João Grande is one of only two living grand masters of the ancient art of Capoeira Angola, according to Robert Farris Thompson, Professor of African and African American Studies at Yale University. Capoeira combines music, dance, martial arts, ritual and belief in a tradition that defines Afro-Brazilian cultural identity. Said to have originated in central African Angola, it was brought to Brazil by slaves who then adopted Capoeira's many forms as a means of defense and solidarity. Capoeira is usually performed by two players who dance and maneuver in the center of a roda (circle) of musicians who sing and play the berimbau, a one-string bow-like instrument.
João Oliveira dos Santos traveled from a tiny village in the southern part of the state of Bahia to Salvador, the heart of Capoeira activity, to study under the great Mestre Pastinha, who gave him the name João Grande (Big John). In 1966, João Grande traveled to Dakar, Senegal with his master to perform in the first International Festival of Black Arts. In 1968, he received his diploma from Pastinha's academy. After touring Europe, Africa, and the Middle East in Capoeira troupes and performing in the United States at the National Black Arts Festival, he settled in New York City in 1990 and founded his own capeoira academy, where he has taught hundreds of students and has become the acknowledged master in the United States. C. Daniel Dawson, lecturer in African culture, says of capoeira: "This ancient art and its masters teach one how to encounter harsh experiences while remaining flexible and receptive; how to respond to social violence with evasion and grace; and how to use the trials and tribulations of life to develop physical strength, spiritual strength, and wisdom in one's thoughts and actions. Capoeira Angola is ancestral wisdom passed on so that each person can make the best of their times and possibilities, creating balanced and productive lives, while adding some beauty to the world."
[Editor's note: Trish Rosen, a student of Mestre Grande, served as translator during the interview]
NEA: Congratulations on your award. What was your first reaction when you heard the news?
Grande: I was very, very surprised and very happy.
NEA: Where and when did you get your inspiration to dance?
Grande: I was brought up the countryside of Itagí, in the southern part of Bahia, Brazil. I got my inspiration from watching nature and the animals.
At the age of ten, I saw my first capoeira movement, called corta' capim, which means "cutting the grass." The legs sweeps round and round the hand.
I asked one of the capoeiristas, "What is this movement?" and he said "the dance of the Nagôs," which was a dance of black people, from the city of Salvador.
Capoeira comes from all things natural. You can hear that in the songs too, you know, we sing about the rolling of the waves.
Trish Rosen: So that is his main inspiration, and it's very clear in his teaching. He constantly makes reference to the waves of the ocean, the movement of different animals, and he actually has students watch films. One particular film he likes people to watch shows monkeys doing cartwheels.
NEA: What are the biggest challenges in practicing and sustaining your art form?
Grande: Everything is easy! Capoeira is "a good thing to eat." Like eating, I can't imagine life without it. It's almost the same as asking someone, "What's the most difficult thing about eating everyday?" It's so much a part of my life, it's the same to me as breathing. Capoeira is an art, a dance, a profession, and a culture. A capoeirista is a dancer, a poet, a singer, and a philosopher. It brings nothing but good for people's body and spirit.
NEA: I'm glad to hear that it is easy because it looks so difficult!
Grande: The reputation that it's difficult is because not many people know how to teach it. Capoeira is for everyone: for men, for women, and for children - anyone who wants to can learn. The only people who can't learn are people who don't want to learn. Capoeira is very good for your life, your whole life.
NEA: Do you feel that capoeira is getting more popular?
Grande: Yes, it's going throughout the world, it's everywhere in the world, which is really true. I'm going to Japan in November, and I was in Germany over the summer, and I've been to Denmark, and England.
NEA: Who or what was the most significant influence in you artistic career?
Grande: Everything was very important. This (fellowship) is the most important thing that has happened to me in my life along with my honorary doctorate in 1993 from Upsula College in New Jersey.
Other influences were my teacher, Mestre Pastinha, and the tour to Africa I took with him in 1966.
NEA: What do you like most about teaching your artistic skills?
Grande: I like teaching the old, the young, everyone! I particularly like to share this culture with young people because it helps them later in life.
What I've really enQyed about teaching is the incredible mix of students - I've had Japanese, Germans, Africans, Americans, and women.
NEA: What are the pros and cons with running an academy?
Grande: One of the hardest things to do is to always find and keep a space and to administer the academy. Actually, teaching the students is the easiest part.
NEA: What are the skills or elements needed for one to master capoeira?
Grande: The most important thing is you must have a good teacher to guide you. You must be able to play all the instruments; you must have something called "Qgo bonita," which means, "a beautiful game." In capoeira, you always say what you're doing is a game. Even though it's a martial art you never say you're fighting - you're never fighting because it is not a fight, it's a game.
That's a very important thing people misunderstand, it's very different from the eastern martial arts, which train actual combats. You say you're going to "play capoeira" or "practice capoeira" or "do capoeira." All of that training, for it is still a martial art, will allow you to know what to do when you get in a difficult situation, but you never practice actually hurting people. That is a very big difference.
Rosen: Some of the more contemporary styles don't make the distinctions clear because they've been influenced by eastern martial arts. Capoeiristas used capoeira for their survival skills, especially in the early days of the Brazilian slaves. This is where Mestre Grande stands out, this idea that capoeira is a game not about fighting, but about philosophy, culture, community, and playing together. Some more contemporary forms have introduced contact.
NEA: How important is music to the art form?
Grande: Music is extremely important. All of the "playing" is done in response to the music of the berimbau, that's the main instrument. The two players must listen and respond to all the instruments, particularly the berimbau.
Rosen: He incorporates in each class a half-hour of music training so everyone really has learned the instruments. Music is something he's emphasized; other mestres have more often left it up to the musicians. Mestre Grande trains every student and how ever long it takes they must become competent and everyone eventually can do it. People you never would have thought have become great musicians, because he is patient and they continue to practice.
NEA: Is there a way that National Endowment for the Arts could be of more service to your art form or to your community?
Grande: One of my biggest struggles is to keep a permanent space, and my dream is to try find this space. It would be great to have help on that, but I'm willing to do it myself.
Rosen: And indirectly, this fellowship will probably open up opportunities for Mestre Grande. It will also bring greater exposure to capoeira. His dream is to have a permanent space somewhere in New York. Every three years he has to renegotiate his lease.
I think it's wonderful the NEA has picked up on capoeira at this moment, it's just the right moment, but I tell you the remark most people say is "often when things get picked for the first time people don't choose the right person," well they've finally got the right person. There are many capoeiristas in the United States, but he is the grand master. A lot of people have said to me, "Great! Mestre got the NEA Heritage Fellowship! They've found Mestre!"
NEA: What are you most looking forward to during the awards ceremony and concert?
Grande: Every part of it is very important to me and my students, and to the guests I've invited from Brazil. I'm looking forward to every part of it, particularly meeting the other groups that have been honored, and to go to Washington with my students and to be able to present capoeira.