Tuning the Bateria

Mestre Acordeon teaching students in Chicago how to tune berimbaus

Mestre Acordeon teaching students in Chicago how to tune berimbaus

Any seasoned capoeirista can tell you how important it is to have a good sounding beteria. There is something to be said about atmosphere created by the powerful melodies of instruments truly in sync with one another. We want to have what musicians refer to as “tightness” in the sound. In fact, tuning a bateria is in many ways similar to tuning a band before a show. We want to make sure all instuments are tuned in a way that they sound good together.

Before we go into the actual method of tuning, I would like to clarify my sources as I in no way consider myself a master on the subject: For this topic, I draw on lessons learned from various capoeira music workshops including sessions with some renowned capoeira musical masters. Also, I leverage some of my background in music production. The method described here can also be used to create a professional sounding bateria for studio recordings.

Definition of Terms

I would like to take a moment to explain some musical terms as these are used frequently with regards to tuning music.

Pitch/Note
This is the frequency of a sound. It is easeist to think of this as the actual musical note. For example, A#, Bb, G, are differenct pitches/notes. Pitch is often confused with tone. In terms of capoeira, we adjust the pitch of the berimbau when we press the dobrao against the aramé.

Tone
This refers to the thickness or quality of the note (pitch). In terms of capoeira, we say the gunga is the berimabu with the deepest/lowest tone. It is possible to have different tones but in the same pitch or key. And this is one of the secrets to tuning the instruments in the bateria.

Key
The simplest way to think of a key is as a group of musical notes that sound good together. What do we mean by “good”? Harmonious with minmal clash in frequencies. Fortunately, the laws of nature has already defined what notes are in harmony with each other based on their frequencies and we mortals have given them names. The key itself is the base note that determines what other notes compliment it. For example the C major key includes C, D, E, F, G, A, B with no flats or sharps. This means all these notes sound harmonious when played together. Another example is E minor which includes E, F♯, G, A, B, C, and D. In the world of capoeira, the key can be the open note of the primary berimbau (usually gunga). The idea of tuning the berimbaus is to have all of them in the same key even though they may have different pitches or tones. The exact combination you choose is a matter of preference

So in summary :

  1. First and most importantly we want all the instruments to be in the same key. This is the primary thing.
  2. Secondly we want the gunga to have the highest tone, followed by Medio, and the Viola.
Mestre Acordeon showing how to tune the bateria in an event in Chicago

Mestre Acordeon showing how to tune the bateria in an event in Chicago

The Gunga & The Coro

It all begins with the lowest tone Berimbau called the gunga. It is the instrument that commands the game and is the first one to be tunned. The gunga should be tunned with the coro, meaning the group of players that make up the roda or basically the group of people singing the chorus. Every coro will have its own sound and it’s important that the tone of the berimbau sounds good with that specific combination of voices. There are several ways to go about doing this but the easiest way is to:

  1. Choose the key you want for the bateria. You don’t have to know the exact musical equivalent of that key e.g Ab, Cm, etc. Just make the vocal sound by singing the tone “laaaaaaa”. As the person leading the roda, you can choose the key that you are comfortable singing in. You can even try singing a sample chorus to that key.
  2. Have the coro sing the tone you have choosen in the same way i.e “laaaaaaa”. Let the group keep repeating that tone.
  3. Now take the gunga and strike the open note (without the dobrao). Make sure the open note is as clear as possible with no lingering buzz sound. If needed, restring the berimbau or adjust the cabaca until you have a nice clear open note.
  4. Listen carefully to the sound of the gunga relative to the coro. What you want is for the open tone of the gunga to be in the same key as the coro. Adjust the tone of the gunga by either moving the cabeca up or down. Keep doing this until you hear the gunga sounding in sync with the coro. This part takes practice and can be challenging even for some musicians.

Medio & Viola Follow

Once the gunga has been tunned with the coro, its time to tune the medium toned berimbau called Medio (medium relative to the gunga and the viola). Adjusting the tone on the medio is the same as for the gunga.

  1. Continiously strike the open note (without the dobrao) on the gunga.
  2. Now strike the open note on the Medio. Like you did for the gunga, keep listening for the sound. What you want is for the medio to be in the same key as the gunga but at a higher tone. Keep adjusting the position of the cabaca until you can hear them in the same key.
  3. Repeat this process for the Viola berimbau which should be the one with the highest tone

Atabaque (Conga)

For the traditional atabaque, tunning is done usually with a soft mallet by either tightening or lossening the wooded wedges on the side. Tighening the wedges makes for a higher tone and loosening them makes for a lower tone. For the more contemporary conga, tunning is done with a tunning key by adjusting the screws attached to the rim. Tighening the screws makes for a higher tone and loosening them makes for a lower tone. Whichever style of drum you choose or have available for your bateria, the concept is the same.

  1. Have the gunga again strike the open note continously to set the key.
  2. Strike the drum about halfway between the center and the edge to get the medium pitch. Just like the berimbaus, you want to pitch to be in the same key as the gunga. Keep striking and adjusting the drum until it sounds like it’s in the same key as the gunga.

NOTE: This can also be done with all three berimbaus playing but however you may find it harder to hear the atabaque clearly in such a situation. It is better to do this first and then test it out with all three berimbaus.

Pandeiro

When selecting a pandeiro, it is important to choose one that is tunable. There are lots of pandeiros out there that cannot be tunned. This leaves you at the mercy of the weather to get a good sound. However, most pandeiros you find are tunable. The pandeiro can be adjust using a tuning key to either tighen or loosen the screws on the rim. Tighening makes for a higher tone and loosening makes for a lower tone. The pandeiro is more easily tunned to the sound of the atabaque:

  1. Continously strike the medium pitch on the atabaque (halfway between the center and the edge).
  2. Now strike the pandeiro on the edge with your thumb to create the tone. Listen for the way to sounds with the atabaque. Adjust the tone of the pandeiro to match as much as possible. What we want is for the pandeiro to be at a higher pitch than the atabaque but in the same key. This way it complements the deeper tone.

Agogo & Reco-Reco

These two instruments can not be tuned so it’s important that they already sound good to the ear to begin with. If you have several of these available, you can try each one to see which sounds best with the bateria. Even two agogos that look identical may still sound different from each other! Also, try changing the tool used in striking the surface i.e, a lighter or heavier stick.

All Together Now

Now that you have all the instruments tuned up, it’s important to have them all play together to get a sense of the sound. Most likely it will sound good to the ear and minimal adjustments if any would be needed. Once you have a good sound, avoid making any further adjustments; particuarly the berimbau players who are notorious for shifting the position of the cabeça during the roda!

As always, the more I learn the more I update and make adjustments to this page. I hope if anything I’ve been able to help my fellow capoeiristas improve the sound of their bateria.

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