World Music Instrument: The Berimbau

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that students in World Music in the Schools enjoy working with . . .

The berimbau (bee-rim-bau) is a single string percussion instrument, described as a musical bow with African origins. It is the main instrument used to produce the complex rhythms in Brazilian music that accompanies capoeira, a Brazilian martial art. The berimbau consists of a flexible wooden bow called the biriba or verga, a steel string called the arame, and a gourd called cabaça. The berimbau is played with the help of a small, thin stick called the baqueta or vareta, a metal or stone disk called dobrao or pedra, and a caxixi (shaker).

Every part of the berimbau plays a role in the production of the music and rhythm:

Biriba (verga) — The berimbau takes its name from this wooden rod, which is known as the backbone of the instrument. It can be made of many different kinds of wood, but the Brazilian species Eschweilera ovata (Cambess.), of the family Lecythidaceae is considered to be the best material for this part of the instrument.

Arame — Made from a piano string or salvaged from an automobile tire, this steel string has to be strong enough to withstand the tension of the biriba, as well as the battering of the baqueta. Its vibration produces the sound of the berimbau.

Berimbau illustration

Cabaça — Made from a hollowed-out and dried gourd, the cabaça is used to amplify the sound of the arame.

Baqueta — This beater is made from wood, and is used to strike the arame and produce sound.

Dobrão — Usually a coin or flat metal disk, the dobrão is used to vary the sound of the berimbau. When touched against the metal string it produces a higher pitch, and when pulled away from the string the pitch becomes lower. As an alternative to the coin, some players use a small flat stone (pedra).

Caxixi — A small percussion instrument, which consists of a closed basket containing seeds, which is shaken to produce a rhythmic sound. When played with the berimbau, it is held by a loop handle in the same hand as the baqueta, so that it shakes when the baqueta strikes the arame. It is believed that the caxixi summons good spirits, and wards against evil ones.

Berimbau closeupTo assemble the berimbau, the arame is attached to both ends of the biriba and pulled taught, which bends the beriba into its characteristic bow shape. The cabaça is attached to one end of the berimbau with a lace, which also helps the musician support the berimbau with their pinky finger while playing.

There are three sizes of berimbau, often played in an ensemble, and each contributing a different aspect to the music:

Gunga — This instrument has the largest cabaça (gourd) and the most flexible verga, and it produces the lowest pitch.

Médio — This berimbau uses a smaller gourd, with a tone and pitch between that of the gunga and the viola.

Viola — With the smallest gourd, and a less flexible verga, this instrument produces the highest pitch, and is used to add rhythmic fills between the steady rhythm shared by the other berimbaus in the ensemble.

— Claudia Lyra, World Music in the Schools Teaching Artist and artistic director of the Brazilian ensemble Nós de Chita

You can view Claudia demonstrating the berimbau on the Center for World Music’s YouTube Channel.