We had a visit the other day from Mestre Toni Vargas. He's a mestre that I had always heard a lot about. I bumped into him and Contra-Mestre Casquinha coming into the lift at Covent Garden. Mestre Toni looked hard, a bit like a pirate with his beard and I know he loves headscarves so that completed the look for me. I thought he might be slightly unapproachable with that pirate look.
An hour or so later, at the end of a very unique class, the Mestre sat us down and shared with us a little capoeira history. His story related to an important period - the development of urban capoeira during Brazil's 19th and early 20th centuries and the fact that this ocurred in three seperate metropolitan centres:-
Rio de Janeiro
In the first two cities - Rio & Recife, capoeira at the time was very violent. In Rio armed gangs called maltas ruled the streets. Gang members themselves, known as malandros (tough guys) were infamous for using capoeira as personal weapon, they were described as being skilled with clubs and knives a far cry from today's capoeira.
In Recife the situation was similar, when Carnival came along armed capoeiristas would head rival Carnival processions and mayhem ensued wherever they encountered each other. Eventually weapons were banned in Recife carnival and that's when people started carrying miniature pointy metal umbrellas and doing each other injustice with these. Eventually this evolved into a seperate art called Frevo.
Newspaper clippings abound of capoeiristas of this time. Notorious hard nuts who stabbed and slashed, cut and bullied, sometimes escaping without sentence due to political connections. Who knows about the truth of such reportage. Brazilian newspapers served the interest of the white political elite at the time, they were determined to stamp out anything even slightly African or lower class. Nevertheless capoeiristas such as Manduca de Praia of Rio and Nascimento Grande of Recife entered capoeira legend, famed for their physical prowess.
Mestre Toni Vargas did not expound everything at this length. These are my additions to his story - for his tale was quite simple. After summarising the historical facts, he told us that where capoeira was the dominion of brutal street fighters it was almost wiped out completely by continued state oppression. However, in Bahia, where capoeira had evolved, or remained, as a game among friends, full of ritual, of music and poetry and magic - capoeira survived oppression.
The no longer pirate seeming Mestre Toni Vargas declared his point - the survival of capoeira proves that music, poetry, ritual and magic overcome violence and oppression.
I was soundly struck by capoeira's magic at that very moment. And of Mestre Toni Vargas as one of the special breed of magicians that I am so lucky to have encountered in my life. His other point was declared the day after from my aching body - art has it's price.