“Eu vim aqui buscar
Um pouquinho de dendê…
Prá passar do atabaque
Um pouquinho de dendê…”
—Um Pouquinho de Dendê
Across the african continent there are many drums with similar structure to the atabaque. Atabaque-style drums have been used all over Africa for centuries. There have been used for rituals, ceremonies, and even as a means for communication.
Adowa drums of the Ashanti people in ghana
Ashiko drums of West Africa
Ewe drums of Africa
Bougarabou drums of senegal
The atabaque was probably the first instrument to be formally introduced to capoeira by way of condomblé. At the time former slaves began to own land, many operated terroiros which were spaces of land dedicated to the practice of condomblé. In Bahia almost all the capoeiristas were also practitioners of the African religion and hence had access to the instruments such as the atabaque and agôgô. It is worth noting that on the african continent there is rarely an event that does not involve a drum of some sort. So it’s no surprise that the atabaque is used in capoeira.
Role in Capoeira
The atabaque’s role in capoeira is fairly simple as it keeps the pulse of the roda. It follows the berimbau and pandeiro keeping a steady heart-beat to the roda. Not much is done in the way of variation and that is left to the berimbaus. The atabaque may play a simple variation when something exciting happens in the roda but for the most part it plays a simple steady beat.
In the capoeira roda the atabaque somehow has become somewhat third place behind the berimbau and pandeiro. It’s ironic since the atabaque is believed to be the first instrument used in capoeira. Much of this is attributed to Mestre Bimba. Though Mestre Bimba was a practitioner of condomblé he did not like the use of the atabaque in capoeira and always prefered one berimbau and two pandeiros. Though nobody can say for sure, there are two main theories as to why he took this position:
- He felt the atabaque was sacred to condomblé and therefore wanted to keep it separate from capoeira. Same can be said for the agôgô.
- He wanted to attract a wider audience to capoeira and therefore striped alot of the afro-religious elements from capoeira. This not only included the atababque and agôgô but also includes a lot of the rituals and chamadas still found in capoeira Angola today but absent from Regional.
Another reason for the atabaque’s thrid place finish is the fact that it is not as portable as the others. And so is often left out of small public performances. It is also worth noting that the atabaque is often substituted for a conga. This can be seen sometimes even in condomblé. Though they are similar drums you can tell the sound is quite different. The atabaque has more of a raw tribal sound while the conga sounds more refined and contemporary. The atabaque is a key element in Maculelê and also in Samba de Roda.
Anatomy of the Atabaque
So let’s break down the atabaque into its various components
Anatomy of the atabaque
- Shell: This is the outer body structure of the drum. It’s made of several narrow pieces of jacaranda wood joined together.
- Head: This is the striking surface of the drum and it’s usually made from either cow or goat skin.
- Rope: This rope runs through the edge of the drum head, along the shell and loop around the ring. It keeps the tension of the head an is used along with the wedges in tuning the drum. More tension on the rope means a higher pitch.
- Wedges: These are triangular pieces of wood placed between the ring and the shell that is used to adjust the tension on the rope. The atabaque is usually tuned by either hammering down the wedges or loosening them which in turn adjusts the tension on the rope.
- Ring: This is a metal ring placed loosely around the shell of the drum. It’s held in place by the rope and wedges.
- Stand: This is often made of the same wood as the drum but just serves as a stand for the drum to rest on. The stand allows of a space between the open end of the drum and the floor so the sound can travel outward.
Types of Atabaques
There are three distinct types of atabaques categorized according to size:
Rum, Rum-pi, Lê
- Rum: This is the tallest and hence has the lowest pitch.
- Rum-pi: This is of medium size and medium pitch.
- Lê: This is the shortest of the 3 and has the highest pitch.
It is not uncommon to see any one of these in a roda though the Rum-pi tends to be the most used in capoeira. Also note that the two main things affecting the pitch of an atabaque are its height and also its diameter. Keeping that in mind, a taller atabaque with a smaller diameter may have a similar pitch to a shorter atabaque with a wider diameter. Furthermore, atabaques can be tuned higher or lower by adjusting the tension on the head using the rope and wedges.
How to Play
Playing the atabaque for capoeira is fairly straight forward and it’s often the first instrument students try to learn.
There are just two main sounds to learn:
- Center Hit: This is a sound made by striking the drum at the head center. It can be done with the fingers spread out to make a slapping sound or with the fingers close together to make a thumping sound. Another alternative is to use the heel of your hand to create a muted sound.
- Edge Hit: This is a sound made by striking the drum head near the edge. The sound is of a higher tone than the center and most of the capoeira drum rhythms begin with this sound.
Where to Get an Atabaque
Well if you don’t live in Brazil, getting an atabaque could be quite difficult. And even in Brazil a lot of schools opt for the cheaper and more easily available conga drum (used in a lot of Brazilian music) which produces a similar effect. That being said, there are some online vendors who sell atabaques a would ship it to you. And yes, there are relatively pricey compared to the other capoeira instruments. A good online resource is Brazilian-MartialArts.com with well-built atabaques.
ALMEIDA, Bira. Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form, ISBN: 9780938190295
CAPOEIRA, Nestor. The Little Capoeira Book, ISBN: 9781556434402; Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game, ISBN: 9781556434044