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Berlin’s Angola godfather

Master Rosalvo Dos Santos has made it his mission to train an army of German capoeristas.

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Photo by German Palomeque

Master Rosalvo Dos Santos has made it his mission to train an army of German capoeristas.

With its combination of dance, acrobatics, martial arts and live music, it’s not hard to see capoeira’s appeal. There are at least 15 studios dedicated to the Brazilian sport in Berlin, and countless more gyms and yoga studios offering classes. But when capoeira mestre (master) Rosalvo Dos Santos came here in 1989, it was a different story.

“There were a few Brazilians teaching capoeira here, but I realised right away that none of them knew how to execute and teach it correctly,” says the 50-year-old Brazilian native. “There are two types of capoeira, Angola and Regional, but they never explained the difference. They were just combining random movements from both without understanding the meaning behind what they were doing.”

Dos Sontos, on the other hand, was a pure Angoleiro. Less aggressive and more expressive than the Regional style, Angola hews closest to capoeira’s beginnings as a martial art among fugitive Angolan slaves in 16th-century Brazil. It’s that style that Dos Sontos fell in love with as a 16-year-old growing up in Salvador, a coastal city reputed for the vibrancy of its Afro-Brazilian cultural blend. “A friend of mine from school was in a small capoeira group, and he convinced me to come watch them practice. After watching for long enough, I asked if I could join.”

By 19, after some time spent studying under legendary mestre Cobra Mansa, he was already teaching capoeira to a theatre group in his home town. “I didn’t advertise my work – I didn’t even charge anyone for attending my classes in the beginning. I just thought that I would do it as a hobby. But people kept on coming to me.” Abandoning his original plans to become a mechanic in his stepfather’s auto workshop, Dos Salvos co-founded the group Filhos de Angola (“sons of Angola”) in 1984.

Persuaded to move to Berlin by his now ex-wife, he made it his sole mission to make sure Germans knew what Capoeira Angola truly was. He found a kindred spirit in Susy Oesterreicher, a German capoerista who’d begun practicing the sport in 1989 and was also frustrated with the quality of the classes in Berlin. In 1997, the pair set up Academie Jangada, the first-ever Capoeira Angola school in all of Europe.

Now operating out of Prenzlauer Berg’s Kulturbrauerei, Jangada covers everything from aerial yoga to breakdancing, but it’s Rosalvo and Oesterreicher’s capoeira classes that remain the most in-demand. When he’s not teaching there, Dos Santos is spreading the gospel at international Capoeira Angola meetings and workshops. Ironically, with a German teaching partner and a mix of German and international students, he spends little time among fellow Brazilians. “I used to be involved in the ‘scene’, but not anymore. After a while, you keep seeing the same faces, it gets less exciting… and being an instructor just takes so much out of you, you don’t have the energy to do anything else.”

Dos Santos’ ultimate dream is to bring a German all the way up to the mestre level, capoeira’s highest honour. “It isn’t as simple as it sounds. People start training, and then something comes up and they just drop everything and don’t return. But I still believe that one day, one of my students will become a capoeira master.”