Berimbau

“Berimbau
Instrumento que tem som
Toca a paz e toca a guerra
E também chula de amor…”
Meu Berimbau, Instrumento Genial

Origin
There is little doubt that the berimbau is African in origin. There are several similar instruments found all across africa as well as parts of India. Despite this the berimbau as it exists in Brazil is believed to be African in origin because:

  • In the recorded history of Brazil, it has only been associated with Afro-brazilian culture.
  • Almost identical instruments have been found in other countries with significant number African slaves and preserved African culture such as Guam and Cuba. It is also worth noting that in these countries the berimbau exists independent of capoeira.
  • Identical instruments can be found all across Africa even in places untouched by the Portuguese colonialists.
  • There is no evidence of an instrument similar to the berimbau among Brazilian natives or the Portuguese.
Women playing the hungu (Angolan berimbau) in Angola
Women playing the hungu (Angolan berimbau) in Angola
A type of Berimbau from Madagascar
A type of Berimbau from Madagascar
A type of berimbau being played by Indo-Africans in the Gujurat region of India
A type of berimbau being played by Indo-Africans in the Gujurat region of India
Berimbau being played during a ceremony in Rwanda
Berimbau being played during a ceremony in Rwanda

In fact in Angola the berimbau is called hungu or m’bolumbumba. It is an instrument used a lot by nomads and can be seen as far south as Swaziland and all the way to the east coast of Africa to Madagascar and the island of Reunion. This is interesting because based on 19th century paintings of capoeira, some historians believe the berimbau was incorporated with capoeira by lone singers playing the instrument. In some case a roda was formed around the lone singers by practitioners of capoeira or the reverse was the case when a berimbau player stumbled upon a roda. The lone African singer would sing songs of love, slavery and of Africa. He or she would sing songs about society, religion, and what was going on at the time. People would gather round and begin to respond to the words in the form of a chorus. “E vai você, e via você”, and the people responded “Dona Maria, como vai você?”

Lone singer playing berimbau. 1826 painting by Jean Baptiste Debret
Lone singer playing berimbau. 1826 painting by Jean Baptiste Debret

The custom of a lone singer nomad is a very popular one throughout africa. In Senegal and Mali they are called griots. Furthermore, the Malês which was a major ethnic group brought as slaves are found in these countries.

Bariba warrior showing off the hunting bow that most likely evolved into the berimbau
Bariba warrior showing off the hunting bow that most likely evolved into the berimbau

The prevailing theory is that the berimbau was probably initially just a bow used for hunting or war. But at some point a resonator was attached to it to transform this bow into a musical instrument. Today the instrument is most commonly identified as the symbol of capoeira. The berimbau has many names in Brazil: berimbau gunga, berimbau viola, berimbau de barriga, orucungo, gobo, bucu,bumba, and macungo.

Role in Capoeira
O berimbau e quem comando jogo, meaning it’s the berimbau that dictates the game. The berimbau can produce distinctive rhythmic patterns called toques. The different toques signal the style of the game (Learn more about the different torques of the berimbau). For example:

  • Sao Bento Grande de Angola: When the berimbau plays the rhythm of Sao Bento grande de Angola the capoeiristas play a more cooperative game composed of more fluid movements and floreios. Learn more…
  • Sao Bento Grande de Regional: When the toque is Sao Bento Grande de regional, the game becomes more confrontational and the spirit of fight, physical skill, and intuition is invoked. Learn more…
  • Benguela: For the toque of Benguela the game becomes more tactful, strategic with malicia at a slower pace. Learn more…
  • Angola: This toque is the basic tone of an Angola game. The games are at varying speed using a lot of malicia and cunning. A ladainha is usually sung to this torque. Learn more…

Listening to the toque do berimbau is important for developing a good rhythm in a player’s game. A capoeirista’s game becomes more fluid when he or she is in sync with the berimbau and the rest of the instruments. The sound of the berimbau should put the player in an almost trance-like state where all the movements begin to flow naturally in time and with heightened awareness.

The person playing the Berimbau is usually also the singer and leader of the roda. He or she sings and plays the berimbau accompanied by the other instruments. The other instruments must follow the Berimbau’s lead as it changes the pace and style of the game: In other words, the berimbau player is the cantador and should be the root of the roda.

Anatomy of the Berimbau
So let’s break down the berimbau into its various components
Anatomy of the berimbau
Anatomy of the berimbau

  • Verga: This the backbone of the berimbau and is usually 4 to 5 feet (48 to 60 inches) long. It is primarily made of biriba wood from a tree by the same name, but it can also be made of bamboo, oak, or other woods.
  • Cabaça: This is a gourd-like resonator that determines the tone of the berimbau. It is made from an opened, dried and hollowed out gourd-like fruit. The cabaça and the verga are the two most important determinants of a good sounding berimbau. It is attached to the verga and the arame by a string.
  • Baqueta/Vaqueta: This is the stick used in striking the aramé to produce the sound of the berimbau. It is often made of the same wood used for the verga.
  • Aramé: This is a wire string made of metal usually harvested from an old tire. After the cabaça and the verga, the aramé is important as a rusty one would harshen the sound.
  • Dobrão or Pedra: Dobrão is a large coin traditionally the colonial coin. The Pedra is a smooth stone or rock.
  • Caxixi: This is a shaker or rattle. It’s usually filled with seeds of ticum, seashells or even little pebbles. The outside is made of woven strips of wicker.

Types of Berimbaus
There are three types of berimbau used in capoeira
Gunga, Medio, Viola
Gunga, Medio, Viola

  • Gunga: This is a berimbau with the largest size cabaça as well as a relatively thin verga. It has the lowest tone and it is usually played by the lead singer. It plays a constant steady rhythm typically with little or no variations.
  • Medio: Also sometimes called Viola (some places anything smaller than a gunga is considered viola). It has a medium tone and an avearge sized verga. Medio plays variations and sometimes the reverse of what the gunga is playing.
  • Viola: Also sometimes violinha meaning little viola. The gourd is smaller than the others and the verga is thick. It has the highest tone and constantly plays variations in the roda.

How to Play
Here’s a video of Mestre Caxias of Grupo Capoeira Brasil teaching how to play Berimbau:
There are three key sounds produced by the berimbau

  • Open note: This is produced by striking the aramé just below the position of the dobrão. The dobrão is completely off the aramé.
  • Buzz note: This is produced by sticking the aramé while the dobrão is barely touching it.
  • Closed note: this is produced by sticking the aramé when the dobrão is fuly pressed against it.

Where to Get a Berimbau

The best place to get a berimbau is from a mestre who has played berimbaus for years and knows the science of making one. If you don’t live near a mestre like that then the next best thing it to attend a workshop or go for capoeira events such as a batizado. Most of these events will have a variety of capoeiristas and usually a few mestres selling their berimbaus. Also, some of these mestres are beginning to sell their instruments online so certain websites may provide similar quality. An example of a good site to get a berimbau is Brazilian-Martialart.com. They have a variety of high quality berimbaus and also other instruments and accessories.

You can also make a berimbau yourself with the guidance of someone skilled in the art. There are lots of resources online to help guide you.

References
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

2 Comments
  1. Eugene Skeef 3 years ago

    Please pardon me for correcting you – the image you refer to as Angolan is actually from South Africa. The young women are Zulu. The one on the left is playing umakhweyana, one of the Zulu predecessors of the berimbau, and the other one is playing umtshingo or igekle, a kind of traditional flute. Thanks for your otherwise very informative site.

  2. Ashly 3 years ago

    Attractive component of content. I just stumbled upon your web site and in accession
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