Interview with Mestre Pedro from Grupo Senzala – English Translation

Mestre Pedro – Grupo Senzala


Mestre Pedro, a native of Rio de Janeiro, has been living outside of Brazil for more than 18 years now.

Today he not only has a large group in Scotland, in the city of Edinburgh where he now lives, but also in other cities of England, in Bali, in Iran … all over the world!

Son of one of the founders of the Senzala group, he has always explored the more social and inclusive side of capoeira, developing projects against the odds with refugees and in war zones.

We invite you to learn a little more with our exclusive interview!

How and when did you arrive in capoeira?

I don’t know for sure, because I kind of was born in capoeira, right? My father is Mestre Gato, one of the founders of the Senzala group!

I started training when I was about 7 years old, it was when I remember that I was going to type twice a week, but before that…

My father he never lived from capoeira, he was never financially dependent on capoeira, he had his day job, but in his spare time he was extremely devoted to capoeira.

So from then, I think there are some pictures of when I was 4 years old, and it was already part of the roda…

Because the idea of ​​the group came from the family, because Mestre Gil Viejo is my father’s brother, my uncle, the brother of Mestre Peixinho was married to my aunt, and there were other brothers of my father who did capoeira…

So capoeira, I was born into it, to me it was normal. In the beginning I was the child that messed up my father’s class, right, when I first started to go, but little by little I became aware that we were different, that not everyone did capoeira… So that was where I began discovering what capoeira gave me, and it became important for me.

When I was really training, I started with Claudio Moreno, who was one of the red belts of the Senzala group, I think he trained with Mestre Camisa.

My father had a gym and he taught in that space in the afternoon, and I started with him directly, I think at age 12.

Who is your master?

My Mestre is my father, the Mestre Gato, one of the founders of the Senzala group.

He discovered capoeira when he was 16. When he was at a friend’s party he saw a friend giving a benção… this friend of his became Master Rafael, Rafael Flores, one of the Flores brothers who played a fundamental role in the formation of the group.

They met on Saturdays in his apartment, which is called the penthouse, and they trained there. And then my father started to join them and then the Senzala group was born.

After that he always had this contact with the capoeira community, so I traveled a lot in the events, and always in the events of different groups.

How come there was a Mestre of Senzala formed by Mestre Camisa?

There were many notable Capoeira Mestres that taught in the same judo academy as my father, the academy “Nissei”.

This academy had an important role in the formation of the group… Mestre Sorriso slept there, Mestre Garrincha, Mestre Camisa, when he had arrived from Bahia, things are different now, but back when we were kids, you’d be having a class with one one day, another the next…

During your Capoeira journey you’ve been involved in a lot of social projects – can you talk a little about those, and how you came to integrate these projects into your Capoeira?

In Rio, where I grew up, you’d have to make a great effort not to see that it is the result of, well, 300 years of slavery, that is there in your face all the time… but at the same time, I remember from an early age that capoeira came from the slaves, hearing all the legends about the origins of Capoeira… there was a song, right, that I remember from Mestre China, who was also giving classes in the academy from time to time:

Pelos matos verdes vastos, cujo nome é a capoeira, na ânsia da liberdade, nascia a luta brasileira

Through the vast green fields, whose name is capoeira, in the eagerness for freedom, was born the Brazilian fight

He then explained to us the legend of capoeira, that “it was the weapon used by malnourished slaves against the heavily armed white oppressors to gain their freedom ”

So the song, if you imagine a boy of 8 or 9 years listening to it, had a powerful effect… so I think it was a connection that began then…

And later,when I was about 20 years old, Mestre Peixino, who lived near Santa Tereza, in the Fallet, he got me to do a job and that experience was very remarkable. You have a place, that is less than 1km from your house, that at the same time the distance is little but the reality is totally different, right…

I already knew what it was like at the time, a place that was controlled by the drug gangs, but I’d be giving classes in the community center and sometimes the guys would turn up carrying guns, but at the same time I was a 20, 22-year-old boy, with long hair, giving classes, and I was accepted by the community. I don’t want to condone the gangs, but I felt like part of the community.

You know, you have this … um, I’m going to the beach in Ipanema, but at the same time I’m here. And it was capoeira that opened the door to the favella for me.  Nobody else, for example from my school, used to go there except me.

At the same time that I started teaching in Fallet, I started a project called Golfinhos da Guanabara in Cantagalo. It was an amazing place, it was a building that was supposed to be a 5 star hotel butwhich ran out of funds. So it was a place that had a swimming pool, heliport… and you are in a location… in Cantagalo, up on the hill. So, from the room where I taught, that had space for up to 70 people to train, you saw on the right the lagoon Rodrigo de Freitas, and to the left the beach and the buildings all there.

During the time I was teaching in Fallet, I saw how important it was for the kids to have the opportunity to do sport and have a safe space they could learn to play and sing.

There was another Capoeirista doing a similar project in Alberto de Campos, another favella the other side of Ipanema. I remember taking 13 kids in my Belina van from Cantagalo over to the other hill – this normally never happened, and some of the kids were really paniking during the journey, but Capoeira brought them together.

I’ve been living abroad for 18 years and I’ve always had this desire to do something, to help foster other activities like that, that make a difference… It’s not always easy, in the day to day when you’re just trying to earn a living, but when you get a chance, it’s always good to try. If there was a charity that needed a show, I always did it for free when asked, but in the beginning I wasn’t proactive in starting anything.

But at one point I got a really strong desire to do more, and I heard of a pokect, which today is called Capoeira for Refugees, which was an charity that used capoeira and that worked in Palestine, Syria, amongst other places.  I met the Contra Mestre Arame in Palestine… he was living in Ramallah, or near Ramallah… and it took me back to that feeling I had when I was 20 in Rio de Janeiro… I was like, “I’m on the front line” where the social work is really needed, that’s where you have to be…

You see the importance of what capoeira represents, how important it was for children in the favela and for children today in the refugee camps, right.  I would like to be able to contribute to the group having a a greater consciousness, not an individual conscience, but a group consciousness.

It is up to you to know what is happening in the world, and what you can do to make a difference, because sometimes, you know, it is a small thing that makes a difference to this kind of work.

Whenver I see an opportunity to use capoeira to make a difference, I grab it. 10 years ago I started a project, in Indonesia in Bali and Jave. Java is the main island right, Bali is another island, but there are other islands as well, and there are several groups now. We started in 2005 and now it’s really grown.

A movie that helped a lot was that “Only the strong” but man, that movie there, literally took me to Indonesia, took me to Iran, you know, helped a lot capoeira, a lot of people around the world knew what capoeira was for that movie.

Can you talk a little about the project you had last year in Iran?

I was worried about going to Iran, the situation there is very delicate! When I got there I discovered what an amazing place it is – what an incredible culture, a civilization with more than 5000 years of history. They have a great deal of pride in their culture, identity and history, but also capoeira is becoming popular.

Iran is a place that has a lot of rules and restrictions, no? But here I see parallels with the history of Capoeira and Brazil. Many Brazilian folkloric cultures were persecuted  – Samba, Candoblé, and of course Capoeira itself was illegal until aroudn the 50s if I remember right.

Currently, in Iran, by law a man can not teach a woman a martial art, although in karate in the past they have made exceptions, right, but it’s important you understand the rules…Capoeira already had a presence, and I’ve been trying for the last 6, 7 years, to help in the best way possible… I went the first time to do a batizado, and found nobody knew how to play the atabaque, berimbau, and your think how am I going to baptize 50 students alone?!

I realised, next time I need to bring at least two more experienced capoeiristas with me. Initially we did it by trying to sell T-shirts. We sold 90 which was great, but then logistically it was difficult and expensive to send them.

Then we came up with the idea of doing a crowdfunding. I knew there was a group of women who wanted to learn capoeira, but I couldn’t teach them as I was a man – they needed a female instructor.

We managed to get 3 girls over there, 3 students. Mestra Nega was also supposed to go, but at the last minute we had technical problems with the visa and she couldn’t go, but hopefully she’ll be able to next time.

We also faced problems as the guy we were working with over there had to leave the country! As I said, the situation is extremely delicate over there. The embargo which is currently in place has reduced the value of the currency by around 80%, the country has been finanicially isolated from the rest of the world.

There are also many students who have left, though there are still a few holding on. The group is in a process of renewal, but God willing we’ll go again in December, hopefully the first week from the 4th.

Travelling with Capoeira really enables you to connect with the local people – you’re not travelling like a tourist so you really get to understand what it’s like for the locals to live in the country and make friends with the people.

Is Mestre Pedro your real name, or an apellido?

It’s my real name, Pedro. Actually being the son of the Mestre Gato, right since I was a kid, you can imagine what they called me… I was Kitten (Gatinho) as a child, all the cat breeds you can imagine…

But a nickname, I like to say to my students is like quicksand: the more you fight the more you sink, right, into the nickname! But I never had the luck, or the bad luck, to have a nickname that stuck … it used to be a gatuno … but no one literally calls … there are some people who call me “mutt” (vira lata). Ah, it’s an old story … at the time I could not eat meat, I was allergic, and I was at a barbecue with the capoeira guys and my girlfriend of the time, she said like that “Pedro, you are. looking at this meat like a stray dog!” “Mestre Sorriso was there and said “Ha ha! This guy here, full of pedigree and called a mutt … he’s a mutt …”

The apellido is a thing that comes from tradition, from the time when Capoeira was forbidden to give the Capoeiristas anonymoty, but there are several famous mestres, who use their normal name right, Mestre Suassuna is one of them, Mestre Ramos, Mestre Toni… Once in a while you’re lucky, when it doesn’t stick, it doesn’t stick!

Finally, what would be your top tip to someone just starting out in Capoeira?

For someone who’s just starting, all the way through to 5 or 6 years of Capoeira, I’d say it’s really focusing on the basics, the fundamental movements.

Let’s use the comparison of learning Portuguese, which is a good analogy as Capoeira is a language of movement.

Perhaps you have learnt some words, you can talk a bit and make some sentences, but you still have a very strong foreign accent. Rather than be in a rush to learn lots more words, but people still can’t understand what you’re saying, it’s better to work on really improving how to pronounce the words you already know.

Work on making the movements as big as possible – really stretching to the maxium, and being able to do them as slowly as possible and under total control. If you want to be able to a movement fast and controlled, you need to learn to do it slowly first.

Training alone is another important aspect, once you have that thing called the capoeira bug, that got into the blood and you’re with that hunger to train… develop the habit of doing extra training on your own time outside the classes, and you’ll really see a difference in your progression.

I had a student of mine long ago who asked me this, he was a bit chubby, quite shy, lacked confidence when he spoke. I told him what I say to everyone, which is to start training alone, 20 minutes twice a week, every two weeks you increase 20%, and when you reach to 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, you call me.

About 4 months later, I’m not sure, he called me, half-heartedly, on a Friday, and I said “What is it?” “No, because you said a while back to be good … today was the first day I did a week 3 days a week … “.

And this guy today is one of my highest grade students, Erus, right? And he totally transformed through the extra training.

To have a relationship with Capoeira, whether you are going to train in a group or not, you have to have it present in your mind everyday from the moment you wake up. If you’re injured, you practice music, you understand, you do whatever you can.

It’s a virtuous circle – because you’re motivated, you train more. Because you train more, you progress faster. Because you progress faster, you get more motivated!

So do extra training in your own time, and work on what’s right in front of you, do the basics.

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