What is the Role of a Capoeira Mestre?

10 03 2008

When you think of your capoeira grupo’s mestre (sorry, Cenoura; there’s that defaulting again), what kind of role do they play in your life, or your capoeira one?  To you, are they a caring teacher?  A fun-loving drinking buddy?  An awe-inspiring hero?  Or an aloof and intimidating stranger?

WWBD---What Would Bimba Do?I never realized before this year how many different “types” of capoeira mestres there were, in terms of the roles they played within their respective groups and the relationships between them and each of their students.  For instance, this year saw the first time a mestre insisted on getting me a drink at a bar, instead of delivering to my group and me a lecture against drinking! 

I’d also never before this year seen any mestras, contra-mestres, or closely preceding levels socialize for real with all levels of students like normal, joking, discussing, etc.  Similarly, when someone told me they couldn’t face saying good-bye for good to their mestre without breaking down, I was shocked because I have no personal connection with mine (well, I think he knows my name); I’d be much more upset about leaving my teachers and friends and the other people I trained with day after day.

At first, I wondered if there were something wrong with my group.  It didn’t help when I then heard about a “no time to teach beginners” spiel that had been given.  Wasn’t a mestre supposed to be the rock of every capoeira student’s experience, not just the graduated ones?  Weren’t they supposed to guide one from the beginning of the so-called capoeira journey, not be waiting at the end, like a prize?  No?  My mistake; must’ve been reading too much Acordeon.

After listening to different friends though, I realized in our case it just all came down to practicalities, and then thinking about it further, I came to terms with it by realizing there are different ways of doing everything as long as it works, and this includes being a capoeira mestre and running a capoeira group.  And since the ideas above hadn’t occurred to me before, and I was still being taught capoeira well and enjoyably by other, advanced students, then regardless the system was working.  (The voice of my high school English teacher now floats through my head…”People will be content as long as they don’t have a basis of comparison“!)

So now this brings me to the question: what is the role of a capoeira mestre?  Is there a “proper” one they should take, according to capoeira tradition, or does the title just mean anybody who is the head of a capoeira grupo who gets the job done?  Based on the examples above, it seems like there are different “types” (for lack of a better term) of mestre roles.  Just to start with, there’s the dear father figure or close mentor; the cool, laid-back, “one-of-the-guys” boss; or the hard-to-reach CEO of a major corporation. 

With those last two comparisons, a separate but related issue emerges: how much hierarchy is there within your group?  Every grupo has hierarchy to some extent, of course, but I think in some if not a lot of cases, it can be considered to be…flattened.  There’s constant “social mobility”, if you will.  Whereas in a group with more hierarchy, distances are more obvious between each level of it, with the greatest distance being between beginners and the mestre, kind of like between a media mogul and one of her outlet’s unpaid interns.  I’d also say that hierarchy is more likely to be found in larger groups because it’s a natural way of organizing people, which would further explain why my own group operates the way it does, because it’s huge.

In my grupo’s case, I have no idea what it was like before I started, but now at least, it seems as if our mestre has taken on the “CEO of a large corporation” role, travelling and taking care of big picture things for the group, and its expansion, and a philanthropic project, while the job of everyday teaching is delegated further and further down the line.  (And occasionally, he’ll hold a managers-only professional skills development seminar.) 

Not that I’m complaining; I absolutely love my teachers, they do an amazing job and can probably relate to me more than a mestre could and vice versa, and it would be an awesome experience to get to teach one day myself (albeit it for now being the day I wake up in a parallel universe).  The only thing is that this system results in a huge “power distance” gap between many students and the mestre, and I used to think that was normal, until I started seeing and hearing about all these examples to the contrary.

So, I’m curious to know what kind of experiences or impressions or relationships the majority or variety of other capoeristas have with their grupos’ mestras, contra-mestres, etc., and whether or not you think mestres should fulfill a certain role, or have certain duties to their group’s students no matter what, or not. 

The floor’s wide open!

Picture source: http://www.saltlakecapoeira.com/Website/Portals/1/bimba.gif

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14 responses

10 03 2008
angoleiro

Hey Joaninha! Interesting topic.
Mestres can be really different. I have seen Mestres which seem to be untouchable the first day and the second day start telling me about his orchid garden (because I happen to be biologist), I have seen other Mestres who travel around the whole time and are practicably ANYWHERE except the place you want to have them, but when you meet them they seem to be your best buddies. Others do have a great presence during workshops and in the roda and n the breaks they are sitting far away from the rest of the people, meditating…
One’s personal relationship to a Mestre is also depending on several other points: like…
…did you start training with him or are you just one student of his 3rd grade graduado?
…is his group big or not (which is very important and nicely pointed out by you)?
…is he coming from Brazil or is he living in Europe/North America for several years? This actually is a really important feature dividing MEstres and their attitude towards their students. With a more patriarchical manner and a more emotional relationship between Mestre and student when the MEstre is still rooted in Brazil and a more teacher-student like and rational relationship when the Mestre is already living in “Western” society for a couple of years (of course depending on the Mestres personality. some might live in the U.S. for 20 years and still insist on his students being like they were in Brazil…)

So, in short (sorry about my too long comment, I tried to restrict myself) the role a Capoeira Mestre plays in relation to his students is not defined. Being a Capoeira Mestre doesnt need the Mestre to have a certain relationship to his students.

Right?

10 03 2008
Shayna

Great topic!

First of all, it’s interesting to note that in the old days, the term “mestre” meant simply “teacher,” not “master.” In fact, if you look up the word in the Portuguese dictionary, the first few definitions all have to do with teaching, and it’s not until the later definitions that the idea of mastery comes up. This explains why many capoeiristas became mestres (i.e. began teaching others) after just 5 or 6 years of practice.

So although the use of the title has shifted somewhat over the years, I think that a person’s mestre (teacher) is the primary person(s) from whom they learn – not necessarily the person of highest rank in the group. Eu sou aluna que aprende, o meu mestre me dá lição…

In some groups, your teacher IS the “top mestre,” and in other groups, your teacher is a lower-level instructor. I don’t really think either way is better or worse. With a 30-year mestre you get the benefit of learning from someone with more experience than a 7-year instructor, but when you’re first starting out, that’s honestly not going to make much of a difference.

One thing I really appreciate in my group is that although the “top mestre” and founder of the group does travel around a ton and takes care of the “big picture” aspects of the organization; he’s still an accessible guy. When he happens to be with you, he’s very personable, talking with everyone, giving workshops, helping beginners, etc. He gives out his e-mail address and invites people to stay at his house in Bahia. So although none of his students really see him every day, we don’t feel distanced from him either.

11 03 2008
akira87

I just found your interesting Facebook group a few hours ago. Incidentally, I logged on to congratulate and taunt a fellow capoeirista since it was his birthday and we were about to have a lesson… I’m sure I needn’t tell you what happens! I’d like to just say that some of those lines were pure gold. I found your site through another capoeira site a few weeks ago and though I hadn’t had the time to read a great deal of your articles, the few I have read I have enjoyed.

This article is very thought provoking. I often witness videos of incredibly massive rodas on youtube and have wondered what those classes would be like. The axe must be unbelievable. I also hear of buying into games and the etiquette surrounding it and often wonder whether they serve to inflate one’s ego as an unfortunate side effect. Anyway, I have decided to share my small experience of capoeira with you. I tend to ramble a lot, so feel free to stop reading whenever!

Technically, the mestre of my group is Nenel. Considering I live in the UK, purely because of the logistical nightmare I am unable to see him regularly – or at all for that matter! I’ve never met him though he came to visit London (with Jogo de Dentro amazingly enough) for a workshop during this (university) year (i.e. either end of ’07 or beginning of ’08). A few of us went with my professor to meet his old teacher, but unfortunately it was too short notice for me to drop everything. Not only did they have great fun, heard the mestres’ speeches on capoeira and had pictures taken with them, they even fashioned their own berimbaus during the workshop! Yes, yes, I am still sad to this day for having missed the workshop.

Anyway, for all intents and purposes, I consider my professor to be my mestre. To be honest, he is so incredibly amazing I cannot believe he is not one already! Especially in the roda; I’ve not seen any other professor get the better of him even though it’s fairly clear that he’s going easy on them.

He’s an old school regional player and thus he’s crazily good with his cabacadas, rasteiras and counter-takedowns. His footwork, timing and positioning never ceases to awe me into green-mottled envy when I watch him play with someone closer to his level. Anyway, that’s a topic for another time. I believe he’s a grade or two away from becoming a mestre but despite this, I don’t think that’ll happen any time soon. I believe in all these years, Nenel has only bestowed that title once upon someone who was already regarded as mestre in all but name not only because of his expertise but his involvement and achievements within the communities and society.

Our professor is very hands-on in his approach. When he arrives for a lesson, he’ll go around to greet and shake everyone’s hands. We don’t have a beginner’s class and they are welcome to drop into any class at any time. Our professor personally welcomes them and teaches them the basics for the whole session, every session. If we’re drilling without partners and the difference in skill between the newcomers and class is too big, he’ll dictate sequences for an experienced student to take the rest of us through while he personally attends to the new people. If we’re drilling with partners, he’ll alternate to his time between the regular class and the newbies. Even if they don’t turn up to every session religiously like the rest of us fanatics, he’ll still devote his time teaching them.

Our group is somewhat small. We have four lessons a week, which are spread over two very close cities. Where I study (both degree- and capoeira-wise), at any given lesson there are at least 20 people in attendance. In the other location, I believe there is a core of 10-15 people that regularly play. The two parts of the group interact regularly since a few of their senior members love to come train with us, and the more hardcore caps players at our place sometimes makes the time and effort to visit them in between various assignments and binge drinking nights out. After every training sesh, some of us always head to a nearby bar for a drink and our professor joins us from time to time. Although it’s against Bimba’s rule to have alcohol, it’s more of a social oh-my-sack-I-am-about-to-drop-dead kind of event and has multi-purposes that include, but not limited to, relaxing, quenching our thirst and building bonds.

Since our class is so small, we are a very close-knit community that are friendly, jovial and on first-name basis with everyone (i.e. we actually know each others real names!), including our professor. Although I’ve never called my professor by anything other than his capoeira name because it would be… weird if you know what I mean. We do have more senior members, but there really isn’t a hierarchy. We are literally one big, happy family. If we stood in a roda with our tight, white gear you wouldn’t be able to see the difference between us until we play. The senior members are the ones who have played the longest, which is evident when they are inside the roda, and with them falls the responsibility of guiding and putting at ease the less experienced and new players. Like every rule in capoeira, it’s more a rule of the playground than one set in cement. However, like I’ve said, we’re a small community, and as a consequence are friendly anyway.

There are many reasons for the friendliness and lack of hierarchy. In no particular order, the first is that we’re a traditional regional school and as such we do not have cordas denoting rank. Secondly, we do not buy into games; the roda acts basically as two separate queues for playing. Thirdly, we’re a small community and thus we don’t need hierarchy to organise ourselves. Fourthly, we go for a drink after every session! Fifthly, our professor is just pure awesome incarnated. All in all, I enjoy the atmosphere (or axe!) promoted within our group – although I sometimes wistfully wish for a corda when I see giro ou arpao being performed. It looks so stylish when a capoeirista not from our school whips his unsuspecting opponent as he turns. Ah the cool factor. Not to be underestimated in the roda!

12 03 2008
Jasmim

Very good point you brought up. I was asking myself the same questions when I first started training a few months ago. The Batizado happened about 6 weeks after my first day, so several mestres from Brazil and around the US were visiting. In class they were all very open and friendly, great teachers, and very humble, patient and respectful. But at the after-party even the most meek among them was trying to “dirty dance” with all the girls! This was a shock to me, and shook my idea of what a mestre should be. I was told it is “just the Brazilian culture” but it was difficult to accept. Then I realized, they may be mestres, but they’re also still just men. It makes me very much respect the women that have progressed in this male-dominated environment.

12 03 2008
cenoura

I’ve been thinking about this one for a while, and don’t know what I’d say the relationship “should” be. I mean, I know the contramestre of our group would like people to actually try and do an apprenticeship model, but that’s not really possible for everyone since the group is spread over 4-5 cities. We see the contramestre about 5 times a year for a weekend intensive, and have the mestre from Brazil up once a year. akira87s description of group dynamics sounds about like what we have, only the different cites get together less often. well, okay, and we play angola. But we usually have a good time(I’ve said previously that food fights happen more often than is probably advisable) . Obviously, particularly with the contramestre, some people “click” more than others. but that’s more a function of personality than anything else. Hierarchy is an interesting issue in our group-some is necessary to keep the group functioning, but we also try not to stand on a lot of ceremony. There’s a delicate balance there. When the mestre comes from Brazil, we’ll have one formal batizado where we use cordas, but otherwise, mine lives somewhere on my shelf, and I know people who have misplaced them(due to lack of need) so you can see how seriously they aren’t taken. I do admit that our. . . use of the term master I think is the best way to say this. . . is influenced by some traditional Japanese arts that our contramestre does. While yes, Shayna is right, when our group uses the term, we at least theoretically mean mastery in the sense of a complete knowledge rather than just teaching, and rather than just the top level of a bunch of cordas.

13 03 2008
akira87

I thought cordas were a contemporanea phenomenon, not angola! Ah well, shows how much I know. I’m really envious though. I would love a corda just to increase my repertoire of moves with the surprise factor! The two cities I mentioned, one is really just a town that sprung up around a university with a cathedral (hence technically a city or some silly nonsense) and is 20 mins away from the other real city by train (not including travelling time to get to train station).

What is this apprenticeship model you mentioned? I’m new to capoeira (only practised traditional regional for 1.5 years) and so I’m lacking a lot of knowledge of different topics and customs.

14 03 2008
cenoura

the model as I’ve understood it is you living at least nearby and spending lots of one on one time together, and exploring. as opposed to someone you just see in class x times/week. though there always is some of that. but I guess the idea of a relationship/mentor instead of a pay per service setup.

15 03 2008
Joaninha

Angoleiro:

I like all those examples you brought up of different mestres’ behaviours! It’s little things like that that show how underneath it all, they’re simply people too. =)

You’re a biologist? That’s cool; what is it that you do, exactly?

HAHA, your “one student of his 3rd grade graduado” hit the nail right on the head—banged it flat! Let me put it this way…the two teachers I would most consider to be my “mestres” under Shayna’s definition aren’t yet graduados themselves…and it’s not uncommon to be taught by other intermediate-level students! One reason, and this relates to your second question and my post, is that there really are a huge number of people in my group, so delegation, as my friend explained it, is really the most practical and efficient way of running things and making sure everyone progresses as they should and without undue delay. 🙂

Hmm, ultimately I think you’re right about there not being one right way or one mandated type of relationship…also I guess because I asked the question in more of a philosophical light, ie. should all mestra/es be the ideal “Mestra/e” as defined in all the books by Nestor Capoeira, Mestre Acordeon, etc.? But that’s not always practical in the real world…and also, on the other hand, they could also have been referring to Shayna’s definition, or to groups that were closer-knit because of smaller numbers.

If you look at it that way (mestres have different personalities, different group structures, etc.), it seems obvious. But I was still really hung up on it when/right before writing the post…because don’t you think there are still a few certain qualities a mestre should have, kind of like there are certain traits a capoeirista should have even amongst all the necessary variety?

15 03 2008
Joaninha

Shayna:

Once again, thank you for such an enlightening piece of information! I actually really like this idea. While hashing out this topic with some friends, I said it seemed like since our mestre had delegated the role of teacher to his students, the roles of rock/role model/mentor/etc. had been automatically delegated along with it, since I feel all those things towards my actual teachers and not really towards the mestre of our group. So I kind of like that through the original definition of mestre, they can get that credit. 🙂

I don’t think it makes much difference either, which is why I made it a point to say my post wasn’t at all to be taken as complaining that I wasn’t being taught by a mestre. For me, it was more about the principle of the thing; i.e. is it okay for a mestre to have his group believe he doesn’t have time for beginners, or for himself to believe he doesn’t have time for beginners? In practice, it doesn’t matter since anyone can teach them something, since they’re beginners, and we do have tons of students who are both excellent teachers and capoeiristas. But in theory or philosophically, is that right (especially now in light of the word’s original definition and use in capoeira)? That’s what I wanted to get to the bottom of.

15 03 2008
Joaninha

Akira:

Haha, thanks for the compliment about the facebook group! So, did your friend get properly birthday-worthily wrung out in the roda that day? 😀

Haha, as someone who’s been in (what I consider to be, though probably still nothing compared to Brazil) massive rodas and classes, my opinion is…the axe is unbelievable in the rodas since it’s all concentrated, but for classes not as much, especially since the impersonal-ness of it is more obvious when everyone is just in lines and trying to find their spot on the floor.

What kind of things have you heard about buying into games and the etiquette? That was another new thing I learned this year…in my group, it’s a first-come-first-served free for all, all the time. In some other groups though, the roda is basically two line-ups towards the instruments. Could you also elaborate on what you mean by the buying process helping to inflate egos?

That’s really too bad that you had to miss meeting Mestres Nenel and Jogo de Dentro! Both of them have actually been guests at one event or another of my grupo. =)

Yes, I think to become a mestra/mestre these days you basically have to come as close as humanly possible to what you’d be like if you were born and raised in Brazil and started learning capoeira since you could crawl, and becoming versed in Portuguese songs and sayings since you could talk, and familiarizing yourself with capoeira philosophy since you could read, and banging on kid-sized pandeiros and atabaques instead of pots and pans! And of course, evangelizing capoeira and using it for the good of all since the first day of pre-school. 😄

Your professor sounds really cool, and nice. So he goes around the room and greets everyone personally? In my group it’s actually more common for everyone in the room to go up to wherever the teacher/mestre is to greet him. Though we have split classes too, if there’s an obvious division, only instead of delegating, more often what’ll happen is one group gets a move/sequence to work on, they work on it while the second group is taught, second group gets a sequence, works on that while first group is taught and gets a new sequence, etc.

Wow, I consider 20 people a good-sized class! Although for context, at one point in time 6 was a decent number for me. o.O That’s cool though, that people in your group, with your professor, have social outings like that! It must make class/training more fun, too. Wow…your group sounds awesome! That’s really great for you guys.

Haha—“two separate queues for playing”—so THAT’S where I read it! You definitely know what I was talking about in that earlier paragraph, then!

Anyway, all of those do sound like very sound and logical reasons for your capoeira group’s more or less utopic state! It’s also funny when you compare to mine… cordas yes, queues no, community massive, hierarchy yes, drinks no! Heh. 😛

15 03 2008
Joaninha

Jasmim:

Yeah, now that’s interesting…I was thinking mostly in context of the student-teacher relationship, but now you’re extending to what if a mestre tries to take it beyond that context…

Sadly though, I think it *is* the Brazilian culture, although you’re right in that that’s no excuse, especially if they’re not in Brazil (and when in Rome…or the slightly less physical United States…).

You know what though, I found it interesting that you said “they may be mestres, but they’re also still just men”, because for me, it’s almost the opposite…maybe it’s a generalization and I shouldn’t be saying this, but I would think that in order to become a mestre, they would’ve been steeped so much and for so long in Brazilian culture, if not Brazilian themselves, that instead of “just men” I would think “of course men”, if by “men” you mean flirty, womanizing, the dancing, etc. To qualify this a bit more, remember my post on Mestre Nestor Capoeira and Muniz Sodre, and malicia? (It’s here if you don’t.) They believed and thought it was perfectly alright publishing that women were the opposite of “power” and “the rational”, but how many male capoeira students would you find willing to say that today?…So I attribute it to the mestres’ culture and them being steeped in it along with capoeira tradition, which itself, needless to say, is thoroughly Brazilian culture-infused…

15 03 2008
Joaninha

Cenoura:

Hey, yeah I think your group sounds the closest so far to what I’d consider average. Some of everything, not too little or too much, trying to keep the balance…

Thanks to you and Shayna, I’m actually really interested in the etymology and all the possible definitions and connotations of the word “mestre” now! And also in the process of how it went from what it used to be to what it is now…

As for the relationship between mestre and student, I said this to Shayna but I think I should clarify again, I don’t think I meant so much the actual interaction between a student and her group’s mestre, in terms of how they talk to each other, how much time they spend together, how well they know each other, etc., but more in terms of, philosophically, the aspects of the relationship between the Mestre (in general in capoeira) and the Student (in general in capoeira). Kind of like I’m not asking what my relationship to my boss at work should be, but if there are certain things that should characterize the relationship between an Employee and Employer.

For example, I could not get along with my boss, but she still has to respect me and give me credit if I’ve earned it. So in capoeira, a mestre could not actually be friends with a student, like a beginner, for instance, but in my opinion they should still be more than willing to teach them, based on what I understand a mestre to be (again, especially now that I know what the word’s original meaning was).

Now, on a different topic, related to your latest comment: I wonder what the implications and mental/social mechanisms are, behind the fact that even thinking about that set-up is already setting off major discomfort and awkwardness alarm bells inside me? 😄

15 03 2008
Joaninha

Akira:

Surprise factor?

And I think cordas are a regional/contemporanea phenomenon…you weren’t mistaken. From Capoeira Connection:

“The cord ranking system did not exist in capoeira until the 20th century. Mestre Bimba, the creator of capoeira regional, used to give out colored handkerchiefs in order to distinguish the graduated students from the novices. Mestre Carlos Senna of the group Senavox created the first colored cord ranking system in 1955.”

21 12 2009
espoleta

well,One thing I can say for sure is when you teach for a long time you can tell who will stay and who will not so that is part of it,another part is truely you can learn the basic of cpoeira in the same school under the advance students and untill you dont have a certaine ujmnderstanding of capoeira mestre or an advance student can do the same thing for you .now when you have reached a certaine level in capoeira then its different you can learn truely from the mestre and at `the end it all works well.you can pass the art .

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