The Capoeira Blog


Intro To Capoeira Music: The Berimbau
June 18, 2008, 9:57 am
Filed under: Music, Tips & Guides

Berimbau tocou na capoeira
Berimbau tocou eu vou jogar


Photo by Allison McCarthy (Flickr)

Welcome to the third part of the Introduction to Capoeira Music series, where we will learn a bit more about the berimbau.

The berimbau is a one-stringed instrument that originated in Africa. It is integral to capoeira, yet it is also used in many other musical styles and cultures. In capoeira, whoever plays the berimbau controls the pace of the music, and thus the pace of the game.

There are three types of berimbaus: gunga (low), medio (middle), and viola (high). The three sizes work together and provide rhythm, improvisation, and harmony. Traditional angola rodas use all three, while it is common to use only one berimbau in a regional roda (though, this is not a strict rule, and it is usually up to the mestre).

If you want to learn capoeira, you must learn the berimbau. Like anything in capoeira, and any instrument for that matter, learning how to play the berimbau takes dedication and practice. You will not master the berimbau over night. But the more you play the better you will become, and that’s what’s important.

Berimbau Anatomy

The berimbau is played by striking the string with a stick while a rock or coin is pressed against the string to change the tone. It may sound simple, but anyone who has seen or played a berimbau knows that it is nothing of the sort.

Before you start playing the berimbau, you should know what you’re working with.


Image from worldartswest.org

The berimbau is made of three main parts:

Verga: The verga is a wooden bow, four-to-five feet long. It is traditionally made from biriba wood, which grows natively in Brazil.

Arame: The arame is a steel wire that usually comes from the inside of a car tire. Check out this post on how to make your own berimbau arame.

Cabaca: The cabaca is a hollow gourd with a hole in one end that is tied to the main body of the berimbau and acts as a resonator. You can create a muffled sound by pressing the cabaca to your stomach.

To play the berimbau, you need:

Baqueta: The baqueta is a wooden stick used to strike the arame.

Dobrao: The dobrao is a coin or rock used to change the tone of the berimbau.

Caxixi: The caxixi is a woven shaker held in the same hand as the baqueta, and is used to enrich the berimbau’s sound.

Berimbau Basics

The berimbau is a unique instrument that takes time to learn, and a lifetime to master.

The first thing you need to do is string the berimbau. Luckily for you, I made an earlier post on how to string your berimbau, so check it out.

The second thing you need to do is get used to holding and balancing the berimbau. Your pinky goes under the string holding the cabaca (and yes, your pinky will be in pain and maybe go numb at first, that’s normal), your ring and middle finger curl around and grip the verga, and you hold the dobrao with your thumb and pointer finger. The best thing you can do is have someone show you the correct grip, because it’s tricky to explain.

Berimbaus are pretty long and end up being top-heavy, so you need to learn how to balance the berimbau and train your wrist to keep it straight. If you don’t balance the berimbau well, it will tip and sway all over the place, and make it a lot harder to play anything. Practice tilting the berimbau up and down and side to side with your wrist, without playing, so that you can get used to the way it feels. When you get really good, you can use this practice to show off.

Once you get the basic grip, you can start to make some sounds (I say sounds, because unless you’re an uber talented musician, I don’t think you’ll be playing crazy good music the first time you hold a berimbau).

Each note comes from striking the arame with the baqueta, which you hold in your opposite hand with the caxixi (to hold the caxixi, rest it in your palm with the loop facing your fingers, and stick your middle two fingers through the loop). The different tones (closed, open, and buzz) come from pressing, lifting, and gently touching the dobrao to the arame.

Mixing up these tones can create an infinite number of toques (rhythms) and improvisations. But, you’re gonna want to start with the basics. Here are some more tips for getting the hang of playing the berimbau.

Here are two basic toques that you can try:

Sao Bente Grande de Angola

Sao Bente Grande

These are two of the most common toques in capoeira, and if you learn them, you’ll be well on your way to learning many more. There are many more examples on Soul Capoeira’s YouTube channel.

So, there you have it. I haven’t told you everything there is to know about the berimbau, but I think I’ve given you enough to be dangerous with. You can’t get better unless you play, so grab a berimbau and PLAY!

Be sure to check out Part 4 of this series where we discuss capoeira’s other instruments.

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5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

very nice overview, faisca. and with “grab the berimbau and play” you are absolutely right. there is no formal system of learning berimbau (yet), so the only way to learn it is to do it. I want to add one little piece of information to your post. That is about the origin of the berimbau. It is not only said to be of African origin. It comes up in many different cultural groups all over Africa.

Here some nice Youtube-footage:

and…very interesting…this one:

chheerio,

angoleiro

Comment by angoleiro

Thanks for the clarification, Angoleiro.

Comment by faisca

I want to share a story that gave me a great insight into the importance of the berimbau as the spiritual and cultural center of African slave life and capoeira: I met an old man from Guyana who was mesmerized by my berimbau playing one day in the park. He didn’t recognize the instrument, but definitely recognized the cabasa. He said that for the “Old Africans” the Cabasa tree (found in the similar climates of Guyana and Brasil) was very spiritual, they say it “sees everything.” And they use the hollowed-out gourds for everything from meals, to bathing, to religious rituals.

Comment by Jasmim

[…] Part 3: The Berimbau […]

Pingback by Intro to Capoeira Music: The Basics « The Capoeira Blog

Well, you may already have posted or plan to do so in a near future, but here are a couple of Mestre Virgulino’s tutorials on berimbau toques:

http://www.virtualcapoeira.com/play-berimbau.htm

Comment by Lokuzt




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