Interview with Revista Capoeira
Translated into English by Shayna McHugh
When the subject at hand is Capoeira, he exudes enthusiasm, energy, knowledge, force of will, determination, and much more. This man is Mestre Camisa, the President and Founder of ABADÁ Capoeira.
Tell us a bit about where you were born, Mestre.
My day-to-day life on the farm was typical: I accompanied the cowboys in their daily activities and lived there until I was 12 years old, when my family moved to Jacobina, 40 minutes away. Later, we moved to Salvador. I liked to ride horses, hunt, swim in the river, and raise animals – a common life for a farm boy. In those days, I was unfamiliar with TV and telephones – I only encountered these when I went to Salvador.
What was your first contact with capoeira?
When I was still a little kid, hearing the stories that the adults used to tell about the capoeiristas of the sertão [countryside] who had corpo fechado [“closed body,” magically protected from certain types of injuries] and who did ground movements, gave rasteiras [sweeps] that knocked down several people at once, and no one could catch them. I never knew about the berimbau.
My brother Camisa Roxa went to Salvador to study, and there he met some capoeiristas and went to train in Mestre Bimba’s academies. During his vacations from school, he would come back to the farm and teach my cousins, my other brothers, and me what he had learned. Once he took me to Salvador and I had the pleasure of meeting Mestre Bimba for the first time. I felt all of his force. I was fascinated by watching his students train.
When I went back to the farm, I was even more motivated and I began training in the corral, doing flips over the manure pile. I did backflips on the riverbank. Everyone in my family was learning capoeira. After my father passed away, my family moved to Salvador and my mother continued taking care of the farm. I went to live in Liberdade, the largest black neighborhood and one of the greatest capoeira centers of all time in Salvador. The traditional rodas of Mestre Valdemar and Mestre Traíra took place there.
Who trained with you in Mestre Bimba’s Academy, in those days?
With me, it was Onça Negra, Macarrão, Torpedo, Pimentão, Nenel, Formiga, and Demerval. The graduated students who trained there were Canhão, Alegria, Luís, Quebra Ferro, Malvadeza, Valdemar, Sarigue and many more.
How did you get the nickname Camisa?
In the beginning they called me Camisinha, because I was the youngest and I had a brother – Camisa Roxa – graduated by Mestre Bimba. I was the fourth one in my family to graduate from Mestre Bimba’s capoeira course. With time, my younger brother came to be known as Camiseta and they began calling me Camisa.
Whether in Bahia or in Rio, what was the moment that most marked you as a capoeirista?
When I met Mestre Bimba.
In Rio, what led you to form Abadá-Capoeira?
In Salvador I participated in a folkloric group called Viva Bahia, and also in Grupo Ogundelê, doing performances and shows. Later I was in the group Olodumaré, with Camisa Roxa. We traveled throughout Brazil, until we arrived in Rio. In those days, there were already rumors that Mestre Bimba would go to Goiás. Camisa Roxa decided to go to Europe. This was when my mother died, and I became disoriented.
My brother even bought me a ticket back to Salvador so that I could resume my studies. I ripped up the ticket and decided to stay in Rio. I slept in the bus station and inside the bus. I played capoeira all over the city until I went to live and teach in the Nissei Academy. Since I started to teach very early, my dream was to have students and a group. I formed my first class in Rio. My first student was someone from Rio Grande do Sul who knew me from the Olodumaré group.
Here in Rio, I met Preguiça and Anzol, who had also been Mestre Bimba’s students, as well as some members of the Senzala group, such as Rafael (one of the founders), Cláudio, Borracha, and Hélio, who I had met in Bahia and who were good friends of Camisa Roxa. I began to participate in their group’s rodas and even brought my students to play until, after a year, they invited me to join. Later, when I left, I created my group “Capoeirart.” I already had students in Rio and a few other states.
It grew so much that we had to create an association, because I thought that this would spare my students from passing through the difficulties that I passed through when I arrived here. I thought about forming a support association for capoeiristas. The initial acronym was “Abadac,” but my daughter Tatiana suggested the name Abadá-Capoeira – Associação Brasileira de Apoio e Desenvolvimento à Arte-Capoeira [Brazilian Association for the Support and Development of the Art Capoeira]. This was in 1988.
What is your life philosophy?
My life philosophy is capoeira. I have played since I was a child; capoeira has grown inside of me. My way of seeing the world is through capoeira, which taught me to respect others, to know that we are all equal regardless of social condition. Capoeira gave me the flexibility to overcome everyday difficulties; it taught me how to win and how to lose – mainly how to lose, because everyone is already prepared to win.
It enabled me to have a profession with which I completely identify, and I am free to act, think, and develop my work in the way that I think best. I have never had another profession and I wouldn’t even want to do anything else. I raise and educate my kids with capoeira. Through capoeira, I have the chance to help many people and also be helped. I have made many friends in capoeira and I learned everything that I try to teach my students. This is how a “children’s plaything” transforms into a life philosophy.
What is the relationship between a capoeirista’s behavior inside and outside the roda?
In the capoeira roda we have to try to deceive, confuse, and entrap the other player in order to make him do what we want. These are tactics that teach us to have flexibility/versatility and to perceive wickedness. They also help us see life in a clever way when we turn a corner. Now, this can’t be translated into the day-to-day relationships among capoeiristas, because then no one would be able to trust anyone.
But it does happen that some do in life what they should do only in the roda, and this is one of the conflicts in the capoeira world: people use the deception and sneakiness in life. We have to know how to keep things separate. I, for example, am a sincere person, and I find it difficult to maintain friendships with those who only aim to take advantage of everything and quickly give you a rasteira if you hesitate. Cleverness and malícia should be shown inside the roda.
What do you think of capoeira today?
I think that it grew a lot, but that the formation of its teachers leaves something to be desired. There are few places that offer a proper preparation for people who want to give capoeira classes.
And capoeira outside of Brazil?
It is also growing a lot. Outside of Brazil, the prejudices and difficulties that we have in Brazil don’t exist. This is why capoeiristas leave Brazil unprepared to go teach elsewhere. This is a result of the poor formation of capoeira teachers in Brazil. The saving grace is that there are also lots of really good people out there. Foreigners are learning and coming to Brazil in order to perfect themselves in capoeira. If we don’t improve the preparation of Brazilian teachers, this job market will end up filled by the foreigners themselves.
What do you think of the capoeiristas who associate the image of the Abadá group with violence?
First I would like to make a correction: Abadá is not a group, Abadá is a school of citizens that forms Brazilians who are conscious of their roots and cultural identity. Abadá is an institution, an organization in capoeira. Regarding the question, I personally am against any type of violence. I think that they are confusing efficiency with violence. Violence is what they are doing with the image of Abadá, intentionally spreading misinformation as a strategy to prevent people from getting to know our work.
Abadá’s victories were won through good capoeira, which is undeniable. They had to find some way to speak badly of us, so they invented this lie. But it doesn’t affect us at all, it just makes us unite and help Abadá function even better. Violence is what they are doing with capoeira: the self-titling of Mestres, the bad formation of capoeirsitas, and the degrading situation in which the majority of the old Mestres live – in need, and some in abject poverty.
What is the best way to work with capoeira?
First of all, one must know capoeira and be aware of everything that its culture involves. This is fundamental in order to know what you’re doing. Try to form a good team. The style or “last name” is not important, whether it’s Regional or Angola. What matters is being responsible, knowing how to transmit your teachings in the right way. Although it doesn’t seem like it, teaching capoeira is very complex, involving several arts. The capoeirista must be a great administrator in order to know how to deal with this fight, this game, this workout, this therapy. This is why Abadá’s work is a team effort, because it is a heavy job, in which we aim to develop all the aspects of capoeira.
Is Abadá-Capoeira a style of capoeira?
Actually, it is a capoeira system, a way of working with it, including all its facets. We make a laboratory of all the styles that exist in Brazil, plus the African martial arts. It is the intersection of the values of old capoeira, Angola and Regional. I always tried to research martial arts, and especially African ones. As a martial art, capoeira just needs to perfect that which it already contains.
In Abadá, sometimes one movement leads to another that is not always seen in Angola, in Regional, or in any other martial art. In a team, we study old movements and create new ones. Today we have our characteristics and techniques typical of Abadá-Capoeira, without basing ourselves in any other martial art. We don’t want to monopolize anything, we just have a firm base in what we do. Abadá is just one more segment of capoeira, without alienating anyone.
Everything has a scientific reason, measured by a highly qualified team that measures each movement in accordance with the person’s biotype. On this team we have professors of physical education, history, anthropology, in summary – everything to make the least possible error. Whatever is good for capoeira will always be good for me.
How is a Mestre graduated in Abadá-Capoeira?
You don’t graduate a Mestre, you become a Mestre. The old Mestres won the recognition of the capoeira community for their time, work, and experience in the art. They had successes and failures. Today many capoeiristas go around calling themselves Mestres without even being old enough, much less having the work and the experience for this. Usually they do it for the money, thus disrespecting those who are truly Mestres. The word “Mestre” has been so cheapened that it has already become nothing more than a nickname, just like the words group, batizado, etc.
In Abadá, one of our objectives is to rescue the true value of the Mestre. It is possible to earn money, give classes, produce literary works, and give courses without being a Mestre, and our work is here to confirm that. If I were to use these criteria that people throw around, there would be a thousand Mestres in Abadá, so it’s better to have one that is worth a thousand than a thousand that are worth nothing at all. Only now in Abadá are we going to recognize two more Mestres.
The new Aurélio dictionary added some capoeira terms. What do you think of that?
I think that it was recognition. Aurélio contacted us in search of information, wanting to know more about capoeira. They added many terms in their latest edition, including new meanings for the word abadá. It was a great satisfaction to see our association included in one of the most important Brazilian dictionaries. There are also now definitions for capoeira Regional and capoeira Angola, which we provided.
Besides capoeira, what else do you like to do?
I really like to lie in a hammock and chat, listen to Brazilian music, go to the theater, ride horses, raise animals, and be close to nature. But everything that I do in life is through the worldview of capoeira. If I say something about history, politics, economics, the environment, or any other subject, capoeira ends up interfering. It was capoeira that taught me to be a citizen, a fully conscious Brazilian.
Tell us about a sadness and a joy in capoeira.
I have had many sadnesses, but many more joys! Sadnesses include the poor spirit of many capoeiristas, some of bad character, the death of Mestre Bimba, the old Mestres who are in need, not having given the attention to my kids that they deserved.
To balance it out, I have had many joys: being healthy, my three children, my wife, my students, recognition from other martial arts, knowing that capoeira is in the whole world and that I participated heavily in that process, having created the Mestre Bimba Educational Center in Rio, having been Mestre Bimba’s student, having lived with the Old Guard Mestres of Bahia, having created Abadá, being Brazilian despite the burdens, traveling to many continents, being Camisa Roxa’s brother – it was he who taught me to be a real capoeirista – seeing capoeira recognized by society, by the media, and by the universities.
What is your message for capoeiristas?
Capoeira is not just playing in the roda: everyone should aim to study and learn how to live with differences. Information and research are the great triumphs of contemporary capoeira. Today, whoever doesn’t study will not go forward, or else will be quickly surpassed by their students, because the capoeira universe is very rich and doesn’t have just one segment. Try to make contact with the old guard of capoeira, who are the true possessors of knowledge that is disappearing. This link of the past with the present is very important for capoeira’s development. Capoeira is a great tree with roots. Without the roots, there is no nutrition for new fruit.