Um Berimbau e Dois Pandeiros


A Tribute to Mestre Bimba

I received this question in a recent e-mail and I will address it before leaving to Brazil tomorrow at 6 AM.

Question: Why you do not teach in the same way that Mestre Bimba used to teach and why you do not record singing like him?

In fact, TODAY I have just finished the mixing of a new CD, “Um Berimbau e Dois Pandeiros”, an homage to the distinctively simple, powerful style of Mestre Bimba. The path to this new CD, and my relationship to my old mestre, is not straight and narrow. Let me begin with an analogy.

My fascination with the berimbau began about 40 years ago. I don’t recall how it happened but, suddenly, the berimbau became part of my daily life. Some time later, I felt unhappy with the construction of the berimbau and, not sure about just one gourd, I tried to make a berimbau with two of them. Then, not satisfied with the bow tightened by just one steel wire, I tried three strings instead. Finally, suspicious of the simple manila string holding the steel wire taut, I tried the precision of violin pegs and guitar keys, finally ending up with a custom-made tune cone crafted by Mr. Ariosto—a lathe master with a shop near where Gigante used to make atabaques for the afoxé , Filhos de Gandhi. Years passed, and after many complicated attempts to improve the berimbau, I returned to the original: a bow of beriba wood in its simple elegance.

I have a funny feeling that a similar experience happened with my capoeira. Years ago, I began to feel uneasy about the training at Mestre Bimba’s school. I started analyzing the classes, the practice of the sequencias, and the kind of jogos we played. I pursued this with extreme diligence, recording the exact number of times we trained each movement in class. I proceeded to create a new method of training—a kind of a berimbau with three strings and two gourds. Much later, I realized my foolishness was transforming the training system in a pale imitation of Tae Kwon Do, producing an aesthetic very different from what I’d learned at the Centro de Cultura Fisica Regional, the school of Mestre Bimba. This realization stunned me. From that point on, I was careful not to indulge myself in ideas of embellishing, improving, or making capoeira “more efficient” or “more modern.” Similarly, I have restrained myself from forcing capoeira into a “more traditional” and politically correct African-Brazilian art form.

In my capoeira journey, I have often been asked why I do not teach in the same way as my master. I always answer that I do not have the charisma of Mestre Bimba, much less his capacity for teaching in a markedly characteristic way. Frankly, I think I was inhibited about teaching “Capoeira Regional” while its creator was still alive. And, like his contemporaries, Bimba did not ask his graduates to teach capoeira in his name, or that they create affiliated schools identified by colorful logos. In his evocative style of teaching, Bimba inspired my own attempt to develop new approaches and postures of teaching. This initiative proved essential to my personal development, both in the capoeiragem and in real life. Yet I have never ceased to draw on the joyful, challenging ways of Mestre Bimba’s teaching. Recently, I have been emphasizing his “primitive” and powerful capoeira which, interestingly, generates a sophisticated sparseness of contemporaneity. More and more, I have found myself using the rhythm of São Bento Grande de Regional played by just one berimbau and two pandeiros for the entirety of a two-hour class. As it turns out, this toque de berimbau is crucial for helping students learn a proper cadence for the ginga.

A few days ago I was ready to record a new CD with my students. Just before the session, I dropped my favorite gourd, knocking a big piece out of its belly that needed to be glued back. It now has a long circular scar in its old body, giving it more dignity and character. Yet I considered the accident a bad sign and postponed the recording to another day. This CD will be my 10th musical recording, not counting DVDs, soundtracks, and other projects in which I have used the berimbau. In several of these recordings, I’ve hinted at Bimba’s Regional music without entirely pleasing my friends who’ve asked for a full recording in Mestre Bimba’s style. In fact, I do not consider myself—or anyone—competent to record such a CD exclusively in the way of the Mestre because I witnessed at close quarters the extraordinary force he was able to generate. In addition, his own masterpiece, Curso de Capoeira Regional—recorded in the sixties—constituted a historic moment in capoeira, consecrating Bimba as a consummate vocalist and musician. So I will not be the one to try to imitate him!

But I’ve decided to ginga a little bit in this roda. As I rediscovered the wisdom of Bimba as a mestre de capoeira, and as I rediscovered the sonority and purity of the berimbau’s popular shape, so have I reencountered the incomparable power of Mestre Bimba’s music after nearly half a century. In tribute, Um Berimbau e Dois Pandeiros will feature just one berimbau, two pandeiros, and vocals in the unique manner of the true Capoeira Regional: the Capoeira of Bimba.

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