When many people think of martial arts, they think of Bruce Lee or karate experts chopping thick planks of wood with their bare hands. But there’s far more types of martial art than just the traditions and codified systems of combat. There are also those arts that have been developed for competition and physical, mental and spiritual development. Capoeira – an Afro-Brazilian form that combines dance, acrobatics and music – falls, these days at least, into this category. And there’s no-one more skilled at capoeira in Macao than Eddy Murphy.
Edilson Almeida – widely known in Macao as Mestre Eddy Murphy, which is Portuguese for ‘master’ or ‘teacher’ – is a seasoned capoeira professional. He’s trained all his life to become an expert in this martial art that was originally developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil at the start of the 16th century and is known for its complex acrobatic manoeuvres, often involving hands on the ground and inverted kicks. He grew up in a tough community on the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, but he has dedicated himself to capoeira throughout his life and now teaches the art to keen athletic people of all ages in Macao.
Capoeira is considered one of Brazil’s national sports and its movements are regularly accompanied by call-and-response choral singing, as well as the sounds of instruments like the single-stringed berimbau, the drum-like pandeiro and the shrill-sounding agogo bell. It has a storied history as it was both driven and disguised as merely a dance by its musical accompaniment from the 16th century in Brazil and was originally designed to give slaves a chance to escape and survive as it increases the artist’s ability to react quickly and dodge blows, as well as training them to use effective kicks and trips. Slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888 but capoeira nevertheless continued to flourish and, as a result, it was illegal in the South American country until the 1930s. It’s best described these days not as a dance but as a sport in which the participants face each other and swing their legs or somersault in time to the rhythms.
Eddy Murphy belongs to Grupo Axé Capoeira, one of the biggest organisations in the world that teaches contemporary capoeira to children as well as adults. With its headquarters in Vancouver, Canada, it was founded in 1982 by Mestre Barrão in Recife, Brazil, before it grew and established academies outside of South America, including in Canada, the US, Europe and Asia. It’s been in Macao since 2009. The organisation is now in 28 countries but it boasts only five masters of the art – Mestre Barrão, Mestre Carrasco and Mestre Andrezinho in Brazil, Mestre Tigrao in Canada and Mestre Eddy Murphy in Macao.
“The world we live in is diverse. You need to respect colour, religion and people. Respect is my base.”
Murphy’s journey began more than a decade after Mestre Barrão started the group. He grew up in relative poverty in Brazil but spent his early life learning the intricacies of this martial art on the streets, as well as in workshops and lessons with ‘old masters’. He also learned to play football to a decent standard and had the chance to make a career out of the sport but admits that ‘capoeira chose me’. He became so good at it that he managed to get a placement in Barcelona, Spain, between 1999 and 2001 teaching capoeira to enthusiastic pupils. In 2001, he moved to Asia for the first time, setting up home in Hong Kong, where he immediately grabbed the attention of locals by showcasing his moves at Victoria Park, the biggest park in the city. He says that most locals had never seen capoeira in action before and they were ‘astounded’ by his unique moves. “Come on, let me teach you,” he recalls telling people – and that’s just what he did for the next two years.
In 2003, Murphy moved up to Dongguan and Shenzhen, two close cities just north of the border. The 53-year-old admits it was a ‘difficult time’ for him as he spoke no Mandarin but he began to learn and soon spoke ‘about 50 per cent and was able to survive’. His big break came soon after when one of China’s biggest TV channels, Hunan TV, approached him as they were searching for ‘foreigners with special talents’. He was featured doing a few performances and staff at a gym in Macao caught the show. They were fascinated and called him up, asking him to put on a few demonstrations for their members. He did and it went down a storm. He went back to the mainland for the next six years, however Macao didn’t forget his skills. In 2009, the city’s Universal Yoga gym signed him up as an instructor and he moved to the SAR. But he lasted just 10 months before the gym closed its doors. “I remember thinking ‘What am I going to do now?’ when it closed,” says Murphy. “But even in 10 months I had made a bond with my students and they would go on to help me.”
Those students in Macao provided a lifeline for Murphy in 2009. “They helped me a lot,” he says. “They stuck with me after the gym closed and I began to teach them on my own. Soon enough, I started my own official club.” The Capoeira Sports and Cultural Association of Macau (ADCCM) was launched in 2009 under Murphy’s leadership and the tenets and affiliation of Grupo Axé Capoeira. It started with just a handful of students and today caters for 15 adults and more than 120 children in up to 18 classes every week. “I’m thankful to those people,” says Murphy. “They helped me open a door. But I also worked hard to make the ADCCM what it is today. I’ve been here ever since, teaching capoeira to individuals and groups, old and young, novices and experienced people.”
Have a little respect
Murphy describes himself as an ‘easy person’ because his life is all about respect. “The world we live in is diverse,” he says. “You need to respect colour, religion and people. Respect is my base.” He says that he loves capoeira and teaching it to children and adults is ‘joyous’. And he reveals that he got his nickname because of the famous American actor who has just starred in ‘Coming 2 America’ – although filmstar Eddie Murphy spells his first name differently. The capoeira star got his nickname – a common practice in groups of capoeiristas to describe your character traits and cement the family spirit of the group – from one of his early mentors, Mestre Big Dinho.
Murphy began to learn capoeira at 10 years old. “I started in a class,” he says. “I used to joke with the class and make everyone happy. I’ve been the same ever since. Mestre Big Dinho pulled me aside one day due to my jokes and said ‘You’re Eddy Murphy’.” Since those days, Murphy has travelled to more than 25 countries across the world and he says that in all of them, ‘only a few of my friends know my real name’. “Even in my hometown of São Paulo,” he adds, “when someone calls out my name, I take a while to realise they are talking to me.” Mestre Big Dinho and Mestre Barrão have shaped Murphy’s life a lot over the years. He lost both parents at a young age but he says Mestre Big Dinho was his ‘father figure’ as well as his first mentor who taught him an ‘incredible amount’ about capoeira. Later in life, when Murphy visited Canada, Mestre Barrão taught Murphy ‘how to be a professional in capoeira’, as well as ‘the rights and wrongs of the sport’.
When asked about the popularity of capoeira in Macao, Murphy admits that ‘currently, it’s hard’ due to the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Before the pandemic,” he says, “there were three capoeira teachers in the city. But now it’s just me. You really need a professional to teach you capoeira – it is difficult to learn. It has also been difficult to teach during the pandemic due to many students not being able to make classes or even classes not going ahead but now we are coming through that and we look forward to a bright future.”
Murphy has a son in Macao – 23-year-old Flecha – who he calls his ‘right arm’. “My son has helped me during this difficult period,” says Murphy. “He has kept me going with my practice and he is becoming skilled at the sport himself. Sadly, he was recently injured and has gone to Brazil for a while to recover but I hope he will return to Macao again soon.” Murphy adds that ‘once the pandemic ends’, he hopes to grow his club by getting in two or three new capoeira experts from across the world to teach the students.
Opening new windows
Capoeira is excellent for both physical and mental strength, says Murphy. “It has also helped me open new windows,” he says, “in Macao and across the world.” In his teens, he says that being proficient at the sport on the streets was important so ‘you could put up a good fight when challenged to a duel’ which, if you won, would ‘prove your worth and earn you some experience’. He says the streets of Brazil are different today but capoeira is no less respected as a tradition and a sport that is great to participate in or even just to watch.
“Being one of Grupo Axé Capoeira’s five masters,” says Murphy, “is a huge privilege. It has taken me to so many countries where I can work with other students and teachers.” He says that two years ago, he visited ‘12 different places’ across the world in just 12 months. “I admired Russia,” he says. “The people didn’t speak English but they were really respectful. Respect opens up new ways to learn as if you show someone respect, you can learn from them and vice-versa. Some of my students in Macao are as young as three years old. They learn respect at that age like all of the people in my classes.” Murphy says that, for his students, ‘before you even step through the door, you leave all your problems on the other side and come in with a clean and open mind’.
Racism and bullying are also hot topics in Murphy’s classes. “My classes are a tool that I can use to help make people better at dealing with racism or bullying,” he says. “Most of my students are young – they are the foundation of our future. If they can become better people then the future will be a better place.” Murphy adds that his goal is to be the young people’s ‘father figure’ or ‘at least someone they can one day look up to and say they are who they are because of my teaching, just like I did with Mestre Big Dinho’.
Mestre Eddy Murphy has had an impressive and colourful career so far and he is looking forward to many more years of passing those capoeira skills on to thousands of others. He says he loves Macao and plans to expand his club and influence over the coming years in a bid to keep this unique martial art in the public eye. He is highly motivated by this and applies this motivation as much to himself as he does to his students. “Never give up,” he says. “Not only in capoeira or in sport – but in life too. Always keep an open mind and never stop trying. Sometimes you want to go in one direction and you hit a wall. You may want to give up but don’t. There’s another door nearby. Step aside, open that door and keep going. Other opportunities are waiting for you.”
Know your capoeira
Facts about this unique martial art
Meet the capoeiristas
A few words from Eddy Murphy’s students
Get in touch
For details on Eddy Murphy’s club, email him firstname.lastname@example.org.