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By N. Scott Robinson and Richard P. Graham

The Brazilian berimbau de barriga, or simply berimbau, is a gourd-resonated, braced musical bow of African origin. The instrument consists of a 4'–5' (1.2 m–1.5 m) branch of biriba, bamboo, oak or other wood bent into an arc. The bow is strung with a single metal string, usually recycled from an industrial use.

Attached to the convex back of the bow with a small loop of string is a gourd resonator, although coconut, calabash or a tin can is occasionally substituted for a gourd. The string loop also serves as a bridge, dividing the metal string into two sections. The little finger of the musician’s left hand (assuming a right-handed player) passes underneath the string loop to hold the berimbau.

The string is struck with a thin stick called a vaquita or vareta, which is held in the player’s right hand along with a small basket rattle called caxixi. A small coin (dobrão) or stone (pedra) held between the musician’s left thumb and index finger is pressed to the string, resulting in a pitch change of about a minor or major second above the berimbau’s fundamental tone.

The berimbau originated in an early nineteenth-century Brazilian slave culture. Several historical notices and depictions from this period demonstrate the continued presence of a variety of central African musical bows (Koster 1816, 122; Graham 1824, 199; Walsh 1830, 175-176; Debret 1834, 39; Wetherell 1860, 106-107). Popular among African-Brazilian vendors and street musicians, these musical bows were known by African names such as urucungu, madimba lungungo, mbulumbumba, and hungu (Shaffer 1976, 14; Kubik 1979, 30). As a result of pan-African technology-sharing, organological traits of these various musical bows were fused to create a single African-Brazilian instrument (Graham 1991, 6).

Sometime in the late nineteenth century, this new musical bow received a Lusophone name—berimbau de barriga, or "jaw harp of the stomach"—and entered a new cultural context, the African-Brazilian martial art form known as capoeira (Kubik 1979, 30-33). Beginning at least as early as the eighteenth century, capoeira was fought to the music of an African-derived hand drum or to simple handclapping. Capoeira is now fought to the toques (rhythms) of the berimbau, which accompany the songs known in Brazil as cantigas de capoeira.

The musical ensemble employed in contemporary capoeira features one to three berimbaus, an atabaque (conical hand drum), a pandeiro (tambourine) and an agogô (double bell). Where multiple berimbaus are employed in an ensemble, they are often tuned to separate pitches. In Salvador de Bahia, the cultural epicenter of capoeira, different names are used for berimbaus of various sizes, including viola (small), medio (medium) and gunga (large) (Lewis 1992, 137). From the 1940s, a number of capoeira schools in Bahia began to paint their berimbaus with colorful stripes and other decorations, reflecting their pride in their individual academias (traditional capoeira schools) (Shaffer 1976, 26).

Richard P. Graham
Boston, Massachusetts

The Berimbau in Popular Music

Besides its close association with capoeira, the berimbau has long been used in a variety of Brazilian folk and popular music forms, such as samba de roda, carimbo, bossa nova, afro-samba and tropicalismo. Art music composers such as Mario Tavares (Gan Guzama), Luiz Augusto Rescala (Musica para Berimbau e Fita Magnetica) and Gaudencio Thiago de Mello (Chants for the Chief) have also written music for the instrument.

The berimbau experienced a creative renaissance in 1960s Brazilian popular music, followed by its spread to areas outside Brazil and its use in 1970s international jazz. Although the international diffusion of capoeira was a phenomenon that contributed to the spread of the berimbau, this occurred only after the instrument had already spread through popular musics. As a result of Brazilian popular musical movements in the 1960s, the berimbau began to be heard internationally independently of capoeira. Baden Powell and others brought the berimbau to the attention of musicians outside Brazil in afro-samba songs that mimicked the sound and rhythm of the berimbau on the guitar. In 1962, Wilson das Neves of the samba-jazz group Os Ipanemas used the berimbau extensively in a most creative manner on their self-titled debut recording. Percussionist Dom um Romão used the instrument on the track "Birimbau (Capoeira)" in a samba-jazz big band on his debut recording Dom Um in 1964. In 1965, Astrud Gilberto recorded a jazz-bossa nova version of Powell’s "Berimbau" that featured Dom um Romão on berimbau on the recording Look to the Rainbow. Gilberto Gil recorded an important tropicalismo album in 1968 (titled Gilberto Gil), which featured the berimbau with electric guitars on the song "Domingo no Parque." Also in 1968, percussionist Naná Vasconcelos was featured on Brazilian TV playing berimbau with the group Trio Nordeste. An unusual recording by the vocalist Joyce of the Heitor Villa Lobos piece "Bachiana Nº 5" for the 1970 television film Irmãos Coragem (released on a soundtrack LP of the same name) featured non-traditional berimbau. By 1970, the berimbau had entered a variety of popular musics in both Brazil and the United States.

Wilson das Neves recording with berimbau in 1962 on the LP Os Ipanemas.

Several expatriate Brazilian percussionists began the process of reinterpreting the berimbau, using it outside of capoeira in 1970s jazz, and this resulted in innovative technical and organological developments. Airto Moreira, Dom um Romão, Guilherme Franco and Naná Vasconcelos [Juvenal de Hollanda Vasconcelos] had explored the possibilities of using the berimbau in jazz, and they were followed by Paulinho da Costa and Djalma Corrêa (and Papete [José de Ribamar Vianna] and Chocolate Do Mercado Modelo in Brazilian pop). Airto Moreira, who left Brazil in 1968, played the berimbau on recordings by Miles Davis in 1969, his solo recording in 1970, and played with the group Weather Report in 1971. Dom um Romão replaced Moreira in Weather Report and continued to use the berimbau during a Japanese tour in 1972. Subsequently, Romão developed an electric berimbau, which greatly increased the volume of the instrument and allowed for subtle changes in its timbre through the use of signal processors. Guilherme Franco had been using the berimbau in an experimental percussion trio in Brazil in 1972. After moving to New York, he played the berimbau on jazz recordings by Archie Shepp and McCoy Tyner and performed with The International Percussion Quartet. After performing on berimbau on Brazilian TV in 1968 with Trio Nordeste, Naná Vasconcelos first recorded on the berimbau with Milton Nascimento (for the film soundtrack Tostão, a fera de ouro) and then with Luíz Eça and Sagrada Família both in 1970, subsequently playing the berimbau with Argentine Gato Barbieri in 1971, and made three successive solo recordings between 1971-1973 in Argentina, France, and Brazil featuring extended improvisatory solo pieces. Subsequently, non-Brazilian percussionists extended the process of reinterpretation, playing the berimbau in jazz. Among them were Luis Agudo and Onias Carmadelli [also spelled as Camardelli] both from Argentina, Okay Temiz from Turkey, African-American Bill Summers, American jazz drummer Shelly Manne, Ray Armando from Puerto Rico, Curt Cress from Germany, Alan Lee from Australia, and Marta Contreras from France, among others.

Naná Vasconcelos and Trio Nordeste, Brazil TV, 1968

Naná Vasconcelos & Gato Barbieri, 1971

The use of the berimbau in jazz provided a nontraditional context for contact, in which percussionists with little or no experience with capoeira could freely exchange ideas about berimbau techniques. Luis Agudo moved to France in 1970, where he built his own berimbau with a double caxixi and experimented with African, Brazilian and Argentinean rhythms. While touring Europe, Agudo met Okay Temiz in Sweden in 1974 and instructed him in how to build a berimbau. By 1975, Temiz had developed a completely new technical approach to the berimbau, involving numerous effects pedals, microphones and a free-hand grip similar to that used for the violin, where the instrument is held between the chin and the shoulder, so that both hands were free for playing. A similar cultural exchange occurred through contact between Naná Vasconcelos and percussionists in Italy and Japan. In the 1990s, Vasconcelos performed a series of solo concerts and held workshops in Japan and Italy. As a result of personal contact with Vasconcelos, percussionists Seichi Yamamura of Japan [sometimes spelled as Seiti Yamamura] and Peppe Consolmagno [Giuseppe Consolmagno] of Italy began to play the berimbau in a style heretofore peculiar to Vasconcelos, effectively contributing to a kind of berimbau performance lineage.

Guilherme Franco - The International Percussion Quartet, c. 1970s

New Berimbau Techniques

By the 1990s, a number of organological developments and new techniques were evident in the way that the berimbau was played in popular musics. Tuning became an issue when the berimbau was played in new musical contexts where pitch was a consideration. Some musicians, such as Vasconcelos and Temiz, actually tied the gourd resonator to the wooden bow in a new manner, so that it was fixed in place, keeping the pitch accurate. Brazilian Dinho Nascimento built a large bass berimbau, called berimbum, which used the string and tuning hardware of an acoustic bass (American instrument makers Gino Zenobia and Matt Collins and German maker Anklang Musikwelt continue to produce berimbau with built in tuning hardware).

Dinho Nascimento with berimbum, 2000

Another organological development consisted of doubling the number of strings, which required new performance techniques. Double-string berimbaus were used by Vasconcelos, Temiz and Franco (who also developed a double-berimbau—literally two instruments joined as one). Romão, Temiz and Franco developed electric berimbaus. Temiz also developed an electric double-string berimbau that featured the addition of separate microphones and signal processors for the string, gourd and caxixi. His technique involved using as many as nine signal processors simultaneously in conjunction with a free-hand grip, which allowed the left hand to slide the coin farther up and down the string, producing many more than the traditional two pitches. By amplifying each part of the berimbau, Temiz could exploit other possibilities, such as tapping on the gourd with the coin, fingers and stick, successfully producing traditional Turkish rhythms.

Okay Temiz - free-hand grip & electric berimbau, 1983

Vasconcelos expanded many technical aspects of the berimbau. Such technical developments included plucking the string with the fingers, striking the wood of the bow with the stone, muting the string, scraping and striking the gourd and other parts of the instrument with the stick, increasing the number of pitches from two to three with a special angled stone stroke, and playing inside the bow with the stick by alternating between the wood and string, thereby achieving many kinds of harmonics and percussive effects. He also redefined the role of the caxixi. Keeping one rhythm with the caxixi as an ostinato, the fingers of the same hand played different accents on the string with the stick. Similar techniques, and others, appear in Luiz Almeida da Anunciação’s berimbau method book of 1990. Argentine Luis Agudo and Brazilian Dom um Romão both employed an unusual technique for string bending by bracing the gourd against the body while pulling back on the bow. In the 1990s, Dinho Nascimento developed a blues-like slide-berimbau technique, which involved holding the bow against the body in a free-hand fashion so that a glass slide could be used to bend the tones of the string. In the 1990s, Italian Rosario Jermano developed another slide-berimbau technique that called for a new left-hand grip and the use of a metal guitar slide in place of the stone or coin. Through both a methods book and teaching, Jermano’s technique spread to other musicians in Italy, including percussionist Paolo Sanna.

Regarding the slide-berimbau, other Brazilian musical bows and monochords achieve a similar effect despite not being a berimbau played with an innovative technique. Airto Moreira experimented with a different musical bow called berimbau de bacia on Flora Purim's 1974 recording 500 Miles High: Flora Purim at Montreux. His incorrectly credited berimbau solo on the track "Cravo e Canela" is in fact a berimbau de bacia. This instrument is played horizontally by placing a gourd-resonated musical bow on top of a bucket as an additional resonator. The player's foot braces the wood of the bow over the bucket with the string facing upwards. The string is struck with a stick while the stone slides across the string to achieve a much more melodic effect than the traditional berimbau is capable of. Moreira also used this instrument in duet with a didjeridu on the 2003 CD Life After That. Antúlio Madureira has utilized the marimbau de cabraça, a type of archaic Brazilian glissed monochord, on several neo-traditional and popular music recordings (refer to the Caetano Velôso track "Rapte-me Camaleoa" on the Kelly Benevides 2001 CD Tráfego Local for an example of the marimbau de cabraça in a popular music setting). Also played horizontally, the marimbau (1 or 2 string versions, also as marimbal) is not a musical bow but is played with a stick and a slider achieving a melodic effect that sounds similar to the berimbau de bacia (as does the unrelated blues monochord from the southern USA known as diddley bow or diddy bow). The innovative slide-berimbau techniques employed on the traditional berimbau are usually played in a vertical position.

Diddley bow, monochord from USA

Marimbau, monochord from Brazil

Rosario Jermano's slide-berimbau grip, 1999

Rosario Jermano's slide-berimbau grip

Both inside and outside of Brazil, the berimbau is still being used in new ways in popular musics. Brazilian artists who have recently used the berimbau in heavy metal, rap, electronica, and rock include Sepultura, Soulfly, Cyro Baptista, General Frank, Gilberto Gil (with Gustavo di Dalva on electric berimbau), and Mônica Feijó, among others. Artists outside of Brazil that have also recently used the berimbau in new genres include Tim Hurley (USA, in the punk rock band Red Red Meat), Tim Aquilina (USA, in the folk trio The Hitmen), Ramiro Musotto (Argentine who plays tuned berimbau with club music electronica), Santiago Vazquez (Argentine improvising percussionist), Alex Pertout (Australia, orchestral and jazz), Mataro Misawa (Japan, jazz), Joca Perpignan (Israel, in the folk group Tucan Trio), François Malet (France, jazz), Nuno Rebelo (Portugal, experimental film/dance/theater), Greg Beyer (USA, composer of a multi-berimbau minimalist piece in 2001 called Bahian Counterpoint (Homage à Steve Reich) as well as commissioning pieces for elaborately tuned berimbau in duo and sextet), Douglas Geers (USA, composer of Exit to City for berimbau and computer in 2003), Taufiq Qureshi (India, fusion), Frank Colon (USA, jazz), Rich Goodhart (USA, progressive world-rock), Richard P. Graham (USA, world music), and N. Scott Robinson (USA, world music). The berimbau has been used in new age and music therapy genres with recordings by anthropologist Michael Harner of The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, among others. The berimbau was also featured in several films including Anselmo Duarte's O Pagador de Promessas in 1962 and the 1993 martial arts/action film Only the Strong. In several television commercials during the early 2000s, the automobile company Mazda even used the capoeira song "Zum Zum Zum" but changed it to "Zoom, Zoom, Zoom" and included berimbau accompaniment in the popular music soundtrack for its advertising campaigns.

Max Cavalera of the heavy metal groups Sepultura & Soulfly


The berimbau has become somewhat emblematic of Brazilian popular culture, its image appearing frequently in murals, sculpture, jewelry, tattoos and the electronic media. The diffusion of the berimbau into popular musics outside of capoeira and beyond Brazil has led to its increased sophistication and technical diversity as a musical instrument. Because of the various styles of music in which the berimbau was increasingly used, new techniques were developed to better meet the challenges of berimbau performance outside of capoeira. These new attributes of contemporary berimbau performance include an increased tendency toward improvisation, the use of electronics, additional strings, combinations with new instruments, new rhythmic styles, and solo performances. Following the innovations of Brazilian percussionists, many non-Brazilian musicians who creatively adopted the berimbau did so without a prior knowledge of capoeira and approached the instrument solely in the context of jazz and rock. Through the process of reinterpretation, the increased range of diverse performance techniques came to better fit the needs of musicians who used the berimbau in new contexts, and this facilitated the use of the instrument outside of capoeira and beyond Brazil.

N. Scott Robinson
San Diego Mesa College, California

[An edited version of this article was published as "Berimbau" in the Continuum Encyclopedia of SPACE SPACE Popular Music of the World, Volume 2: Performance and Production. Edited by John SPACE SPACEShepherd, David Horn, Dave Laing, Paul Oliver, and Peter Wicke. New York: SPACE SPACE SPACEContinuum, 2003, 345-349].



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Metheny, Pat and Lyle Mays. As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. CD, ECM 78118-21190-2. SPACE SPACE 1981: USA.

Moraz, Patrick. Patrick Moraz. LP, Charisma 0798. 1978: UK.

Moreira, Airto. Natural Feelings. LP, Buddah BDS-21-SK. 1970: USA.

________. Life After That. CD, Narada World 724359326726. 2003: USA.

Musotto, Ramiro. Sudaka. CD, Fast Horse 5. 2003: USA.

Nascimento, Dinho. Berimbau Blues. CD, Velas V 20166. 1996: Brazil.

________. Gongolô. CD, Genteboa GB 002. 2000: Brazil.

Nascimento, Milton. Tostão, a fera de ouro. LP, Odeon 7BD1202. 1970: Brazil.

________. Miltons. CD, Columbia CK 45239. 1989: USA.

OM. OM with Dom um Romão. LP, ECM 19003. 1977: USA.

Oriental Wind. Life Road. CD, JA & RO 08-4113. 1983: Sweden.

Papete [José de Ribamar Vianna]. Berimbau e Percussão: Music and Rhythms of Brasil. CD, Universal SPACE Sound US CD7. 1975: Brazil.

________. Planador. LP, Continental 1.01.404.244. 1981: Brazil.

Passport. Iguaçu. CD, Wounded Bird WOU 149. 1977: USA.

Pertout, Alex. Alex Pertout. CD, Larrikin Entertainment LRJ-273. 1993: Australia.

________. From the Heart. CD, Vorticity Music VM 010116-1. 2001: Australia.

Pike Set with Baiafro, The New Dave. Salomão. LP, MPS MB-21541. 1972: Germany.

Powell, Baden. Os Afro-Sambas. CD, Forma FM-16. 1965: Brazil.

Purim, Flora. 500 Miles High: Flora Purim at Montreux. CD, Milestone OJCCD-1018-2 (M-9070). SPACE 1974: USA.

Qureshi, Taufiq. Rhydhun: An Odyessy of Rhythm. CD. CMP CD 81. 1995: India/Germany.

Rebelo, Nuno. Azul Esmeralda. CD, Ananana AN-LLL0001-CD. 1998: Portugal.

Redmond, Layne and Tommy Brunjes. Trance Union. CD, Golden Seal CD 0100. 2000: USA.

Red Red Meat. There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight. CD, Sub Pop 387. 1997: USA.

Robinson, N. Scott. World View. CD, New World View Music NWVM CD-01/United One U1CD 402 SPACE 4569 3027 2. 1994: USA/Germany.

________. Things That Happen Fast. CD, New World View Music NWVM CD-02. 2001: USA.

Romão, Dom um. Dom Um. LP, Mercury 528 122-1. 1964: Brazil.

Rudolph, Adam. Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures. CD, Flying Fish FF 70612. 1992: USA.

Sepultura. Roots. CD, Roadrunner 8900. 1996: USA.

________. Under a Pale Grey Sky. CD, Roadrunner 618436. 2002: USA.

Shepp, Archie. The Cry of My People. LP, MCA 23082. 1972: USA.

Soulfly. Soulfly. CD, Roadrunner 8596. 1998/1999: USA.

________. Primitive. CD, Roadrunner 8512. 2000: USA.

________. 3+4. CD, Roadrunner International 84555. 2002: USA.

________. Tribe. CD, 404 Music Group 8020. 2002: Australia.

Temiz, Okay. Drummer of Two Worlds. LP, Finnadar SR 9032. 1975/1980: Turkey.

________. Oriental Wind. LP, Sonet SNTF 737. 1977: Sweden.

________. Magnet Dance. CD, Tip Toe TIP-888819-2. 1994: Germany.

________. Okay Temiz’s Magnetic Band: Magnet Dance. CD, Vasco de Gama VDFCD 8000. SPACE SPACE 1994: Turkey.

Tibbetts, Steve. Exploded View. CD, ECM 1335 831 109-2. 1986: USA.

Tucan Trio. Tucan Trio. CD, Nada NADA 16. 2000: Israel.

Various Artists. The Discoteca Collection: Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas. CD, Rykodisc RCD 10403. SPACE 1938: Brazil.

________. Folklore e Bossa Nova do Brasil (Jazz Meets the World 1: Jazz Meets Brasil). CD, MPS SPACE 533 133-2. 1966: Germany.

________. Irmãos Coragem. LP, Philips 765.119. 1970: Brazil (unidentified berimbau player).

________. Berimbau e Capoeira—BA. CD, Documentario Sonoro do Folclore Brasileiro INF 46. SPACE 1988: Brazil.

Vasconcelos, Naná. Africadeus. CD, Saravah SHL 38. 1972: France.

________. Amazonas. LP, Phonogram 6349.079. 1973: Brazil

________. Saudades. CD, ECM 1147 78118-21147-2. 1979: USA.

________. Nanatronics: Rekebra/Nanatroniko. LP (12" single), Bagaria BAG-X 0190784. 1984: Italy.

Vasconcelos, Naná and Agustin Pereyra Lucena. El Increible Naná con Agustin Pereyra Lucena. SPACE SPACE LP, Tonodisc TON-1020. 1971: Argentina.

Vazquez, Santiago. Raamón. CD, Lal 025. 2004: Argentina.

Veloso, Caetano. Transa. CD, Polygram 838511. 1972: Brazil.

Voicequn. Peace Birthday. CD, Funny Time Label & Records SB-202. 2002: Japan.

Watson, David. Skirl. CD, Avant 77. 1999: USA.

Weather Report. Weather Report. CD, Columbia/Legacy CK-48824. 1971: USA.

________. Live in Tokyo. CD, Sony International 489208-2. 1972: Japan.

Yamamura, Seichi. Voice of TEN. CD, Funny Time Label & Records HOC-356. 1997: Japan.



Acuña, Alex. The Rhythm Collector. 2007. Drum Workshop (DVD). (Alex Acuña-berimbau).

Almeida, Bira [Mestre Acordeon]. Capoeira Bahia. 1983. World Capoeira Association (video).

Cortesão, Jorge. The Berimbau—volume 1. 1999. Bridges to Productions (video).

________. The Berimbau—volume 2. 1999. Bridges to Productions (video).

Damaria, Alexandre and Luiz Roberto Cloce Sampaio. O Berimbau-Brasileiro. Everett: HoneyRock SPACE Publishing, 2012.

Duarte, Anselmo. O Pagador de Promessas. 1962 (film).

Duarte, Cassio. Introduction to Brazilian Percussion. 2003. LP LPV136-D (DVD).

Gil, Gilberto. Electracústico. 2004. WEA 5050467761025 (DVD & CD set).

Lenine (Oswaldo Lenine Macedo Pimentel). Cité. 2004. BMG AA0025000 (DVD).

Lettich, Sheldon (director). Only the Strong. 1993. 20th Century Fox (DVD).

Moreira, Airto and Flora Purim. The Latin Jazz All-Stars Live at the Queen Mary Jazz Festival. SPAC1985. View NTSC1311 (video).

Musotto, Ramiro. Sudaka: Ao Vivo. 2005. MCD MCD 304 (DVD & CD set).

Santo, Joselito Amen. Sounds of Bahia: Introduction to Berimbau. 2006. Play My Game (DVD).

Sembello, Michael. The Bridge. 1998. PBS (video).

Various Artists. Bahia de Todos os Sambas. 1983. Sagres (video).

________. Woodstock Jazz Festival. 1981. Pioneer Artists PA-98-596-D (DVD).

________. The Spirit of Samba: Black Music of Brazil. 1982. Shanachie (video).

________. The JVC Video Anthology of World Music and Dance. Vol. 28: The Americas 2. 1988. SPACE JVC, Victor Company of Japan (video).

________. Batouka: First International Festival of Percussion. 1989. Rhapsody Films (video).

________. The Music of Jimi Hendrix. 1995. TDK (DVD).

________. Pernambuco em concerto. 2000. África Produçoes (video).

Vasconcelos, Naná. Berimbau. 1971. New Yorker Films (documentary film).

________. Goree, On the Other Side of the Water. 1990. UNESCO (documentary film).


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