Renato Scarpellini, better known as Mestre Primo, began his Capoeira journey at just 5 years of age.
His journey began by chance, but he developed a true passion for the art, which led him to research deep into the history of Capoeira, and later to travel the world.
He now lives in Italy, in the city of Bologna, where he became Mestre in December 2016. His fluid game and musicality shine through in every class and roda. Don’t miss out on his tips!
This is a translation of the transcription of the original interview. Click here to listen to the original interview (In Portuguese)
Interview with Mestre Primo, 25th February 2017
When and How did you come to start training Capoeira?
I started Capoeira in August of 1991, 25 years ago, almost 26! It was a bit of a coincidence, because when I went to live in Guaratinguetá, which is basically my hometown, where I moved at the age of one, I lived nextdoor to the Academy of Cordão de Ouro of Mestre Ponciano and Mestre Zé Antonio.
As they are my uncles, instead of staying at home, the nanny would take me to the gym because her son also trained Capoeira. I started attending capoeira very early on account of that, I started when I was 5 years old. And I did not stop. Actually, I stopped a year and a half from 93 to 94. After that, I never stopped again, I always kept training.
Why did you stop?
I don’t remember, I was only 6! But I only stopped a short time. When I started again, it was in a different place, I moved house and maybe that’s why I stopped. In this new place Mestre Ponciano and Mestre Zé Antonio also taught.
Who is your Mestre?
Mestre Ponciano, who is a pupil of Mestre Suassuna, was himself born within the group Cordão de Ouro. Maybe that’s why the Cordão de Ouro is such a part of my life too.
Mestre Ponciano, at the time, worked with the children and Mestre Zé Antonio worked with the adults. All the children started with Mestre Ponciano and then they passed to Mestre Zé Antonio as they developed in Capoeira.
Capoeira in Guaratinguetá has always been like this. Eventually they parted ways, but until ’97, for almost 30 years, the Capoeira de Guaratinguetá was like this, the two together.
Who else have been your biggest influences in Capoeira?
I have several, I am fortunate to have had numerous people accompany me in my Capoeira journey since I was little.
As references in Capoeira that I like, that I have always liked, I have Mestre Iraní, Mestre Quebrinha and Mestre Flavinho Tucano, who is a person that I admire so much.
There were the people that I lived with in capoeira, participating in events, getting baptized… I trained with people that you’ve heard of that unfortunately I do not even remember, such as Mestre Biriba for example who is a person who was a major reference in Cordão de Ouro, in Guará.
But the ones I take with me today are these Mestres, besides Mestre Ponciano, of course, Mestre Zé Antonio, Mestre Quebrinha, Mestre Iraní, Mestre Flavinho Tucano and of course Mestre Suassuna. A great leader. It’s actually difficult because there are many masters you admire, which at least I admire, but I think they are the ones with whom I had more direct contact, with whom I took classes.
Mestre Lobão, I used to go to his academy a lot. I think that Capoeira you learn not only with your Mestre, you learn with several mestres. You have the influence of many people, but with some you have more affinity. The Mestres I spoke of are the ones I have the most direct contact with, I consider them my godparents in Capoeira.
With regards to training, the person who accompanied me since I was 5 years old, not only me but all the capoeiristas of Guaratinguetá, is Mestre Cavalca. Mestre Cavalca is one that during training, since 1980, is the one who accompanies everything, he does not work with Capoeira, but is a major inspiration for the training and I consider him my second Master, besides Mestre Ponciano I consider Mestre Cavalca my next great reference.
The story of Capoeira is very oral, as a historian, what were the difficulties you found with Capoeira research?
I actually worked as a history teacher for 4 years. I did my thesis using Capoeira indirectly; my college thesis was cultural appropriation and I used Capoeira as a case study. I worked on the history of Capoeira, and the phenomenon of the social transformation of Capoeira, mainly in Bahia.
The memory of the Bahian capoeira is more ingrained than that of the Capoeira of Rio de Janeiro, for example. In the Capoeira of Rio de Janeiro, it has a strong connection with the Maltas (Criminal Gangs). It was only in the 60’s and 70’s with the growth of new Capoeira groups that Capoeira in Rio started to become more socially acceptable and a part of the popular culture.
But the difficulty was that, not only in Capoeira but also in Brazilian culture in general, everything was transmitted orally. The real difficulty is to incorporate these findings, from these oral traditions, into an academic environment which is a typically written medium.
Equally, historical research has changed over the years, which has helped to build a better oral history. For example sociology, anthropology, and geography are disciplines that make up the study of history today.
In the 50’s you had a more document based history that was very hard to work with, the concern was more with recorded facts. Today you have this possibility of integrating various disciplines with complementary elements that help develop a more complete understanding.
The biggest difficulty I had with Capoeira research was to find hard evidence that documented Capoeira before the 19th century.
Reknownded Capoeira historian Carlos Eugenio Soares, defines Capoeira as a unically urban phenomenon and, because it is an urban phenomenon, Capoeira is associated with the development of cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Salvador, in the ports… despite people having this desire to trace its black identity, Capoeira in the colonies, for example, is all legend! You do not have any confirmation, no concrete evidence, for example, that says that Capoeira already existed in the 1700s, 1600s… that Zumbi was a capoeirista.
Mestre Damião, he spoke a lot of it, he was a great researcher of Capoeira, I had the possibility To attend some lectures by Mestre Damião, and he said that some myths have to be overthrown. This is not to say that you have to ignore or forget the cultural tradition, however, he was just saying that there is no evidence that Zumbi was ever a capoeirista, so you should not take it further.
My biggest difficulty was that I tried to research Capoeira from before the 19th century and I found practiacally nothing, no evidence.
There are two books by Carlos Eugênio Soares that are very interesting for you to understand the ethnic composition of Capoeira in Rio de Janeiro. “A Capoeira Escrava” and “A Negregada Instituição” are two books that talk about Capoeira in the 19th century in Rio de Janeiro.
In the first book, “The Capoeira Slave”, he writes about the typically black capoeira, that along with other sources shows the social class background of capoeira, the capoeira environment was that of slaves and manual workers. Already in the second book, the “Neglected Institution”, despite having these black roots, Capoeira already had evidence of participation from immigrants, though it was still a marginalised activity… this made Capoeira more multiethnic, not a specific group despite the black domination. There were many Portuguese, so much so, that the razor may have been an element of the Portuguese Fado, for example.
I think the great difficulty was this, you try to look for evidence from before the 19th century. You have rare documents that describe capoeira in the early 19th century outside of Rio de Janeiro, for example. If you talk about Capoeira in Rio de Janeiro, very few people talk about Salvador, a few things… now there are books by Frede Abreu that look into the history of Capoeira, but not until the end of the 19th century.
The study I did was of Capoeira of the 19th century, where we can basically just analyze Rio de Janeiro. In the beginning of the 20th century, you begin to have a predominance of Capoeira in Bahia, that has a more playful element, and the Capoeira that predominates are from those contexts. There are numerous books that study the transformation of Capoeira. There are many interesting books for you to read.
The concept behind my thesis, was that I had to analyse these processes of cultural appropriation, that not only happened with Capoeira, but also with football, with samba, with the tango in Argentina… How do things change? In an intentional way, or not? This was my research for 4 years, which I now need to complete!
In addition to being a great teacher of Capoeira, you’re also an accomplished musician. How did you get into music? Through Capoeira?
Music, luckily, was always present in my life.
I tell my students that it’s the thing I miss the most from Brazil, now that I live abroad, in Italy, when I see my mother singing on Sunday mornings. Because she always did the laundry singing, it’s the thing I miss most: Sunday morning after Saturday night party, waking up with her singing. My mother always sang, she was never a professional singer, but she always sang. And my father, despite not being a musician, he showed me a lot of interesting things since I was very young. From Bob Dylan, The Beatles… I had these direct and indirect influences since I was a kid.
It became a passion, I got myself a guitar and taught myself. I started to like it and started studying for pleasure, but I never studied music. I want to now, the next step is to start studying music theory, of which I know nothing right now, aside from I really like it!
So in Capoeira logically, because I love music, it is important for me during the roda, during classes… Music is a key element for you to help people integrate. At the end of my classes I really like to finish by singing in the academy. Even music that is not from Capoeira.
Can you sing this song that you sang at the end of your class?
Which song, Beira Mar?
The one you sang at the end of your workshop?
I do not usually sing songs of Capoeira, though I do sometimes integrate them into Capoeira, I sing because everyone likes samba de roda, I really like jongo. The music I sang is a folk song, it is not Capoeira music, but it is the kind of music that I usually sing.
Singing, singing, singing, even things that are not of Capoeira, but because of the Brazilian culture, music is intrinsic in Brazilian culture. I think that those who don’t like music… Dorival said: “those who do not like samba are not good guys!” But I think that those who do not like music, I think that they lose a lot of the colour of life. Whenever I can I’m playing and singing because I love it, though I’m not a professional musician.
What would your tip be for someone that’s just starting in Capoeira?
Look, I think like in life in general, the less pressure you are under in the beginning, the better. The more freedom, the more choices you have, the better.
For example one thing I like to do, something I do with my students, is that in the beginning they have no obligation other than to feel good when they are doing Capoeira. Sometimes you end up neglecting some facts about details, ritual… for someone to really integrate themselves there and feel, in Italian “suo agio”, to feel good doing Capoeira.
Of course after a while, a few months down the line, you start explaining some details. But it is best to lead by example, rather than to try and indoctrinate. Doctrine is easy, tell the guy that they have to do it because it’s like that, no…
I think that Capoeira, yes, there were many great Mestres, but Capoeira is much bigger than what any one Mestre put into it. Because each one brings to it his own vision. Every person takes from it what they need. I think you have that possibility, I think it’s a great advantage you do not have a single, fixed way, despite having some, some fundamentals that are essential for you to be a part of Capoeira, there is a lot of freedom.
For example, in relation to drums, training, in relation to ritual, each Mestre has their own way. For example Mestre Ananias, Mestre Moraes, if you take the batteria of Mestre Jogo de Dentro… they’re Capoeira Angola but the formation is different, the pace is different, the rhythm is different, the dynamics are different. There is not any one way which is more correct, or one which is wrong. It all depends upon the context.
The big challenge is that you try to find the root of Capoeira, but in fact it is non-existent, because Capoeira is much more than we think. There is not only one element that composes Capoeira, Capoeira comes from the Ngolo they say, but no, it is not only from Ngolo, it has roots from many diverse places and traditions, which only together make it what it is today.
I think that in the beginning, the most important tip is to enjoy what you are doing. If it feels good, if you feel happy, I think that’s the first step. Then with time, with responsibility, with graduation, if you wants to assume more responsibility capoeiristica, then comes the awareness, you’ll need to understand that you’ll have to work hard, you will have to understand a culture, a language and everything.
That is their choice, it is not a choice of the Mestre. If after several years you want to be a Capoeira teacher, that influences what you have to do, what you have to understand, and to know that you will have to study a great deal. Even more so when you’re not Brazilian, because it’s harder really, because you’re going to have to convey something that you’ve never lived. You have to live Capoeira to truly understand. For example, I grew up in Capoeira, we used to make rodas in the religious festivals, rodas in the Jongo, rodas in the Umbanda, Capoeira was present every day.
Here in Europe you do not have this spontaneity. Perhaps it is easier in Spain, Italy, Greece because it is more open. Already there is a more open and dynamic culture, in northern Europe this kind of self expression is more difficult.
So the first step is to find a teacher or Mestre who makes you feel good. With time, you’ll get more into the details, some basics. This is what I try to do. Now, if this is a rule, if it’s wrong, then it’s not another discussion, but that’s what I like to do.
What’s your apelido of Capoeira and Why?
My nickname of Capoeira is Primo (Portugues for Cousin), because my Mestre, Mestre Ponciano, he is my cousin. Well, he is my father’s cousin and the whole family does Capoeira, my sister does capoeira, my cousin Poncianinho who is also a Mestre of Capoeira, Master Zé Antonio who anther of my father’s cousins. They called me “Primo” when I started to train Capoeira, because the two of them, Mestre Zé Antonio and Mestre Ponciano, call my father Primo, they called me Primo too. Everyone called me Primo because of that. And it stuck! Even though I did not like it, the whole world started calling me Primo. Even in school, it was Primo!
When I went to Italy it was a bit strange because Primo means “first” and everyone would ask me, “Why are you called First?” I’d have to explain, “No, it’s not First, it’s Cousin!”.
But that’s the reason, and it’s been 25 years since my nickname. There is no way to change!