Prince: Hello World! Today we have a special guest: Mestre Preto Velho (Mays-tre Pre-two Vay-O); and we will be talking about his life and the arts of Capoeira. So how are you Mestre?
MPV: I’m alright; I’m alright!
Prince: Good, well Mestre, the reason why I picked you out today is because I am doing a section on Interesting People. And basically I go around the world and talk to people that I find interesting and why. So let’s start off by talking about you. Tell me about yourself?
MPV: I’m 54 now; going on 55. My name, my government name is Dennis Newsome. Meu nome de guerra, my name of war in Capoeira is Mestre Preto Velho. My community name is Kakuyon (Kack-y-own), Protector of the children, because I protect the kids. I help the kids-I always did that. I invest in them. I always like the martial arts–I always liked fighting. I always did ever since I was little.
Prince: So how did you get into Capoeira?
MPV: When I was little, when I was 5 years old, I saw a movie called “Black Orpheus” (the Brazilian one)–the time that it came out was in 1954. Anyways, I saw the movie and they made Capoeira the antagonist.
Prince: The antagonist was the Capoeira? Why was that?
MPV: They made him the antagonist! (Laughter)
MPV: The Capoeira was chasing this girl for whatever reason–from Bahia all the way down to Rio–and it was all during Carnival time. And she fell in love with some musical artist–her mother, her Aunty was who she stayed with. Anyways the thing was that they never said the name Capoeira or defined it in any way because that wasn’t really important to whoever is telling the story, but to me it was important. I was fascinated by the movements and I can look at it, by the way that they move, that it was Black; because, different cultures have different movements
Prince: They do?
“Every culture has a language–a body language; a movement.”
The Chinese, when they do their Martial Arts, have a unique movement that belongs to them. The Indonesians, have another dance like quality that belongs to them. You know what I mean? The Okinawans they have a unique movement. And the African people have a unique way of moving. And so when I saw the fight, I knew what it was–I knew it was some Black Art.
Prince: So who was your first teacher of this Black Art?
MPV: My first teacher was my father.
Prince: Your Father?? I thought it was Mestre Touro?
MPV: No. My father practiced the African art that was here in the United States.
Prince: Which was Capoeira?
MPV: No it was the equivalent to Capoeira (Laughter); let me explain. Wherever Angola Blacks went, they brought their culture and their spirituality, etc. The head-butting and kicking of the Blacks from Angola, they brought that with them as they were captured and sent on slave ships across the Western Hemisphere for 400 years. In those areas–where some manifestations of the art died out, and some continued–they brought their own flavor. Places like Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Brazil, United States, Cuba, and Martinique. And in the United States, it was “knocking and kicking”
Prince: “Knocking and Kicking?”
MPV: Right, that was the old way–all the way up to my grandfather’s generation. That’s when it started to die out. But wherever my father was at, where he learned his fighting, they called it “Anywhichway.” Let me explain why. You can have butting where it’s just pure head, then the rest is mostly just head and feet. Some incorporated the knees, the elbows, and the fists. “Anywhichway” is fist, feet, knee, and head–all of them. That’s why it’s “Any-whicha-way!!” (Laughter)
MPV: Now to go back to where I learned Capoeira. My father got killed when I was 12 years old and my mother remarried this guy named Abebe from Ethiopia. His Ethiopian friends (his shipmates) taught me their style of African Self Defense and we became friends very fast. The first one that took a liking to me was Deimesy or nick named “Dey”–He did stick fighting. His people from Ethiopia are the Oromos. So I learned Oromos style. And the other friend his name was Joseph Tewolde. His people did head-butting. They copied an animal that did head-butting in their homeland. And so, not only did they share their fighting culture with each other but with me as well.
And so one day I was at the Wild Animal Park (San Diego), and there were some Nigerians there. At the time I had studied some “Gidibo” (Nigerian Fighting) and so I asked them if they have more knowledge of the Art. They said yes but they did not know how to do it. However they did say that some brothas in LA are doing Capoeira and I should hook up with them. And so, the first contact that they gave me was a black writer named Odie Hawkins. He is a character (laughter) you would love to meet him. Anyways he dedicated the responsibility to interview me to make sure that what I was saying was the truth about African Martial Arts. Afterwards, he then introduced me to his classmate Cedric Adams, a graphite artist, who then showed me Capoeira, which I became his student!
MPV: And here’s the funny story. In the movie Black Orpheus, the woman who played The Aunty, her son (Enrique dos Nasciemento) was the one who taught Cedric Adams and two other guys (Odie Hawkins and a guy from the Dominican Republic) Capoeira (laughter); but he wasn’t Mestre (or Master). Enrique was the son of the famous Black activist in Brazil, Abdias dos Nasciemento! He established Black Theater in Brazil, was a poet and a Senator when I met him in Rio de Janeiro!
So, I studied under Cedric Adams for many years, but I knew in my heart that I needed a Mestre. And so when had I befriended Johnny Moore a brother from Oakland and a student of Mestre Bira (a grand master who was graduated by the famous Mestre Bimba) he gave me a call that a touring group from Brazil named Oba Oba were coming down to San Diego; I later found out that they were staying at the old “Hotel San Diego.”
Johnny told me to look for a man named Mestre Cobrinha (Ko-bring-ha) because his Capoeira style was very unique; and so I looked for him. When I got there, there were two Mestres that I met: Mestre Urubu and Mestre Low. They couldn’t speak very much English but they understood what I was saying. They told me Mestre Cobrinha’s roommate (Mestre Beicola) speaks English and that I should meet him. And when I met him man we really hit off good. (Smile)
As we were talking, Mestre Beicola (Ben-so-la) had ideas of sticking here in America and teaching Capoeira; and when I finally met Cobrinha he wasn’t really interested. Remember at that time he was only here for the tour and to have fun. But again, Mestre Beicola had plans to stay here and I said to him “You’re a Mestre and I need a Mestre.” And so I became his student but only for five years.
Prince: And that’s when you met Mestre Touro correct?
MPV: Well it wasn’t till after Cedric Adams went to Brazil to create a video documentary on Capoeira, that I first heard the name “Touro.” Mestre Bira had organized a troop of Americans (one of them being Cedric Adams) to go to Brazil and compete with the Brazilians. And on one of these clips, they showed this guy with the red tights and he got down! And it was Mestre Touro and he was off the hook!
I mean it was amazing how he moved and his Capoeira was unique to me. It was like Angola but fast. I told myself that I had to be his student. I came to find out later that Mestre Beicola was his student. “And so man God was with me!” (laughter). However, I did not study with this man until after my relationship with Mestre Beicola went south.
Prince: How so?
MPV: Our views of teaching Capoeira in the community were very polarized. His students were mostly white and there were no more than two black students. I was (and still am) a very conscious black man. Conscious in the fact that I believe in Black Culture; and, that this Black Art (Capoeira) needs to be taught in the Black Community.
And so, his White students were very intimidated by me because they thought that I hated them. I said, “No.” “I don’t think about you; I am not here for you. I am here to get this information about this Black Art and Culture and bring it back to the Black Community; I don’t want to do anything bad to you.” However, they could not see that–they couldn’t understand. Anyways my Mestre and I began to drift, because of what the students thought of me.
“From day one, he knew my position about helping the Black Community, so he couldn’t accuse me for not changing my position.”
MPV: Yeah I remembered one time that I graduated to Professor at the Batisado (an Initiation and Graduation ritual which fighters are recognized and honored for their skills) and the Black community gave me an award–thanking me for investing in the Black community. Mestre Beicola was uncomfortable by it. He was uncomfortable by it because the Black people, who were living in my neighborhood, were thanking me.
And so what he did was formed a new Capoeira group behind my back, called San Diego Capoeira Batuque (Ba-tu-ki). I thought that we were the only representative group here in San Diego for him!
His vision was to take all over San Diego. Originally Beicola’s group was called “Besouro Negro” (Black Beetle). How I found out was through some Brazilian guy named Elias who came to my performance at a private party and played Capoeira with me. And when I played him, his Capoeira was terrible (laughter) but he was given a higher rank than me- I discovered later!
He then gave me his business card which said “San Diego Capoeira Batuque.” It was a huge sweep, but I didn’t show it on my face. (Laughter) A day later I get a call from Mestre Beicola, asking me about his student that I played with and boy was he happy.
MPV: You see, as an act of my retaliation against my Mestre, he was sending me a signal that I needed to act right. He wanted me to take my top students to the White community (Del Mar, La Jolla, Escondido) to set up shop and teach to them. I told him that:
“I haven’t done enough work in my own community.They don’t know Capoeira and it’s not even a household name; so why should I go over there?
”But anyways I told him this in a happy tone: “I am so happy too. You can now teach all the white people and I am free now to finish my work in the Black Community.” The phone got quiet; you could not even hear a pin drop. He was Up..set! Because they [Mestre Beicola and Mestre Amen his partner] thought by forming this group (San Diego Capoeira Batuque) would make me stop teaching Capoeira in the Black Community and compete with Elias. I said,
“There’s no competition—I have no competition. I didn’t learn this art for the money or anything. If you want to do that, then do that; I don’t condemn you. I got into this for cultural reasons.”
So, later he told me that he wouldn’t support me anymore and basically kicked me out. But I didn’t give up; I wanted Mestre Touro’s number. Mestre Beicola thought that I couldn’t go to Brazil and study with Mestre Touro because I’m poor, I don’t speak Portuguese, etc. but I did it!. I was very persistent; you couldn’t say “No” to me—Failure was not an option. Mestre Beicola invited Mestre Touro to an event one time, and when I saw him, man, he felt Black. Like he reminded me of a Black man that I knew from 30th and Imperial. “You understand what I’m saying?” I knew that if I were to talk to him about my situation he would be sympathetic to me and my cause.
And so I called him one day, with my girl who spoke fluent Portuguese, and told him my situation. He then said this to me:
“If you want to teach children, then teach children; if you want to teach women then teach women; if you want to teach black people, then teach black people”
Prince: That’s it?
MPV: Yep! I told him that I wanted to be his student. And so I worked my way into Brazil; met him for the second time; and the rest was history. I bring him here [US]; I go there. I graduated to Contra Mestre then, three years after that, I graduated to Mestre. And I was the first African American born outside of Brazil to become a Mestre–not self-boasting. And so that was my journey of becoming a Mestre. It was important for me to become a Mestre to open the doors up for people in my neighborhood—legitimately so.
“You can disagree with my politics, or whatever, but you can’t disagree with my knowledge, and how I achieved my rank, the legitimate way.”
There were people of my generation, who did Capoeira, that were jealous of me.
Prince: So how did you achieve your title as Mestre?
MPV: Capoeira has fundamentals and protocols. In Rio, they organized and have federations—to protect the quality of Capoeira—so that you know the important things of Capoeira: movement, history, music, and philosophy. So my Mestre would get the best masters and test me.
So for my test I had to write a dissertation on Capoeira and then I had to write my own ladainha (la-da-in-ya) (song), the ritual songs, music playing and then afterwards you would play against the Mestre’s. At the time, I was under a lot of physical stress. I tore my rotator’s cuff and I had reconstructive surgery on my right knee; so that meant I couldn’t practice until the day of the examination. I had to save up all that energy on that one day; that one moment! And I made it! (Smile)
My head was so hot that I was burning up after I had completed my testing for the title of “Mestre of Capoeira Angola Sao Bento Grande”. I got a cold bottle of water–I went to the bathroom and threw up—and put that on my head. I got myself together, walked out and rejoined the festivities. I made Mestre just in time before my right hip gave up on me (Laughing)