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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. “Gavião,” and “Mestre João Grande” are all appellations referring to João Oliveira dos Santos, best known as “Mestre João Grande.” Master of Capoeira Angola with more than 60 years of experience, is a highly respected figure in the world of capoeira and has received numerous awards. These include a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Upsala College in East Orange, NJ in 1995, and in September of 2001 at The White House in Washington DC, he was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is one of the most prestigious awards for practitioners of traditional arts in the US.

During his time in New York, Mestre João Grande has recorded the long playing record album ”Capoeira Angola” with his long time comrade Mestre João Pequeno. He also recorded the CD, “Capoeira Angola: Celebrating 50 Years Of Tradition.” Mestre João Grande is also featured on the must have CD, “Capoeira Angola From Salvador Brazil” under Grupo Capoeira Angola do Pelourinho and “Roots of Bahia” album produced by Mestre Deraldo.

On November 9, 2015 Mestre João Grande received yet another prestige award the “Ordem do Mérito Cultural 2015 Grao-Cruz” at Palácio do Planalto. This is the official workplace of the President of Brazil. It is located in the national capital of Brasília. The award was presented by the then President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, and the Minister of Culture, Juca Ferriera. It was broadcasted worldwide LIVE and featured in all the top news publications in Brazil.

Recently Mestre João Grande’s and his students happily accepted an honorable invitation by the United Nations Organization of Staff of Negroid Origin (UNSONG), the Brazilian Mission and the United States Missions to the United Nations on September 26, 2016. He lead his students in a special performance at the United Nation’s International Decade of People of African Descent (2015-2024) and partook in the debate about positive role models of African Descent. Another memorable experience which he enjoys sharing very much with his students and guests. He engages in performances large and small all with the same passion and dedication.

Mestre João Grande first learned Capoeira Angola in Salvador, he entered the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola and studied with the great Mestre Pastinha as well as the notable Mestre Cobrinha Verde. Mestre Pastinha, who continues to be Mestre João Grande’s primary source of inspiration along with metaphors relating to nature, opened the first Capoeira Angola School, the Academia De Capoeira Angola, in 1941 in the city of Salvador, Bahia in the northeast of Brazil. Mestre Pastinha dedicated his school to preserving and continuing the long tradition of this African martial art, teaching Capoeira Angola as a path of self knowledge and mastery. Mestre Pastinha was the first Capoeira Mestre (master) to write a book on the history, philosophy and practice of Capoeira, simply entitled ‘Capoeira Angola.’ He went to Africa with his students which included Mestre João Grande to participate in the Festival of African Arts and Culture during the 1970’s and also produced albums promoting the unique musical component of this martial art. Mestre João Grande teaches in the African style, as a way of life, as his teacher Mestre Pastinha did before him.

In 1990, Mestre João Grande made the decision to emigrate to the United States. Mestre João Grande has worked on, and been the subject of, several video and films during his time in New York including, “Joao Grande” and he is prominently featured as the title subject for the film “Mandinga em Manhattan.” The video “O Pulo do Gato” displayed many games over the years of friendship between Mestre João Grande and Mestre João Pequeno, while the video “Capoeira Angola do Mundo” highlights Mestre João Grande’s games with various other mestres of capoeira. Mestre João Grande is also featured on many other television programs, films and videos, including an episode of “Sesame Street,” “Pastinha! Uma Vida Pela Capoeira,” “Besouro Preto,” and the major motion picture, “The Interpreter” filmed in Manhattan.

On April 2015 Mestre João Grande shared a wonderful celebration and workshop at his current Harlem, Manhattan, New York academy. It was attended by many guests from around the world for his 25 years of teaching in New York City. While much beloved by his students at his academies in New York, Arizona, Bahia, Finland, Italy, Japan, California, Illinois, and Sebia, Mestre João Grande continues to be invited as a special guest at capoeira events around the world, where he is treasured as both an icon of capoeira and a deep well of information on the traditions and creativity of Capoeira Angola.

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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