From Academic Kids

Three Berimbaus
Three Berimbaus

The Berimbau (also "gunga") is a single-string percussion instrument, a musical bow, from Brazil. The Berimbau's origins are not entirely clear, but there is not much doubt on its African origin, as no Indigenous Brazilian or European people use musical bows, and very similar instruments are played in the southern parts of Africa. The Berimbau was eventually incorporated into the practice of the Brazilian martial art capoeira, where it commands how the capoeiristas move in the roda. The instrument is known for being the subject matter of a popular song by Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell, with lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes. The instrument is also a part of [[Candombl靝-de-caboclo tradition.

A sample of an unaccompanied berimbau: Missing image

Toque de Angola (ogg format, 17 seconds, 174KB).



[[Image:Hn_caxixi_baqueta_vadero.jpg|thumb|right|A caxixi, baqueta, and dobr㯝] The Berimbau consists of a wooden bow ("verga" - traditionally made from "biriba" wood, which grows in Brazil), about 4 to 5 feet long, with a steel string ("arame" - often pulled from the inside of an automobile tire) tightly strung and secured from one end of the verga to the other. A gourd ("caba硦quot;), dried, opened and hollowed-out, attached to the lower portion of the Verga by a loop of tough string, typically a hard shoe lace, acts as a resonator. Beginning in the 1950's, brazilian berimbaus have been painted in bright colors, following local Bahian/Brazilian taste; today, most makers follow the tourist consumer's quest for (pretended) authenticity, and use clear varnish and discrete decoration. To play the berimbau, one holds the berimbau in one hand, wrapping the two middle fingers around the verga, and placing the little finger under the caba硧s string loop, and balancing the weight there. A small stone or coin ("dobr㯦quot;, "moeda", "pedra") is held between the index and thumb of the same hand that holds the Berimbau. The caba硠is rested against the abdomen. In the other hand, one holds a stick ("vaqueta" - usually wooden, very rarely made of metal) and an optional rattle ("caxixi"). One strikes the arame with the baqueta to produce the sound. The caxixi accompanies the vaqueta. The dobr㯠is moved back and forth from the arame to change the tone of the Berimbau. The sound can also be altered by moving the caba硠back and forth from the abdomen, producing a wah-like sound.

Parts and Accesories of the Berimbau:

  • Verga: Wooden Bow that makes up the main body of the Berimbau.
  • Arame: Steel string.
  • Caba硺 Opened, dried and hollowed out gourd secured to the lower portion of the Berimbau, used to amplify and resonate the sound.
  • Dobr㯺 Small stone or coin pressed against the arame to change the tone of the Berimbau. Stones are sometimes called "pedra".
  • Vaqueta: Small stick struck against the arame to produce the sound.
  • Caxixi: Small rattle that optionally accompanies the Vaqueta in the same hand.

Capoeiristas split berimbaus in three categories:

  • Berra-Boi or Gunga: lowest tone.
  • M餩o (other say viola): medium tone.
  • Viola (violinha if the medium tone is viola): highest tone

These categories relate to sound, not to size. The berimbau's quality does not depend on the length of the verga or the size of the gourd, rather on the diameter and hardness of the verga's wood and the quality of the gourd's.

Sound of the berimbau.

The berimbau, as played for capoeira, basically has three sounds: the open string sound, the high sound, and the buzz sound.

  • Even beginners will have no difficulty in playing the buzz sound, as one holds easily the gourd closed against one's belly, while touching the string with the dobr㯮 A muted "tch" sound emerges.
  • To play the open string sound, one strikes the string less than an inch up from the gourd string, with the bow balanced on the little finger so that the gourd is opened. One can grossly tune the open sound, by releasing a little the string, and by sliding the gourd a little up or down from the place where the sound is best.
  • To produce the high sound, one must hold the bow in the same way, gourd opened, and press strongly the dobr㯠upon the string. The sound differs from the low sound in tone and in timbre. Old recordings and musicians report that the difference in tone used to be about 1 tone (the interval from C to D). One can press the dobr㯠away enough from the gourd for this only if the bow is about 4 feet to 4 feet 2 inches; that was the length of the bows in the 1940's and 1950's. Today, many berimbaus are overgrown to 5 feet and more, so the players rely mainly on the change in timbre, and tuning options are limited in berimbau ensembles.

Other sounds may appear in a berimbau performance, but only these define capoeira's rythmic patterns (except Iuna).

Closing and opening the gourd while the string resounds produces a wah-wah effects, which depends on how large the gourd opening is. Whether this effect is desirable or not is a matter of controversy. Pressing the dobr㯠after striking the string is a widely used technique; so is closing neatly the gourd while the string resounds to shut off the sound. A specific toque requires the open string sound with closed gourd. Musicians use whatever sound they may get out of the string. It is often considered bad practice to strike other parts of the instrument. As with most aspects of playing the berimbau, the names of the techniques differ from teacher to teacher. Most teachers, and most students, worry more about producing a nice sound than about naming the individual sounds.

Of course, the strength (velocity, accent) with which one lets the vaqueta hit the string is paramount to rythm quality. The open sound is naturally stronger (meaning that, for a constant-strength strike, the other two sound weaker), but the musician may decide which strikes to stress. Also, the sound tone shifts a little with the strength of the strike, and some sophisticated toques make use of this.

Use in capoeira

The capoeira music required from the berimbau is essentially rythmic. Most of the patterns derive from a single 8 units basic structure:


(all characters denote equal time; x means buzz sound; v, any of the two stronger sounds or no action, depending on the variant one play; dots mark no actions; syncopation occurs).

Capoeirista musicians produce many variations upon this pattern. They give names to known variations, and when such a named variation occurs repeatedly (but not exclusively) while playing, they call what they are playing by the "toque" of the name of that variation. The most common names are "Angola" and "S㯠Bento Grande". There is much talking about the meaning of these terms. There is no short way to wisdom in capoeira, one has to make one's own mind.

In capoeira, up to three Berimbaus may play together, each with a loosely defined different role.

  • The Gunga plays the bass line, rarely improvising its rhythm (in capoeira, it takes much patience to play Gunga). The person playing the Gunga is normally the leader of the roda, and the other instruments all follow the gunga. The Gunga is used to call players to the p頤o berimbau to begin and end games, and the Gunga player is ultimately in charge of the whole roda. Generally the Gunga player leads the singing, which is made easier by the simple rythm and little variation that he plays, and adds a means to his control of the roda.
  • The M餩o complements the Gunga. For instance, while the Gunga play a simple, eight-unit pattern "tsh-tsh, ding, dong, dong", the Viola (or M餩o) play a sixteen-unit variation, like "tsh-tsh, dong, diiing; tsh-tsh, dong, didonding". The dialog between Gunga and Viola (or M餩o) gives the "toque" its character. There is no further general rule, every master has its own definitions and requires specific rythm from the other musicians. Some want all the instruments in the same pattern, others, may be most, loathe and despise this uniform playing which they want only of beginners, while they stress that variation must not blur the characteristic "toque". Between competent players, one hears much variation.
  • The Viola (or Violinha) if present, plays mostly variations and improvisations upun the main rhythm defined by the duet of the two others. The Viola player will often play variations, syncopate and break to accentuate the songs being sung. The Viola is tuned to the M餩o as this is tuned to the Gunga.

Tuning, in capoeira context, does not mean the same thing as in music schools. The berimbaus may be tuned on the same tone, differing only in timbre. Some set the low note of the M餩o so that it matches the high note of the Gunga, and likewise for the Viola to the M餩o. Others like to set the instruments at an interval of a 4th (C to F). There may be other tunings, provided that they sound good to the master's ear.

A well played and well tuned assembly of Berimbaus sounds quite beautiful and moving.

There are countless different rhythms or "toques" played on the Berimbau. Capoeiristas and masters engage in endless controversy about the denominations of the rythms, the loose or tight relations of any definite rythmic pattern to a toque name, to speed of exectution, and to the type of Capoeira game it calls for. Each group delivers its own definitions to beginners.

Common toques names are:

  • Toque de Angola: loosely associated (very strictly in some groups) to slowness and very sneaky Capoeira game. Rests on (does not play) the last strike of the basic (xx.v.v.v.) pattern.
  • Toque de S㯠Bento Pequeno: generally same as Angola with the high tone replacing the low tone and vice-versa, and faster. Much more sophisticated for some old masters.
  • Toque de S㯠Bento Grande: the most common toque for playing, after the initial slow chanting over Angola toque, in most groups. Reflects closely the basic rythm, with as many variations as groups.
  • Toque de Jogo de Dentro: like Mestre Bimba's S㯠Bento Grande de Regional (or simply Regional), calls for an intricate game with enough objectivity.
  • Toque de I?today, means Mestre Bimba, founder of the Regional thread of capoeira, variant, which does not rely on the same pattern as the other capoeira rythms. The toque calls for a free-flowing, close game with emphasis on esthetics (including acrobatics). This toque is normally not accompanied by the rest of the instruments. When played, only competent Capoeiristas may play in the Roda. For most groups, this means graduates (Professor, Contra-Mestre, Mestre, etc.).
  • Toque de Cavalaria: In the past, used to warn Capoeiristas of the approach of police. Now used for a much faster game, without leaving your hands much on the ground.

Other toques include Idalina, Amazonas, Santa Maria, Banguela, all deriving from the basic capoeira pattern. Capoeiristas also play samba, before or after capoeira, with the proper toques, deriving from the samba rythmic pattern.

Berimbau Players in other styles of music

  • [[Candombl靝-de-caboclo songs have been recorded by ethnologists to the accompaniment of berimbau. Musicians have also played Ketu, Gꧪ and Angola candombl頲ythm patterns on berimbau, but this does not appear to have any relationship either with the cults or with capoeira.
  • Berimbau has appeared in a number of bands as a marker of Afro-Brazilian origin.
  • Nana Vasconcelos, since the late 1970's, has played berimbau and other percussion with modern jazz musicians worldwide.
  • Dinho Nascimento, more recently, has used berimbau as his main instrument for music recording.
  • Max Cavalera - Lead singer and guitarist in metal bands Sepultura and Soulfly

See Also


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