Written by Roger Spock
Translation into English: Shayna McHugh
Mestre Gato Preto will turn seventy years old on March 19th of this year. He has spent over fifty years in capoeira and he’s still going strong, giving an example to the newer students.
José Luiz Gabriel began Capoeira when he was eight years old. By the time he was twelve, everyone thought that he already knew everything. He did not believe this and kept seeking to learn more, as he does until this day. He never “officially” graduated in Capoeira. He understands that a capoeirista is not a PhD, who learns everything and then graduates in order to exercise his profession. “Capoeira never ends,” he says.
After living with other great Capoeira practitioners in Salvador-Bahia, Mestre Gato Preto has become a traveling ambassador of Capoeira, visiting many countries and transmitting his knowledge to young and old capoeiristas in the four corners of the world. In this exclusive interview with Capoeira Magazine, he unhesitatingly shares all his precious experience:
When and how did you first encounter capoeira?
I began, at eight years old, with my father, Eutíquio Lúcio Góes. He was my mestre. At twelve years old (1941), people thought that I had nothing left to learn. The trainings took place in a small enclosed room. He attacked with a maculelê stick or machete, in order to make me defend myself. When I messed up, he corrected me…until one day when I gave a strong cabeçada and he fell. When he got up, he came running after me, threatening to cut me and yelling: “Come here, boy!” After that he stopped teaching me.
Later I learned with my uncle João Catarino, a student of Besouro, until he died of a hemorrhage. After this period came Leo, Cobrinha Verde, Mestre Waldemar, Mestre Pastinha, and also Gildo, Roberto, and João Grande, who played berimbau and was a very important capoeirista at that time. In the roda, João Pequeno, Moreno, Albertino, Valdomiro, and I made up the bateria.
And your contact with the mestres of the time?
There were many mestres who played well in Bahia, such as Canjiquinha, Zéis, Vandir, Agulhão, Zacarias, Bom Cabelo. There were also others who were not mestres but who also played very well, such as Deodato and Bigodinho. All the capoeiristas from Liberdade (the neighborhood of Liberdade, in Salvador), trained by Mestre Waldemar, were good, good, very good! There was a plumber, who died at 28 years old, who was a great angoleiro!
In those days, who were the most distinguished capoeiristas, in your eyes?
In my opinion, João Grande, in the inside game. In terms of dancing around, it was this guy Gilberto who took care of himself well and today is very old.
What was the orchestra of Capoeira?
Three berimbaus (a gunga, a berra-boi, and a viola), two pandeiros, a bamboo ganzá (not a metal ganzá), and a reco-reco. The first berimbau played Angola; the second, São Bento Grande; and the third, Angolinha. This was the bateria, accompanied by singing.
What was the profile of the capoeirista in that time?
The capoeirista was a worker: a conductor, a sugarcane worker, a dock worker at the port, a stonemason, a carpenter, an electrician, a commercial traveler, a sailor – ultimately, he was a worker who, whatever his job was, played capoeira for love, for leisure, as a type of therapy. The capoeirista did that as a dance, which made him feel well and get what he wanted, through concentration.
No one earned money? No one lived off of capoeira?
The money came later, with games in the roda. Someone would place a banknote in the center of the roda on top of a red handkerchief and the capoeirista would have to pick it up with his mouth.
The two partners played until one was immobilized with a blow of the foot – never of the hand – and the other got the banknote. It was necessary to immobilize one’s opponent to avoid the risk of receiving a kick in the face. After everything, the two players hugged and the money was placed in the cabaça of the berimbau in order to pay for a round of beer, soda, or rum after the roda. This was the only way that money entered capoeira.
Not even the mestres had capoeira as a profession?
No one did. They were all workers, they had their professions. Pastinha was a toll collector, and afterwards he went to organize capoeira; Daniel Noronha worked on the dock; Canjiquinha and Caiçara worked in the Town Hall; Paulo dos Anjos worked as a driver; Mestre Ferreira and myself worked as frame-layers. No one lived off of capoeira. I lived in capoeira during 40 years without earning any cash!
But we learned a lot in those days. A group from Liberdade was brought to visit me in Itapuan and one group played with another. Whoever received a rasteira and fell with their butt on the ground lost the game. Also, one could not dirty the opponent’s clothing. That was bad manners. The mestres embraced and conversed. We played the whole afternoon.
And modern capoeira?
It evolved. To evolve is very good, but it is necessary to have a root, a beginning, so that capoeira does not go down a wrong path, because this art is so rich! Capoeira is your life, my life, and the life of many others. There’s no way to control that. It’s necessary to control education, so that capoeira does not lose this beautiful thing that it possesses.
What does a capoeirista need to become a mestre?
First of all, graduation does not exist in capoeira. A final point does not exist, because capoeira has no end. It will take you wherever it wants you to go. The same will happen with your son, your grandson, or great-grandson: it goes on and on. Capoeira is universal, it walks, it is dynamic; it doesn’t have a “graduation” like the doctor who learns everything, graduates, and goes to work in his profession.
Wisdom is the doctorate of capoeira. In order to achieve it, one must prolong one’s life in the art. How? By giving a cord to the boy and letting him train for four years, in order to prepare himself and learn about reality, in order to achieve wisdom. With ten years, he could be a contra-mestre, thorough research and study. Then, with twenty years of experience he may or may not have conditions to be mestre.
Everything depends on wisdom, and wisdom has nothing to do with age. The title, given by mestres, of “coming to be ready,” may be granted. It does not mean being graduated, because the work and the learning continue. Capoeira never ends, never dies.
Capoeira has 180 blows and 180 counterattacks. One does not learn ten or twelve movements, say that one knows six regional moves and other angola moves and then go around saying that one is a capoeirista. It is necessary to know, discover, and face all the attacks.
Many players don’t want to discuss or learn all of capoeira. They thus meet their end, because they will never surpass the minimal amount that they know. The worst off in all this is capoeira itself, because these people end up losing the talent that they do have. They separate capoeira from its reality.
You referred to a time in which everyone was friends; there was unity. Today there is much rivalry; a big and strong capoeirista enters in the roda intending to destroy the other player. What do you think about this?
In those times, the mestres respected each other and encouraged consideration on the part of their students. The guy might be big, like Agulhão, who was two meters tall, or strong like Mestre Waldemar, Traíra, Zacarias, Davi, or Dada – who gave the greatest capoeira show of the time – but there was control and respect. Anyone who took a cabeçada fell and got up to shake his partner’s hand without aggression or bitterness.
Today I see that there are many people teaching their students to hit, wanting to be the best and filling the heads of those poor students – who don’t know any better – with the idea that this is important. These are people who only see the destructive side. The mestres get blamed for the consequences and capoeira ends up unable to show its full potential.
Did this used to happen among the old mestres?
No. The only mestres who argued in Salvador back in those days were Canjiquinha and Caiçara, but everything was play-acting, in presentations for tourists. They made fun of each other in laughter and jokes. The two died on good terms with each other. Bimba had an academy in the Maciel de Cima and Pastinha had one in the Largo do Pelourinho. Very close to each other. They did not visit each other, but also they did not speak badly of each other’s academies. I have with me newspaper articles from 1984 about João Pequeno and João Grande, in Itapuan. One can see how they liked and respected each other!
Caiçara and Canjiquinha were my friends until the ends of their lives. Bimba’s students have maintained friendships with me for 45 years. I have no enemies in capoeira and if I did they would not be against me, but against the art. I don’t do anything against them. Some destroy themselves; others reeducate themselves and appear without entering in that treachery.
More recently, I met students who even want to hit their mestres, alleging that they learned nothing. Do you know what this is? Lack of education. The capoeirista has to educate himself in order to respect and be respected.