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The Saga of Mestre João Grande

map of Bahia

Mestre João Grande was born on Jan. 15, 1933 in the tiny village of Itagi in the south of the state of Bahia, between Ilheus and Itabuna. Itagi is so small that it doesn't appear on maps of the region. As a youngster there was no time for school or even play, and he worked alongside his family in the fields. However, while working he was able to engage in his favorite pastime, the study of nature. He was fascinated by the way the wind moves the trees, waves in the ocean, and particularly the movements of the animals, such as the strike of the snake and the flight of the bird. This was to greatly influence his practice and philosophy of Capoeira.

Countryside near Itabuna Countryside near Itabuna

At the age of 10 he saw "corta capim" for the first time. This is a movement performed by crouching down, extending one leg in front and swinging it around in a circle, hopping over it with the other leg. Fascinated, he asked what it was called and was told that it was "the Dance of the Nagos"— a dance of the African descendants in the city of Salvador. The Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria had a major cultural influence in Salvador, which was considerd the Black Rome of Brazil. But the dance was actually of Central African origin— it was Capoeira. João didn't learn the correct name of the movement until many years later, but it changed his life forever. At the age of ten he left home in search of "the Dance of the Nagos".

Painting by Carybe Painting by Carybe

The young João slowly made his way north on foot, working as he went, and surviving as a migrant worker on the plantations of Bahia. He would stay with families of other farm workers, moving from one farm to another. Finally he made it to Salvador, the birthplace of Capoeira as we know it, after 10 years of travel. He saw Capoeira for the first time in a place with the poetic name "Roça do Lobo" (Clearing of the Wolf). It wasn't an average street roda he saw that day, but a meeting of the important personalities of Capoeira such as Menino Gordo, João Pequeno, who was there with his first Capoeira teacher, Mestre Barbosa, as well as the great capoeira magician Cobrinha Verde(Little Green Snake), one of the most skillful players of that era.

Joao Grande and Joao Pequeno João Grande & João Pequeno

An enthralled João asked Mestre Barbosa what the game was called and was told: "That is Capoeira!" João then asked where he could learn it. Mestre Barbosa sent him to João Pequeno, later to become his closest associate in Capoeira. João Pequeno sent him to Mestre Pastinha who had a famous academy in the Cardeal Pequeno neighborhood of Brotas. This was Capoeira heaven— Pastinha's rodas were filled with the most famous names in Capoeira. João requested permission to join his academy, and Pastinha accepted João as a student, beginning a relationship that was to have a profound effect on his life. At the age of twenty, João was beginning capoeira relatively late in life. He went on to study with others teaching at Pastinha's academy, Cobrinha Verde included, but his primary influence was always, and continues to be, Pastinha.

Pastinha's academy Mestre Pastinha and his academy, João Grande 4th from left

Capoeira Angola greatly enriched Mestre's life, but it was a difficult life for him and many other capoeristas of that time. Most worked long, hard hours for very little pay in order to support themselves and their families. Many capoeiristas worked on the docks, loading and unloading ships. When they took breaks thay would often play or "vadiar" capoeira. A very literal definition of "vadiar" means to hang around and do nothing.

Photo by Pierre Verger Photo by Pierre Verger

Mestre João Grande eventually became such an acclaimed capoeirista that when Carybe, a painter famous for his documentation of African Culture in Bahia, chose to do studies of capoeira he chose João Grande as a model.

Drawing by Carybe Drawing by Carybe

João Grande and João Pequeno are featured in numerous films of Capoeira including one in which they demonstrate the knife techniques of the art. In 1966 João Grande travelled to Senegal with Mestre Pastinha to demonstrate capoeira at the 1st International festival of Black Arts in Dakar. He was awarded his Diploma of Capoeira from Pastinha in 1968 making him a full- fledged master of Capoeira. He subsequently toured Europe and the Middle East with Viva Bahia, a pioneering group that performed Afro-Brazilian folk arts such as capoeira, samba de roda, maculelê, candomblé and puxada da rede.

Samba de Roda Samba de Roda

Eventually Pastinha's academy fell on hard times. Pastinha, old, sick and almost totally blind, was asked by the government to vacate his building for renovations. But the space was never returned to him. Instead it became a restaurant with entertainment, now called SENAC. Pastinha died broke and bitter about his treatment, but never regretted living the life of a capoeirista.

Mestre Pastinha Mestre Pastinha towards the end of his life

After Pastinha died, Mestre João Grande stopped playing Capoeira. He continued to play music and dance in folkloric shows, but no longer performed capoeira. He returned when Mestre Moraes and Cobrinha Mansa persuaded him to come out of retirement in the mid 1980's. He began to teach with their organization Grupo Capoeira Angola -Pelourinho. In 1989 he was invited by Jelon Vieira to tour the United States. Jelon was the first to formally introduce capoeira to the US in 1974. The tour was a tremendous success. In 1990 he returned to present Capoeira Angola at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia and at the Schomberg Center for Research for Black Culture in New York City. Mestre João Grande decided he liked the US and has been teaching in New York ever since.

NYC Roda Mestre's academy in NYC

Mestre João Grande has taught thousands of students at his academy and has staged innumerable Capoeira Angola performances. He has travelled Europe, Brazil, Japan and many parts of the US to teach and perform. In 1995 he received a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Upsala College, East Orange, NJ. In 2001 he was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, which is one of the most prestigious awards given to practitioners of traditional arts in the US. Mestre João Grande has also recorded an audio CD and several DVDs featuring himself and his students, as well as other illustrious figures of Capoeira Angola.

Portions excerpted from "Capoeira Angola and Mestre João Grande" by C. Daniel Dawson.
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