Capoeira: In the Presence of Greatness

Photo by PJB

Photo by PJB

After months of intense training and anticipation, our capoeira group was finally graced with the presence of Mestre Cobra Mansa, one of the most respected capoeira masters in the world. We were able to spend an entire day with him as he led us through a workshop, lecture and finally, an ecstatic roda (the circle in which the students play against him and each other).

Now in his mid-’50s, Mestre Cobra Mansa (whose name translates as ‘tame snake’) is a small yet striking figure. With askew grey dreadlocks, thick, unruly facial hair, and toffee-coloured skin, he resembles a wise shaman or scorcerer who has just emerged from the darkest corners of the Brazilian rainforest.

It soon became apparent, however, that he carries within him decades of hard-won intelligence, life experience and unrivaled capoeira skills and knowledge. While his physical prowess was phenomenal for someone of his age, I was most struck by his words of wisdom at the talk he gave at the beginning of the first session. That is when I knew I could trust him, that he was the real deal.

Cobra Mansa vs. Idalina

Cobra Mansa vs. Idalina

He told us that the only way to improve is to keep making mistakes. To keep failing. Fail. And fail again. And again. He referred to himself as a ‘capoeira baby,’ stating that he too, had so much more to learn and that one’s capoeira journey is never complete because the path never ends. He said that although the world is now so competitive and we always have to pit ourselves against others, we should only measure our own progress and compete with ourselves. The goal is not to be better than anyone else, but to try your best and be better than before. Also, he emphasized that when we train, we need to reflect afterwards on our performance and think about the things we did well, congratulate ourselves for our progress and successes while thinking about one of two things we could improve upon the next day. In short, he created a safe learning environment. This was so refreshing considering that many capoeira teachers take a militant approach to teaching that borders on aggression, emotional and physical abuse, humiliation and shaming of the students – perhaps in the name of some kind of misguided tough love.

The students present at the event represented the entire beginner-advanced spectrum, so for those of us who are closer to the beginner end, it could’ve been intimidating and highly anxiety-provoking. However, he encouraged each of us to have a turn at playing all the instruments and singing in the bateria (the row of musicians at the head of the circle), in addition to working sequences in pairs. It was a kind of exposure therapy – just getting in there and doing it before fear could talk us out of it. The physical work was grueling, but the sense of accomplishment at trying and learning something new, in the presence of such a revered and expert teacher, was amazing.

What struck me most about Cobra Mansa was his energy. He was jet-lagged, fending off a cold and had been teaching at the school of capoeira he had founded many years before prior to our event. Anyone who has ever taught anything knows how exhausting it can be on all levels. Yet, he gave 110%. He didn’t tire and sustained his attention and focus throughout the day, remaining professional, energetic and even-tempered.

After lunch, he gave a lecture about a long-term project he has been working on to make a documentary about the search for the roots of capoeira in Africa, particularly in Angola. In collaboration with a professor from the University of Essex in the U.K., he has visited the continent four times over six years but he said that he cannot say conclusively whether the art originated in Angola or in Brazil. He showed video footage of Angolans playing the “zebra dance”, which bears some resemblance to basic capoeira moves in which you can only use your feet. It seems likely that this could be the closest ancestor to capoeira.

Cobra Mansa vs. Tigresa

Cobra Mansa vs. Tigresa

Other interesting things he came across was a village in which you can only participate in dance rituals if you are very rich – and because the economy of this place was based on cows, if you own a lot of cows, then you are rich. And then you can participate. Usually, men are allowed to dance while women are only allowed to play the instruments (although this is something of an honour in this matriarchal society). He also said that in some places, it was taboo for women to dance in public or in front of men. However, the women did so in private together which had also been the case with capoeira in Brazil.

Regardless of the origins of capoeira, the take-away message for me from the footage we saw is that traditional performing arts are slowly but surely disappearing. Mestre spoke briefly about the cultural erosion and amnesia he encountered in Angola as local knowledge and the education system had favored the language, culture and ideology of the Portuguese colonialists. Whatever the reasons for the loss (colonisation, war, globalization, homogeneity, popular culture, media), it is undeniably tragic that these links to the past which give meaning and identity to villages and nations will likely be gone forever, being drenched in blood and buried under the cultural hegemony of Starbucks and McDonald’s like the bones of our ancestors.

The final part of the event was the roda, in which the students played with each other and Mestre in the circle. It was a chance to show and use what we had learnt that day in a playful atmosphere, to show respect to our teachers by giving our energy and a chance to intensify the connections that had developed throughout the day. While incredibly fun and adrenalin-inducing, playing in a roda can be exhausting. Even after a few minutes, most people find themselves sweating and puffing. I played with him for a few minutes, using the Angola moves he had taught us (a style that is played very close to the ground, using a lot of arm strength, that he is an expert in) and I was dying. Yet, he played for an hour non-stop, his energy never flagging and always able to outmaneuver his opponents with his cunning trickery and theater, a real crowd-pleaser.

In a state of elated exhaustion, we then went to eat together. I was able to sit near him and talk to him about his life in Brazil, the farm he lives on where he promotes permaculture and his plans for the future. In true mestre style, he said he would never stop teaching or traveling to teach. Also, because it was my birthday, and his the following day, we had a small celebration before it became apparent that finally, he would need to leave us as gracefully has he had arrived, showering the students with hugs and kisses on his way out.

Last man standing

Last man standing

All in all, the day was enriching on many levels – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It reinforced some personal goals I have and reflected back to me some of my strengths and weaknesses, ultimately leading to more self-awareness as well as the realization that I am a few more steps forward on this journey of a thousand miles. Perhaps most importantly, it gave me that very rare and precious feeling that I could accomplish anything – a sense of freedom from mental conditioning, barriers and limitations. The feeling of being alive, present and content.

To learn more about Mestre Cobra Mansa’s documentary project, check out this link. Also, to see how he is promoting sustainable living by merging permaculture and capoeira, take a moment to read about the community he founded in Brazil here.

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