A Berimbau is a 4 to 5 feet long percussion single stringed musical instrument that has an unknown history. It is originally from Africa, but is also well known for it’s Brazilian use where it is called a Berimbau. It is shaped like a hunter’s bow with a varying sized ball shaped addition. It was also incorporated into the Afro-Brazilians martial arts of capoeira. There was also a popular song written about it by two Brazilians named Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes.
The Berimbau traditionally is made of biribá wood because it is so flexible, although they may be made from other woods such as tapioca and aracà. Bamboo is often used today, but it is known to not hold up as well. Whatever the material, its size should range between 1 millimeter and 1.2 millimeters.
Before the 1930s, the string was made from a vine or similar material, but after that time salvaged wire from old car tires was used. Today a string or wire can be purchased at any hardware store, although some prefer using a piano string. This string is strung tightly from the top end of the bow to the other, where a dried hollowed out gourd or cabaça is attached with a loop of strong string. This acts as a resonator for the instrument.
From the fruit of the bottle gourd, a.k.a. the calabash comes the cabaca, which is in the cucumber family and grows well in the tropics. Of this species, there are several types. The smallest type called viola has the highest pitch and is used mainly for playing solos. The next size or mid-size cabaca is called precisely medio, giving a medium tone, thus making it the rhythm keeper. There is also a large low-toned cabaca called the gunga, which is used to play bass. The extra large cabaca, which is rarely if ever used anymore, is called a berra-boi and has the lowest tone. Each cabaca must be proportional to the berimbau’s size. If it is too small in comparison, it will not resonate and have a weak sound. Likewise, if it is too large for the berimbau, there is a loss of focus and the correct tone is not accomplished.
A baqueta, which is merely a wooden stick that measures about 10 centimeters, strikes the Berimbau string to create sound. It is traditionally made using a piece of wood about 40 centimeters long that has been cut off the body of the Berimbau itself. This piece is then cut into 4 sections before being smoothed, polished and coated with a varnish.
The caxixi is the shaker, which is a woven-like basket that is filled with shells, pebbles or seeds. This structure is normally created using vines, wicker or bamboo, which is then often coated with glue to strengthen and extend its useful life. It works by holding it along with the stick to produce an added rattle as the string is struck.
Traditionally the dobrão, an old copper coin or pedra (stone) were used to play the instrument. It is a large coin that was easily held between the fingers, which held the string and is a part of the instrument. Avoid using washers; flat smooth stones are easily accessible and work quite well for producing a wonderful sound. Touch this stone to the string can vary the pitch by changing its mode of vibration.
The final detail of the berimbau is its coloring. Since the 1940’s, colorful brightly painted instruments are the trend. Before that time they were strictly all natural with a simple protective varnish.
The cabaca can be scraped out with a spoon to enhance the sound as well. When it sounds right, stop scraping and fill with hot sand to burn away hanging fibers and harden the shell. Be sure not to make the walls too thin though, as this could cause it to crack or break.
• Weber State University: Tutorial – How to make and play the berimbau
• Capoeira-Connection: The art of (building) the berimbau
• Batucaxe: Traditional and contemporary Brazilian Afro-Brazilian percussion instruments
• South African Capoeira Foundation: Lists the various instruments used for capoeira
The berimbau’s sound is very different from traditional instruments, yet it can produce an incredible variety of sounds. When the string of the instrument is struck with the stick, not only do you hear the string, but also the caxixi, which is held in the same hand as the stick. This adds emphasis to the produced sound that can be changed as the dobrão is pressed against the arame (wire) and slid back and forth.
Although other sounds can sometimes be heard, when played for capoeira, the berimbau has three general sounds; the open-string, high and buzz sound. The buzz sound occurs when the player holds the gourd closed against their stomach, while holding the dobrão and touching the string.
For an open-string sound, the player balances the bow on his or her pinky finger to leave the gourd open. The player then moves up a little less than an inch from the gourd and strikes the string. Tuning can occur by loosening the arame and moving the gourd slightly up or down. For the high sound, the player holds the bow the same and leaves the gourd open, but he or she must forcefully push the dobrão on the string. With a bow that is around four feet, the player can press the dobrão away from the gourd enough to change the tone by about a C to a D. Longer berimbaus are too tall for this option, but are what is commonly used today.
Depending on the opening of the gourd, covering and uncovering it when playing can produce an effect sounding like wah-wah. Of course, an uncovered cabaca creates a stronger sound than that of a covered cabaca. Several effects can be achieved by pressing the dobrão after the string is struck and by closing the cabaca or gourd. It is considered amateurish to strike anywhere else on the instrument. Sounds may have varying names depending on where you learn them, but achieving good sounds is in the art of the player. It comes down to the velocity or accent of how the player lets the vaqueta hit the string, which ultimately establishes the quality of the rhythm.
• Music in Brazil: Oxford University Press Global Music Series – Sonogram of berimbau sound
• Virtual Instrument Museum: Images, audio and video of the Berimbau
• Capoeira School: Instrument information - In the roda (circle), the one who "talks" loudest is the berimbau!
History/Use in Capoeira
Capoeira is a martial art, a dance, and a game. It is used in many performances and is regularly recorded due to its rhythmic music. The "toques" or patterns derive from an eight unit base structure. Musicians than use variations of that pattern and when the variations are repeatedly used, they usually title them by the variations name. Common names used are São Bento Grande and Angola.
It is not uncommon for Berimbaus to be played together in capoeira, usually up to three instruments may be used. The gunga plays the bass line, which takes a lot of patience as the player is usually the leader of the roda and there is little room for improvising as the there is little variation in rhythm. The gunga player not only leads the other Berimbau players, but also the other instruments and may also be the lead singer. A gunga is also, what is used to call the players to the pé-do-berimbau, which is where game players enter.
The compliment to the gunga is the médio. The médio inverts the melody of the gunga and can play a 16-unit variation, while the gunga plays a simple 8-unit pattern. This gives the toque depth and character. The third is than the viola or sometimes called the violinha. It is meant to play improvisations and variations that accentuate a song and break from the main rhythm that have been defined by the first two.
Although, there are no other guidelines to player interaction and while some enjoy playing in unison, others love variation. Students though, tend to stick to unison playing. The same pitch can be tuned to each of the berimbaus, but they will differ in timbre. The low note of the médio is tuned to the high of the gunga and the same for the viola to the médio. Possible rhythms are countless and masters debate endlessly over the denominations of rhythm and whether loose or tight is best in execution.
The history of capoeira is difficult to find, as no two people seem to give the same background. It has been said to be a dance, martial art, self-defense, an art form and/or a mix of them all. It is however, a form of moving that uses spin, turns, aimed kicks, defense and acrobatics that are outstanding. These are melded together with percussion and song.
While little of capoeira can be agreed on, one thing is sure. It originated from the active slave trade between Africa and Brazil. Though because of a lack of paperwork due to an order to burn existing documents on the slave trade, it is difficult to pin down much that is fact. It is agreed though that the origins stem from the region of Angola where African slaves did the “Zebra dance” which men danced as if fighting in order to marry. Brazilians then changed the movements to a sort of self-defense that engaged the feet and head.
The practice of capoeira was banned until 1890 due to its slave origins, but kept its shady reputation until around the 1930’s when Manoel dos Reis Machado opened the first capoeira academy. His method incorporated other martial arts movements including boxing and jujitsu.
• Capoeira Angola: Resource- The martial art and ritual combat dance called Capoeira Angola.
• Wesleyan University: Article - Jogo de Capoeira Angola by Maartin de Moor
• What is Capoeira?: The definition and origins of Capoeira, as well as the Roda, music and instruments.
• Capoeira History: The history of the art and the people