José Antônio dos Santos de Almeida, AKA Mestre Zé Antônio, was born in Guaratinguetá-SP on 07/01/1958. He began Capoeira at age 15 with Cledir Fitipaldi.
In this interview he shares with us not only his experiences in Capoeira, but also talks about the importance of music in his life, and the afro-brazilian folkloric dance Jongo.
We had the opportunity to interview the Master in November 2018 at the Besouro Preto event in Barcelona.
Below is a lightly edited English translation of the original Portuguese transcript.
You can listen to the original recording in Portuguese here.
When and how did you discover Capoeira?
I started capoeira in my own city, in Guaratinguetá, in the state of São Paulo, with a capoeirista from the state of Rio de Janeiro who lived in Resende. He went to study in my city at a a technical college.
He did a capoeira presentation, and afterwards I searched him out. He was giving classes to earn some cash, he lived in the halls of residence, and needed to pay the rent. He was not a Mestre or Profesor, he was basically a street capoeirista, who started giving classes to get by.
He was from Rio de Janeiro, which was where he learned Capoeira, and he was what we called an oitiva, he’d study the Capoeira there, and bring the movements to us. He used to go to the rodas of some of the old masters of the time: Mestre Taurus, Master Dentinho… Mestre Sorriso, Mestre Bimba, who passed through Rio do Janeiro.
He would take the training and movements he learned there to Guará. He didn’t spend that much time there, but even with very little time we already had a good base, we trained a lot.
After three or four months he went to college and left me in charge of the classes, along with another friend of mine, Marquito, who just passed away this year.
At the time we practiced basically strikes, ginga, the sequences of Mestre Bimba and played. That’s pretty much it.
This was my beginning in capoeira in 1974, with this street capoeirista called Cledir Fitipaldi his nickname at the time was Bambú.
You don’t have an apelido in capoeira?
No, not in capoeira. But I did as a child.
Many people knew me as Zé do Beija Flor which was a football team in the city that I founded together with another friend. Some people used to call me that, football people.
As a family, my paternal uncles called me Boi (bullock). Because I played a lot, made some boizinhos, used to cause havoc on my own. While I worked in the factory there they called me Ze Pezão (Bigfoot). None of these nicknames caught on in Capoeira.
Who do you consider your Mestre?
My Mestre is Suassuna, Reinaldo Ramos Suassuna.
As I said, the first steps I learned with this street capoeirista, but he was not master. He encouraged me to continue with capoeira. When he left, he left me in charge of the classes.
We trained alone for a few years, in front of work, giving lessons. Myself and Marquito.
After a while came my brother Ponciano joined us there. A few years later we met Mestre Suassuna and we passed our group to him. We became his students. There we stayed over 30 years with the Mestre.
Were you one of the first to keep the name Cordão de Ouro for your own group after graduating?
Yes, it was not a tradition at the time to use the same name for your group as your mestre.
The connection was not a group name, a logo, nor a drawing. It was a personal bond, mestre-disciple. So much so that Mestre Sarará was Casa de Capoeira Sarará, Mestre Bolinha, who belongs to my term as well, was Capoeira Pé pro Ar. We in Guaratinguetá we were Conceição da Praia in honor of my grandfather Ponciano who was my mother’s father.
There are three Poncianos in the family: my grandfather (the father of my mother), my brother Mestre Ponciano and my son, Ponciano. Who is called Poncianinho.
They all have the same name. My grandfather Ponciano Carlos, my brother, Ponciano Carlos and my son, Ponciano Carlos. Only we call him Poncianinho to differentiate because the two are both capoeiristas.
How was the process of founding your Barracão group?
I’m even putting it on the wall to show the phases that we have gone through. My capoeira story.
First was Trendir, which did not have an official name, but we called Grupo de Capoeira de Guaratinguetá.
Later I founded together with my brother the Association of Capoeira Conceição da Praia, because my grandfather Ponciano was from Paraty and there he was a fisherman. He was not a professional but he was fishing, and I saw that Conceição da Praia was the protector of the fishermen in Bahia.
And then I put the name in honor of my grandfather who was the first Tunan. It was not a surname but a nickname. Even today Mestre Primo has an event called Tunan in honor of his grandfather, who was my grandfather’s son.
So first there was this group of Capoeira of Guaratinguetá, later the Association of Capoeira Conception of Praia, and then when I graduated in 88 I talked to Mestre Suassuna and he allowed me to use the name of Cordão de Ouro.
Before then, no one used the name, only Mestre Suassuna. After graduating, Mestres started their own groups. And it was so in all capoeira groups. that were known at that time.
Only the Senzala group used the same name. And to tell you the truth, it was this that inspired me. Because I knew the Senzala group through Master Suassuna and we made a good friendship with Mestre Gato, Mestre Peixinho, Mestre Garrincha, Sorriso…
We made a lot of friends. They all came to my batizado… inspired by this I asked Mestre Suassuna, if I could use the name, and he said yes. As soon as I came back, I graduated over the weekend, and on Monday I went and changed and everything.
And Mestre Espirro also, along with me when he returned to Ceará he used the name. The first two members of the CDO Group were me and Master Espirro.
Even Mestre Ponciano still spent about two or three years using
Conceição da Praia. I founded the CDO academy in Guaratinguetá in 1988. And then after 2 or 3 years when other capoeiristas had already started using the name, Mestre Ponciano also made the change.
And today Mestre Ponciano is CDO of Guará.
At this point you taught the adults and Mestre Ponciano the children?
It was right at the beginning, right at the beginning of the job. Then you had the divisions.
And after, I think 2013, more or less I talked to Mestre Suassuna because I changed my way of thinking a bit, the changes were more philosophical.
Capoeira CDO had some changes, of course, that it is natural that Mestre Suassuna always had this very creative process, always working new ideas.
So, so as not to get into disagreement within the group, I talked to the Mestre and he allowed it. I started with Barracão, which was first called the
Barracão do Vigário (Vicar’s Barracks) because the street was called Rua Vigário. Another day, however, talking to Mestre João Grande:
But the place is yours? No? And if one day you move location, what will you call it then?
And then I thought, hey, that’s true. And then he said: “Call it
Barracão do Mestre Antônio”
But I wasn’t sure about this, as it sounded to much like Barracão do Mestre Waldemar.
So then I decided on Capoeira Barracão. Because we do capoeira there, and it does not have labels of angola nor of regional.
We do the capoeira that I believe in, that I learned from my mestre, and also with the influences of other great capoeiristas that we had contact with and learned from also. So, from that date, I started using the Capoeira Barracão but I did not change my master, I did not change groups.
I am following a path, and in truth it is a return to the origins of what it used to be.
When I formed I used another name, but I am still with Mestre Suassuna who is my mestre. I did not change my mestre.
There are well-known teachers like Mestre Brasilia who is my capoeira godfather, right, and is very close. And he is also one of the founders of CDO, a friend of Mestre Suassuna, so in the absence of the mestre in some situations Mestre Brasilia also helps me, also supports me.
You were there from the inception of Miudinho – can you tell us a bit about it’s development?
The understanding I have today, when I look back, is that Mestre Suassuna’s concern was to rescue a capoeira that was being lost, the inside, close game.
He wanted to bring back a more interactive form of play. He said that the capoeiristas were playing too far away from each other, and it seemed that they were doing solo performances.
He wanted us to play. He was talking about some things like, imagine two children inside the mother’s womb playing capoeira, imagine a snake’s nest, he spoke of the 2 × 2. So I used to make a very small space, and then you could play inside, right?
From the first time I met Mestre Suassuna it was always like that. The first time I went to his academy, before miudinho, he fenced off a small area and played with us inside.
Cabeçada, rasteira, bam… meia lua of the mestre… a way of saying: “Here who rules is me”.
We arrived there with the intention of learning because we were very young.
Going back to the miudinho story, that was his intention, to rescue some movements of older masters that he saw, that he’d experienced in Bahia in the past. The idea was that miudinho was a game, and he developed specific teaching sequences, a specific way to ginga, to move.
And from these ginga movements, we would descend and combine with some ground based movements.
He passed sequences in doubles, attack and defense sequences, ground work, so that the people developed the ability to play close to each other and work on the ground.
What do you think about the differences between Angola and Regional?
We can not deny that there are some differences in the rhythms played, and of the formation of the bateria, up to a different concept of the game, right?
Capoeira Angola, more or less, in quotes, has a more playful aspect, but it is still dangerous right, it is a thing that deceives. There’s a smile on the face, but you do not know what is behind it.
Using Mestre Canjiquinha’s words: “Capoeira is like a ballroom you have to know how to perform”.
So it’s all capoeira, Capoeira Angola is capoeira, Capoeira Regional is capoeira, Capoeira Contemporânea is capoeira.
The difference is that it has different rhythms, different instrumental formation, some different songs, right? The idea of the game also has some differences but they are things that do not make one better than the other, or more efficient or beautiful.
The capoeirista is the one who gives this beauty and efficiency to capoeira, whether Angola, Regional or Contemporary.
How do you help guide the mestres you’ve formed on their onward path?
I try to for strong relationships there in the Barracão. Even though I stopped using the CDO name myself, I’m here in CDO happy with you, I feel super well treated, so I didn’t want to stop my students using the name when they form as Mestre.
I have 4 graduate degrees: Instructor, Professor, Contra Mestre and Mestre.
When he is a Mestre he is already a Mestre, he does not have grades. He can set up his own group, start his own project, or keep using the Barracão name.
The Barracão has certain rules, graduation rules that it has to follow. If they wanted to do something personal that differs from that he can use another name just like Mestre Casquinha uses Apeiara.
I have a student in São Paulo who uses Capoeira Batuque because he wants grades and belts, Poncianinho uses Mojubá. But he says always: “No dad, put Barracão Mojubá”, but I make his clothing and I just print “Capoeira Mojubá“. It’s his job, his identity.
I seek this relationship to be true, sincere and with the freedom of the person to have that expression, to express themselves in their own way and this makes the relationship very close without a penalty.
So my students will never fail to be my students, just as I will never stop being my mestre’s student. It’s a bond that stays, it’s like a son who never ceases to be the son of his parents. No matter how far away he is, he will never cease to be the son of his parents.
I try to foster this family relationship even there in the Barracão, so that people understand this, that one can be doing a separate job as this student of mine from São Paulo.
He has to give belts because he works in 3 schools and the school board requires belts. The more I go there, I go to his event without any prejudice, he introduces me as the mestre of the event, as the mestre of his group, as his mestre and we have a very easy, very true relationship with no problem whatsoever
This link can not end, you have to always have this link. You can not break it. it’s always there.
Can you talk a little bit about the importance of the musical part of Capoeira for you?
I have a saying, I do not know if anyone already said it before me but, I wrote that “The song for me is the soul of capoeira”.
Música para mim é a alma da capoeira.Mestre Zé Antonio
Music is one of the things that differentiates capoeira from being just another martial art. The music for example, and the instruments, I think was what helped the capoeira survive until today.
Because at first we know that there were more or less three types of capoeira, the capoeira of Rio de Janeiro, the capoeira of Recife, and the capoeira of Bahia.
They are the port cities where the slaves, the africans, the slave ships arrived. But that capoeira that existed in Recife, of that time, is no more. And the original capoeira from Rio de Janeiro hasn’t survived either.
What we have today, according to my understanding, is the capoeira of Bahia, in one form or another, the musicality, instrumentation, ritual… is from Bahia.
And I think I understand that this was what prevented Bahian capoeira from disappearing as well. Because capoeira was repressed. But it was the music, playing, singing, that kept it alive.
Music has a lot of importance inside capoeira. One of these things is that she has kept the capoeira until today. Maybe if there was not such musicality in Bahia capoeira, it may be that we did not have Capoeira today. Because she was so repressed, that if she was only fighting that she could have been lost.
That is my point of view. The music gives an understanding of capoeira, of the roda, of the game and of life for us. There are many capoeira songs that give life lessons to us.
The music, it has several points that are very important.
You can even, for example, calm a situation in the roda with a song, or you can stoke the fire, add fuel to the fire.
As I already said, I truly believe that: “Music is the soul of the game of capoeira”.
Do you have any favorite music?
I do not have a favorite song I don’t think. But I have a favorite singer who is Mestre Waldemar.
All that he sings to me is fantastic, the way, the rhythm, the emotion, the feeling he puts in the music, for me Mestre Waldemar is the greatest inspiration in terms of singers in capoeira.
You organize an event that has a woman’s name. Could you explain the name a little and why?
The theme is feminine but it is not a female event. Because folks, it’s cool to explain this because, I believe that if I do a female event it’s like I make a woman-only roda.
It’s a way for me to discriminate, to say that women do not have the ability to play with men. In my point of view the woman has a lot of capacity. In my academy, for example, now those who are ahead are women. There are also men, but it is women are who are right up front.
And this event is called Anastasia, she was a slave who became myth, became a saint. She appeared first, and after her appeared other Anastasias too.
She was very beautiful and very much harassed by her master, and mistreated by her mistress out of jealousy. So even her picture is shocking. There’s a gag in her mouth.
It has become a symbol of resistance against aggression, against harassment, for us it is a symbol. It represents the strength of the woman because she did not give in, she endured, suffered, died but did not give in. And she serves as an example.
In the event it is the girls who organize, and they are the ones who teach. We always invite a mestra as a visitor to open up the event to the world at large. Men only have the right to take classes. You only have the right to clap, to answer the chorus.
We also talk about social issues like the Maria da Penha law, she is a woman who was badly beaten, mistreated by her husband. Looks like her husband has tried to kill her two or three times, and at the trial the guy gets off.
Her case was taken to the UN, the UN put pressure on Brazil and there came out this law Maria da Penha and today there is a women’s police station, they are angry. I do not want to fall into one of them!
So we talk about this domestic violence law, try to educate people about it. Because we have a lot of young students there, and their parents… we call a lot of people for this lecture.
Not many people come but we call a lot of parents, husbands, boyfriends, brothers, they have to be listening to this.
In Brazil it seems that every 5 or 10 minutes a woman is beaten or killed.
For the guys, for example, the woman separates from him and the guy sets fire to the house with the woman inside, he kills the woman and throws the children from the viaduct… goes to the work of the woman and unloads a revolver in her. It is a strong theme but we want to talk about it, wants to show that we are against it, and that everybody has to fight against it.
It’s a culture event too, my daughter Fabiana always gives a talk. We always try to connect this talk with themes from the history of Brazil linked with capoeira.
One such story was about Ansaia Cauaçu that she was a cangaceira (outlaw) who was not just any woman of the cangaço, she was THE cangaceira, she was the boss, she was the Lampião do Cangaço.
She defeated men with capoeira movements. It was an interesting subject. Each year we get a topic related to something that has to do with the history of Brazil, some link with capoeira, and some message of the appreciation of women.
Can you talk a little about Jongo?
I want one day to bring Mestre Zequinho here, who is the mestre of Jongo de Guará. Heir of Jongo’s ancestry.
Jongo is from the southeast region, beyond the Paraíba Valley, in Rio de Janeiro. Jongo is a cultural manifestation of African decent. It’s a party, it’s not religious. In the rare moments of free time that they had, that the black slaves were granted by their white masters, they danced Jongo. For example after a harvest they’d hold a Jongo party.
The Jongo from Rio has a certain difference from the Jongo of São Paulo in the way of dancing.
The singing too, how you take over the song. Because Jongo’s songs, for example, that’s a pretty difference, because it’s cool, it’s cultural.
For the Paraíba Valley, the Jongo Song is a water source. It springs, the song, it springs from the earth and it grows, becomes a stream and it is gaining tributaries, it is turning into a big river, and then, what is it that breaks the river, the “Cachoeira” (Waterfall).
For the people of Rio de Janeiro, it is a plant, it is a tree. Then it is born and grows, the Jongo song, so to bring down the tree: “Machado” (Axe). This is one of the differences.
It’s a dance where you do not touch, the partners do not touch each other. It has that respect because at that time there were lots of people dancing and the wife of one danced with the husband of the other, it was a thing of respect . It’s a respectful dance, a family party. Everyone there dancing without any hidden intentions.
Jongo has some very beautiful curiosities. For example, Jongo’s song has the challenge song that has many stories there in Guará. One person sings a line for another, and they have to respond. If you have no answer for me you are bound, and you do not participate in any other Jongo until you come up with an answer for me.
And that’s the “canto de demanda” (demand/challenge song) but not everyone can sing it.
Another interesting fact is that they used the singing to communicate.
For example, some women worked inside the big house, others worked outside the house and slept in the slave quarters. Some worked only in the cane field or in the coffee plantation.
For example, a woman heard that the master was going to take a trip. At that time the trips were long because they were on horseback, with wagon… she learned he’ll be away for a while. Then in the form of music she sang it, the guys outside got the idea, and passed on the news to the senzala.
Because she sang using imagery and metaphors, the masters did not understand anything. They sang of animals, of nature, of things that appeared to bear no relation. For example, “the fork will fly” – the master will leave, understood? “The animals can do what they want” – It was a time for them to plan an escape, things like that.
Another nice story from a Jongo song comes from the coffee plantations. Imagine a huge row of coffee, the coffee plantations were very large during the golden era of coffee in Brazil. The older people would stay by the last rows because they no longer had physical health to do the hard work.
A strong young man would stand close to him by the next tree. This young man first picked coffee from the tree of the older man who was resting, then some from his own tree.
When a guard on horseback came by they started to sing, so-and-so comes in the form of music, in a figurative sense. The elderly man would stand up and pretend to work. They would leave some beans there and he would pretend, the passing guard would look at his tree and see that he was working, because if he saw he wasn’t working he’d give him a beating.
It was a way of using the song to help the elderly who were no longer able to work. And even if he worked his hardest, he was going to get it. Jongo has all these peculiarities, right?
Mestre Zequinho always says, “Jongo is party“, the black people, he says have three groups: The”Povo da Cura“, mandingueiros, who did spiritual work and cured illnesses; The “Povo do Jongo” the entertainers, who made music and parties; and the “Povo da Capoeira” people who took care of these people when it was necessary to fight.
The Jongo is a very beautiful thing that we do there, I participate in the jongo, the quilombolas, I play drums, I dance, Mestre Zequinho’s daughter does capoeira there with me and who knows if one day we can bring the mestre here to Europe.
Finally, what would be your advice to someone at the beginning of their Capoeira journey?
Capoeira has grown a lot, right?
It grew in a way, like everything that grows rapidly, grew in a very disorderly way.
So I advise to seek reliable sources, right, for study, research, because a capoeirista is not made overnight.
It takes a capoeirista years to have the understanding of things, because capoeira is a fight, and also dance, right? In my point of view, capoeira is a great treasure. It is a great cultural heritage that the blacks left for us.
And many of these principles, concepts have already escaped our fingers, like a valuable powder, you have to close that hand as much as you can.
The advice is to look for reliable sources for study, for research, for training. Train in a place that you understand is good for you. And if you want to be a real capoeirista, you have to search, always search.
I’ve done Capoeira for 45 years. I train capoeira, I teach capoeira, and I’m sure I still have a lot to learn.
When I’m with the older masters I learn a lot. When I started capoeira, when I started to travel with capoeira, I always looked for that.
I was going to the events I did not leave, I was with the elders. I was not going to the parties, the forró, the gafieiras, I always looked more knowledge. I always had the thirst of wanting to know, of wanting to understand of wanting to look for more.
The advice that I give and this; if you want to be a good capoeirista, if you want to understand capoeira, understand the game, the songs, learn to play the instruments, you have to be always learning. And you have to have loyalty to your master, to your training buddies, to Capoeira itself.
Loyalty to me is a noble feeling, to be loyal to something. I am loyal to my dogs because I know they are faithful to me. If someone comes to attack me, I know they will defend me. So loyalty is one thing that is too important.
Always seek more knowledge, and be loyal to capoeira.