20 min read • Jan 10, 2023
Interview with Brenno Brélvis about longboarding and malandragem
Photo by Gabriel Klein
This interview was originally published on Sound and Colours on Jan 17, 2022
Longboard dancing might not be sweeping the globe, but it is quickly emerging from a tiny niche to a more prominent niche. If you watched the Olympics from Tokyo this past summer, you likely saw a Facebook commercial featuring several of the world’s greatest practitioners of the art.
Given the prominence of Brazilian skateboarders and Brazil’s cultural power more generally, it is not surprising that Brazil (particularly Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo) has emerged as one of the hotbeds of the form. There are a host of great Brazilian longboard dancers, always innovating. Brenno Brélvis is most prominent among them, and the one who has been most innovating in bringing a deep Brazilian sensibility, shaped by capoeira and afro-Brazilian dance, to longboard dancing. After initially writing about Brenno’s style for Sounds and Colours in 2019, I had the pleasure of interviewing him in December of 2021.
BRYAN: I would love to talk with you about longboard dancing, and about your style as a Brazilian artist. I am coming from a background of many years of studying Brazilian culture, including capoeira. I recently got interested in longboard dancing, and have been following the growth of longboard dancing in Brazil. I noticed that your style incorporates many elements of capoeira, and I love that. Tell me a little about that.
Photo by Alexandre Razuk
BRENNO: I try to incorporate some movements from capoeira into my longboard dancing. Capoeira is something that, in addition to being beautiful, there is a long history behind it. I started doing capoeira when I was seven years old, and I understand it as a fight disguised as a dance. There is a long history of enslaved people using capoeira to defend themselves with all those movements. I love to incorporate those movements, because it is not only an art, but a connection to the history. I think it is very cool. And, also, it is the only luta ritmada, the only fight set to a rhythm, in the world, if you think about it. You have to play capoeira to the rhythm of the berimbau. I think that is very cool. In fact, this year, in the world championship [So You Can Longboard Dance World Championship, held in Eindhoven, Netherlands in November, 2021] I had prepared my choreography to an electronic berimbau piece, in case I advanced to the finals. But unfortunately I did not qualify for the finals. [Brenno won the competition in 2016. This year, he made it to the semifinal round.]
BRYAN: Did you start with skateboarding before moving onto longboarding?
BRENNO: I started with skateboarding, but I didn’t even know how to do a good ollie. I moved to longboarding because I loved surfing. But to surf, I had to get the bus [from São Pedro da Aldeia, Rio de Janeiro] to Cabo Frio or Búzios, and in that period I didn’t have enough money to get the bus every day. So, I wanted something that would simulate surfing, and I found longboarding. And in my first week on the longboard I broke my arm. I had to pay 2,000 reais [at the time, approximately US$1,000] for an operation, and then I had a cast on for three months. I came back with blood in my eyes, eager to get started again. I started searching for videos on YouTube, and I saw that they had longboard dancing. I started to practice and to do that. But it was more in the style of the surfing that I loved. I try to mix capoeira and surfing on the longboard. But the longboard is actually a little short, right? It is ironic, the longboard is short. But the steps that I am doing, I have to shorten them in order to squeeze them onto the longboard. I am trying to use some more esquivas [evasive moves] from capoeira, to put them on the longboard, in the rhythm of the music. The music is always really important for me, you know?
BRYAN: How old were you when you broke your arm?
BRYAN: How old are you now?
BRYAN: Very young. You grew up in São Pedro da Aldeia?
BRENNO: Born and raised here. But I am thinking of going to Portugal next year, in April. I am thinking of working there for five, ten years, to make some money and then return to Brazil. I am not sure I will be able to stand that cold weather. I was in Europe last month, crazy to return home, because my nose was freezing inside from all that cold weather. It is really cold there and I am not used to it, so it was a little difficult.
BRYAN: Have you been to the US?
BRENNO: Only to California.
BRYAN: Tell me a little more about São Pedro. What was it like to grow up there? How did you start practicing capoeira? Is that very common?
BRENNO: Well, I always played capoeira, since I was young. The tradition is very strong here. And there came a moment in my life when I had to choose between capoeira and longboarding, because I was going to train capoeira, and then would go directly to practice longboarding. But I was getting really run down. Because it was capoeira all day, and longboarding all night, and I would arrive home exhausted. I had to stop and say to myself: I can’t be really good at both these things. I have to focus on one of them. So, I chose longboarding. But I never left behind the principles of capoeira. As I said, capoeira taught me much more than the fight, it taught me a large part of my character and my identity, because it is a very strong discipline. It helped me a lot. It helped me with my balance on the longboard. In my opinion, after gymnastics, the stretching and balance of capoeira is the best. And that helped me a lot with my balance. It made it very easy for me to do certain movements on the longboard, because I had already trained my balance so much through capoeira. So, some movements came much more easily to me than they do to people who have not practiced capoeira. And it also helped me in the areas of discipline, stretching, character, respect, you understand? It is much more than a fight, or a dance, you know?
BRYAN: Yes, totally.
BRENNO: And São Pedro is a small town, really small. In terms of things to do, it doesn’t have much. But it has its own beauty, right? We have the lagoon [Araruama Lagoon], which has an opening to the ocean. It is the largest hypersaline lagoon in the world. It is really big and really rich, the fish… I like to say, and no one has disproven it, that the tainha [mullet fish], we have the best tainha in the world, because the lagoon is so salty that the fish comes pre-seasoned.
And much of the life in São Pedro revolves around fishing. And the humility of the fishers is also engrandecedor (ennobling), in my opinion. And it taught me that humility, for my own way of life, you know? That contact with the fishers and all that, I have a lot of that essence of someone from a small town. But I travel the world.
I never remained stuck in São Pedro. I had to travel. It has been difficult these last two years during the pandemic, and I found it really stressful not to be able to travel. Because I really love to travel.
BRENNO: I am deeply tied to São Pedro, and I really love it here. But at the same time, São Pedro is really small, and now I kind of want to dar uma voada (fly away).
BRYAN: I understand completely. So, who is your capoeira mestre (master).
BRENNO: Professor Pardal.
BRYAN: Is he part of any particular school or branch?
BRENNO: It is a group from São Pedro, itself. It is small but it has an enormous value for me. They always motivated me, and it gives me energy. It is a source of many of my ideas, and I am always looking for ideas to innovate, you know?
BRYAN: Great. Tell us about some of the movements you have incorporated from capoeira and Brazilian dance, more generally.
BRENNO: Well, the one that helped me win the world championship in 2016 was not from capoeira, but from frevo. I call it the Spin Brélvis, and it is a frevo step, but until then no one had done it on the longboard.
Photo by Lotfi Lamaali
And now, there are some differing interpretations. Because I created that move for longboard and called it the Spin Brélvis. But now there are longboarders from Europe who sometimes post videos with that same movement and they give it a different name. They want to use the movement, but they do not always know that I brought it to longboard. Sometimes they call it the Kininspin [Brenno may be thinking of Pindrop here.], but that is not the name I use. Maybe it is Kininspin in hip-hop, and maybe that is a crazy dance move, but in the longboard, for me… But these things happen in skateboarding.
BRYAN: Yes, for me that is definitely the Spin Brélvis.
BRENNO: Yeah, so sometimes I comment on those vídeos. Great move, you know it has various names….[laughs]
BRYAN: I think that now it is part of the grammar of longboard dancing, there are lots of people using it.
BRENNO: Yes. But the people from So You Can Longboard Dance know that I was the one who did it there [in 2016]. And thanks to that move, which was new for longboarding then, I won the world championship that year. The guy who won the championship this year [AJ the Kid] also used it and won. But it wasn’t just because of that—he had a series of tricks and more.
BRYAN: You also use the capoeira ginga [the basic step, a kind of moving tripod] in longboarding.
BRENNO: Yes, the ginga. I love the balanço [the syncopated rhythm or swing] of capoeira, because it has that whole history of the malandro, right? [The malandro is an iconic figure of Brazilian cultural history, a street-smart rogue drawing on deep cultural knowledge to make his way in a world where the odds are stacked against him.] The malandro from Rio de Janeiro. The guy who pretends he is drunk, but he is not. He is mandando um balanço [stepping deliberately off-kilter]. That is the malandragem [the trickery] of Rio, and even more, of Bahia.
Photo by Gabriel Klein
So, I love that balanço and it is something beautiful to see in capoeira. For me there are two ways of playing capoeira: the guy who has great skills, who does all the movements, flourishes and all that, pretty. And the mandingueiro [the sorcerer], the mandingueiro for me is more beautiful to see. Because he has that particular way all his own, his own unique style. He pretends to go, but he doesn’t go. There is even that song…
BRYAN: Vai, vai, vai, não vou. [“Go, go, go, go, I won’t go.” From “Canto de Ossanha” by Baden Powell and Vinícius de Moraes].
BRENNO: And there is that other song, if the capoeira falls, he falls well. Like that.
BRYAN: Capoeira que é bom não cai, e se um dia ele cai, cai bem. [“The good capoeira does not fall, and if one day he falls, he falls well.” From “Berimbau,” also by Baden Powell and Vinícius de Moraes.]
BRENNO: Exactly! That’s it. Baden Powell, in my opinion, is also one of the caras mais fodas (baddest dudes).
BRYAN: No doubt. Incredible. And Baden Powell, as a composer, had that mandinga. And I think you have that same mandinga. That is a really interesting connection.
BRENNO: I am going to make a video with that song. I am trying to fit in some movements to really play the malandro de capoeira on the longboard, doing all those off-kilter movements to the music.
BRYAN: Well, I think you have that malandragem, and it is really rare in skateboarding and in longboarding. Generally, longboarders have a more direct style: I am going to do this trick and bam.
Longboarding and competition
BRENNO: Exactly. I even commented on that this year. Sometimes riders don’t even breathe after one trick, they send another trick, and then another, and another, and they don’t breathe…. Does it work? Yes. But to me, it starts to get a little robotic, and I think, that way, it loses some of the beauty.
I talked about this with the organizers of So You Can Longboard Dance after this year’s championship, about separating dancing and freestyle.
BRYAN: I agree, I think there should be different categories for dancing and freestyle. I prefer dancing, but freestyle is also amazing, right?
BRENNO: I started with freestyle, and then I discovered dancing, and that is much more my style, ultimately. For me, the future of longboard dancing will be like the floor routine of gymnastics in the Olympics, where the athletes create the choreography from the music. I think longboard dancing, if it ever becomes part of the Olympics, will need to incorporate that musicality.
BRYAN: I agree. I think of a rider like Giu, who really dances. They really dance on the longboard, doing something different.
BRENNO: Yes, I spoke with Giu. I talked a lot with them. They are an amazing artist, really marvelous, battling to create their own thing.
BRYAN: Yes, I think there is room for many styles.
The Brélvis crew
BRYAN: Tell me about how the Brélvis crew was formed.
BRENNO: Well, it really came from nothing, back in 2012. December 12th, 2012, there at the end of the world [in São Pedro]. I was with a couple of my friends, and one friend was talking to a young woman, and the young woman said, who is that with you? And I said, my name is Brenno Gomes Becker. And my friend said, Brenno Becker and Hugo. And the young woman asked, Hugo who? And he just made it up on the spot. Hugo Brélvis. [laughs]. And it stuck, and we thought it was really funny. So we created the group, and we would go around saying Brélvis, Brélvis, Brélvis. And we were really tight, we went longboarding, we partied, we would go to tournaments with a big crew, and it became a whole story. Today we even have our own longboard brand.
Photo from the Los Brelvis Facebook page
BRYAN: Great, how did you do that? Did you work with a Brazilian manufacturer, or do you make them yourselves?
BRENNO: Well, the board itself, thanks to my friend Ian Toro. He became my partner. I designed the board, and he invested. We have a Brazilian manufacturer who makes the board, but we designed the art. The trucks are Paris brand, from California. We put it all together here, and sell them.
BRYAN: Awesome. Is demand growing?
BRENNO: We are investing now in marketing. Until now, we have just been investing in getting all the material together and we are just starting to publicize it. Until now, it has been all expense.
BRYAN: I know longboard dancing and freestyle are already very strong in Rio and São Paulo. How about Brasília? Is anyone longboard dancing in Brasília?
BRENNO: There is a crew in Brasília, but downhill is more prominent there. I remember I went to a Red Bull competition in Brasília. The downhill and freeride crew always got a little upset when we did some dancing in the freeride event and made the podium. Because people had never seen it. And back then there were no competitions for dancing, and we wanted it to grow, and to be seen. We wanted to say, we’re here, we are longboard dancing, this modality exists. So, we went to competitions all over Brazil and we had to compete in categories that were not ours. Even so, sometimes, because it looked good, we were able to make the finals and sometimes make the podium. It is a really funny story.
There was one time when I thought I would make the finals. It was in Niterói, a downhill slide competition. It was raining a lot, and the asphalt was really slippery, we were sliding everywhere. But I managed to nail my line. I did a ladykiller, which is a slide with crossed legs, and a 180, another ladykiller with my hand in my pocket, I did backwards peter pan, looking at the judges. In my opinion, it was one of the best lines I ever did in a competition. And I ended up in 24th place! [laughs]
BRYAN: Sometimes, it just is not going to happen. And really, even within dancing, you have a unique style, which is that style of malandragem, from capoeira, from frevo, from afro-Brazilian movement.
BRENNO: I really like that movement and that energy. Because the energy does not lie. For me, to be up there dancing, expressing that art, is one of the best things in the world. I love to grab my board, put on some music and flow. It gives me an inexplicable sensation of freedom.
BRYAN: And now in São Pedro, you must be really well known, right?
BRENNO: I’m practically like a city councilman [laughs]. Everyone knows me. But there is that old challenge: Brazil is really difficult, and support for sport is really precarious. I really cannot live from skating. My dream is to earn a living from skateboarding. But for now I have to do a lot of videos, I am a film-maker, I am always filming. It is really difficult to maintain that balance of being an athlete and continue working on other things.
BRYAN: In terms of sponsors, who are you working with?
BRENNO: Generally, I work with exchanges in kind. I do the videos and the brand gives me the material. I work with Vechi, a clothing brand. I do three videos a month, three reels, and they supply the clothing. And now I am working with Redley Europe, and luckily they are helping me with costs. They helped me with housing, food and transportation on the recent trip to Europe. I may even work in the store if I go to Europe. And Paris Trucks, which is a great brand, and one that gives me lots of visibility. They supply the trucks, and some clothing, and they help with registration in competitions. And I love the owner. I love the owners of all these sponsors, and get along well with them. I think that is crucial. We have the same vibe, and the same vision of the future. Ryan Ricker, the owner of Paris Trucks, he lives in California. He is a marvelous guy, the kind that you can hardly imagine exists. He is always calling me to see how I am doing. And there is Johnny Brownie, a dessert shop in Cabo Frio, and their brownies are delicious. I am going there today to make some videos. And there is Cheiro Verde, a restaurant here in São Pedro, I eat lunch there almost every day.
BRYAN: So, in terms of Brazilian music, what influences your style?
BRENNO: I love MPB [Música Popular Brasileira], I really love it. And I also love Brazilian psychedelic music, like Os Mutantes. There is a really good band called Boogarins, really great lyrics. They are better known outside Brazil than here. The guitarist is a friend of mine, I help his nieces with longboarding. And I love forró. Here in São Pedro, forró might be the music we listen to the most. I grew up listening to forró. My mother always had forró on, really loud. At first I didn’t like it, I thought it was tacky. But then I began to see the essence, you know? It has that malemolência [easy flow], and I ended up loving that.
BRYAN: Me too, I love dancing forró.
BRENNO: Me too! I really love it!
BRYAN: And your connection with the city of Rio de Janeiro—do you go frequently?
BRENNO: I go to Rio when there is not much to do here in São Pedro, because Rio is much more active. I love the parties, the people, the energy. I am working with a really good hotel in Recreio dos Bandeirantes [in the western zone of the municipality of Rio de Janeiro] now, and I stay there. I am planning on teaching a class there before leaving for Europe.
And for skating, I love the Aterro do Flamengo, especially when they close the traffic lanes on Sundays. It is a marvelous place to skate. I used to go frequently when I was starting out as a longboarder. I made one of my first videos on the Aterro do Flamengo in 2013, back when I had dreadlocks. It was a really special part of my life, one I remember with great fondness.
BRYAN: And you have more recent videos from the Aterro, also.
BRENNO: I do! It is an amazing place.
BRYAN: Do you connect with the skateboard scene in Rio? Sérgio Santoro, for example?
BRENNO: Serginho is really cool, he is that marvellous dude, he has great energy, always laughing, always with a smile on his face. He is a great guy, Sérgio. It has been some time since I have seen him.
BRYAN: I think he has that same malandragem.
BRENNO: Yes, really cool.
BRYAN: Excellent, Brenno, well, I think that is it. Anything else you would like to say about Brazilian culture, Brazilian dance, afro-Brazilian movement, for example?
BRENNO: Let me see, that is a really big topic, right? The culture is really strong. Every place has its own culture, but Brazil has a very strong energy, very hot. We have our own thing… On my way to the Netherlands recently, I saw this film that really affected me, and reminded me about how there are still many racist people in the world, prejudiced, racial and homophobic prejudice. And I think that is a lack of culture. And I stopped to reflect: if I had not entered into capoeira in my life, if I did not have contact with that culture of capoeira, that afro-culture, I might have that same thinking of undervaluing people, of discriminating. Capoeira taught me to have respect, a strong consideration. For me, that is what is essential. Culture makes us more human.