Contra-Mestre Papa-Léguas: Preserving capoeira’s philosophy


As published in The Jakarta Post
Nov 2010


Jaime de Oliveira Gontijo, the founder of one of the world’s fastest-growing capoeira group, wasn’t born into a family of capoeira masters.

In fact, Gontijo, also known as Contra-Mestre Papa-Léguas, only started learning capoeira, — a blend of martial arts, dancing, singing that has been labeled as a philosophy of life — at the age of 14, under Contra-Mestre Chicote’s direction in Patos de Minas, Brazil.

“It was a funny story. I started learning capoeira because of a T-shirt,” the 29-year-old native from Patos de Minas recalled. “I was in a street with friends, when a group of guys wearing similar T-shirts passed by. The T-shirt caught my attention, so I followed them. It turns out they were having a Batizado [welcoming and graduation ceremony for new capoeristas, or capoeira practitioners]. That’s when I fell in love with capoeira, joined the group. I haven’t stopped practicing since.”

In 2000, he moved to England and taught capoeira classes there. The following year, he established his group in Nottingham, the UK called Cordão De Ouro Nottingham. His group grew so fast, then he set up a Cordão De Ouro Academy in England in 2004.

He then spread the group’s wings to Crete, Greece, and held the group’s first Batizado in 2009, which many mestres from various cities across continental Europe and England attended.

In 2008, he came to Indonesia and formed the Vadiar group to unite all practitioners. He came back in 2009 to change Vadiar into the official Cordão De Ouro Indonesia and held the first Batizado in South Jakarta.

The Contra-Mestre said it was his third time in Indonesia. He’s been liaising with the former Vadiar group — now Cordão De Ouro — for almost six years.

It wasn’t easy forming an official group of capoeiristas here. He needed to see how the practitioners behaved first, he said. With time, he could see their practice was solid and their enthusiasm strong.

“So I came in 2009 with my capoeira ‘brothers’, Contra-Mestre Parente and Contra-Mestre Casquinha, and held the first Batizado. This meant the group here was officially listed as part of the international Cordão De Ouro.”

Contra-Mestre Papa-Léguas recently put together a workshop in Jakarta to share the philosophy behind capoeira. He doesn’t want the now-popular martial-art-cum-philosophy reduced to a sport or an activity people use to show off. Capoeira in Indonesia still has a long way to go.

“With only two to five or six years of learning, capoeira is still in its infancy here,” he explained.

“It’s very important to train hard, show progress, no matter how small it is — the process is what matters most… I guide capoeiristas to keep them informed, well-trained and to make sure they understand capoeira fully.”

He knows this learning journey is not easy. Differences in cultures, backgrounds and languages may lead to misinterpretation of the true philosophy behind capoeira.

4758215_orig“I notice everyone has a different level of progress. I tell my students about the weaknesses they need to address. Some can take the constructive criticism, others can’t, and take what I say the wrong way.”

He received much criticism from mestres belonging to different groups when he first started learning capoeira. “I’m lucky I had people telling me what I was doing wrong. It meant they looked at my moves, corrected them, and thus made me a better person, student and teacher. That’s what I keep telling my students: to be open to constructive criticism from everybody.”

He doesn’t place much emphasis on his position as a master. Many capoeiristas have the Contra-Mestre belt nowadays. In fact, it takes more than just the belt to be a master.

“Being a Contra-Mestre and having the belt of Contra-Mestre are two different things. People may have the Contra-Mestre belt, but they can’t teach. Being a Contra-Mestre is about the experiences you’ve had in life, and what you can pass to your generation.”

He indeed has learned the hard way. “Many said I was too young to become [a Contra-Mestre], but no one knows how hard I worked. The most important thing is to keep practicing. I never aimed to be a mestre and didn’t pursue the belt… I simply chose to devote myself to capoeira.”

When Papa-Léguas isn’t teaching capoeira, he likes to play guitar. “I play Música Popular Brasileira [Brazilian Popular Music]. But most of the songs are difficult, so you need to practice a lot. And I love to look after my kids anyway…”

His family lives in Brazil, so he’s planning to head back there soon.

“I want my kids to grow up around their family. If they live in Brazil, they will be able to see their grandparents, uncles, cousins more often. Besides, I’m building my [capoeira] academy there. So when it’s finished, I’ll move there and stay close to my family.”

Contra-Mestre Papa-Léguas insisted practitioners should focus on conveying capoeira’s philosophy.

“There is no right or wrong, the philosophy of capoeira is about how to lead your life, and learn along with others. People argue about capoeira and put too much emphasis on labeling each grupos [groups], thinking they’d prove something, but it’s not about proving your point. [Capoeira] is about making friends. If you focus on proving your point,  you will get nowhere.”




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