Revista Capoeira Interview: Mestre Acordeon
"Capoeira is not a completed work, exclusive to one group of people. Capoeira is a combination of all of us, with all of our interpretations, truths, and differences."
Translation by foguerinha
A candid conversation with one of the most revered capoeira mestres in Brazil and abroad: Mestre Acordeon, Ubirajara Almeida, 56 years old, 5'10", 186 lbs, student of the legendary Mestre Bimba, many time champion in the mid '70's, creator of one of the first groups to present capoeira on stage in Brazil Grupo Folclorico da Bahia, ex-professor of business administration making a living exclusively from capoeira in the United States, author of books, several magazine articles, and CD's. Referring to old times in Salvador, he remembers the Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia (our Lady of Conception) festival, a catholic celebration on the same day of his mother's birthday, December 8th, when there was a lot of capoeira going on in the streets. It was then in the mid 50's that he first saw capoeira and began to take interest in the art form.
Mestre Acordeon was one of the pioneers of capoeira in the city of São Paulo. In 1968, along with Airton Moura, Mestre Onça, he founded the K-poeira academy on Augusta Street, which was one of the best centers of teaching and learning capoeira in São Paulo. Today, in partnership with Mestre Rã, Acordeon has a school with more than 300 students in Berkeley, CA and he charges $2500 for workshops and lectures (note from UCA: Mestre Acordeon tours and holds artistic residences and workshops at universities and other venues).
An excellent capoeirista, Mestre Acordeon still presents a fluidity of expression that allows him to play capoeira with his ideas and words, as we can see in the interview he had with Revista Capoeira during his recent visit to São Paulo:Revista Capoeira: Where did you get the idea to teach Americans capoeira?
Mestre Acordeon: In 1970, when I returned to Salvador from São Paulo, I began to receive many letters from Sergio Assanhaço, who was studying at Stanford University at the time and teaching capoeira to a small group of friends. Assanhaço--one of my first students in São Paulo and later on the founder of Group Fonte do Gravatá--insisted that we go to the United States so much that we decided to form a performance group called Corpo Santo. After a long struggle, we were finally invited in 1978 by a large North-American company to do a series of shows in Texas. Two years later, the group returned to the States and I continued teaching, determined not to throw in the towel, although it was a very tough game.
Revista Capoeira: After teaching for so long outside of Brazil, how do you view capoeira? What meaning does it have for you?
Mestre Acordeon: In the introduction of my new book, "Agua de Beber, Camará!", which will be published this year in Brazil, I wrote that Mestre Pastinha said that capoeira is everything the mouth eats. In response to the same question, Mestre Bimba replied "Capoeira is treachery." In my view, these responses complement each other and reflect different positions of black Brazilians facing the fundamental problems of their existence. For Mestre Pastinha, capoeira was everything life offered him, philosophically accepting the good and the bad, including his humble economic and social position, his blindness, and his age as either divine gifts or deserved punishment. For Mestre Bimba, capoeira was a constant state of vigilance, an art that allowed him to see life's dangers and injustices, and that at the same time offered a strategy with which to confront them. Based on the teachings of the great mestres I had the pleasure to know, and also through 40 years of contact with our art form, capoeira has become a way of life and a question of infinite possibilities. It has taught me to be tolerant of myself and of others, respecting my own weaknesses as well as my strengths. As time passed, capoeira came to be my every day bread, a fountain of physical and mental energy to face the world's contradictions, and a pool of crystalline water to quench my thirst of knowledge.
Revista Capoeira: And what is capoeira to your students abroad?
Mestre Acordeon: To my students outside of Brazil, capoeira is a complex and fascinating art, a physical challenge, and a philosophical enigma that comes from a socio-cultural and historical context that is completely different from their own. However, capoeira has deep meaning for all true capoeiristas, responding to each one's many questions of existence, independent of his or her nationality, sex, age, economic situation, or ethnicity.
Revista Capoeira: Do you think there are notable differences between Brazilian and American capoeiristas?
Mestre Acordeon: In the physical sense, not really. As the number of students outside of Brazil grows, the quality of the capoeiristas improves markedly. However, there are cultural differences that make the learning process slower and more difficult.
Revista Capoeira: Since you mentioned Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha, do you think that Capoeira Angola and Capoeira Regional can both exist in harmony?
Mestre Acordeon: I have a lot of trouble with this question. My problem is two-sided: The first difficulty is regarding the inadequate use of the labels "Capoeira Angola" and "Capoeira Regional". The second problem refers to a false dichotomy that generally isn't questioned: it's either Angola style or Regional.
Through literature and oral tradition, we are aware that capoeira has been around for more than 200 years. Around the second decade in the 1900's, among many different mestres and styles, Bimba was recognized for his unique approach that came to be known as "Regional". With the opening of his "academy" and through his charisma and work as an educator of a large number of young people from Bahia, Mestre Bimba decisively contributed to the acceptance of capoeira as a valued art form, as well as in the process of survival of many other popular expressions of African origin. For me, Capoeira Regional is Bimba's capoeira, or that which follows his foundations and precepts very closely. All other manifestations of capoeira should be known as simply "capoeira", or if you like, Capoeira Angola.
Revista Capoeira: What were the foundations and precepts of Capoeira Regional? Aren't they derived from the more traditional Capoeira Angola?
Mestre Acordeon: In the first place, the concept of "traditional" can't be quantified or qualified in terms of "more" or "less", "better" or "worse". Capoeira is a dynamic art that has assumed many forms and dresses through time, continually "inventing" new traditions. This has been one of the most important factors in its survival. Bimba's capoeira reflected his personality and style. It was based on a method of training, creative for his time, and it had a very characteristic drive as a result of the way in which the Mestre sang and played his berimbau and pandeiro during his rodas. São Bento Grande was played for a less ritualized combat, focusing on the fighting aspect; Banguela was played for a floor game of constant intermingling attacks and counterattacks during which the partners do not touch each other. Finally Iuna was played between capoeiristas who were more experienced and able to use elegant and more difficult movements. So, for starters, if more than one berimbau and two pandeiros are played, then one is not practicing Bimba's capoeira the way it should be done.
If we admit that Bimba's capoeira is derived from this previous capoeira called "Angola", we have to accept that Capoeira Angola is all encompassing and not codified and admit almost everything in its practice because "capoeira is everything the mouth eats." In my time and outside of Mestre Bimba's school, and therefore not Capoeira Regional, capoeira was played with the uniform or with whatever clothes one had on at the time; with or without shoes; sometimes with one berimbau, other times with more than one or none; with a pandeiro or castanets; in a fight-oriented or a more ritualized way; it always depended on the situation, the capoeiristas evolved, or the will of the "owner" of the roda. This was the great melting pot from which Mestre Bimba chose some elements and codified others, making his practice consistent in terms of his own perspective and his concept of educational values for his students.
Revista Capoeira: But in Capoeira Angola, aren't shoes always worn and tradition always followed?
Mestre Acordeon: What tradition? I think you're referring to a style of capoeira that I call "Contemporary Capoeira Angola". Generally this "school" recommends practicing capoeira exclusively with shoes on, black pants and yellow shirts; it presents itself with well-defined attitudes and mannerisms; it has a rhetoric based on "tradition", and in many of its affiliations, it presents itself with a somewhat belabored afro-centric discourse. Actually, I like the aesthetic of this capoeira and to a certain point its proposal in terms of the value placed on capoeira as an art, and the value it gives to its music, rituals, and African roots. On the other hand, this capoeira is a very recent manifestation, and to some extent, presents an attitude which has already begun to lose popularity in the United States, similar to the stance of some of the more radical African Americans. I find its academically constructed rhetoric and its position in terms of "politically correctness" of social issues a little bit overdone and its method of training very European and contemporary. In my view, this strategy is inconsistent with the more spontaneous manifestations of an art form with African roots as strong as those in capoeira.
Revista Capoeira: So you are against this Capoeira Angola?
Mestre Acordeon: Not at all, just as I am not against "Contemporary Capoeira Regional", another recent historic reinterpretation. Capoeira's strength and beauty resides in its diversity. There is no style that can represent all of capoeira, nor is there one mestre that can be considered the "owner" of capoeira. If that were the case, capoeira would be very dull. Capoeira is the mixture of all of us with our interpretations, truths, and differences.
Revista Capoeira: You have a very personal vision of capoeira. How did you come to this conclusion?
Mestre Acordeon: When I began teaching in the United States, it was quite difficult to explain capoeira to my students in a clear way. Because of that, I've come to study quite a bit about its history as well as the universe in which it is situated. For example, some years ago I had the honor of being nominated a "Tinker Visiting Professor" at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, one of the most coveted awards for academics who have contributed to the study and strengthening of relations between the countries of Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula. This university has an amazing collection of information about contemporary and colonial Brazil. Using this scholarship, I earned a salary for one year to study Afro-Brazilian culture, give lectures, and participate in debates. I have read all that I could about the subject, both literature that presents ideas with which I can identify, and that with which I deeply disagree. I recommend this kind of reading and care to my students. I want them to be exposed to all kinds of opinions, especially those that differ from mine. That way they will become more able to judge the validity of the arguements that are presented, and at the same time have the opportunity to develop a more solid position about the history and development of capoeira.
Revista Capoeira: What is your opinion of capoeira being taught in other countries?
Mestre Acordeon: The capoeira that is being taught abroad reflects the tendencies that exist in Brazil. This is important and even fundamental so that we show capoeira in its entirety.
Revista Capoeira: You don't think this jeopardizes capoeira?
Mestre Acordeon: Capoeira is a very strong form of popular expression. Many people with different expectations and needs can benefit from its practice. For that reason, we should not restrict these benefits to an arbitrarily selected group of people, like for example: capoeira for Brazilians only, blacks only, high society individuals, those who play my way, those who play peacefully and lovingly, those who play hard. Any of these positions is unforgivable discrimination that should not exist because it limits capoeira. Capoeira should be practiced in its plenitude, as a fight, as a ritual, as a dance, and as a means of self-expression for all kinds of people, including those that have physical, emotional, or social difficulties. This way, capoeira is able to positively affect the lives of many.
Revista Capoeira: Well Mestre, changing the subject, is it true that you got rich teaching capoeira in the United States? What advice would you give new capoeiristas to follow in your footsteps?
Mestre Acordeon: Not at all! That is just empty talk. Anyway, I am more concerned about capoeira itself than I am about money in my pocket.
To those who are just beginning, I recommend you continue to study and practice capoeira with preseverance and heart. Capoeira was never better, creating opportunities of personal and professional gratification for many. Therefore, let's move ahead with pride for our art form, goodwill, and principally with a lot of tolerance for differences of opinions and styles so that we can express ourselves in capoeira with dignity and respect, playing and letting our partner play. Peace and love for everyone.