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BERIMBAU Heart of Capoeira

The berimbau consist of a wooden stick which is strung with a steel string to form the bow shape, a gourd with an opening on one side which acts as a resonator, a coin or stone, a thin bamboo stick, and a basket shaker called caxixi. Traditionally in capoeira (the Brazilian martial arts style) the berimbau rhythms are accompanied by the following percussion instruments; pandeiro (a tambourine with a head and flat jingles), agogo (two iron bells), reco reco (a bamboo scrapper) and atabaque (tall barrell style hand drum). All these instruments give the capoeira a very distinctive and unique sound. During the jôgo de capoeira (game of capoeira) various traditional, folkloric and improvised songs are sung accompanied by clapping.

The technique of playing the berimbau is unique and quite hard to master, as you not only have to hold the bow and balance it with the left hand, but are also required to hold a coin or stone with the thumb and first finger. The right hand holds the stick which strikes the string. It also holds a small basket shaker called caxixi, which plays along with the stick and also plays independent strokes. The basic sounds played with the stick are: high tone (with the coin or stone pressed against the string), buzz tone (with the coin or stone pressed lightly on the string) and low tone (open string note).  The left hand with the coin produces a very soft passing tone.

The berimbau can produce distinctive rhythms called toques that are easily recognised by the capoeristas (capoeira game participants). Some of this toques de berimbau are common to all schools, while others are developed by different mestres (masters) and played by their students. Some of these rhythms are related to African nations such as Angola and Ijexa, some refer to Catholic saints, while some were used to alert the participants. As an example the rhythms known as aviso and cavalaria were used traditionally to advice the participants of the arrival of a stranger, the police, or the cavalry squadron to the circle.

Toque de Angola

In terms of my own experiences with the berimbau I have a Brazilian made instrument, and also one I made myself, which I must say possesses a better tone. The first time I heard the berimbau was on an Airto Moreira record. I found the sound and the rhythms fascinating, soon after I made my first berimbau. My interest in the instrument is for the musical qualities which I tend to incorporate to original compositions and performances. I have a composition on my first cd (Alex Pertout) titled Manaus in which I played two berimbaus, the fundamental notes tuned a fourth apart. On the release by the legendary Australian saxophonist Brian Brown (Flight - Newmarket 3014.2), one is my compositions titled Friendship is featured, the piece is rhythmically based on a berimbau rhythm.

The practice of using the berimbau outside of its traditional role is not always appreciated by many associated with capoeira.  According to Almeida (1986) "many berimbau players are not capoeristas, because the instrument can be played out of the context of capoeira, as in samba de roda, or even as a rhythmical instrument in contemporary music." And although he makes mention of Nana Vasconcelos and Paulinho Da Costa as "two excellent percussionists who produce extraordinary effects with the berimbau", he somehow expresses the view that "the exclusive use of the berimbau to make music with no relation to capoeira is for me not correct."

Highly recommended recordings featuring the berimbau include:
Capoeira Senzala De Santos 
Capoeira, Samba de Roda, Maculelê  (Buda 92575-2)

Paulinho Da Costa 
Agora  (Pablo OJCCD 630-2)

Airto Moreira 
The Essential (Buddah BDS 5668-2 LP)

Nana Vasconcelos 
Saudades  (ECM1-1147 LP)

Berimbau E Percussao  (Universal Sound USCD7)

Black Music Of South America
In Praise Of Oxalá And Other Gods  (Nonesuch H-72036)

Sergio Mendes 
Primal Roots (A&M L34603 LP)

Mickey Hart
Planet Drum  (Rykodisc RCD 10206)

Highly recommended books include:
Almeida, Bira 
Capoeira A Brazilian Art Form; History, Philosophy and Practice 1986

Rugendas, Joao M 
Viagem Pitoresca Atraves do Brasil  1954

Shaffer, Kay 
O Berimbau De Barriga e Seus Toques 1986

For further information including an audio sample please click here.

© Alex Pertout.
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article was first published in Drumscene magazine.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.