I would like to introduce you to a very special human being. This is the legendary Mestre Joao Grande.
For over 60 years, João Oliveira dos Santos, better known as Mestre João Grande, has been dedicated to preserving the art and science of capoeira angola, and spreading it all over the world.
He is a Grão-Mestre (Great Master) of the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira angola. He was a student of the “father of Angola”, Mestre Pastinha, and has an academy in New York City.
Mestre João Grande was born January 15, 1933, in the village of Itagi in the south of the Brazilian state of Bahia. As a child he worked alongside his family in the fields. At the age of 10 he saw a capoeira movement called “CORTA CAPIM” for the first time.
Fascinated, he asked what it was called and was told that it was “the Dance of the Nagos” — a dance of the African descendants in the city of Salvador. The Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria had a major cultural influence in Salvador, which was considered the Black Rome of Brazil. But the dance was actually of Central African origin— it was Capoeira. João didn’t learn the correct name of the movement until many years later, but it changed his life forever. At the age of ten he left home in search of “the Dance of the Nagos”
Ten years later, he ended up in the city of Salvador, the mecca of capoeira as we know it, where he saw a proper capoeira roda for the first time, at a place called Roca do Lobo. Present were mestres Menino Gordo, João Pequeno, who was there with his first teacher, Mestre Barbosa, and Cobrinha Verde, one of the most skillful players of that era.
João Grande asked Mestre Barbosa if he could study and Mestre Barbosa sent him to João Pequeno, who later became his closest associate in capoeira.
Anyway, João Pequeno sent him to Mestre Pastinha who had a famous academy in the Cardeal Pequeno neighborhood of Brotas. João Grande requested permission to join his academy, and Pastinha accepted João as a student at the age of twenty, relatively late in capoeira life. (Well, maybe not that late; I was in my late 30’s when I actually started learning). While studying with mestre pastinha, João Grande worked as a longshoreman, playing after work or on his few days off.
Mestre João Grande eventually became such an acclaimed capoeirista that when Carybé, a painter famous for his documentation of African Culture in Bahia, chose to do studies of capoeira he chose João Grande as a model.
João Grande and João Pequeno are featured in numerous films of capoeira including one in which they demonstrate the knife techniques of the art…
In 1966 João Grande travelled to Senegal with Mestre Pastinha to demonstrate capoeira at the first World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar.
He was awarded his Diploma of capoeira from Pastinha in 1968 making him a full-fledged master of capoeira Angola. He subsequently toured Europe and the Middle East with Viva Bahia, a pioneering group that performed Afro-Brazilian folk arts such as CAPOEIRA, SAMBA, MACULELE, CANDOMBLE, and PUXADA DE REDE
Eventually, Pastinha’s academy fell on hard times. Pastinha, was asked by the government to vacate his building for renovations, but the space was never returned to him. Instead it became a restaurant with entertainment, now called SENAC. Pastinha died broke and bitter about his treatment, but never regretted living the life of a capoeirista. Around this time, Joao Grande retired from teaching Capoeira. He worked at a gas station, and at night, he worked in a folkloric show for tourists. He performed as a musician & dancer, but he didn’t play capoeira.
João Grande started teaching again when one of his top students, MESTRE MORAES, and HIS top student, MESTRE COBRA MANSA, persuaded him to come out of retirement in the mid-1980s. He began to teach with their organization Grupo Capoeira Angola Pelourinho (GCAP).
In 1989 he was invited by Mestre JELON VIEIRA to tour the United States. The tour was a tremendous success, and in 1990, he returned to present capoeira at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia and at the Schomberg Center for Research for Black Culture in New York City.
João Grande decided he liked the US and has been teaching in New York City ever since, at the Capoeira Angola Center.
In 1995 he received a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Upsala College, East Orange, New Jersey. In 2001 he was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA, which is one of the most prestigious awards given to practitioners of traditional arts in the US. He has also recorded an audio CD and several DVD’s featuring himself and his students, as well as other illustrious figures of capoeira Angola.
Now there are a few capoeira DOCUMENTARIES and videos that I’ve seen that feature Joao Grande, and this is one of my favorites…
For almost 30 years now, Mestre Joao Grande has been in New York, teaching this sacred art to all who wants to learn it, and he’s still going on strong. Here’s a video of him receiving an award at the white house…
And it is this dedication, this passion, which has inspired Capoeiristas from all styles, and all over the world that makes Joao Grande the greatest capoeirista alive.
Mestre Joao Grande,
Muito Obrigado Por Tudo… From the bottom of our hearts.
If you would like to know more about Mestre Joao Grande and his academy, please go to his web site www.joaogrande.org
Oh. and just in case any of y’all are wondering… He’s still got it.