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Almeida: At the cutting edge of bringing capoeria to the United States

a.k.a. Mestre Acordeon

Listening to Mestre Acordeon, who often refers to the practice as "the art" it becomes clear that capoeira is many things at once: music, martial art, dance, ritual, but, above all, a living tradition encompassing a rich and versatile way of being in the world. "I am a capoeirista who happens to play music" says Acordeon, who is also a recording artist with seven releases to his credit. Then he began the following sketch of capoeira.

ALMEIDA: I think that I become a capoeirista at heart and lucky enough to be able to carry on the capoeira perspective into other realms of my life because I was born and grew up in Salvador, called Bahia by its native people. In my view, Bahia is the cradle of contemporary capoeira. For centuries, and still today, many aspects of the daily life in this old city is permeated by a strong African heritage.

Fifty years ago, Salvador was still a small city without industry and an economy based on the growth of sugar cane, coffee, cacao, and cattle in the interior of the state. Its population of about 500.000 at the time was largely composed of people from African descent. During many years, the people from Bahia were so isolated that they had their own unique way of living, set in a whole different universe. One could perceive that through the physique of the people, their religion, food, music, the general look of the city. Many who wanted to learn about African culture went to Bahia to do so. Jorge Amado, a very famous Brazilian writer, once said that Bahia was a mix of Nigeria, Lagos and Lisbon. Today, its population is about two and a half million, and its economy has changed a lot, influenced by many industries and a large petrochemical complex. However, Bahia is still called the AAfrica of the Americas,@ because it continues to carry Brazil=s black soul. Capoeira being an art form strongly rooted in African traditions, Bahia was a natural setting in which I was able to live this art with intensity in my youth.

WBR: What is capoeira and how did you get involved with it?

ALMEIDA: (laugh). I got involved in my youth, attracted to its many guises and displays. I dived into its magical realm and I have been there since then. AWhat is capoeira is a question that I have been answering every single day, however feeling incapable to transmit its full meaning . First of all, let=s understand that capoeira is a complex and sophisticated art form which involves movement, music, philosophy, ritual, tradition and an unique perspective on life. Visually, it is a physical game of attacks and defenses in a continuous flow, done to rhythms of traditional music and unique instruments. The invisible part of this huge iceberg is immersed in an ocean of cultural nuances and outlooks on personal, social, philosophical and religious beliefs. This is what really captured my soul.

WBR: Capoeira is often associated with the music of the berimbau, the single-stringed bow with a sound gourd attached. What is the importance of the berimbau in the capoeira game?

ALMEIDA: In the "roda de capoeira," the circle of spectators surrounding two players exchanging movements of attack and defenses, the berimbau is played by the mestre. The master is responsible for keeping the harmony and flow of this particular encounter, as well as to keep the observance of rituals, traditions, and manners. All the commands should come through the several different rhythms, or toques de berimbau. If Sao Bento Grande de Regional is played, the game must be more fight oriented. If it is an Angola, the capoeiristas must respond with a more ritualistic game, and so on. The capoeira music helps the capoeirista to develop coordination between mind and body, as well as the proper interaction with his or her partners. It focuses one on the mood or tone of the roda.

Almeida in performance with Chalo Eduardo and Kim Atkinson

WBR: Is capoeira accompanied only by the berimbau?

ALMEIDA: No. In addition to the berimbau, there is the pandeiro, which is a kind of tambourine tuned very low and with just a few rings; an atabaque drum, the largest of the three conga-like drums used in candomblé ceremonies; the reco-reco, which is a notched section of bamboo played by being scraped with a thin stick, and the agogo, a pair of iron bells played with a metal stick. We also clap and sing specific songs in which a soloist and chorus alternate calls and response.

WBR: Is capoeira identified with any particular religious system or spiritual community?

ALMEIDA: No. It is not and its spirituality is difficult to pinpoint. Even in philosophical terms there has never been any work that consolidated the ideas behind capoeira. As I said, capoeira reflects the perspective of the Africans in the Americas. Within this perspective, everything is sacred or we are always immersed in the sacred. We proceed in capoeira in the same way that we go about any aspect of normal life in Bahia, with observance and respect of precepts that regulate the universe, deities and human beings. For example, in Bahia, as one passes in front of one of the city=s A365" churches as we like to say, instinctively one will make the sign of the cross, or perhaps will kiss his or her patuá (a magical amulet to give protection to the user). If you have a job interview or if you are on the beach, you will do the same, invoking protection of your spirit guides before diving into the ocean of the unknown. So, before jumping into the capoeira action, a capoeirista may will touch the floor and will make magical signs and gestures toward invoking the close watching of their orixás, the deities of candomblé. The capoeira game they are about to play can be as serious and dangerous as any other game of everyday life. So, why not to be protected?

WBR: How does capoeira come to be?

ALMEIDA: The known history of capoeira is faulty about its origins and it is unclear before the seventeenth century. Among many hypotheses, I believe that the capoeira movements derive from the steps of war games and religious and profane dances of the Bantu people, transformed, adapted and widely used as a pastime by enslaved Africans and their descendants in Brazil. It is also well known and documented from the middle of the eighteenth century that the fighting potential of the capoeira movements made this art a weapon used by trouble makers and criminals as well as, to some extent, by insurrectionary slaves in their struggle for freedom.

At the turn of the century, capoeira suffered a very huge repression. In some locations, capoeira was a kind of a weapon of survival used by jobless people in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife. They used capoeira as a pastime, as a means to get physically strong, as a fight technique to create problems for the police, things like that. This was also the typical view of the dominant society at the time. We know that through the exiting literature on capoeira, as well as through oral tradition. The literature on capoeira may be divided into different approaches according to its epoch. The first approach is the one of travelers around the country from the early 1700s to the end of the monarchy on 1880. The second one is the police reports which covers up to the early 1990s. In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, the approach was of those interested in folklore. Finally, we come to the Anew historyography@ of capoeira, in which capoeira is studied by scholars under different points of view, such as sociology, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and so on.

So this repression of capoeira intensified when the republic was established in the 1800s, because the capoeiristas likened themselves to the monarchists, at the time, so the republicans decided to extirpate the capoeiristas. A lot of the repression effort came from that. It was so much that capoeira was literally prohibited by the first Brazilian penal code of the republic. And it stayed like that for a long time. My teacher was one the contributed for the capoeira legalization. His name was Manoel dos Reis Machado, known as Mestre Bimba (1899-1976) . He was a man extremely rooted in the roots of his ancestors, Aa capoeirista, educator, and one of the most expressive personalities of the African-Brazilian thinking in Bahia of his time@. He opened the first official capoeira school and had a large number of students from all walks of life. Some of those people had some influence, and an influential voice was uncommon to the capoeirista at that time. These students helped to promote capoeira and to change the social stereotype of capoeira as a social malady. Mestre Bimba was a visionary who somehow predicted the growth of today=s capoeira as an art form with values as a physical education discipline, as a means of self-defense, a means of self-expression, and one of the most expressive manifestations of the African-Brazilian culture. In the view of many, without his work, capoeira probably would have been extinguished as happened with many other art forms with African roots. Today, capoeira is openly practiced as a means of self-expression, a form of self-defense, a pastime or as an affirmation of ideological posture for almost 1,000,000 of us in Brazil who recognize and assume the importance of the African heritage in our culture.

WBR: And outside Brazil?

ALMEIDA: In the last 20 years, capoeira has become a much more familiar word. Today capoeira has spread out to many countries, including Australia and Japan. The internet is full of sites on capoeira, there are video games, feature films, musical CDs and pretty soon, DVDs. So the receptivity to capoeira is very good. I like to think that the measure of my success in the attempt to bring capoeira to the United States resides in the number of people that capoeira has already touched in this country. Of course, not only because of the direct efforts of myself or Jelon Vieira in New York, but also because of the recent work of many other Brazilian capoeiristas, teachers and mestres who came through the door that we opened as pioneers.  Currently, we already have a number of American students who successfully are teaching.

WBR: Over the years, you have led a musical group called Corpo Santo. Is this a companion project to your work as a capoeirista?

ALMEIDA: This is a long story. My first Ashow@ using folklore themes was a long time ago. I was one of the pioneers to bring capoeira to the theater stages with my original group called Grupo Folclorico da Bahia. Somehow, Corpo Santo is the continuation of this old project. Corpo Santo was the name the we choose when we first came to the U.S.A. in October of 1978. We liked the sound of it and its meaning: Aholy body@. During two years we performed from Texas to California, in universities, schools, show places, etc.. .We would play one long show set presenting capoeira and other African-Brazilian art forms. After a short interval, we would return to play another set of dancing music. At one point, I got tired of these kind of big show. My original group returned to Brazil and I put my energy into teaching capoeira. Meanwhile, I continued to play music with a small number of musicians. Once in a while I would throw in the program some capoeira elements and folk dances performed by my students.

I used to make relatively good money playing music. However, the market went down. At the same time, I got tired to play music late night while teaching capoeira full time. So, I geared Corpo Santo=s work towards school assemblies. We did plenty of high schools and colleges but, I love to work with young kids. So we concentrated on that. During several years we performed hundreds of shows. When I began our newest project the Capoeira Arts Café I threw myself entirely into it. It was 16/17 hours of daily work. Then it became impossible to continue with the school shows, and we needed to take a break. Now, that things are getting easier, we are returning to them.

WBR: You=ve created and choreographed an extended theatrical piece with C. K. Ladzekpo, a master drummer and choreographer from Ghana who has become an important presence in Bay Area music. How did the two of you meet?

ALMEIDA: Through capoeira student of mine, who is also a good friend of both of us, Jordan Simmons. Jordan is the artistic director of the East Bay Center for The Performing Arts, a wonderful organization in Richmond. Both CK and I were faculty there. The piece that you refer to, AWarriors at The Edge of the Rainforest,@ was commissioned by the Performing Arts Center and supported by grants from different organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation. Both C.K. and I drew from old art forms to come up with this idea to present alternatives on how to deal with violence in today=s society. I drew from capoeira and maculelê, and C.K. from Adzohu and other arts from West Africa. We did a couple of presentations here and premiered it at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the time I was the Tinker Visitor Professor at the Dance Department. Later on, we performed AWarriors@ again to close the exhibit AAltars of the Gods@ at the Pacific Film Archive Museum in Berkeley. It was a beautiful and rewarding project that put 32 people on stage. I learned a lot through that experience and by working with C.K. Ladzekpo.

WBR: You said you drew from maculelê as well as capoeira. What is maculelê?

ALMEIDA: Maculelê is another African-Brazilian art form that came from Bahia. It was developed as a public drama in the sugar cane plantations. In a popular theater people recount stories about a warrior who defends his people using sticks called Agrimas.@ Maculelê becomes very much incorporated into contemporary capoeira as a warm-up or show piece.

WBR: With the Capoeira Arts Café now occupying most of your time, how is that project going?

ALMEIDA: This school is one kind of a dream come true. In reality, it was more than a dream because for many years I worked to create a space entirely dedicated to capoeira. So when someone walks in, he or she may feel as if entering in a different and magical environment. It is not a martial arts studio. It is not a dance studio, but a community center with many activities related to capoeira, including its music, philosophy and so on. It is a place to gather the axé and to share it with those who want to experience capoeira in its complexity.

This place used to be an automobile paint shop. We made a big demolition of the inside and rebuilt everything from scratch. I had this idea in my mind and fought for it against many odds, including the luck of financial resources, and the bureaucracy of the Planning Department of the City of Berkeley. Fortunately we got the support of the Planning Development Department of the city with its vision of an arts district for downtown Berkeley, the support of Susan Meddock from the Berkeley Repertory Theater, the acquiescence of the Downtown Business Association and the voice of many artists, students and parents who wrote in our behalf. We built it all ourselves. It was also a very fun project because we had help from many of our students. Finally, it materialized.

WBR: When did it open its doors?

ALMEIDA: We opened for capoeira on February of 1998.

WBR: How is it going?

ALMEIDA: It is going pretty good and we have many dedicated students. I think that we have come a long ways from 11 years ago, the time of our first interview, when no one practically knew what capoeira was. Capoeira is pretty strong in the Bay Area right now, with a whole bunch of teachers. So it boils down to about 5,000 practitioners, if you put all the students together. We have many students in our school, from young adults and grown ups to little children who participate in classes and events.

WBR: In your book, CAPOEIRA, A Brazilian Art Form (North Atlantic Books), you wrote that for you, A. . . capoeira is the bread of everyday, a question of infinite possibilities and a spring of crystalline water to quench my thirst for knowledge . . . and a way of living that has given me a better perspective on the game of life . . . .@ Do you feel that any of your students here have grasped that meaning?

ALMEIDA: To learn capoeira in depth is a long process, demanding commitment and a great deal of will power. Many come to class bewitched by the stunning movements of capoeira, expecting to be able to learn everything in the blink of an eye. These soon drop out in search of another Shangri-La or a magical panacea for contemporary maladies. There are some others, however, who develop appreciation for the not so obvious aspects of capoeira and seem to have the patience necessary to discover the many disguises and facets of capoeira. These are on their way.

WBR: What certifies a master in capoeira?

ALMEIDA: Before the 70s, the recognition of a master was based upon popular acceptance and acknowledgment of one=s long term commitment to the art. In the 70s, a process of institutionalization of capoeira took place, based upon general consensus of many masters in a process that required lots of negotiations and long time. Today, someone will need at least 20 years of training, going through several levels of development before being graduated as a mestre. Within the context of the Brazilian Confederation of Capoeira that somehow regulates the matter, that certification is vital for someone to legally work with capoeira in Brazil.In our school, students need to go through nine different levels of accomplishment before becoming a first degree master, AMestre do Primeiro Grau@. We have just one person at this level in our school, Mestra Suelly, who is also the first American woman to be graduated as a capoeira master.

WBR: How do you get from Bahia to the Bay Area?

ALMEIDA: In 1978 the performance group from the school of one of my students in São Paulo, the Fonte do Gravatá, was invited by Neiman-Marcus to perform capoeira, samba, and music in a Brazilian fortnight held in Dallas. That was my introduction to the United States, and I decided to stay and explore. We lived for three or four months in Texas and then flew to San Francisco specifically to perform and participate in the organization of the first carnaval ball held at The Galleria Design Center and sponsored by the Friends of Brazil Club.

WBR: Also since then, other capoeira teachers have established themselves locally. Could you provide of quick sketch of what capoeira activity in the greater Bay Area currently looks like?

ALMEIDA: First I want to talk about Cassio Martinho, nicknamed Mestre Rã. He is a great capoeirista, a great teacher, and a wonderful person.. He become an associate of our capoeira school about ten years ago, and we continue to be back to back at the United Capoeira Association. His help has been even more important because of my much traveling abroad. I feel towards all the other teachers around as young brothers and sisters. Most of them are students of old peers of mine, with the exception of Mestre Preguita, who was also a student of Mestre Bimba.  Preguita lived with me for a while when he first arrived in the USA and then took off to teach in Santa Cruz. Later he returned to San Francisco where he continues to teach in a couple of locations, including at San Francisco State University. Full of contradictions, as any capoeira teacher, myself included, Preguita has worked intensely to promote capoeira. He is a great teacher and has many good students.

WBR: The Capoeira Institute?

ALMEIDA: It is run by Marcelo Pereira, who now calls his school ACapoeira Mandinga.@ Marcelo is one of the capoeiristas that came to the USA when I brought his teacher here in 1984. His teacher, Mestre Suassuna is a good friend of mine and one of the most regarded contemporary capoeira masters in Brazil.

WBR: The Brazilian Summer Camp?

ALMEIDA: I believed that it is a project of Marcelo Pereira and Denis Broughton. I heard that it has been very successful. I don=t know much about it because for a while, Marcelo and I have not played capoeira at the same roda. That means we do not share much in projects and ideals.

WBR: Mestre Beitola?

ALMEIDA: Beitola is a friend, a good capoeirista, a good person. He is perhaps the only capoeira Hare Krishna that I know. He is a student of Mestre Touro, an old friend from Rio de Janeiro. Beitola came to the States with the group Oba-Oba, a musical review troupe which also brought here many other capoeiristas. He ended up getting married to one of my former students, perhaps one of my first students, Karen Davidson. Beitola is a great percussionist, who travels doing lots of shows. He is presently based in Palo Alto where he teaches the most.


ALMEIDA: A very large and strong capoeira group led by Mestre Camisa, a controversial and well respected teacher. He is a friend and younger brother of one of my peers in Mestre Bimba=s school. His  name is Camisa Rôxa, who is one well regarded capoeirista and artistic director of a show troupe based in Austria, is a mentor and one of the references for the group ABADÁ.

WBR: Mestranda Marcia Cigarra, of San Francisco's Brazilian Cultural Academy?

ALMEIDA: Marcia is a wonderful person, a good capoeirista, and is considered to be the highest ranked female capoeirista of the group ABADÁ. She has been teaching for a while, and eventually will become a master. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to work with Marcinha in some of Corpo Santo=s shows, and I wish her a great success in her school.

Talking about capoeira teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area, let=s not forget to mention Mestre Urubu in San Francisco, a great percussionist, great teacher and also a student of Mestre Suassuna; Mestre Waguinho in San José, a wonderful person loved by his students, a great teacher and one of the first capoeiristas who visited us in the earlier 80s; Mestre Itaborá in Santa Cruz; Mestre Themba, initially a student of mine who was graduated by Mestre Morais; Mestre Carlos Aceituno, also a former students of mine later graduated by Mestre Preguiça, and Professor Rogério, among others.

WBR: Do you have any current recording projects?

ALMEIDA: Definitively. I=m just finishing a new CD called AJogo Perigoso,@ the second volume in the series AMestre Acordeon: Capoeira Voices.@ Since we had our last interview, I participated in several recording projects with other musicians and also recorded two CD=s: ACantigas de Capoeira@ and AMestre Acordeon: Capoeira Voices: Vol. I: Pedir o Axé.@ Both were projects of the United Capoeira Association and supported by the Capoeira Arts Foundation. I=m happy with them. They were also well received in Brazil. The bulk of distribution of our CDs in the United States is done through our web site:

WBR: What approach to music are you taking with your students?

ALMEIDA: In my view, there are some art forms in which music is an intrinsic element. Capoeira is one of them. The music helps to create the magical atmosphere of capoeira. It also tells stories, makes moral suggestions, and creates a common vibration in the capoeira gathering, the roda. The traditional music of capoeira did not talk much about capoeira itself. It reflects the universe of the capoeirista, and encompasses the popular wits about everyday life of common people.

A few decades ago, when the contemporary capoeira began to take shape, the lyrics of the songs and some melodic characteristics suffered a dramatic change. Capoeiristas from the new generation and locations other than Bahia began to compose songs and to sing with their own regional characteristics. This music became almost another genre, somehow with different characteristics in part disassociated from the traditional characteristics of the original music from Bahia. Which is ok. But, sometimes, I feel the changes being too dramatic for my taste and aesthetic.

More disturbing to me is a phenomenon that became very common: the disconnection between the music and the display of capoeira itself. I call this a malfunction of the capoeira music. I believe that this took place because young capoeiristas began teaching the new songs with enthusiasm but without proper orientation. So, the emphasis became more about the volume of the singing and not necessarily on the function of the music and in the quality of the singing and playing. Sometimes, it is difficult to hear some capoeiristas so much out of pitch, out of tempo, and out of the context, out of the integration between music and the capoeira being displayed.

Traditionally, there is a convention about the relationship of the rhythm played on the berimbau and the display of capoeira being performed. It is not only the speed that matters, but this consensual understanding. In many cases, this togetherness and rhythmical coherence disappears. This fact has been a subject of my concern and an emphasized point in my teaching, not only here in the United States, but also in Brazil and elsewhere. Capoeira has different rhythms that call for different displays of the game, with different degrees of ritualization of the combat For example: If we play São Bento Grande de Regional, the game should be more or less 90% real combat, 10% ritual. If we play São Bento Grande de Angola it should be the reverse. If we play Iuna, the game should be a more acrobatic. So this is something that I=m very concerned with. In my school I want the music to be strong, both rhythmically and melodically, because without a strong music you cannot have a strong capoeira. We have been working very hard to make this happen.

WBR: I liked your earlier release, ACapoeira-Bahia,@ very much but it seems to me that it is not exactly traditional capoeira music.

ALMEIDA: I make a big distinction between traditional music of capoeira and the capoeira music that I record. The traditional music must have the weight and mantra-like quality to create the capoeira mood. We only can record like that one time, that=s all. My teacher recorded just one CD in this fashion. If he had done another one, it would be a repetition of the same work. So, because I have done many recordings, automatically a become more creative with the material. So, I do not consider any of my recorded work as traditional Acapoeira music,@ in quotes. In many of them I took artistic license and even included other instruments such as keyboard, guitar, and accordion. Nevertheless, whatever I do is largely influenced by my capoeira roots, which I consider to be the main source of my inspiration and strength.

WBR: And your future plans?

ALMEIDA: To keep teaching capoeira is unquestionably the most important of my projects. In addition to regular classes, I am involved in special projects such as capoeira for inner city kids, workshops, and assistance to our students who are teaching elsewhere. I also published a new book in Brazil: AÁgua de Beber, Camar: Um bate Papo de Capoeira.@ I am also involved in capturing capoeira on film. One of our students, Jedediah Gildersleeve did a commercial video with us called AJogo de Capoeira@ that has inspired many people. Last August we took 72 students on a cultural trip to Brazil and we took the opportunity to shoot many hours of capoeira, city scenes and small dramas to be edited in a new video project. Also, in a couple of days I=ll be back in Bahia, participating in a documentary film project for a Canadian TV. In terms of music, I=m also attempting to work on a purely traditional capoeira album with other mestres who are currently living in the United States. This is a hard one! Finally, last time we talked, I mumbled about my own musical projects.  I told you that it had become particularly rewarding for me to work with music, because I finally decided to play only my own originals. Unquestionably this will give me the strength of feeling faithful to myself and my own musical sense of aesthetic.  Also, it is a huge but attractive challenge to create music that can touch people.  I want to accomplish that by continuing work on new melodies, rhythmical intricacies and meaningful lyrics. My old band members used to complain because I was always trying to change something in the music during the live shows. I would say to them: listen, this music should be as free as a capoeira game. So, don=t worry too much. Let=s groove and enjoy it!