Developed in the 16th century by African slaves as a form of self-defence, capoeira incorporates elements of dance and acrobatics, which allowed its earliest practitioners to train in it without arousing suspicion among slave masters, who assumed the strange exercises being practised were a form of tribal ritual rather than the roots of an uprising.
Capoeira was eventually outlawed in 1890 by the Brazilian government, concerned about eruptions of street violence.
“In those days, when capoeira was spoken of, it was in whispers. Those who learned capoeira only thought about becoming criminals,” Bimba recalled.
The man himself was one of an astonishing 25 children born to Luiz Candido Machado and Maria Martinha do Bonfim, the father a champion in batuque, another fighting sport loosely comparable with judo or wrestling in which the opponent must be thrown from a ring.
Interestingly, his nickname translates as “Master Phallus”, derived from a bet between his mother and her midwife during labour about whether the newborn would be a boy or a girl. When the child was delivered, the first sighting of his “bimba” provided the answer.
Bimba began to study capoeira in secret under the guidance of a ship’s navigator known as Bentinho as a 12-year-old.
He worked in various odd jobs throughout his youth, serving as a coal miner, carpenter, longshoreman and warehouse operative, but Bimba’s true passion was always capoeira, the young combatant alive to the potential of a sport too long consigned to the shadows.
By 18, he was developing his own version, which would become known as capoeira regional, incorporating elements of batuque picked up from his father as well as inventions of his own.
At the same time, another advocate, Mestre Pastinha, was active in keeping alive a more traditional style: capoeira angola. The pair would become respectful rivals.
In 1928, Mestre Bimba was invited to give a demonstration of his art before Bahia’s governor, Juracy Magalhaes, who was so impressed he overturned the ban in his state and invited Bimba to establish his own teaching school, giving the combat structure and a serious platform away from the streets.
The Academia-escola de Cultura Regional at the Engenho de Brotas opened in Salvador in 1932, its students expected to wear pristine white uniforms, carry themselves with good posture and behave honourably, abstaining from intoxicants.
An empowering undertaking for black Brazilians, Bimba’s school helped capoeira shake off its association with scrappy street violence and soon began to attract middle-class men and women to its dojos.
Prospective students were initially tested by being subjected to a three-minute neck lock, before Mestre Bimba swapped this gruelling initiation rite for a written exam and physical.
A second school was opened in 1942 and Bimba was honoured by Brazilian president Getulio Dorneles Vargas in 1953, who proclaimed: “Capoeira is the only sport that is truly Brazilian.”
Never shying away from the ring, Mestre Bimba was known as a fierce fighter in his own right, dubbed “Tres Pancadas” (“Three Hits”) for his ability to quickly dispatch rivals.
One of the most famous anecdotes about his life, as reported by the newspaper A Tarde in August 1936, recounts his being attacked by a corrupt police chief and six officers after the former had lost money on one of his bouts, knocking all seven men senseless. Another version of the same story suggests Bimba himself had started the brawl by intervening to stop the drunken officers attacking a young boy.
A legend in his own lifetime, Mestre Bimba passed away of a stroke in Goiania, Golas, on 5 February 1974.
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