The Berimbau: Brazil's Most Unusual Instrument

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One of the great Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell’s signature songs is called “Berimbau”.  It truly signifies Brazilian musical culture, and has been celebrated by cover versions of countless artists both in Brazil and around the world.

What exactly is a berimbau and where does it come from?  We know it comes from Africa, as no indigenous Brazilians or Europeans use a musical bow.  Ned Sublette, in his marvelous study of Cuban music, said it came from forest hunter-gatherer tribes in the Congolese and Camerounian rainforests.

The bow got to Angola in a smaller size than the Brazilian version, then came to Brazil with Angolan slaves. What started as a hunter’s bow in prehistoric Africa has wound up as a musical instrument in Brazil.

The berimbau is difficult to play (I’ve tried).  It consists of a wooden bow made from a Brazilian hardwood,  with a round gourd-like resonator at the bottom. The player uses a small coin or stone which helps position the bow, which then is struck by a wooden stick which has a small shaker on it.  The sound has a distinct twang.

The berimbau is used in candomblé ceremonies, as well as the martial arts dance known as capoeira, which goes back to slavery days and the quilombo (fugitive commune of escaped slaves as well as other disenfranchised groups—mulattos, native Amazonians, poor whites and even Portuguese soldiers escaping military service) in Palmares in the 17th century.  I would suggest that break dancing, as well as ju-jitsu, have borrowed elements from this amazing dance.

Check out these videos of berimbaus and capoeira.

Baden Powell playing the famous song:

How to play the berimbau: