When capoeira mestre (master) Jelon Vieira immigrated to the United States in 1975, Brazil’s African-based folk traditions were little known here. Largely due to his efforts, interest in capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian fusion of dance, martial arts, and acrobatics born in the northeastern state of Bahia, has exploded. Today Capoeira Luanda is integral to Mestre Jelon’s mission to promote and perpetuate this dynamic art form.
An early form of capoeira arrived in Brazil with enslaved Africans from Congo and Angola in the 1500s. Through a process of creolization, capoeira developed into a brilliant tradition—part dance and part game—on the plantations and in the quilombos (escaped slave communities) alongside Afro-Brazilian religions like candomblé, and music and dance traditions like samba, as a means of resisting slavery. Capoeiristas hid their practice in plain sight, camouflaging it as a dance and telling Portuguese slaveholders, who were threatened by its martial arts elements, that they were playing, not fighting, capoeira. Still, capoeira was outlawed in Brazil until 1890. Even after the ban was lifted, it remained marginalized as a working-class street game until the 1930s, when it was recognized as the national sport of Brazil. In 2014, capoeira was added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
Capoeira is played in the roda (circle), inside which capoeiristas take turns squaring off, surrounded by the chorus and musicians who play the berimbau (a gourd-resonated musical bow), pandeiro (a tambourine-like frame drum), and atabaque (a hand drum similar to the conga). One person leads the chorus in call-and-response songs, drawing from capoeira history, stories of legendary mestres, and playful anecdotes.
Mestre Jelon started learning capoeira at age 10. He recalls, “I was going to get a haircut … and I saw someone playing capoeira and I was totally taken by it. I stayed there for maybe five hours and I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I even forgot to get a haircut.” But social stigmas die hard; his mother did not support his interest. He found instructors anyway, studying under several great masters in his native Bahia, including Mestre Bimba, a leading figure in changing attitudes toward capoeira.
Vieira catalyzed worldwide appreciation for Brazilian culture, while simultaneously introducing the tradition to people of all ages and backgrounds. He founded the New York-based Capoeira Foundation and is the Artistic Director of DanceBrazil. After decades of study, Mestre Jelon established Capoeira Luanda in New York City in 2007. Today the group has branches across the U.S. and in 10 countries.
In recognition of his life’s work, Mestre Jelon received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008, the highest honor the U.S. government bestows upon traditional artists. He strives to immerse his students in not only capoeira techniques but in the philosophy surrounding the art form. For Mestre Jelon, capoeira is more than art; it is a way of life. With Capoeira Luanda, Mestre Jelon prepares his students, including his son Tiba, to carry on the legacy for many generations to come.