HISTORY OF GRUPO SENZALA
In 1967, the then group of students signed up to participate in Rio de Janeiro’s first Berimbau de Ouro, a competition created by a folklore promotion entity to promote Capoeira and evaluate which was the best group in Brazil’s former capital. With a theatrical performance in which they showed their expertise at the martial aspects and acrobatics of Capoeira but also underscored its history and traditions, Grupo Senzala won this first competition.
They also won the following two Berimbaus de Ouro. As a result, the Capoeira community gave them the titles of masters of Capoeira.
Associação Maranhense, 1966
Roda de São Cristóvão, Rio de Janeiro 1980s
Grupo Senzala is the world’s oldest organized Capoeira group that remains together. The inception of the group traces back to 1960, when three brothers from the Northeastern state of Bahia moved to Rio and decided to continue their studies of Capoeira on their own. They were soon joined by other teenagers interested in the art which were to become the founding fathers of Grupo Senzala.
The name Senzala, however, was only used for the first time in 1966, at which point the group was almost 20-people strong. Senzala was the place where slaves were kept during the hours when they were not working in Brazil. By choosing that name for the group, the founders were making their first statement that they viewed Capoeira not only as a rich sport and martial art, but also as a part of Brazil’s cultural heritage.
The grading system used by Grupo Senzala was also conceived as a result of the Berimbau de Ouro. At the event, the masters had decided to wear white, a color full of symbolic meaning in Afro-Brazilian traditions, but they also flaunted red chords to represent the blood shed by millions of slaves during the period when human captivity was lawful in Brazil.
When they were made masters, they took on the red chord as the highest in Senzala’s system. They later broke down the steps to achieve that level into smaller graduations. Currently, students of Centro Cultural Senzala go through 11 stages before becoming masters and starting from the advanced stages each step up can take anywhere between one to five years to pass:
Crua (white) – new arrival
Yellow – beginner student
Orange – advanced beginner
Grey – intermediate
Blue – graduated
Green – instructor
Yellow-purple – professor
Purple – professor
Yellow-brown – contra-mestre
Brown – contra-mestre
Yellow-red – contra-mestre
Red – formado, master
Cords awaiting Pitbull’s students during batizado
New York 2011
In spite of being such a long process, Grupo Senzala has more than 25 active masters and a manifold number of contra-mestres and instructors teaching in almost every corner of the world, a statement of the strength and unity of the group.
The chord system was also one of the many contributions that Grupo Senzala made to Capoeira. While there had been a few attempts to standardize the level system in Capoeira, Grupo Senzala was arguably the first one to establish a comprehensive chord system, something that the vast majority of Capoeira groups now use.
The founders of Grupo Senzala started to study Capoeira without a master, which in most cases would have been a hindrance to their development. However, they made that a strength and instead kept their minds open to all the different styles of Capoeira, making an effort to take classes with different masters across Brazil whenever they could and absorbing the best that each one had.
They also studied the body mechanics of Capoeira, as well as the traditions and rhythms from a more objective standpoint – in fact many of the founders of Grupo Senzala ended up studying physical education in university.
The result of that was what many Capoeira historians saw as the creation of a whole new style of the art. Kicks were focused on objectivity, the stance was more solid, with arms kept high to protect the face. The new style soon showed its efficiency and came to be widely adopted by other Capoeira groups.
Senzala’s founders, however, have always denied having created a new style. They are known for saying that they play Capoeira to the rhythm being beaten on the drums. Any different style they had, they say, was just their own personal view of what worked for them.
Mestre Peixinho kicking a "bênção"
Indeed, that has been passed on through the generations and Senzala students are expected to master all of the different rhythms and rituals of Capoeira and to perform well regardless of what is the style required. As Mestre Peixinho, one of the founders of the group used to say: “We play Capoeira, whatever the berimbau dictates, we play.”
SENZALA IN ASIA
Grupo Senzala is already present in five countries in Asia.
Aside from Contra-Mestre Pitbull's students in Kuantan and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), and himself in Singapore, the group is present in several cities of Indonesia, in Bacolod (Philippines), two cities in Australia -- with Mestre Rodriguinho teaching classes in Canberra -- and in Guangzhou (China).