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Day 33: Salvador

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Mestre Boa Gente, king of capoeira, with the berimbau, the instru- ment they fight to.
Michael Palin - BrazilDiscussing 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.
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Highland dancing seems to go down well with his class at the Capoeira Academy.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 33: Salvador
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Salvador
  • Book page no: 142

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