The Inner Circle - Pioneering Capoeira in the U.S. -- An Interview with Mestre Ombrinho

Pioneering Capoeira in the U.S. -- An Interview with Mestre Ombrinho

In June 1945, a boy named Norival Moreira do Oliveira was born in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.  It was a historical time—Germany had surrendered only weeks before; Little Boy, Fat Man, and Japan’s capitulation weren’t far off.  Brazil was caught in its own chaos—Getúlio Vargas was deposed in October 1945 and six months later a new constitution had been ratified, effectively remaking the government for third time in fifty years.  Norival Oliveira’s life, however, was dominated by capoeira.  Training capoeira in Salvador in the ‘50s and ‘60s was like playing basketball for the ’95 Chicago Bulls—the sport was dominated by superstar cast whose innovations defined an epoch.  Mestre Bimba’s Regional style had found its feet, Mestre Pastinha simultaneously opened his academy and cemented a phrase (“Capoeira Angola”), Mestre Waldemar still organized street rodas in Salvador, as did Mestres Pirró, Zeca, and Nilton.  Capoeira was already in its middle-age, but this time in Salvador was where capoeira’s modern form began to emerge. 

In 1965, Norival, more often known as Mestre Nô, opened his own academy.  Over the next several decades he proved to be just as prolific and influential as the mestres he’d trained under.  He founded numerous organizations and schools, served as president of the Associação Brasileira de Capoeira Angola (ABCA), and elevated hundreds of students to formado.  One of these students happened to be a young American who’d made his first trip to Brazil in 1985. Michael Goldstein had already dabbled in capoeira under Mestres Acordeon and Jelon—the first mestres to settle in the US—but his time in Brazil proved explosive.  He met and trained with a mishmash of teachers, sampling various styles and ideologies.  Ultimately Michael allied himself with Mestre Nô, preferring Capoeira Angola’s grounded, internal style over Regional or Contemporânea.  With the injection of time, dedication, and Mestre Nô’s direction, Michael became Mestre Ombrinho, the first American to receive the title of Mestre.  He now lives in New York City where he heads the New York Capoeira Center, under the group Capoeira Angola Quintal.

Mestre Nô, still going strong in Boco do Rio, Salvador 

In the United States, capoeira grows best on the coasts.  If a continental homeland does exist, NYC and LA are probably the dipole Meccas of the art.  There’s perhaps more capoeira in those two cities than in all of the Midwest combined.  Whether this barbelled concentration is because that’s where capoeira first started in the States (Mestre Jelon in NYC, Mestre Acordeon in Berkley) or simply because big cities facilitate big populations is speculation, but the upshot remains—there’s a lot of capoeira to be found in those two areas. 

In NYC, you could be forgiven for thinking that, because of capoeira’s comparatively large presence, the market is saturated.  I certainly did, and used this assumption to immediately begin on the wrong foot with Ombrinho.  He corrected me in what I came to realize is his typical demeanor: genial but direct.  “First of all there’s not a lot of capoeira schools.  There’s a lot of yoga schools. There’s probably one hundred yoga schools for every one capoeira school.  And there are a lot of people that don’t do capoeira, and if they found a capoeira that was accessible and related to their interests and needs there would be a huge following, lots of schools opening up.” 

What I think of as a nucleus of capoeira he sees as untapped potential.  Perhaps there are a lot of schools in NYC, but not nearly as many as the city could ultimately support.  “Most of the schools are not doing very well, is my guess, and it’s a struggle to keep it going and because of that the growth of new schools is not that rapid.  Of course compared to other cities and compared to twenty years ago, yeah.  But compared to what’s possible it’s very slow and not very populated.  So there’s really not many, contrary to everything that people see and say and think.  I tend to go against the grain and don’t see it that way.“

Ombrinho has gone straight to what I think most studio owners come to realize: in the US, you aren’t competing with other capoeira groups, you’re competing with yoga, or MMA, or gyms, or softball leagues, or after-school sports.  Capoeira is, to most Americans, just one recreational activity among many.  A group’s lineage is immaterial.  Not until they’re immersed do they come to see the peculiar political scene that pervades capoeira. 

Given all the above, Ombrinho uses several different methods to attract new students.  “Okay, well, we have a website that makes capoeira more accessible to people.  It’s still very exotic and it’s very challenging to explain capoeira to people that don’t do it.  And the traditional ways of promoting capoeira have been, for me, counterproductive.  And so we – the way we practice capoeira is based on the basic moves and not all these fancy permutations of newly-invented kicks and flips and all kinds of fancy stuff.  But the basics of capoeira actually really work, and so the basics are more acceptable to more people.”

Accessibility is a huge concern.  Ombrinho seems split—on one hand new students should be able to keep their heads above the water, but on the other capoeira is both more complex and more popular, globally-speaking, now than ever.  “I think the trend of many things, including capoeira, has been to get things – reinventing things and making things fancier and more complicated and, hmm, that may work in some ways but I feel that’s counterproductive to the art and also counterproductive to – well, maybe not counterproductive to the art, it’s up to people to figure that out.  I mean it’s certainly spread all over the world, capoeira, and maybe because it’s gotten so fancy and so complicated.  But the capoeira that I knew when I started was a lot more simple and, to me, a lot more effective.  And had provided a lot more, ah, space for people to stay in the art longer.  There’s more longevity in a capoeira that’s based on basic moves and not fancy acrobatics and based on speed and force.”

Mestre Ombrinho, at the pé do berimbau

Again and again throughout our interview, Ombrinho hastens to interject that he doesn’t consider himself the ultimate authority on running a school, despite teaching for nearly thirty years.  “So I think while [capoeira’s complexity] may attract some people – there’s a lot of people doing MMA…so I don’t have the answer, I don’t know.  But I find that, umm, yeah I don’t know.  I mean, as many people that do yoga, the people that do MMA, or kickboxing – I don’t have the answer.  I mean, that kind of advertising doesn’t appeal to me.  I think it’s based on simple, basic moves and everything is within those simple, basic moves.  But I don’t know.  People are trying all kinds of yoga so I don’t know what the answers are.”

Existential marketing crises aside, Ombrinho and his school clearly excel in one area: kids’ capoeira.  His kids program is enormous, probably one of the largest in the country (perhaps only rivaled by Mestre Rony’s unique after-school, proprietary bus system).  “We have a lot of kids.  We have over seventy children – each year it gets close to one hundred and then things peter out over the summer and it builds back up again.  We haven’t broken one hundred children, but we have close to, between seventy and eighty right now.”

He’s resistant to any magic-bullet explanations for his success, but graciously so.  “There’s so many things…so if it’s one thing.  We just – for kids we just make everything so much fun.  So much fun.  That the kids love doing all the exercises and all the work.  It’s really based on having fun with it but not doing recreational stuff.  You know funny silly games that are not capoeira.  You know for example like hitting the balloon with your head to practice headbutts—I’d rather practice headbutts.  We make the headbutts fun.  So I don’t feel that, umm, I always like to teach kids capoeira and not to do recreational stuff but making everything really fun and our teachers are just—you know, they pick that up from me and I feel that that’s the best way to learn.  If you’re enjoying it and having fun.”

Of course, he’s had a long time to test and distill his methods.  It’s clear that the success of his kids program is the result of continual, conscious evolution.  “Well, I think everything’s gotten refined.  We’ve been able to grow the school for many, many other reasons.  All of those reasons have been there since the beginning but things have shifted and changed and gotten stronger and more effective so what worked in the beginning we’re still working with, but we’ve identified it and codified it and teach it to make sure our teachers address it in that way too.  So the other teachers that are also helping they’ve also gotten – we have teacher training where teachers are getting trained by me and watched over by me and um that’s the way that we keep things growing.  So I wouldn’t say it’s like us all of a sudden doing one thing we didn’t do but it’s identifying it and really making sure it happens every day.  There’s so many things that we do, so many things.  It would be like one hundred and one things and then another day I would come up with another hundred.” 

It's important for the kids to see their own improvement, to receive some external recognition of their work.  To that end, Ombrinho uses different cords for the kids and the adults, and holds kids-exclusive batizados.  “We do two a year.  And we have our own cord system, finally, that works so that if a kid started when they were 3-years-old and they graduate twice a year there’s going to be a lot of cords for them to go through before they get to the adult cords when they’re say 16.  And I’ll tell you, it’s wonderful because the cords—the kids instantly get it.  I can’t imagine anyone coming up with a more effective and clear cord system.  It took me a long time to kind of get that.  Everybody has cord systems based on, like, new systems from Brazil and to me they’re just so complicated.  Who wears what anymore?  But our cord system’s based on the light to dark…so it works.  I mean these are just the kids, the adults have the Brazilian system.  But the kids have a system that’s just really easy for the kids to understand and that’s what counts.”

As we talked, it became more and more evident that Ombrinho has an independent streak.  His development of the kids program, his reluctance to follow the modern trend of elaborating the game—his autonomic manner shines through the different ways he approaches capoeira.  Speaking of contrasting examples of schools or styles, he is never disrespectful, but self-assured, as if to say, “Hmm, that’s how you’re doing it?  Interesting.  I’ll do it this way.”  But there’s a subtle distinction between Ombrinho’s brand of confidence and outright arrogance.  His self-possession seems to stem not from ego but from his thoughtful, methodical approach to what it means practice capoeira.  It’s good quality for any capoeirista, but particularly for a mestre who runs his own academy.  As the gods of commerce command us, innovate or die.

The classic natural-formations-queda-de-rins photo

Mestre Ombrinho and I turn away from his kids program to his troupe.  For all its historical emphasis on secrecy, capoeira has a long tradition of being spectator-friendly.  Given that it’s such a difficult sport to describe—especially to non-Brazilians—a demo or show is often the most direct explanation.  And in the collated, unwritten rules of the art, demonstrations pull double-duty as communication and advertising.  What better way to attract new students than to show them the vibrancy of a roda and then capitalize on their amazement—you can do this too!  Acting on this commonly-held knowledge, Mestre Ombrinho started a performance troupe many years ago.

However, he’s since broken ranks.  The shows’ impact has been negligible.   Asked if they’ve helped, he says, “Not at all.  Not at all.  I thought – I created the troupe so that people would be running to the studio and it was just unbelievable to me how nobody ever showed up from a show.  And I’m talking over 1000 shows in the NYC area and no one’s ever come here with free fliers and all that promotional stuff.  It just never got us a single kid.  Nothing, nothing.  It was all just unexpectedly not what one thought would happen.  Capoeiristas do rodas in cities and at the markets and festival days, and give out fliers and then nobody shows.  So that makes me think, well what is it about capoeira that doesn’t attract – it’s not attracting people.  Because people stand around and watch it.  It’s a mystery to me.  That’ll be a hard egg to crack.”

So Ombrinho’s turned to other methods.  “Well there are three things.  I feel we have a great website with great content.  It comes up first in the search engine and I feel it’s very user-friendly.  And we also have wonderful word of mouth, more so with the parents…the parents just rave about it.”

And he works extremely hard on first impressions.  It’s not enough to teach a good class and expect newcomers to come back, he maintains, you have to knock it out of the park.  “When you do a bad class do people come back?  No.  But if you do a good class do they come back?  No, they don’t come back.  And if you do an awesome, awe-inspiring class do they come back?  Maybe.  That’s the funny thing.  If you give a good class – oh wow that was great, yeah I loved it wow – they don’t come back.  You do an awesome class, maybe they’ll come back.  That’s a real interesting thing.”

A Capoeira Angola Quintal event

Like any successful teacher, his focus is on his students.  Most established capoeira instructors I talk with give off an air of depth, like a scientist who’s used to testing and retesting before drawing a conclusion.  Ombrinho is no different; whether talking on the phone or teaching a workshop, he gives the impression of diligently-assembled knowledge.  “There’s so many things that a student needs: a great workout but nothing that’s going to hurt their bodies like a lot of high-impact or always doing things fast, you know it’s different if you’re living in Brazil and you’re playing soccer every day.  And here people sit all day and then they have to go to capoeira class and they’re going to ruin their back and their knees and their shoulders by overdoing it.  It’s different here teaching capoeira here than it is teaching in Brazil.  You can get great results here but I think it’s a different path.  Not to water it down at all, in fact, you gotta work extra hard here to get to the level of people in Brazil because they’re practicing every day for hours a lot.  I think there’s a lot of teachers that just kinda come to class and just kinda wing it because they’re really good at winging it and that’s the nature of capoeira a lot, and it draws a lot of people to it not planning classes and just kinda doing whatever because they’re the teacher.  And you just do what I give you.  But in the long run it just becomes confusing for the student, and I think things need to be well thought out for the long term, and that’s not something that comes naturally to most people.  Thinking, you know, year by year curriculum, what really works, so a lot of teachers get stuck in patterns that go against a growing school.“

His advice to other instructors is along the same lines.  Success in small doses leads to success in larger ones.  “You know, keep your space clean.  Don’t spend time in class talking about stuff, you know, have it that people work during that time and have another time to explain basic stuff.  Sometimes your teachers like to hear themselves speak.  They’re not motivational speakers.  They’re capoeiristas, so they need to practice and inspire people to practice.  Explanation can come another time, more explanation another time.  I see so many things that teachers do that I don’t feel are really keeping their students there.  You know, they do things that people leave feeling sad or upset or uninspired or like they’re not getting better.”

At this point in the interview he tells me we have to wrap it up so he can make it to a meeting.   I’m hunched in my desk chair, phone in one hand and pen in the other, trying to keep half my brain on his current words while the other half jots down notes on his past ones.  Glancing at the time I can see that this has been the shortest phone interview yet, but it feels particularly dense.  My notes spill out onto multiple pages, frantic speed leaving them just about illegible (“students careful of lozenges”, one line apparently reads).  I finish with what has become my standard final question—what’s the one thing you believe is necessary to be successful in the long run?  There’s a very long pause on the phone, and I hang there in expectant silence, pen still scratching anxiously. 

Finally he says, “Integrity.  Integrity in your personal practice and integrity in your teaching.  But primarily integrity in your personal practice.  If you are a student always, if you’re learning always, if you’re practicing always to get better at everything.  And integrity in teaching.  And that’s huge.  Start on time, end on time, you know, plan your lessons don’t just come in and do what your teachers did or whatever.  Plan your lessons and be fair to all your students, don’t favor the fast, agile ones.  You know, that’s just integrity.  It just goes on and on.”

Mestre Ombrinho in the roda

In my opinion, American capoeiristas share a collective inferiority complex.  We all know that we’re practicing a foreign art, with a foreign history, in a foreign language.  Unlike a homegrown sport, e.g. baseball or basketball, there’s an extra remove between the self and the practice.  Because capoeira grew out of a different culture, we can’t settle in completely.  If a friend asked you to housesit for a few years, you would come to know that house very, very well, but it would never feel like your house.  Most conversations I have with my fellow Americans in capoeira (American ex-ca-pats?) reveal, in one way or another, our sensitivity to this fact.  Especially because the shape of capoeira is informed by (Brazilian) history and politics and persecution and cultural touchstones, none of which we’re born into, we can speak with authority but not a mandate.  A Brazilian training capoeira has a kind of manifest destiny on his side; an American training capoeira has a whiff of the tourist about him.

But there a few people who’ve opted out of the inferiority complex.  It’s rare, but it happens.  I can count on one hand the American capoeiristas I know who are at home not just practicing, but unapologetically innovating.  Who have come to trust their own judgement and sense of what fits in capoeira as much (or more) than any vaunted Brazilian masters.  For whatever reason, they are comfortable eschewing politics and grabbing capoeira by the throat and saying, “This is what I think capoeira is.”  These people all share an unselfconsciousness: they’re aware how the rules are supposed to be made, but they act without relying on top-down approval.

Mestre Ombrinho counts as one of these.  Not to say that he’s thumbing his nose at Brazilian traditions—quite the opposite, he’s full of obvious warmth for his master, Mestre Nô, and palpable affection for the Angola style.  I’ve never gotten the impression that he’s dismissive of other mestres.  But speaking with him, I’m left with a distinct impression of a man at home, aplomb.  His answers to my questions are thoughtful and direct; there is consideration but not hesitation.  Even when admitting he doesn’t have the answer, he’s clear and self-confident.  There’s a certain directness to his manner that hints at a conspicuous lack of anxiety about his place in capoeira or his methods in running a school.  And maybe that solid footing is simply the product of time—someone with 35+ years in capoeira can admit to himself that he does know a little something about playing in the roda.  But to thrive and develop and test and innovate in a sport that has had such a small footprint in the States speaks, I think, to something beyond accumulated experience.  Like inferring that large footprints were left by someone with large feet, we can infer Ombrinho’s rare character in American capoeira by the fact that his name is preceded by “Mestre.”  It’s not a gift of authority, it’s a recognition of his determination, thoughtfulness, creativity, and fortitude.               


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