Bryan Castle on names, practices, and community in the Brazilian martial art form of Capoeira
Interview by Eryka Dellenbach
Bryan Castle has been a practitioner of the Brazilian martial artform of capoeira for 22 years, studying throughout North America and Brazil with teachers such as the late Contramestre Dondi “Enxu” in Tucson. Castle teaches capoeira at Movement Culture, Casa de Cultura, and leads Capoeira Quilombolas in Tucson, where he works to preserve the traditional dances and music of Brazil by supporting and honoring aging mentors and nurturing new and emerging artists. He is a 2021 recipient of an SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Award. He spoke with BorderLore about his own history with the practice and its historical and current significance.
While some may know you as Bryan Castle, others know you by another name. Could you introduce that self?
Within the Capoeira world I’m known as Contra Mestre Besouro Preto Manganga. Besouro Preto Manganga means “wicked black beetle.” I have a giant tattoo of a beetle on my back, and I’d just got it when my master came. He named me that. That’s indicative of Capoeira – the names are used to hide your identity, because the bourgeoisie of the times decided capoeira should be illegal for many decades. Because who was doing Capoeira at that time? Enslaved people, dark-skinned people, Indigenous people. They were using it to free themselves. One way to keep enslaved people – or people you consider lower class – down is to not let them have an art of resistance, not let them fight you back. So if you got caught and sent to jail, they’d tell you to write your name in the ledger tally – boom. So now you want to go get a job at the wood mills or over at the cane fields, that plantation owner or that sugar cane manager will go to the local law enforcement and say, “Hey, I’m getting ready to hire this guy. Seems like a good worker but he’s black, he’s brown. I want to make sure that he’s not a troublemaker. So do you have any record on him?” They look in the records and there’s a couple of black guys in here, but it says Besouro Preto, Chapeu de Couro or the “Leather Hat.” They thought that the enslaved people were named stuff like that; they didn’t question it. Because again, they thought they were lower class people so, you know, they used those names to hide their identity. It’s part of that malicia or that trickery, street hustling you learn to get by.
As for my title, Contramestre, “mestre” does not mean master, and you can understand why we don’t use master in the Capoeira context – because of the past and the history of it. Mestre means teacher just like in other Latino languages and vernaculars. Contramestre means navigator, the person assisting the mestre. Mestre is like grande mestre, the great teacher. And contramestre is the one working for and aspiring to be that, working up through society and serving his community.
Can you talk about your venue in Tucson, Movement Culture?
Movement Culture is a casa de cultura, which I like to explain as a cultural fitness center for cultural classes taught by the people of those regions. Like hula taught by Hawaiians, Eskrima taught by Filipinos, and Capoeira, of course. We don’t have Brazilians, but I consider myself of the African diaspora and people.
We do the things we do here so that these art forms can be more fully appreciated, and so that people can respect those who founded these art forms. In the United States, although we are trying to appreciate those things and not cause harm to the people, slowly they get appropriated. A lot of cultural significance gets swept away because of Western values.
How did your life come to intersect with Capoeira?
When I started Capoeira I had just got out of the Marine Corps. It was kind of a turbulent time in my life. I was actually an immigration officer. When I tell people that now, they’re amazed. My whole life was on a different trajectory at that time. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with myself, and I actually opened a record store downtown with a good friend of mine, called Shades of Sound. There was a bar that we used to frequent called Bison Witches. This gentleman walked in, and I always explained it the way Dave Chappelle talked about Rick James. How he had an orange aura. And this guy did. I was something outta like Iceberg Slim, like a ’70s movie. I swore I heard a Shaft soundtrack. He had long dreadlocks and he’d drink one Guinness, take one shot, and walk out. But before he walked out, he would always walk up to me and say, “Hey, how come you don’t come do capoeira with me?” Every day I was like, “Hey, leave me alone.” We’d laugh about it. As time went on it became an awkward friendship. He started telling me stories about Capoeira and how it was made by the enslaved people that freed themselves and to me, all I heard was “Blah, blah, blah.” After about six months of this, finally I said, “All right, let’s go.”
There was a dance studio downtown called Orts. It was basically the mecca of dance and movement for years, it’s kind of one of the places I modeled Movement Culture after, a mecca for people to move, have fun and to express themselves in a carefree but safe environment. So we’re walking down 7th and we open the two double doors – boom! Man, it is a carnival. If anybody’s gone to Rio, you know what I’m talking about. There’s guys and girls doing flips and people playing with machetes. It was beautiful. The guy with the orange aura, he’s the teacher of this local school – Mestre Dondi “Enxu.” There’s a smaller studio with 100 people crammed in super tight. He walks up as smooth as can be and he’s like, “Look, guys, we’re family. This is something that freed our people in other lands. We’re here together, we’re one big tribe. Bear no weight, have a good time. And we’re gonna keep moving.” And I was like, You know what, I actually like this dude. So I didn’t miss a class for the first five years.
I started teaching a little bit, but it was more about the physical aspect. As a young man who had just got out of the Marine Corps, I saw the flipping and the athleticism of it all. But as time went on, I saw it more as community and as a part of my history that I had never known. The strength of the Black people, the Indigenous people – even though they were taken from their land, shackled, made to be indentured servants or have their community taken away, they still had their culture, they still had their sense of being. It struck me hard, and I was like, this is where I need to be. And 24 years later, I’m still here.
The school of your late teacher, Mestre Dondi “Enxu,” was called Malandragem. Can you talk about the process of inheriting that school and renaming it Tucson Quilombolas?
There were two Capoeira schools here in town. Dondi was one of the original Capoeira teachers of the Southwest. We were pretty much the biggest school, the boisterous school, the louder school. Not all these things will be said in a good light, but it just was a fact of who we were. We were called Capoeira Malandragem at that time. Malandros, how they’re explained in the Brazilian vernacular, it’s kind of like a street thug or street hustler, streetwise. It’s also a category of a Samba dancer. They wear a fedora, a red and white shirt and white pants. It is actually kind of a bad name. In the favelas or in the ’hood it’s considered good but in polite society it’s not good. Our Mestre Acordeon, the founder of United Capoeira Association, said, “Mmm don’t know about that name man; I don’t think that’s great.” Mestre Dondi “Enxu” was like, “Well, that’s who we are.” Mestre Accordeon was like, “Okay, well, if you want it you want it.” The first couple of times we went to Brazil we had a rough time of it because of that name.
As time went on, I moved up the ranks and it was my turn to take over the reins. It wasn’t an immediate change. I just was one of the ones sticking around and I ended up being here at the helm and I am honored. I spoke with my mestre, Mestre Acordeon, and he said, “Besouro, make it your own.” One of Mestre Acordeon’s original schools was named “Quilombolas.” And I thought to myself, that’s where the malandros come from. Just to explain, when enslaved people escaped, they ran into the jungles of the Amazon and they formed their own villages, quilombos, or palmares – strong cities out in the jungle where no one could ever invade. Some of these cities turn into provinces, like Bahia. But when people came from the quilombo and went into the city, they were considered malandros. While they were living in the villages in the jungles, they were considered people, quilombolas. So I thought to myself, we started off as malandros, like street thugs. But I really wanted to bring us back to our core and our roots. So where did the malandros come from? They came from the quilombos. So I decided to switch the name to “Quilombolas.”
I’m thinking about one of the central structures within Capoeira, the Roda, which comes from the Portuguese word for “circle.” The playing happens inside of it, and it’s formed by people clapping, singing, and playing traditional instruments. As a teacher you are always stressing the importance of generating and contributing energy into the circle. Can you talk about that?
There’s a big thing we always say about capoeiristas: Are you a capoeirista or turista? Are you a player or a watcher? If you’re watching, you’re vampiro or vampire, you’re sucking energy out of everybody else there. But if you are focusing on those two jogadores, those two people that are playing, and you’re giving them your energy, you’re involved and you’re singing and you’re making the ground shake, and you could feel the atabake of the drum pulsing, you could feel the twine of that berimbau, the pandeiros (tambourines), the agogo (cowbell) – that soup gets mixed together. It starts to cook, and the heat starts to melt all that stuff in the pot. That’s what makes kids come running into the kitchen, right? Oh, Mama’s cooking, it smells good. At first it was just some boiling water with a potato in it. But now I can smell carrots, onions, the seasoning, and I feel it in my stomach. I want that. That’s what the Roda should be doing to you.
But if you’re not paying any attention, and you go into the kitchen and pull those carrots out of that water. Then another person scoops the seasoning out of the water. And then the last person turns off the water. What is it? It’s just some cold water and nobody gets any nourishment. So, you have to be involved, you have to give it your all. You have to pay attention and be present. You have to have the vision to look at that game and say, “If I was playing that game, what would I do?” Oh, the next song should be this. If a female comes in, I should sing this song. If an aggressive game starts, we should sing this song. I know my history because I’ve taken the time to embed myself in this culture. Those are the biggest elements.
Back in February, you put on a beautiful event in Tucson that brought together capoeristas from across the country. Can you talk about the Batizado and troca de cordãoe, and the significance of bringing together this nationwide community at this time?
A Batizado is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a baptism, or a recognition of your work. Prior to these modern Batizados, Mestre Bimba didn’t really do that. He basically set down a course of classes, actions, movements and certain things you had to fulfill. And once that was done, you were considered a fully-fledged capoeirista. But, you know, times changed, and Capoeira got out of Brazil and went to the masses – Europe, South America and North America. When you start to mix things from Indigenous practices and try to assimilate them in a European infrastructure, what’s the first thing most people want? They want certifications, they want acknowledgments and accolades. So the earlier practitioners got together and developed a structure. And then it went on to be taught in schools, collegiate and athletic-style club settings. It started to line up with a lot of the Eastern martial arts’ colored belts to signify certain achievements. In the Eastern martial arts world, they have belt graduation ceremonies, we do something akin to that which we call the Batizado. We do it once a year.
As time went on, Batizados became more of a family reunion. It is an opportunity for us to get together and see each other because we’re all teaching in different cities. We’re not the youth anymore. We’re the teachers and the facilitators. So it’s a time for us to recognize not only the students’ work but to recognize each other for keeping up this tradition.
The Capoeira community in general is very friendly and likes to blend with each other, because that’s the fun of it. That’s the fear of it. Think of the enslaved man or woman. When they saw that the overseer gave them that one chance and looked away, this is my chance to slip away. My chains or shackles aren’t as tight as they usually are, and this is my one chance to use a move to escape and get away. We try to invoke that same feeling with the Batizado.
If you go into the circle, the thing we call the Roda, if you play the same people over and over again, you can almost imitate their game because you know what they’re going to do. But when you get someone new, somebody exciting, it enriches your game. It’s that spirit, how they’re going to react to that move. And that’s another part of the Batizado. Even if you’re not getting a cordão, moving up in rank or changing your cordão (troca de cordão), there’s also an open Roda for all the people who come to Capoeira just to play no matter of rank or age. People can feel that intensity, feel the difference in training with someone you’ve never met before. There’s the potential of injury and there’s the potential of a beautiful game and there’s the potential of a horrible game. You never know.
Can you share a little bit about your process of working with your two apprentices for the Master-Apprentice Artist Award?
I worked with two young men, Reggie Myles and Malik Arceneaux. We call them Mufasa and Philo. The process of working with them, it’s rudimentary. It’s like a lot of the other martial arts teachers: you take a young man or woman under your wing that you see has the potential to do something or someone who’s lacking in potential, it could be either way. You can help them build to see a better version of themselves. The physical part, that’s easy to teach. You can teach anybody to flip, kick a board, kick a pad, or do a set of defining movements. Anybody can learn with time, that’s just repetition.
But the true mentorship is instilling the respect for the art, learning the history of the art, the music, the respect for the Orishas. And learning why we do these things and who brought them before us, so they can pass it on to the next generation. Because what we don’t want to happen is for capoeira to lose its roots and just become something that looks pretty on the outside. But when you actually try to reach farther up the branches, it’s gonna fall over because the roots aren’t deep. If the roots aren’t deep, then you’re failing in your mission.
You described Capoeira as an art of resistance. What is Capoeira resisting today?
People ask me that a lot. There’s a lot of things going on in today’s society, in today’s duality of man, right? You’re resisting doubting yourself, you’re resisting the pressures that tell you you’re not enough, the pressures that tell you you need more, the pressures that tell you that you can’t respect each other, that you have to pick one side or the other, that you just can’t understand humanity, or you just can’t give people a chance to make a mistake, that everyone has to be right all the time or you’re right or they’re wrong, and there’s no gray in between. There’s always somewhere you can find common ground. I’m not saying bow down to anything, but I’m saying understand that man’s plight, that woman’s anxiety, or that child’s fear, and take time to assess that before you make your final decision. Resist the things in society that make us go against each other.
Eryka Dellenbach (they/she) is a semi-nomadic artist and educator working between film, performance, and experimental, practice-based ethnography. Born in Chicago and now living in Tucson, they are a capoerista with UCA Tucson Quilombolas and work primarily as a freelance, devotional filmmaker. You can learn more about their work on their website: erykadellenbach.com