The berimbau is an instrument that is most closely associated with the art of Capoeira. Capoeira is a 500 year old martial art that combines dance, acrobatics, self defense, and music. The berimbau plays a critical role in the musicality of Capoeira, and commonly comes in three distinct types.
The three kinds of Berimbaus are the Gunga, Medio, and Viola. Each berimbau has its own unique properties and each roda you go to might have a different way of configuring its berimbaus. A traditional Capoeira Angola roda will have one of each berimbau in the bateria. A traditional regional bateria only has one berimbau, the Gunga, supported by two pandeiros. Most contemporary Capoeira schools use one of each berimbau in its baterias.
Gunga (or berra-boi)
You know which berimbau is the gunga primarily by the sound of the berimbau. The sound is always the deepest of the three berimbaus. Usually the gunga has the largest cabaça, which helps produce a sound.
Other factors that influence the sound of the Gunga (and the other berimbaus) are the arame (wire) and the verga (the wood). A thicker arame will generate a deeper sound, while a thinner arame will produce a higher pitched sound. Different kinds of woods also influence the sound of the berimbau. Harder woods will produce different pitches from softer woods, and the only ways to know what sound you like best is to make the berimbau and see for yourself.
The Gunga leads the other Instruments
The gunga is considered the leader of the three berimbaus. The oldest mestre or the host of the roda is usually the one who plays the berimbau. This holder of the gunga can decide what rhythm is played and the other instruments of the bateria follow along. The person playing the gunga can also stop someone from entering the roda, or request someone to play. This list of responsibilities is why the gunga is usually only trusted to the students or teahcer with the highest graduation.
Medio (or viola)
As the name implies, the medio is the berimbau with the middle pitched sound. The sound produced by the medio is not as deep as the gunga, or as high as the viola. The gourd is usually middle sized as well, though this isn’t necessarily the case. The medio plays a supportive role to the gunga and sometimes tuned a half-step above the gunga. This means that the closed note (explained below) of the gunga and the open note of the medio sound the same.
Viola (or violinha)
The viola has the highest pitched sound out of the three berimbaus and usually has the smallest cabaça. I consider the viola the most difficult of the three berimbaus to play because it plays the most variations. Variations can be technically difficult to play and knowing when to pay them means having a strong understanding of the music. It’s common for newbies to think that the more complicated the variations, the better it is. Doing this usually sounds worse than sticking with simpler variations played at the right time. Higher pitches are usually easier to be heard, so the viola is the easiest of the three berimbaus to identify. Meaning if you make a mistake, it’s easier to hear.
The Berimbaus in the Roda
The order of the berimbaus in the bateria is determined by the host of the roda. Some baterias will have the berimbaus (from left to right) go Gunga, Medio, and Viola. Another common combination is Medio, Gunga, and Viola. The order of the berimbaus often corresponds with the traditions of the group or the mestres.
Which berimbau should newer players play?
If you’re still new to the berimbau,I suggest playing the medio, or the viola if you’re feeling more confident. The medio is usually the most difficult berimbau to hear, making it easier to mask your mistakes! The gunga’s deep sound is usually very loud and the viola’s high pitch is unmistakable.
Another hint for new players is to pay attention to the gunga and to your berimbau. Keep your eyes on the gunga and make sure you know the rhythm it’s playing. At the same time, keep an ear faced in the direction of your berimbau. You can hunch over slightly to get a better listen at your berimbau. Make sure you’re playing on rhythm. One of the most difficult things to overlook as someone leading the roda, is to hear an instrument that is horribly off rhythm. Don’t feel bad if someone takes you off the bateria either. It might be a humbling experience, but it’s also a learning experience for you and lets you know that you need to keep practicing before you jump back into the bacteria. Take it in stride and make sure you practice when you get back home. Once you feel more confident, try again until playing the berimbau and singing in the roda become second nature.
The Three notes of the berimbau
The berimbau is a pretty simple instrument, and there are only three sounds that it produces (four if you count the caxixi). The first is the “solta” (open note), preso (closed not), and arranhado (scratchy note). These notes might have different names, depending on who is teaching you, but they all mean the same thing.
Solto – Open note
This is the easiest note to play as the dobrão (rock/deblume) is not involved. To play the solto note, just hit the arame with the baqueta so that the baqueta is free to bounce back. This note is played with the cabaça away from the stomach/chest.
Preso- closed note
Preso is played by pressing the dobrao hard against the arame. This note is the highest of the three and is played with the cabaça away from the stomach/chest.
Arranhado – Scratchy note
The arranhado is perhaps the most technically difficult of the three notes to play. The note is played by placing the dobrão (the rock) against the arame very gently. When you hit the arame with the baqueta, the vibrations will tap against the rock giving a scratchy or crunchy sound. This note is played with the cabaça against your chest or stomach, giving a muted.
Buying your first Berimbau
If you’re buying your first berimbau, I suggest buying a medio. The reason is that the Gunga and the viola are more difficult to hold and string, respectively. Often times, the gunga’s cabaça is so big that it gets in the way of holding it. If you have smaller hands, this goes double for you. The viola easier to hold, but usually more difficult to set up. The verga (wood) of the viola is usually thicker, requiring much more strength to string. The medio is a good middle ground of both that is easy to hold and string.
If you’re looking for a berimbau, we have a resource page where we can point you to some excellent berimbaus and other Capoeira instruments.