The Voice of Vale das Pedrinhas
The Vale das Pedrinhas, the ‘Valley of Small Stones’, is an appropriate name, perhaps, for one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Salvador. It’s an untidy mess of buildings in various stages of construction, stacked together in narrow streets at the bottom of a hill. In a rooftop room on one of the grander houses, I’m being introduced to something Bahia has given to the rest of Brazil, to South America, and to the world. It’s another legacy of the African connection, a fighting style developed by slaves in self-defence, now reborn as a dance of fast, swirling intensity that has become the second-biggest participation sport in Salvador. It’s called capoeira. If you’re very good at it you become a Master, or Mestre, and the trim sixty-six-year-old who is taking today’s class is very good at it. Mestre Boa Gente was born south of Salvador at a town called Ilhéus, where he first saw Angolan-style capoeira being practised. He came to Salvador, took up wrestling in the school of the Brazilian champion, the Black Leopard, and at the age of eighteen became wrestling champion of Bahia. He eventually gave up the wrestling and now runs his own Capoeira Academy.
Despite being in his mid-sixties, he has remained taut and fit and can still do the moves fluently. The respect on the faces of his pupils today, from young ones of five or six to men in their twenties, is unequivocal. And that’s important to him. He’s been living and working in this favela for many years now and knows the importance of order and discipline in lives all too often lacking either. Every- one in the class is dressed in clean white T-shirts and well-pressed trousers. No one looks poor. No one looks rich. First off, the Mestre takes the youngest ones, both girls and boys, and prowls, lithe as a tiger, talking gently but persuasively as he does so, asking them questions and smiling reassuringly as they give their answers. His aim is to get them loose and relaxed. He encourages them to imitate the movement of animals, alert and wary.
On the walls of this rooftop space are trophies he and his school have won, and a poster of a capoeira high-kick with the caption, in English, ‘A dance-like fight, a fight-like dance. A song. A way of life.’
Mestre Boa Gente is now ready for some capoeira moves. He takes up his berimbau, a gawky-looking instrument comprising a curved bamboo bow just over a metre long with a gourd attached at one end, which acts as the sound box. It has one wire, recycled from the lining of reinforced tyres, a stone which acts as a bridge and a thin stick with which to produce the sound from the wire. At the same time he clasps in one hand a small basket of beads which he shakes as he plays. One of his helpers taps away at a tom-tom, and the children begin the dance moves. It’s one to one and the idea is to be as aggressive as possible without making contact. Hitting each other would be easy, but it’s not hitting each other that makes capoeira such a skill. Later in the afternoon the Mestre has laid on a public display by his best Academicians but for now he dismisses the children, climbs back down into his house on a precarious ladder with one rung missing, and crosses the street to his day job, as a presenter for Vale das Pedrinhas Radio.
‘A Voz do Vale das Pedrinhas’ – ‘The Voice of Vale das Pedrinhas’ – is housed in a small, white building with a wooden shutter on the front which opens upwards as in an old cricket score box. The Mestre, who has travelled the world with his capoeira school, invites me on his show as a visiting celebrity. The audience, as far as I can tell, is confined to this favela – indeed largely consists of those within direct earshot of the building we’re in. I can hear my voice booming out into the hot and dusty streets below. This is fine when we’re talking about Elvis and world peace but is a little alarming when the Mestre turns serious.
‘Michael Palin, you have travelled all over the world. You are a famous man. What do you think of gay marriage?’
This is so out of left field that for a moment my lower jaw goes into free-fall. As I phrase my reply I think of whom I shall offend most, Catholics or Brazilian-Africans of a superstitious bent to whom homosexuality is an abomination. I hear myself clear my throat and then launch into my reply. The Mestre, to his credit, shows neither shock nor approval as I speak of love being the important thing between human beings, and if the two human beings involved are both men, well, there’s nothing wrong with that. The Mestre nods, and I feel to my relief that I’ve got away with it. Now can we please talk about Elvis again?
‘And abortion?’ Is it me or is it suddenly very hot in this little studio? Again I express the classic liberal position and can sense his disappointment. Reasonableness is the last thing he wanted. So un-Brazilian. But the Mestre is moving on, flicking down his computer screen, and I’ve never been so happy for an ad break.
Discussing this afterwards with our Brazilian translator Dulce, I likened what I’d been through to verbal capoeira. But she assures me that there was no aggressive intent. This is the way Brazilians are. They will leap from Elvis to gay marriage because they’re plain-speaking people. And apparently gay marriage and reform of the abortion law are two very hot topics in Brazil at the moment.
Mestre Boa Gente is irrepressible. No sooner has he finished his afternoon show than he is out on the streets mobilizing the participants for the evening’s capoeira fest. It’s still hot and I can understand that, without someone like the Mestre to galvanize people, inertia and apathy could easily claim the day. As it is, it takes him a while to get people together. His students from this morning, free from the hawk-eyed discipline of the class, are much less obedient. The older brethren take time to gather. A few women stand looking on, unimpressed. And when the procession is finally assembled, and the berimbaus are raised and the drums start to beat, no one seems to notice the large, neatly dressed, elderly man who lies asleep in the gutter, legs outstretched, a ring of keys in the crook of his arm.
For all this, there’s a relaxed feeling to the crowd as it moves slowly down the street to an open area a few hundred metres away, with shops and houses on three sides and a very smelly creek on the fourth. They spread out around a cracked concrete circle on which the performance will take place. Boa Gente, always aware of including everyone in the community, starts with the children, who show their skills, before gradually narrowing down the capoeiristas until you have only the smartest and the fastest in there, weaving, circling, feinting, teasing, swinging, kicking, turning and swinging away as the remorseless thudding of the tom-toms and the hypnotic skirl of the three berimbaus plays them on. People come out onto their balconies or appear on top of half-built breeze-block walls to watch what’s going on. A man, quite unconcerned, pushes a wheelbarrow with an air-con unit, two women walk by with babies. A freshly shorn customer comes out of the Barbearia Ebenezer and stops briefly before walking back up the street.
Inside the circle the tempo rises. Mestre leads chants, cracks jokes and urges on the dancers. One of the older men, missing most of his teeth and unsteady with drink a little earlier, is transformed into a whirling dervish once in the ring. He taunts his opponent with tumbles and cartwheels and fierce flicks, all at dazzling speed, at one point appearing to spin round on a single buttock. Two tall and unbelievably agile younger men stalk each other deliberately slowly, their arms and legs moving as if in slow motion. The crowd love it, clapping and cheering them on until they break loose into a whirr of flailing limbs. And still they don’t touch each other.
Then there is dancing in which everybody joins, including me. The shanty buildings around, the roar of a nearby highway and the smell of the stagnant stream are all forgotten. And in the middle of it all is the shining, sweating white-toothed-grinning Mestre. His work is known across Brazil and in many other countries. In his worldwide advocacy of capoeira as a teaching tool for children, he has lectured in Europe, the US and Australia. Yet home for the remarkable Mestre Boa Gente remains the Valley of Small Stones.