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Is it Contramestre or Contra-Mestre? And what about Mestrando?

Most groups use a title for someone who is on the path of becoming a mestre, but hasn’t formally been recognized as one yet. Titles commonly used are Contramestre and Mestrando. What is the difference? And how do you spell Contramestre?

Contramestre, Contra Mestre or Contra-Mestre?

I’ve done some research and here’s what I found.

Contramestre

Origin of the term

The title Contramestre wasn’t invented in capoeira, it actually is a naval term which was adopted by capoeiras. Somewhere between the mid 19th and early 20th century, a lot of the capoeiras in Salvador used to work on the docks or on ships. Also, a lot of Navy officials were capoeira players during that time. At some point, capoeira was even part of the training program of the Brazilian Navy. There have always been strong ties between capoeira and life at sea, which is very clear in the amount of capoeira songs touching on the subject. It is therefore logical that the capoeira players adopted some naval terms and introduced them in capoeira.

If you are (just like me) absolutely not familiar with naval jargon, it can be a bit confusing figuring out what a contramestre is. The terms and titles also can’t be translated directly to English, as it seems there are some differences. Here’s what I make of it, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

A contramestre is a professional in the merchant navy tasked with the coordination of the sailors on the deck. The designation of “contramestre” is also used in some war navies to designate posts equivalent to sergeant.

Wikipedia

The English term for a Contramestre is Boatswain. It is the oldest rank of the Royal Navy and the term stems back to the 1460’s. A Boatswain is also more commonly known as a Petty Officer or deck boss. This rank is often the equivalent of a sergeant or corporal in other military branches.

[Boatswain] is the seniormost rate of the deck department and is responsible for the components of a ship’s hull. The boatswain supervises the other members of the ship’s deck department

Wikipedia

Contramestre in capoeira

Before the emergence of Capoeira Contemporânea, the title of Contramestre didn’t hold the same value as it does now. The Contramestre was the Mestre’s right hand man and assistant. He would help organize the classes, receive and welcome new students and take care of more practical things. It was not as much a title as it was a position you held in your academy. Of course, the Contramestre was most often one of the most experienced disciples and was quicker to be recognized as a Mestre himself.

With a space or hyphen

If you would spell Contramestre as two seperate words, or with a hyphen, the meaning changes. “Contra mestre” means “against the master”, referring to someone who is literally against or opposed to the master or not in his favor. This is a good reason to never spell a capoeira’s title with a space or hyphen.

In conclusion, Contramestre is the correct spelling.

Mestrando

Four years ago I had the opportunity to meet Mestre Jelon, when he was a guest at our annual event. During the event we held a Q&A with the Mestres and this subject was brought up.

Mestre Jelon explained that he had done research into the matter as well. According to him, “Mestrando” literally means “becoming a Mestre” and therefore is incorrect to be used as a title, since it is an indication of a process.

I dug through my digital archive and found the audio recording from that Q&A. I cut out the relevant part (it was a 2 hour session) and uploaded it to Soundcloud. You can listen to Mestre Jelon’s explication here*:

* The session was recorded with the knowledge and consent of the participants. Next to Mestre Jelon, the following Mestres were present: Balu, Dendê, Kiby and Negro Dinho. The recording was made on 15/05/2016.

Here’s a summarized translation:

Around the start of the 1990’s, the titles Formando and Mestrando were introduced in capoeira. I wanted to know where they came from and what they meant. So I talked to two PhDs, one of them being an editor for a Brazilian dictionary and lecturer at NYU. He told me that mestrando can’t be used as a title since it is a expression of a process. “Um Contramestre está mestrando”, meaning “a Contramestre is mastering”, because (s)he is preparing to one day become a Mestre. The same goes for the term Formando. The title is Mestre and the process is called mestrando. In the end, a “Contramestre está mestrando”, he is undergoing the process of becoming a Mestre.

Mestre Jelon

My own research

While writing this article I wanted to verify this theory. And it seems to be correct. Mestrando is the gerund of the verb “mestrar“, which would translate to “(is) mastering”, since the present continuous tense is somewhat similar to the Portuguese gerund.

Furthermore, I found that a Brazilian master’s degree is called a mestrado. Someone who is undertaking a master’s degree but hasn’t finished it yet, is called mestrando. A mestre is someone who holds a master’s degree. In contradiction to what Mestre Jelon explained, “mestrando” is in this context not an expression of the process.

So Mestrando can be derived from the academic world and also means “is mastering”. While it has nothing to do with capoeira, I can imagine the term was adopted from the academic title in an effort to further institutionalize and regularize capoeira. I thought this would have happened in the 1970’s with the emergence of Capoeira Contemporânea, but according to Mestre Jelon, the term was only introduced in the 90’s.

Conclusion

As far as I know, the term Mestrando is only used in Contemporânea groups today, whereas Contramestre is used in all styles.

I personally prefer the term Contramestre because it can historically be linked to capoeira. However, the group I am part of uses the Mestrando title. As so often in capoeira, neither is wrong, it’s just a matter of preference. But I do recommend spelling Contramestre without spaces or hyphens.

— Vinho

6 thoughts on “Is it Contramestre or Contra-Mestre? And what about Mestrando?

    1. What a great material. I’m just writing a article about the word “Contramestre” and I will be pleased to share your link.

      How ever I understood that you said that capoeira contemporanea uses the word “Mestrando”. I come from one of the masters who influenced in the capoeira contemporanea outcome and we use the word “Contramestre”. As I believe most of the “grupos” from that period. I remember back in the 90s, there was a big argument about the word “Contramestre” and some people decided to call that graduation “Mestrando”.

      However, we must agree that everyone uses what their prefer and it doesn’t make it wrong. But a choice of your grupo.

      Best regards,

    2. Hi Madeira,

      I think the term Mestrando originated in contemporânea, which doesn’t mean it is the only term used in contemporânea groups. Personally I’ve never heard of an Angola group using the Mestrando title.
      Thanks for your insights!

  1. Maybe also include the term “Formando/Formanda” which is used in with Grupo Capoeira Brasil. It means “forming”. We also call someone who achieves the rank of Mestre “Formado/Formada” for a few years, usually around four years, before they really get called “Mestre”. We think that the title of Mestre is an acknowledgment of the capoeira community.

  2. Nice research. Congrats!
    I would like to add something about “contramestre” spelling.
    Actually, in BP (Brazilian Portuguese), when we hyphenate a word, one of the parts usually plays as an adjective. So, in this sense, in the word ‘contra-mestre’, “contra” is characterizing “mestre”, resulting as the same as “half-master”. Just like in “contra-acusação” (counter-charge” or “contra-argumento” (counter-argument).
    When you spell it in two different words “contra mestre” doesn’t necessarily mean “against the master”, because there’s no article (o mestre or um mestre), it will depend on the context that you can have this meaning (against), but in BP that is a hardly even seen grammar construction.

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