The berimbau is a one-stringed musical bow that originated in Africa. Also known by the names burumbumba, urucungo,
gobo, and mbilimbau, among others, the berimbau is played in everything from Afro-Cuban necromancy ceremonies
to contemporary Brazilian music. Today, it is typically associated with capoeira, an African-Brazilian blend of martial arts
and dance, in which it is the principal instrument. Despite its deceptive simplicity, the berimbau can produce a rich variety
of sounds, and an experienced player can use it to play intricate rhythms and unusual melodies.
The backbone of the berimbau consists of a wooden pole, typically
about 1.5 m long and about 1 in. in diameter, called the verga. According to a traditional capoeira song, "Biriba e
pau e pau / De fazer berimbau e pau" (Biriba is the right wood / Used to make berimbau). The biriba wood from which the verga
is typically made "must be cut from a live tree in the forest on the right day and under the proper moon" (Almeida, 72). The
lower end of the verga is carved into a peg to attach the string, the arame, which is then stretched tight over
the top end of the verga, bending it. The arame is a steel wire taken from the inside of a car tire; before
there were tires, animal entrails were used to string the berimbau. The resonator attached towards the bottom of the verga
is called the cabaca. It is a dried, hollowed-out gourd, typically from the fruit of the bottle gourd (lagenaria
The berimbau is held in the left hand with the opening of the cabaca
facing the body. It is balanced on the pinky finger, and an old Brazilian coin (dobrao) or stone is held between the
thumb and forefinger. It can be pressed against the arame to alter the pitch. The right hand holds the caxixi,
a rattle woven of wicker with seeds, seashells, or pebbles inside, as well as the baqueta, a thin wooden stick used
to strike the arame.
Pictures dating as far back as 15000 B.C. of men playing musical bows have
been found in caves in France. In Africa, there are many kinds of musical bows: some of them are fixed in the ground, others
have multiple strings or bows. When enslaved by the Portuguese and transported to Brazil, the Africans brought their unique
musical instruments with them. According to an article in a Brazilian percussion magazine, "some fonts list the first appearance
of the berimbau in Brasil in 1739, in Santos port." In 1816, Henry Koster wrote about "a big bow with a cordon, tied to half
a coconut or cabaca. It's pressed to the abdomen and played with the finger or a stick." Although the berimbau existed in
Brazil in the first half of the nineteenth century, it was probably not associated with capoeira at the time. In 1835, Moritz
Reguendas described capoeira as a violent "war pastime" of the blacks (Almeida, 75). The berimbau does not appear in his writings
about and paintings of the fighting form. Around the same time, the French artist Jean Baptiste Debret, who traveled in Brazil,
wrote about the berimbau as an instrument of accompaniment to African chants, songs, and storytelling. Thus, although the
style of capoeira probably developed sometime in the 18th century, it did not include the berimbau until later. The berimbau
and other musical instruments may have been added to capoeira later in the 19th century to disguise the deadly martial art
as a ritual dance.
Today, the berimbau is essential to capoeira: Mestre Bimba, one of the
greatest masters of capoeira, said "it is impossible to learn capoeira without the berimbau" (Almeida, 75). A typical capoeira
roda (circle) will have either one or three berimbaus, played by the masters in charge of the roda. In capoeira, two players
enter the roda and interact with each other in a complex dialogue of movements. As they play with each other, they perform
kicks, dodges, sweeps, cartwheels, and acrobatics. The rhythm of the berimbau directs the actions of the two players inside
the roda, telling them to play quickly or slowly, upright or close to the ground, and cooperatively or competitively. Other
instruments in the bateria (orchestra) of capoeira include the atabaque (drum), pandeiro (tambourine),
agogo (bells), and reco-reco (section of wood with notches over which a stick is rubbed). Those members of the
circle who are not playing instruments clap their hands to the rhythm and sing traditional call-and-response songs led by
the master of the roda.
Berimbaus come in three sizes. The one with the largest cabaca is
called the gunga or berra-boi. It has the deepest sound and is responsible for keeping the basic rhythm. The berimbau medio
has a medium-sized cabaca. It also plays the basic rhythm, as well as some variation. The viola or violinha has the
smallest cabaca and the highest, sharpest sound. Its role is to improvise, embellish, and play variations on the rhythm.
The low note on the berimbau is produced by simply striking the arame
with the stick. When you press the dobrao against the arame and strike it, the pitch raises by about a semitone.
This is because the natural mode of vibration of a string is inversely proportional to its length; clamping the arame
with the dobrao shortens its length so a higher frequency sound is produced. A third sound can be made by touching,
not pressing, the dobrao against the arame and striking the arame. This produces a "buzz" tone - its
pitch is the same as the high note, but it contains a distinct buzzing sound from the arame vibrating back and forth
against the dobrao.
Finally, the player can play the berimbau either with the opening of the
cabaca close to the body, producing a more muffled sound, or with it far from the body, producing a louder, more hollow
sound. Some rhythms even call for the player to strike the berimbau while holding it close to the body and then quickly move
it away, producing a "wah-wah" sound as the timbre changes. Other sounds that can be made by the berimbau include striking
the portion of the arame below the cabaca for a very high-pitched sound, or shaking the caxixi alone and striking
the verga with the baqueta for some unpitched percussion.
The different rhythms of the berimbau are called toques. The players
of the game of capoeira will perform different movements and play at different speeds depending on which toque is being
played. Below are the uses for several common toques. Some toques and their corresponding games may vary
from school to school. To see berimbau notation for these toques and others, go to PlanetCapoeira.
Angola - players
stay close to the ground and to each other, using floor techniques and observing the rituals and rules of capoeira Angola
Benguela - a
medium-paced, cooperative game
Sao Bento Grande de Bimba (Regional) - fast, upright, competitive game
Iuna - special
rhythm for advanced students, a beautiful game which uses cooperative flipping techniques known as the cintura desprezada
It takes years to learn to play all the toques of the berimbau well,
to recognize them in the roda, and to understand the subtle differences in the game of capoeira required by the various rhythms.
However, this process is an essential part of every capoeirista's journey towards mastery of the art. To some, the song of
the berimbau takes on mystical, magical qualities. Bira Almeida, a master of capoeira, describes his experience:
"Many times I would spend hours playing the berimbau alone, letting myself
travel deep inside my soul, discovering different shapes of my spirit, my weakness, my strength, the consciousness of being
alive and in tune with the universe. Carried by those magic moments, I would keep playing Capoeira through the dark of the
night on the soft sand of Bahia's beaches. Soon I was not able to hear the berimbau anymore; I began to feel the sound everywhere,
reflecting on the water, on the clouds, on the edge of the earth, resonating inside my body, vibrating in each portion of
me. In those moments I felt the full dimension of the Capoeira music, the color of its sound" (Almeida, 71).
The berimbau may be a simple instrument, but its uses in capoeira are infinitely
Copyright Shayna McHugh 2002
Almeida, Bira. Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form. Berkeley: North Atlantic
Capoeira, Nestor. The Little Capoeira Book. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books,
...and other internet sources which I was idiotic enough not to bookmark.