Month: June 2020


Por: Jorge Felipe Columá, PhD in Physical Education and Culture

Thiago de Paula dos Anjos de Souza, BA in Physical Education

Rômulo Reis, PhD in Sports Sciences


Zé Pedro and Paulinho Castro. Photo: Acervo André Lacé. 

Capoeira as a socio-cultural phenomenon had a singular shape in Rio de Janeiro and was normally linked to survival and malandragem (vagrancy or rogueness). Repressed by the government during the nineteenth century, the Cariocan capoeira resisted, adapted itself like a chameleon, obeying good sense and ramifying in many lineages of groups, masters and students. Among these, one capoeira master stands out, a Vale-Tudo (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter, and a jiu-jitsu black belt, who distinguished himself with ginga, kicks and hard game in the capoeira rodas and those of life: the grand master Zé Pedro, leader of the legendary roda in Bonsucesso in the 1970s.

We start our narrative with an interview with Mestre Zé Pedro in the afternoon heat of the Olaria suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Born in the city of Santa Rita, in the Northeastern state of Paraíba, Mestre Zé Pedro arrived in Rio de Janeiro aged six, after losing his father. Destitute, he still managed to become literate aged eight, and got on with his life without never abandoning his studies, and always guided by the strength of his will to follow his path forwards. He enlisted in the Brazilian Navy as a sailor, having to lie about his age to be accepted, a way he found to survive.

He passed an examination to enter the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro (PMERJ) where he served as a soldier. He took a degree in Law after he reached the age of thirty, and specialised in combat, including a course at the Jungle War Instruction Centre (CIG) in Manaus, Amazonas state. In his military career he ended up promoted to Commander (Major), and was one of the founders of the special unit BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Especiais) of the PMERJ, a unit that became legendary and a reference for many.

M Zé Pedro claims that he never received any help from others through patronage or clientelism during his entire career, but developed thanks to his own struggle and merit. He nevertheless had a great friend at his side in the rodas of capoeira and of life, Paulo Sérgio da Silva, Master Paulão Muzenza, who always told him “we are not born to be soldiers, we have to move upwards”.

Assisted by his training in other combat modalities, M Zé Pedro participated in some Vale Tudo (precursor to Mixed Martial Arts) contests.  The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) master Hélio Gracie awarded him with a black belt and said that he considered him a “golden boy”. According to Zé Pedro’s own account, he remained unbeaten in these MMA contests: “I never lost a fight in Vale Tudo”.

His initial contact with capoeira happened when he saw a group of capoeiristas practice at Mestre Valdo Santana’s academy, the brother of the famous fighter from Bahia, Waldemar Santana, trained in boxing, luta livre (free-style), jiu-jitsu and capoeira. Waldemar helped to disseminate combat sports in Brazil and is known for the longest fight in the history of Vale Tudo, with his former teacher Hélio Gracie.

He started training capoeira kicks and movements, later entering the academy of Mestre Mário Buscapé (Mario dos Santos), with whom he trained for three years, and learned, according to his teacher, capoeira with great facility, given his interest in sports.

In the academy of Mario Buscapé he met various well-known masters, such as Mestres Paulão Muzenz and Mintirinha. In this breeding-ground of tough guys, M Zé Pedro developed his skills with the berimbau, an instrument he is proud to play ver well – and became a singer with a profound knowledge of chulas and other capoeira songs. Zé Pedro pursued this path further, until becoming one of the main exponents of the “hard style” capoeira in Rio de Janeiro.

“When a guy tried to provoke, we made him fall a little bit”.

Mestre Zé Pedro opened his first own academy in the Rua Cândido Benício, in the Jacarepaguá neighbourhood, a space which he shared for some time with Mestre Mintirinha. It is here that he founded his first school, the group Pequenos Libertadores (Little freedom fighters), a name that brought him some trouble, as he had, in this period of military dictatorship, to explain to Secret Service (in this case the DOI-CODI), if the name was linked to some opposition or “resistance” to the military regime.  His story in the Bonsucesso neighbourhood began in the early 1970s when he started to teach capoeira in a venue located at the first floor (sobreloja) of the Rua Uranos, nº 497.Teaching initially was for the group called Filhos de Amaralina,  and included the realisation of rodas and shows.

Paulão and Zé Pedro. Photo: M Paulão Muzenza.

The group changed his name to Guaiamus and Nagoas, in homage to two rival capoeira gangs that formerly existed in Rio de Janeiro. In this period Zé Pedro revealed that he enjoyed access to other capoeira groups, attended rodas all over the city, made friends, taught his students and supervised many rodas at this academy.

“I took over the academy, assuming all responsibilities, and organized the big rodas”.

And so the legendary roda of Mestre Zé Pedro in Bonsucesso was born. According to the master, the roda was attended by many good capoeiristas of the time and only tough guys managed to play. Asked about some game or special moment of the roda, the master replied: “The rodas, my friend, were excellent. I can’t enumerate them all. Like saying this one was best”.  However, he confirmed the attendance of capoeira masters such as Arthur Emídio, Leopoldina, Mintirinha, Paulão, Camisa (Camisa Roxa), Camisinha (Camisa), Touro, Dentinho, Gato, Paulinho Godoi, Celso, Peixinho, Itamar, Anzol, Silas, Corvinho, Amarelinho, and Garrinchinha.

“My academy became known because we had a contract with RioTour (official Tourism Board of Rio de Janeiro), so the name of my academy figured on the tourism events calendar  for the whole world”.

Hence the roda and academy of Zé Pedro became a core reference, and the capoeiristas from Brasília, São Paulo e Bahia came there to play. The venue at times also hosted them and became a reference for meeting friends.

The roda was usually led by one berimbau and happened on Sundas. The playing styles were very diverse, as the master always argued that “capoeira is capoeira”. There were games that were more flexible and malleable, or very quick, and those for kicking hard (“Pancada”), closer to his own style, the hard game, the close combat. The capoeiristas of the Bonsucesso roda played with malice and naturally rivalries emerged, for example, the one always mentioned between Mestres Paulão and Camisa. However, despite these hard games, M Zé Pedro points out, nobody became ennemy of the other, they were capoeiristas of the soul, and after the roda there always were the moments of confraternization.

M Zé Pedro had the capoeiristas Paulinho Guaiamum, Alfredo, Célio, Élcio, Valmir, Murilo and Luiz Peito Queimado as advanced students. In 1979, he followed a “call from life” and stopped teaching capoeira to study and pursue his career as a sergeant. But his legacy for capoeira remained in the annals of the history of Rio de Janeiro, and his contribution to capoeira is always remembered by the elder ones, who refer to his roda as a capoeira place of pure capoeira, technical, dexterity, agility, power and malice, a symbol of a generation of masters and practitioners from the Cariocan capoeira.


Based on an interview with M Zé Pedro by the authors and M Paulão Muzenza, 17 October 2018.

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Capoeira, the transnational dialogue of bodies in motion

By Daniel Granada

“Once the African-Brazilian martial art called capoeira was distant. Now it’s right next door. North American women and men play this blend of dance and combat in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Santa Fe, Boston, New Heaven, Washington DC, Atlanta and New York City” (Thompson, 1992, xi)

This is how Robert Farris Thompson begins one of the first books dedicated to the practice of capoeira in English. The preface to J. L. Lewis’ Ring of Liberation, published in 1992, was both a foreshadowing and acknowledgement of the expansion of capoeira outside Brazil. This represented a new chapter in the development of the practice permeated by ruptures and continuities, permeated by processes of creative reinvention.

The relocation of capoeira practice, both in Brazil and abroad, necessarily implies a social and cultural resignification of the practice, both in the contexts in which it is introduced, as well as with the agents who make these exchanges and translations operational. If in Brazil the transformations of the practice have already been intense, with regional characteristics having shaped different playing styles, in the case of capoeira outside Brazil, new potentials have arisen due to the agents’ creative capacity, the need for an implementation of this art in new contexts, and the possibilities existing outside the country. This has been remarkably demonstrated by the various works dedicated to map the expansion of capoeira outside Brazil which problematise the adaptation processes of capoeira and its practitioners in new contexts. These studies highlight the relationship between the “cultural” and the “political” fields within different national contexts, as well as affecting identity construction and the power relations resulting from the encounter between Brazilian practitioners and local practitioners in the United States, (Travassos, 2000) in Canada, (Joseph, 2008a, 2008b), in France (Vassalo, 2004; Ferreira, 2015 a; Gravina, 2010; Brito, 2017), in Spain (Guizardi, 2011, 2013) in the United Kingdom (Ferreira, 2015a, 2015 b; 2017), and in Portugal (Nascimento, 2015; Brito, 2016). Another study analyses the impact of the transnationalisation of the Studies such as Fernandes’ (2014), on the practice of capoeira in Germany, and Nascimento’s (2015) on the practice of capoeira in Poland and Portugal brought new elements to think the relocation of capoeira in Europe. In both works, the authors’ knowledge of the practice of capoeira and their rigorous reflection on the ethnographic material they perform stands out. In the case of Fernandes (2014), the relation of the interviewed masters with the broader Brazilian emigration process in the first wave of capoeiristas going abroad is evident, thus demonstrating the importance of folklore groups in relocating the practice outside Brazil. Nascimento (2015: 98-104) also highlighted the prominent role of folklore groups in the expansion process of capoeira outside Brazil.

The transnationalisation of the practice of capoeira, both regional, angola or other modalities, is closely associated with the movement of increasing contacts and international circulation of people. Not only Brazilians, but individuals from different nationalities, were, and continue to be, responsible for safeguarding capoeira’s memory, expansion and dissemination. The role of the pioneer capoeiristas who left in the 1970s and 1980s to appear in folklore shows in Europe and the United States and decided to stay working in small jobs, who discovered through capoeira practice ways to stay in connected to Brazil and live with dignity as artists abroad, highlights the existing inequalities at the international level. It is not by chance that in the 1980s and 1990s, airports began to be the destination of dozens of capoeiristas who, through their networks and contacts, sought the means to live from capoeira practice abroad. The years passed and these capoeiristas created schools, trained instructors, teachers, trenéis, interns, contramestres, masters, and many other classifications that capoeiristas created to differentiate the length of practice and engagement of the members of their groups.

The structure currently established abroad, which is the result of a collective process where men and women – Brazilian or not – operate, relies also on individual determination, highlighting a process implemented by people who come together and form groups around a practice that carries memory recorded in bodies, transmitted through movement imitation, songs, rhythms and behaviours. Capoeira’s contribution around the world, which unfortunately still lacks recognition in our country, is related to what makes us humans, our ability to create, to invent ways of living together. The practice of capoeira is the art of celebrating this encounter, of continuing with each new roda a game that never ends, which is reinvented at each meeting through the joy and banality of performing dialogues of bodies in motion, through dancing, making music and living together.

Whilst these lines are being written, we are going through a world crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. This health crisis which was also resulted from the intensification of circulation of peoples associated with the globalisation process, has the so-called social isolation as its main method of reducing the spread of the virus. In the countries that are going through this crisis, capoeira rodas have been cancelled – however, the berimbaus have not remained silent. They appear on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram lives and videos of capoeiristas playing the berimbau and singing, others moving their bodies in front of their smartphones, celebrating and keeping capoeira practice alive. Capoeiristas’ appropriation of new technologies and their use is not something new either, as capoeiristas have been using the internet and its potential to publicize their groups and events for some time now. What is new in this moment of crisis is the impossibility of meeting friends in rodas. Within the process of the transnationalisation of capoeira practice, this moment will certainly be remembered as a singular event, but in the future it will make way for new rodas, hugs and handshakes to the sound of berimbaus, thus further intensifying the transnational dialogue of bodies in motion.

 Daniel Granada is a lecturer in  the Department of  Natural and Social Sciences, Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC). 


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