The Brazilian Berimbau
The Brazilian Berimbau
by Tadeu Batista
"O berimbau e um instrumento feito de uma corda so. A cabaça e o caxixi camara, ahi esta o berimbau"
"The berimbau is an instrument made of one string alone. A cabaça and a caxixi my friend and there you have a berimbau.”
So begins a popular capoeira song describing the berimbau, without this there is no capoeira.
The berimbau is composed of a bow-like body, however rather than shooting arrows the performer strikes the cord with a stick. This produces a deep resonance - the trademark 'Wah-Wah' sound - that is controlled by the movement of the cabaça against the musician's body. A coin or stone pressed against the string provide further control and a small caxixi shaker completes the instrument.
The African slaves brought the Berimbau to Brazil where it is now closely associated with Capoeira.
Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that intertwines music and dance in order to create a unique form of self-expression. Capoeira music is performed by the 'fighter / dancers' themselves who sing and play percussion instruments including: the pandeiro, agogo, atabaque or conga and at least one or two Berimbaus.
Traditionally berimbaus are made of 'Biriba" wood, but you can now find berimbaus made of other types of wood. One popular material used for beginners' berimbaus is bamboo. Berimbaus range in size from 1m - 1.2m.
Traditionally the string of the berimbau was made from vine or similar natural material. From the 1930's onwards the 'string' used was made from the metal wire salvaged from an old tyre. This process involves burning away the rubber and then the cleaning the wire. Using this method a single tyre could net as much as 10 - 15m of wire. Nowadays the wire used is mostly bought over the counter at hardware stores. The use of this wire has allowed mass production of berimbaus and the sound quality remains very acceptable. Other musicians prefer the sound produced by piano strings.
THE STICK (VAQUETA)
In order to produce sound a wooden stick known as the ‘vaqueta’ strikes the string of the berimbau. This stick is traditionally made using an off-cut of the wood used to make the body of the berimbau. An approximately 40cm length of wood is cut into quarters and each piece is then polished and varnished.
The caxixi is a small shaker woven like a basket a filled with sea shells or seeds. The basket structure can be woven from vine, bamboo or wicker. I recommend using a caxixi woven from vine (cipo). Painting your caxixi with glue will strengthen it and make it last that much longer. The use of a caxixi is a technique that originated once the berimbau was brought to Brazil. It is held in the same hand as the stick and adds emphasis to the sound produced.
Traditionally the coins used were the old copper 'dobrão'. This large coin was popular because its size made it easy to hold. Smooth flat 'skimming' stones from the beach are easier to obtain and produce an excellent sound. What is not recommended are the cheap 'washers' that are normally provided with shop bought berimbaus. Better to throw this out and replace with a stone.
The 'cabaça is made from a calabash. Once you have bought your cabaça you can further enhance the sound by scraping the insides with a metal spoon. Take care when doing this as the thinner the walls the more fragile the cabaça. Keep checking the quality of sound produced by the thinning of the calabash walls. Once you are happy with the sound then fill the cabaça with hot sand. This burns off the loose fibres, smoothening the inside and hardening the shell.
The size of the cabaça must be in proportion to the size of the berimbau. If the cabaça is too small the sound produced will be weak and without resonance. If the cabaça is too big, the sound looses its focus and the trademark 'wah-wah' sound is impossible to achieve.
Many of the berimbaus around today are highly colourful and brightly painted. This is a recent trend started in the 1940's. Up until then berimbaus were left their natural wood colour with a simple varnish for protection
Wondering how to put this into practice? A free demo illustrating the correct handling technique and sounds produced can de downloaded from www.bridgesto.com
About the author
Tadeu Batista is a Professional Brazilian Percussionist playing in various bands worldwide for over 20 years. Tadeu is now concentrating on sharing the knowledge he has built up over the years through articles, workshops and educational videos.