Geographic Region: South America
Country of origin: Brazil
Subregion: Bahia
Climatic type: Tropical
Classification: Chordophone
SvH No.: 311.121.22
Is an Ensemble?: No
Related Instruments: Pandeiro

Author: Eric A. Galm


Physical description
The berimbau de barriga (lit. "belly bow") is a gourd-resonated musical bow that developed in Brazil from related Central African musical bows. It is referred to as such because the resonating gourd is placed against and in proximity to the stomach of the musician. It is made from a wooden pole (vara), with an attached steel string (arame). A piece of leather is attached to the top end of the vara which helps sustain the pitch of the freely vibrating string. A small cotton-tuning loop (barbante) is attached to a hollow gourd (cabaça and placed around the bow and string, creating a resonance chamber.

The berimbau is played with a wooden or bamboo stick (baqueta), and a coin (dobrão or small stone (pedra) modifies the pitch and timbre of the metal string. A basket rattle (caxixi) woven from wicker or rattan attached to a section of gourd and filled with seeds is incorporated into the berimbau's timbral sound spectrum.

African-derived musical bows were a significant part of Northeastern Brazilian public marketplaces from at least the early 1800s until the abolition of slavery in 1888, and were used to accompany storytellers, beggars, and vendors. The berimbau was also used during times of leisure among communities of African descent. Today, the berimbau is most commonly associated with capoeira, a martial art/dance/game, where it is the most important instrument within the musical ensemble. The berimbau became intertwined within the practice of capoeira around the 1930s, when the discipline was transformed from an illegal street fight to a dance form that was practiced within the confines of indoor academies. Today, the berimbau is a national Brazilian icon, and it is frequently used to evoke a Brazilian sound in a broad range of art and popular music produced by both Brazilians and non-Brazilians.

The pitch of the berimbau is created by the tension of the metal string on the bow, and defined by the resulting tension from the tuning loop that is placed around the metal string and bow. This loop is generally placed on the lower fourth of the bow, and tuning is often determined by harmonics that resound from the small portion of the bow between the tuning loop and the end of the bow. These additional harmonics help to further amplify the acoustic range of this instrument. When more than one berimbau is used, the pitch corresponds to the size of the gourd, from large (low) to small (high).

Playing technique
The musician supports the bow with the middle and ring finger of the left hand wrapped around the wooden pole, and the small finger under the tuning loop. The coin or stone is held between the index finger and thumb of the same hand. The stick is held between the thumb, index and middle fingers of the right hand, and the basket rattle is wrapped around the middle and ring fingers of the same hand. In general, the stick causes the metal string to vibrate, and the coin/stone modifies the pitch and timbre.

Berimbau music within the capoeira tradition is transmitted from master to apprentice over many years, and is learned by ear. Many melodic-rhythmic patterns (toques) are referred to by name, but names and toques vary among masters. While berimbau notation schemes have been developed for at least five decades (Galm 1997), more comprehensive schemes have appeared between the early 1970s and the present (see, for example, D'Anunciação 1971 and 1990, and Pinto 1991).

Performance context
Berimbau music provides the musical foundation for capoeira movement, which takes place in a circle (roda) formed by dancers and musicians. Within the circle, practitioners exhibit a variety of aggressive and defensive movements that freely move between multiple planes: side to side and high to low (and vice-versa), and enable the dancers to surprise their opponent at any time. Both musicians and dancers provide musical accompaniment through call-and-response singing that alternates between the leader and chorus. A typical musical ensemble features three berimbaus: the gunga (largest), m┐o (middle) and viola (smallest), defined by the size of the resonating gourd. Additional instruments often include pandeiro (tambourine), reco-reco (notched rasp), agog┐ (double-bell) and atabaque (similar to a conical conga drum).

Since the late 1950s/early1960s, the berimbau has moved beyond the realm of capoeira music, and has been incorporated into popular musical genres of bossa nova, MPB (popular Brazilian music), Brazilian rap and hip-hop, Brazilian art music genres, and international latin jazz, among others. Despite the berimbau's move into international music contexts, it has retained its symbolism as a Brazilian national musical instrument.

Almeida, Bira. 1986. Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Capoeira, Nestor. 1995. The Little Capoeira Book.Alex Ladd, trans. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

D'Anuncia┐, Luiz (Luiz Almeida da Anuncia┐). 1971. "The Birimbau [sic] from Brazil: What is it and how to play it," Percussive Arts Society 3(3: 72-77.

Galm, Eric A. 1997. "The Berimbau de Barriga within the World of Capoeira." M.A. thesis, Tufts University.

----- 2004. "Beyond the Roda: The Berimbau de Barriga in Brazilian Music and Culture." Ph.D. Dissertation, Wesleyan University.

Graham, Richard. 1991. "Technology and Culture Change: The Development of the Berimbau in Colonial Brazil," Latin American Music Review 12(1): 1-20.

Lewis, John Lowell. 1992. Rings of Liberation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pinto, Tiago de Oliveira. 1991. Capoeira, Samba, Candomblé Berlin: Museum F┐r V┐lkerkunde.

Grupo de Capoeira Angola Pelourinho.1996. Capoeira Angola from Salvador, Brazil. Smithsonian/Folkways, SFCD 40465.

Vasconcelos, Naná. 1980. Saudades. ECM Records ECM. 1-147. LP.

-----. 1995. Storytelling. Hemisphere. 7243 8 334 442 0.


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