who only sing Samba de Roda in the capoeira roda. They are departing from tradition. Now, I like to see the pandeiro also call, ringing out in order to call. I don’t like them to play the pandeiro loudly. A true angoleiro must be rigorous in his teaching; it’s better for his students.
In New York, do you have contact with people who act inside organizations or institutions that work directly or indirectly with issues related to African-Americans?
There are lots there. They participate in the classes, they go there. They help me. They do activities in high schools and call me to give speeches. There is one organization that invited me to do a presentation in a show and our group had many white people. We went and they didn’t say anything to me, but they said to others there: Ah! The Mestre brought a bunch of whites here and such… Later they called me again and I said that I couldn’t go. I gave an apology, in order not to hear someone ask me not to bring the white students of the group.
Three months ago I also participated in a film, with the cast composed only of blacks. It’s a famous film that will soon be released. With a very famous actor. It will come out now in the cinemas. It was made in Harlem. We made a roda in the middle of the cold. He wanted me just to sing and play berimbau. Some of my students played.
How did your move to NY occur?
Well, Daniel Dawson arranged our departure. He took me, Moraes, Cobra Mansa, Nô, and Lua de Bobó to the Festival of Black Art in Atlanta. From there I didn’t return, I stayed… that was in 1990.
What does Gato Preto have to do with that history? Was it he who arranged the students and the space?
It was. He had a space in Harlem. He gave classes there. And I stayed living in his house. I gave classes on Sundays.
After Harlem, you went where? To Manhattan?
I left Gato. I opened a space on 69th Street in Manhattan. Risadinha was already accompanying me. I went paying the rent little by little and growing there. I opened a dance room on the side of the capoeira room. I rented it out. Later I moved again, still in Manhattan. I’ve been at that address for five years and I have just renewed the contract for five more years.
Mestre João Grande, thank you very much for the interview!