ED GORDON, host:

The black Brazilian martial art, called capoeira, is mix of music, dance, and ritualized combat. Enslaved Africans brought the roots of this art form to South America in the 1600's. Capoeira grew and developed in Brazil, but was eventually outlawed. Today, it thrives there and around the world.

It's preserved especially by the highest ranking artist--the mestres, or masters. NPR's Christopher Johnson profiles one master who has been practicing and protecting the art form for more than half a century.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON reporting:

Capoeira masters are, above most other things, attentive to detail. On a Friday night at the Capoeira Angola Center in Los Angeles, Mestre Joao Grande is inspecting his beating bow, capoeira's core instrument.

Mr. JOAO GRANDE: (Capoeira Master): (Foreign language spoken)

JOHNSON: Made of a broom stick long wooden pole, the beating bow is strung like a bow, with an open dried gore tied to one end. Joao Grande taps his with a short stick, testing the instrument like a maestro warming up to a grand piano.

(Soundbite of music)

JOHNSON: Sitting alone with his instrument, Mestre Joao Grande has got the even tempered intensity of someone who has been studying a single difficult thing for a very long time. 58 years, in fact. He's one of the only two men alive chosen to head the elite academy of capoeira's late grand master, Pasgenia(ph). Mestre Pasgenia insisted that students, or capoeiristas, know more than a series of movements.

Joao Grande is also an expert in capoeira's massive song book, and plays all of the instruments. He's also well versed in the roots of his art.

Mr. GRANDE: (Through Translator) Everything is from Africa, Everything--everything we play, all the instruments. Nothing's from Brazil. Capoeira came to Brazil. It developed in Brazil, but its origin is African, from Angola, Muslim [unintelligible], Congo, from all over Africa.

JOHNSON: In Brazil, Africans adapted a series of old dance and fight techniques into capoeira, a multi-purpose martial art. The movements were used as recreational combat among Blacks. Capoeira was also adapted to fight slave masters. Until the early 1900's, it was illegal. Joao Grande often acknowledges the mestres who continue to teach capoeira in secret. And the 78-year-old master remembers what first drew him to the art.

Mr. GRANDE: (Through Translator) Because God say, you are a capoeirista. Before I was born, my mommy had a dream of a man telling her, your son is going to be a capoeirista. I was born for capoeira.

JOHNSON: In Portuguese, Joao Grande means, big John. He was born Joao Aliviera Dusantu(ph). He was just ten when Joao Grande saw two men doing something they called the Dance of the Nagos, one of capoeira's African predecessors. Fascinated, Joao Grand set out on foot to Salvador D'bayia(ph), Brazil's black metropolis, to learn the dance himself.

When Joao Grande walked into Salvador in 1915, he was a teenager, and the city was a capoeira heaven. He split his time between a taxing long shoreman job, and training at Mestre Pasgenia's Capoeira Academy. Classic video footage depicts Joao Grande and follow student Joao Pequeno(ph) in a gymnastic, sinewy trade of attack and defense capoeira moves. The two lean, muscular young men danced methodically around each other. One sweeps a long straight leg over the head of his crouched opponent. Joao Grande and Joao Pequeno flow seamlessly from headstands, to cartwheels, to backbends, to mule kicks, all in a close physical dialogue between two friends.

(Soundbite if music)

JOHNSON: Under Pasgenia, Joao Grande ascended from student to master. The title is dubious, really, because in Pasgenia's school, there was no major ceremony that actually made Joao Grande a master.

Mr. GRANDE: (Through Translator) It's not a piece of paper that turns you into a mestre. Paper doesn't prove anything. In our capoeira, titles don't matter. They were never important.

JOHNSON: In the mid to late 60's, Joao Grande, Pasgenia, and other capoeiristas performed around the world. But the art suffered in Salvador. The local government asked Pasgenia, who was ailing and nearly blind, to vacate his academy for renovations. But Pasgenia never got back his school, which was converted into a restaurant. Joao Grande saw the teacher he loved die heartbroken, a reminder of how difficult a life devoted to capoeira can be. Joao Grande quit the art, and took up odd jobs around Salvador.

Then, in the mid 80's, two capoeira masters urged him out of retirement. By then, capoeira was spreading across the U.S., and Joao Grande taught throughout the country. He now runs a school in New York City, where he lives. Five years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Mestre Joao Grande the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship.

Capoeiristas visit steadily from cities across the map, sit at his feet, and call him simply, mestre. Joao Grand appreciates his students and the honors he has received, but he still has little use for the master title.

Mr. OMA ADE (Founder, Capoeira Angola Center): He's recognized all over the world. He knows it, you know. But when you meet him, he doesn't say, I'm mestre. He says, hi, my name is John.

JOHNSON: Omo Ade founded L.A.'s Capoeira Angola Center, and is the chief instructor there. He studied closely with Joao Grande, who is something like a patriarch to centers in the U.S. and Brazil. Ade still marvels at what he calls his teacher's majinga(ph), or supernatural skill, when the master is at work.

Mr. ADE: It's not just a physical thing. It's a very intellectual game. He knows what you're going to do before you know what you're doing. He really plays like a game of chess. He sets things up; it's beautiful; It's just beautiful to watch.

JOHNSON: The Capoeira Angola Center is on quiet suburban block, in a row of anonymous apartment buildings. It's mixed among houses, schools, and churches, all situated near Crenshaw and Lamer Park, two of L.A.'s oldest black neighborhoods.

Inside the center, capoeiristas are gathering for an annual conference honoring the art. They're wearing all white, or yellow and black; T-shirts are tucked in neatly with the names of capoeira schools in places like L.A., Texas, and Salvador written proudly across the chest. They sit together in a circle, knees tucked under their chin, like scouts around a campfire. And, at the top of the ring where the storyteller might be, half a dozen capoeiristas press together across a bench, holding various instruments.

There's a single, small, empty space between them. Mestre Joao Grande limps over slowly. Like a king at the start of a chess match, he is seated right in the middle. He leans his sturdy square frame back, and taps his beating bow. The others fall in.

(Soundbite of music)

JOHNSON: Joao Grande begins to sing in a tradition that is likely as old as capoeira itself, the latiania(ph), or litany. The latiania is the epitome of a capoeirista's respect, devotion, and humility, expressed through music.

(Soundbite of music)

JOHNSON: My God is great, Joao Grande is saying. God is great, and I am small. The others listen, some with their eyes closed and heads nodding. The theme continues. In the circle of capoeira, the lyrics go, I am very small.

(Soundbite of music)

JOHNSON: Long live my God. Long live my master. Long live everyone's masters, and long live the great capoeiristas. Then, the mestre gives an approving nod, and two students crouching his feet enter the circle, and begin to play capoeira. Joao Grande observes the exchange from under his thick, bushy brows. He's looking with the same eyes that were first enchanted by capoeira in a Brazilian country town, more than half a century ago.

The elder mestre watches and smiles like a young man in the most innocent kind of love. His student, Omo Ade, knows why.

Mr. ADE: Because he found the fountain of youth, him and Mestre Pequeno. Mestre Pequeno, in his 80's, is still doing cartwheels. People are looking for the fountain of youth, but these two individuals certainly have found it. They found it in an art that they love doing, and they want to continue the legacy of the person that taught the art to them.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GRANDE: (Through Translator) I'm very happy, and I'm very satisfied. I want to show a beautiful capoeira, and I want to do something good to my students. Then they pass the experience around. But I think capoeira is good for your body, it's good for everything. It's our life.

JOHNSON: Christopher Johnson, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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