Saturday, February 11, 2006

Some time ago I placed a little article on our web site called "My Friend Fabricio". While in Bahia last month, I called Fabricio to ask him for one picture to be included at the formados' gallery at the Mestre Bimba Foundation. Immediately Dr. Fabricio Vasconcellos Soares attended my request despite his busy schedule as president of the universidade Unibahia. He told me he had several pictures with Mestre Bimba, including the ones that were published on the cover of the historical album "Capoeira Regional".

A few hours later I received one of his portraits for the gallery and a disc labeled "fotos". Only now I looked at the CD of pictures. Among them is one in which the Mestre is holding Fabricio's hands, a typical stance Bimba took while teaching the ginga. To hold the hands of the new student was one of the foundations of his Capoeira Regional. In all of the pictures, Mestre Bimba exudes his powerful persona, wisdom, and elegance.

In these times when I am so immersed into Bimba's capoeira, I could not help but becoming emotional with the photos. Thank you, Fabricio. These pictures immortalise you as the great capoeirista you were.

My Friend Fabricio.

Fabricio and I had been friends since childhood and he always was a source of inspiration for me. When Fabricio decided to do magic and charge 15 cents to the neighborhood kids for magic shows, I was his loyal assistant. When Fabricio started to study hypnotism, I too began to put all the volunteers--usually trusting old women--to sleep. When Fabricio went to business school, I went to business school. It was not a case of simple imitation, but rather a genuine affinity. One thing we did differently. Fabricio studied karate in Bahia, a pioneering venture at the time, while I concentrated on Capoeira.

Naturally, later on, Fabricio joined me in studying Capoeira, and he used to come at 5:30 in the morning to train, anxious to learn everything as fast as he could. And he learned and became a good Capoeirista. His picture is even on the back cover of Mestre Bimba's album.

What most impressed Fabricio in Karate was the picture of a Karate master with his right hand crumpling the massive belly of a bull in a deadly attack. Fabricio trained hard to perfect this movement. Cardboard, plywood, and even my mother's dearest plants could not withstand his startling attacks. Ten, a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand times he would stab his fingers into a box of sand, training tirelessly to kill a bull.

One summer day Fabricio and I were going up the Ladeira do Nordeste de Amaralina for a batizado party at Mestre Bimba's school. That batisado day, Fabricio had his big chance. On top of the Amaralina hill, he saw--not a bull, but an enormous pig eating a huge mountain of garbage. As soon as I saw the pig, I exclaimed, "Fabricio, this is it! Charge!" Fabricio looked at the animal, enthralled, but as a good Capoeirista he also noticed the crowd of brawny domino players standing by the door of a liquor store. I read his thoughts: "If I kill the pig, those guys will jump me." I didn't let him talk, saying quickly, "Don't worry, Fabricio. I'm with you. Whatever will be, will be." Fabricio had the utmost confidence in my backup in the moment of necessity. He breathed deeply, gauged the distance, and with a blood-curdling yell, flew through the air and towards the pig. It was a very powerful movement-the best he could do. With one eye on the pig, one eye on the domino players, I was frozen, goosebumps on my neck, ready for action. Fabricio's iron fingers reached the pig's belly as he roared, riveting everyone's eyes on the spectacle.

And the pig? The pig took the deadly attack to its gut without even looking at Fabricio, or interrupting its meal. Fabricio did not understand. He stood looking at his finger--and at the pig, placidly munching garbage. The domino players looked at each other and shrugged. Poor Fabricio, so much training for nothing. He never set foot in a Karate studio again.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Um Berimbau e Dois Pandeiros

A Tribute to Mestre Bimba

I received this question in a recent e-mail and I will address it before leaving to Brazil tomorrow at 6 AM.

Question: Why you do not teach in the same way that Mestre Bimba used to teach and why you do not record singing like him?

In fact, TODAY I have just finished the mixing of a new CD, "Um Berimbau e Dois Pandeiros", an homage to the distinctively simple, powerful style of Mestre Bimba. The path to this new CD, and my relationship to my old mestre, is not straight and narrow. Let me begin with an analogy.

My fascination with the berimbau began about 40 years ago. I don’t recall how it happened but, suddenly, the berimbau became part of my daily life. Some time later, I felt unhappy with the construction of the berimbau and, not sure about just one gourd, I tried to make a berimbau with two of them. Then, not satisfied with the bow tightened by just one steel wire, I tried three strings instead. Finally, suspicious of the simple manila string holding the steel wire taut, I tried the precision of violin pegs and guitar keys, finally ending up with a custom-made tune cone crafted by Mr. Ariosto—a lathe master with a shop near where Gigante used to make atabaques for the afoxé , Filhos de Gandhi. Years passed, and after many complicated attempts to improve the berimbau, I returned to the original: a bow of beriba wood in its simple elegance.

I have a funny feeling that a similar experience happened with my capoeira. Years ago, I began to feel uneasy about the training at Mestre Bimba's school. I started analyzing the classes, the practice of the sequencias, and the kind of jogos we played. I pursued this with extreme diligence, recording the exact number of times we trained each movement in class. I proceeded to create a new method of training—a kind of a berimbau with three strings and two gourds. Much later, I realized my foolishness was transforming the training system in a pale imitation of Tae Kwon Do, producing an aesthetic very different from what I’d learned at the Centro de Cultura Fisica Regional, the school of Mestre Bimba. This realization stunned me. From that point on, I was careful not to indulge myself in ideas of embellishing, improving, or making capoeira “more efficient” or “more modern.” Similarly, I have restrained myself from forcing capoeira into a “more traditional” and politically correct African-Brazilian art form.

In my capoeira journey, I have often been asked why I do not teach in the same way as my master. I always answer that I do not have the charisma of Mestre Bimba, much less his capacity for teaching in a markedly characteristic way. Frankly, I think I was inhibited about teaching "Capoeira Regional" while its creator was still alive. And, like his contemporaries, Bimba did not ask his graduates to teach capoeira in his name, or that they create affiliated schools identified by colorful logos. In his evocative style of teaching, Bimba inspired my own attempt to develop new approaches and postures of teaching. This initiative proved essential to my personal development, both in the capoeiragem and in real life. Yet I have never ceased to draw on the joyful, challenging ways of Mestre Bimba’s teaching. Recently, I have been emphasizing his “primitive" and powerful capoeira which, interestingly, generates a sophisticated sparseness of contemporaneity. More and more, I have found myself using the rhythm of São Bento Grande de Regional played by just one berimbau and two pandeiros for the entirety of a two-hour class. As it turns out, this toque de berimbau is crucial for helping students learn a proper cadence for the ginga.

A few days ago I was ready to record a new CD with my students. Just before the session, I dropped my favorite gourd, knocking a big piece out of its belly that needed to be glued back. It now has a long circular scar in its old body, giving it more dignity and character. Yet I considered the accident a bad sign and postponed the recording to another day. This CD will be my 10th musical recording, not counting DVDs, soundtracks, and other projects in which I have used the berimbau. In several of these recordings, I’ve hinted at Bimba's Regional music without entirely pleasing my friends who’ve asked for a full recording in Mestre Bimba’s style. In fact, I do not consider myself—or anyone—competent to record such a CD exclusively in the way of the Mestre because I witnessed at close quarters the extraordinary force he was able to generate. In addition, his own masterpiece, Curso de Capoeira Regional—recorded in the sixties—constituted a historic moment in capoeira, consecrating Bimba as a consummate vocalist and musician. So I will not be the one to try to imitate him!

But I’ve decided to ginga a little bit in this roda. As I rediscovered the wisdom of Bimba as a mestre de capoeira, and as I rediscovered the sonority and purity of the berimbau’s popular shape, so have I reencountered the incomparable power of Mestre Bimba's music after nearly half a century. In tribute, Um Berimbau e Dois Pandeiros will feature just one berimbau, two pandeiros, and vocals in the unique manner of the true Capoeira Regional: the Capoeira of Bimba.