The berimbau is most iconic instrument seen played in the game of Capoeira. However many other artists have played around with the instruments and have included it in their percussion ensemble. The instrument is ancient in its origin, and holds a special place for aficionados of string instruments and practitioners of the art of Capoeira.
The Origin Story of the Berimbau
Long ago, a girl went to a stream where she bent down, cupped her hands, and took water for a drink. As she did this, a man attacked and killed her. When she died, she became the berimbau. Her body transformed in the wood of the verga(wood), her hair turned into the arame(wire), her cupped hands turned into the cabaça(gourd), and her sad cries became the sound of the berimbau.
(Referenced from the Magazine of the Geographic and Historical Institute of Bahia) No. 80 of 1956.
The History of the Berimbau
Many believe that the berimbau originated in Africa, and this could very well be the case. However, Emilia Biancarde, in the book, “Raízes Musicais da Bahia”, believes that the berimbau was used for 15,000 years before Christ. Cave paintings in France from the era show images that look like they could be ancient versions of the instrument. Some of the reasoning for this theory could be the fact that many different cultures have musical bows that resemble the berimbau.
Albano Marinho de Oliveira talks about other ancient instruments like the harp, the lute, and the zither in a 1956 article in National Geographic. Evidence of these instruments date back to ancient Egypt, 4,000B.C. Engravings show a musical instrument with a string attached to a bow and a resonator that carries the sound. Despite the evidence that exists for the berimbau and other musical bows, it’s not certain when humans began crafting these instruments. A cool story that I heard during my research was that some believe the sound of an arrow when released from a bow is what inspired the creation of these ancient instrument.
Where the Name of the Berimbau Originated
The berimbau is an ancient instrument and its near impossible that it has kept its original name. Who knows what people 15,000 years ago called anything, let alone this instrument. There are some theories as to the origin of the name “Berimbau”.
One theory is that the name, “berimbau” comes from a term used by the Quibundo people in West Africa. Another theory is that the term Balimbano, used by the Mandinka people of Angola is the true origin of the word. It is difficult to say and and yet another theory says that the word berimbau is actually a mis-translation by the Portuguese who gave a name similar to the Guimbarde (the jewish harp).
I’ve been able to find many other names for instruments that we might describe as a berimbau. Most of these instruments look the same as a berimbau with a resonator, a single string, and a bent piece of wood that creates tension in the string. Instruments that fall into this category include the Uricundo, Urucungo, Orucungo, Oricungo, Lucungo, Gobo, Rucungo, Bucumba, Macungo, Matungo and Rucumbo.
The Use of the Musical Bow
These instruments, like many others could be used for leisure or religious ceremonies. Some Egyption tombstones are engraved with pictures of musical bows that give reverence to the gods.
In Africa, there are dozens of versions of the Berimbau. You don’t need to find any ancient sources either. Evidence of musical bows like the berimbau are all over youtube. There are examples of similar instrument in Zambia, South Africa, as well as the western coast of Africa where the majority of slaves came from to Brazil.
Today, musical bows used in religious ceremonies is rare, but may still exist in some parts of the world. Musical bows are not lost on modern musicians either. Many of them have found inspiration in their sound and their ancient rootes. Many artists, including vinicius de Moraes have used the berimbau in their music. The song “Berimbau” was created by Moraes is not only named after the berimbau, but prominently includes it in the song.
Nowadays, the berimbau is used mostly by Capoeira practitioners and plays an extremely important role in the game of Capoeira.
The Berimbau in the Game of Capoeira
There is an incredible lack of documentation that will give us any accurate description of how Capoeira and the berimbau came together. There are drawings, old books, and stories that have been passed down, but nothing that we can point to as a concrete reference. An example of old books is “Picturesque Journey Through Brazil” , a book released in 1763 by Jean Maurice Rugendas. The book describes fighters cheering and clapping, but not berimbau. Just a small atabaque. This may be evidence to the fact that early capoeiristas did not use a berimbau, but its not clear if what they were practicing was in fact Capoeira, if berimbaus were used in all cases of Capoeira, or if maybe someone forgot their berimbau that day. It’s difficult to say.
Another link in the history of the berimbau and Capoeira involves the use of Capoeira to hide the practice of Capoeira. According to Emilia Biacarde, the berimbau was introduced to Capoeira around the second half of the 19th centuries. She attributes the berimbau as one of the reasons Capoeira was able to continue in Bahia and was not wiped out as it was in Rio de Janeiro. The berimbau along with other instruments allowed the roda to be easily disguised into a dance circle where you would dance samba and other things. This made it difficult for law enforcement to identify what the group of people were doing because from the outside, it looked like a group playing music and dancing.
In Rio de Janeiro in the late 1880’s, police cracked down on the Capoeira maltas, which roamed the streets. These maltas acted like modern day gangs and were slowly eliminated by the Brazilian government. Unlike in Salvador, Bahia, Capoeira did not have a strong connection to the berimbau and the point that Emilia Biacarde makes is that this was the reason the government was so successful in eliminating Capoeira in Rio and not in Salvador.
Some people do believe that slaves used the berimbau in their slave quarters and it is entirely possible that this is the case. It is extremely difficult to find anything substantial regarding this point. However, given how old these instruments are and how simple they were to make, it’s entirely possible that enslaved Africans built their own musical bows while on the Brazilian plantations. This is my own speculation, however it is not outside of the realm of possibility.
Three Types of Berimbaus in Capoeira
In a traditional Angola roda, there are three kinds of berimbaus: the gunga, medio, and viola (sometimes called the violinha). Each berimbau performs its own function and works together to create the atmosphere for the roda. In angola, the berimbau is also accompanied by other instruments such as the Atabaque, two pandeiros, reco-reco, and agôgô. On the other hand, in a traditional regional roda, the bateria is composed of one berimbau and two pandeiros. Today, many contemporary schools follow the formation of the Angola roda, but the majority have their own take on the makeup of the bateria and there is no true standard to measure any bateria.
The three kinds of berimbaus are…
This berimbau has the lowest sound and you can usually tell which berimbau of the three is the gunga by the size of the cabaça. The cabaça is the resonator of the berimbau and the large cabaça helps produce a low sound. Another word for gunga is Berra boi [behha-boy]. It’s not clear where these words come from, however it is likely that these names have african roots. The gunga is most often played by the most senior person in the roda and acts like the bass of the bateria. The gunga dictates the rhythm being played, the cadence, and controls the roda.
As the name implies, the cabaça of the medio is smaller than the gunga and larger than the viola. The medio is often tuned one full note above the gunga and plays a vital role in supplementing the rhythm being played by the gunga. The medio will play variations from time to time.
Another name for the viola is the violinha and is probably the most difficult of the berimbaus to play. The viola is the most difficult to pay because it is the berimbau that plays the most variations to the rhythm played by the gunga. The pitch of the viola is very high compared to the other two making it much easier to hear by the rest of the roda. This high pitched sound is produced primarily by having a smaller cabaça, however the make of the verga, and the arame also contribute.
Additional Parts to the Berimbau
The verga is most commonly made with beriba wood. The reason this wood is used is not clear, however it is likely due to the availability of the wood. Beriba grows wildly in the north of Brazil and is plentiful. Other woods are also used and in reality there is no restriction to what you can make a berimbau from. As long as you are able to bend the material enough so that the arame and the cabaça can be mounted, you can make a berimbau. What matters most is the quality of the sound, which has lead musicians to create berimbaus from all kinds of material, including bamboo, maple, and ash.
A metal wire that is hit with the baqueta, and who’s vibrations travel to the cabaça to produce sound. Before metal wire, it was common to use animal sinew to create the arame, though this practice is not used so much any more. Once cars started to become common in Bahia, it was found out that wires could be gathered from inside the tires. The metal wire’s ability to produce sound and high availability made it the standard for a while. Today, people have various sources of metal wire, including car tires, bike tires, and piano wire. Piano wire is by far my favorite because it is extremely easy to purchase online and come in standard sizes that work for berimbaus.
Meaning deblume. The dobrao changes the sound of the berimbau by pressing against the arame. Holding it tightly will produce a sound approximately a half step to a full step above the normal sound of the berimbau. Holding the dobrão gently against the arame will produce a scratchy sound that is called arranhado (though this may have different names). A story I heard about Mestre Pastinha is that nails were at one point used as the dobrão, however I was not able to find documentation saying that this method was widely used.
According to mestre Cabelo, as student of Mestre João Grande, the dobrão was traditionally a rock that was found, ideally from a stream or river. The reason you would prefer a rock from the river is that these rocks were much smoother than the ones you would commonly find on the floor and would be easier to play with. Today, many capoeiristas use old coin shaped objects that resemble deblumes. Although these look like the more “traditional” thing to use, they are in fact an artifact of our modern Capoeira.
A simple stick that looks like a wizards wand. This is what the player uses to strike the arame. The baqueta is held like a pencil and can be somewhere around 10-12 inches long, depending on preference. The size, weight, and material of the baqueta does contribute to the sound of the berimbau, and is sometimes matched to a specific berimbau.
Chapeu de Couro
meaning leather hat. This small piece of leather on top of the berimbau that acts as the lever to bend the verga and produce tension in the arame. The chapeu de couro protects the verga from damage from the arame and is held down by nails.
A handwoven instrument that produces sound by shaking it. The caxixi is held in the same hand that holds the baqueta. As you play the berimbau you will be shaking the caxixi and accompanying the sound of the berimbau. The caxixi is a woven instrument and looks like a woven basket. It is common for the caxixi to hold the seeds of the cabaça that were used to make the cabaça and for the bottom of the caxixi to be made from a similar gourd.
A gourd that has been dried and hollowed out. The size and shape of the cabaça makes a large impact on the sound of the berimbau. The cabaça is connected to the berimbau using a small rope that is looped around the arame and through the cabaça passing through two holes that are made for this purpose. It is common for good berimbau makers to “marry” a berimbau with a cabaça that brings out the best sound. cabaças are very fragile so make sure to protect them well!
The bottom end of the berimbau. The arame is looped around the birro and is held in place by it. Sometimes the birro is pointed, giving it the dual purpose of an instrument and a spear.
The end of the arame that is made into a loop, which is placed onto the Birro. Another argola is made on the top end of the arame and is connected to the Ponteira.
The rope that attaches the cabaça to the verga and arame.
Around the argola on the top side of the berimbau is a rope. This rope is used to fix the arame to the verga while the berimbau is bent. This allows the verga to maintain it’s bend, increasing tension on the arame.
The berimbau is a beautiful instrument with a long history. There are many instruments like the berimbau, but this one is the musical bow that people use in the art of Capoeira. There is a lot of lore and old stories surrounding this instrument and I encourage everyone who’s tried capoeira before, to play it. If you’re looking for a berimbau, we have a resource page where you can order all three of the major berimbaus. Viola, Medio, and Gunga.