Respect Your Berimbau!

The first time I heard and saw the Berimbau, I was amazed. Some other people were not used to its sound and did not understand it. And while learning more about Capoeira, a student does understand that having a Berimbau and learning how to play it and that listening to the sounds and the orders of the Berimbau in the Roda is of uttermost importance in Capoeira. I always accepted this as a fact and did not waste energy to think about it, until the first person asked: “why?”

When we thoroughly study the sources, we see that Capoeira was not always associated with the Berimbau. When Rugendas was describing Capoeira in 1825, there were drums. When Debrét was drawing the black street vendor with the Berimbau, there was no Capoeira. In the few first-hand sources we have about Capoeira of the 19th century, there is just no Berimbau. And still, today all our Mestres and teachers do emphasize the importance of the Berimbau. The Berimbau started to become a symbol of Capoeira. When I see somebody walking around with a Berimbau here in Europe, I just assume he is a Capoeirista. So, what happened in the last 100 years? Why is the Berimbau so important to Capoeira, while it was just not associated with it just 110 years ago?

Let’s try to track it back.

Out of Africa – the Berimbau

The Berimbau is an African-derived instrument. Recent and past indigenous tribes of Brazil did not have musical bows, the Europeans neither. But in Africa around the 15th century till today there was a huge diversity of different musical bows, of which I have given an overview in another post of mine. The ones who played these bows and built them in Africa were shipped over to Brazil and there they started making Berimbaus and playing them. We find the first historical documentation of the Berimbau in the early 19th century. Especially travellers from Europe were fascinated or curious about the musical bow which was described as being used by street vendors and beggars. And it was especially an instrument used by Blacks, not by the mestizoes, not the poor whites, it was the African Brazilian people who used the Berimbau.

The first times the Berimbau was mentioned together with Capoeira, was in the early 1880’s. One document of this time (about 1891) is a description by Joao Silva da Campos, whose description was published posthumously in 1941:

The excited dark crowd performed Batuques. Samba. Capoeira circles. One heard pandeiros, cavaquinhos, violas, harmonicas, berimbau and cadential hand clapping. It was  pandemonium (Campos 1941:131).

This description, which does not seem to be the description of an insider, does definitely show us that Capoeira and the Berimbau were already in the same happenings, but maybe not specifically linked to each other. It was still mainly poor African Brazilians who practised Capoeira, and who played the Berimbau. But in one expect there is an important difference between Capoeira and the Berimbau. While Capoeira was practised in different places, the Berimbau seems to have survived in only few places. Especially in Salvador. In Rio Capoeira was practised without the Berimbau (and without the Ginga and so on), but was associated with war songs used by the Guiamos and the Nagoas. In Recife Capoeira was associated with the city’s principal music bands, but they also had no Berimbau.

Symbiosis

In the 1930’s the Berimbau was nearly extinct in Brazil. It was only played in Salvador, and here most of its players were Capoeiristas or associated to them. And then, when Capoeira did suddenly increase in popularity thanks to Mestre Bimba and the legalization of Capoeira Academies by Getulio Vargas, the Berimbau did start to be used more and more. And today, only 70 years later, the Berimbau is a symbol of Brazil, but more of Afrobrazilian culture, and, of all, of Capoeira. It is still most intimately connected to Capoeira, but has now its existence in performance and entertainment outside of it as well. Without Capoeira, the Berimbau would never had experienced such an increase in popularity in the world. And maybe, though this is speculation, it would not have survived.

But there is also the other side of the coin. Would Capoeira have survived or gained so much popularity without the Berimbau? Mind, that the Capoeiras of Rio de Janeiro and Recife, the ones without the Berimbau and stripped from many parts of Afrobrazilian culture, did not survive. Alright, this is all speculation, because, in fact, Capoeira and the Berimbau did survive. My opinion is still, that without each other, both would have been much weaker nowadays than before. They are in a symbiosis: a situation, where two different entities are closely associated gaining mutual benefit from this. Already this is a reason to respect the Berimbau and keep it in your Rodas and in your trainings.

Control

There is more to the Berimbau. The Berimbau is the Master of the Roda. Of course, yes, there are other Mestres, but in every Roda, in modern Capoeira Rodas and in traditional ones, the Berimbau does control speed and style of the game. That’s why there are different rythms, different toques of the Berimbau. That is why the Berimbau is the first instrument to play in a Capoeira Roda. That’s why every instrument can miss in a Roda, but not the Berimbau. And that’s why Capoeiristas can walk through any street and will react on the sound of the Berimbau, usually making him attent and making him search for the Roda. That is why there are all rituals around the Berimbau, why it’s at the Pé do Berimbau where we enter the Roda.

Mestre Bimba did modernize Capoeira, but he did leave the Berimbau, because it is the controlling instance in a Capoeira Roda. It is the Berimbau and the bateria of Capoeira, which did keep Bahian Capoeira under control, so that it could be playful in the first, beautiful in the second and deadly in the third game. That’s the big difference of Bahian Capoeira to Capoeira Carioca or Capoeira of Recife. That’s why it did survive.

Everybody has to listen to the Berimbau, if he does not, he doesn’t have any idea of Capoeira.

And us?

I have to admit it. My Berimbau skills are far less than my playing skills. I might play some toques and be able to keep up a Roda, but whoever calls my Berimbau play beautiful has never heard a good Capoeirista play the Berimbau. What I am gonna do is learn to play the Berimbau. Training it as regularly as your Capoeira skills is something most people do not do – and when your teacher doesn’t give music lessons (or only rarely) than your music will be horrible. Until you start learning it yourself. We should understand that the Berimbau is as important as the Ginga in Capoeira. When you are a longterm Capoeirista and you have no Berimbau, the question is: why? Get yourself a Berimbau, start playing it till there is no feeling in your pinky and then: play more!

12 Comments

Filed under African Roots, Philosophy

12 responses to “Respect Your Berimbau!

  1. Nice post! When I first read the title I actually thought it was going to be a “practical” one about how to take care of your berimbau properly, etc. (prompting me to remember the time I tried stringing mine before it got warm enough…as I learned the hard way, of all the sounds you can make on a berimbau, then one you *never* want to hear is *CRACK*!)

  2. Hey Joaninha! thanks for your comment and: Nice to hear from you again🙂 was a bit silent on your side on the blogosphere recently. Practical information about how to use your berimbau is something I might post about later (thanks for that idea), but for now I think most people should first know why the berimbau is so important! But you are right, maybe a post about “how to” is also very important. nobody wants to hear his berimbau make the unpleasant *crack*. actually it hurts only to think about it!

  3. Soldado

    Your posts continue to be a great source of information. I must almost admit to being beyond horrible with the berimbau…..and the atabaque…and pandeiro…and well everything associated with capoeira.🙂

  4. Not knowing is not a shame, not learning is! Thanks for your comment, soldado!

  5. Soldado

    My philosophy exactly……

  6. Hi Angoleiro

    Very nice post, as usual. Thx.

    I heard a nice (and very simple) story about the berimbau:

    Once apon a time, a beautiful black girl with a very long black hair, sat by the river. she was attacked from behind and died. In that moment her body turned into averga, her head into a quebaca and her hair into a string. Her weeping is the sound of the berimbau.

    I love playing the berimbau and share your feeling about the symbiosis between capoeira and the berimbau. As I posted in my blog, I think they are all the same: the game, the song, the music, the instruments, the clapping, the roda and the players.

    Keep up the good job.
    Regards
    Cobrador

  7. hey cobrador, you are right. capoeira is the sum of its parts and one big chunk of it is the berimbau and its sound.
    I heard of the story about the Berimbau and everytime the Berimbau plays you hear the cry of the black woman. But I tried not to get into the mythical and religious aspects behind the Berimbau, because that is obviously a broad and different topic. On the other side it’s worth a post!

  8. Mathurin Star

    > Great post, I learn so much about Berimbao this time…

    >In fact, I’ll would offering one to my Brother, How is not Capuerista but musician…

    >The mess is, in Europe, If U surely could find a Capuera Berimbao, it’s harder to find a real African Uhadi (or bow harp)…

    >Thx for all your knowledges…

  9. Hey Mathurin,
    I am glad you learned things about the Berimbau. And I have to tell you you are right, it’s really not the easiest thing to get a good berimbau in Europe, on the other side, find a Capoeira teacher and he will have some connections to someone who is gonna go to BRazil in a few months.

  10. thanks for article, is great. this article give us knowledge…….

  11. Fouda

    HEY !

    Just found your blog; i was looking for Berimbau maintenance & care-taking tips (i badly need them lol)

    Thanks for the great article, btw; the idea that all the instruments can miss but not the berimbau just scared the shit out of me when i thought of playing for my class lol

    I live in Egypt (not much Capoeira spirit there) and finally got my berimbau 1 (or 2?) days ago, my current coach brought me one from France.

    I was stringing it and, since the wood was very hard, i gave it my all and heard the ever dreadful *CRACK* (a small one, though, but still :-\)
    Now, there’s a very small split on the verga that marks an increased wisdom on the matter of the right tension of the berimbau

    If you can direct me to some “practical” guide to maintaining the berimbau, i’d be most grateful.

    Pray for my berimbau to stay intact till the day i tell my students “That was my first berimbau🙂 !” and watch them go “Woaaaaah!…. lol

    Salve e Axe

  12. Dagger_pca

    Hello, I have enjoyed reading your text. Well done!🙂

    @Fouda
    Hey man, I think it is to difficult to explain it by the words. You better look for videoclips in the internet to get it. And I would advise you to make a “bandage” out of wire or something like that on the damaged place to support your berimbau. And I have to say I’ve needed about a week (ofcourse I din’t tried the whole time) to string it and I’m not perfect yet😉 The main thing is your left hand.

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