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Oct 26 2011

The art of building the berimbau

Meu berimbau istrumento genial
Meu berimbau voce é fenomenal
Berimbau istrumento de uma corda
Toca paz e toca guerra
E tambem chora de amor

The berimbau is synonym of capoeira; there is no roda without it. Not only its presence makes capoeira different from all other martial arts as the third essential element of any game, but its voice commands the game. The voice of a good berimbau has power and passion, strenght and emotion. It can play fast and slow, jogo de dentro… and jogo de fora.

To understand better how this ancient instrument is made, we asked a few questions to our appointed purveyor of excellent berimbaus and other fine craftsmen. We met with Overlan Lionato da Silva, also known all over Brazil and beyond as “Bahiano dos berimbaus” in Bahia, when he came to deliver the instruments that you find now for sale on this site. Like many capoeiristas, Bahiano dos berimbaus started to learn how to make a berimbau in his early teens by cleaning the branches of biriba for his capoeira teacher Mestre Estrela, as a way to pay for his lessons.

Different woods can be used to make berimbaus: biriba, tapioca, aracà and bamboo; however, the biriba –from which the berimbau gets its name- is generally considered the best for its flexibility, weight and sound qualities. Bamboo is becoming increasingly popular for violas as it makes them lighter: easier to handle for the solos, without losing sound quality. Matt Collins, a craftsman from California, is currently experimenting an innovative berimbau made with different hardwoods available in the USA: “I blend my years of percussion crafting with some guitar building experience into innovations like bent lamination to create the verga which is cutting thin strips of various hard woods and gluing them back together with a curve like a bow has.”

The wood for the bow – in portuguese: arco or verga – explains Bahiano must be cut diagonally in order to allow the tree to re-grow. This aspect is highlighted by Cabello, capoeirista and expert instrument-maker based in NYC: “In Brazil they are becoming very concerned about the depletion of biriba woods; a biriba branch takes more than 3 years to grow enough to be used for berimbaus. For my instruments I follow the tradition that my Mestre taught me and I use only biriba imported from reliable sources in Brazil.”

Pirangué cleans off the bark of biriba. To make a good berimbau, the bow must be flexible yet strong, so it doesn’t break for the tension, and of course as smooth as possible, just like a capoeirista. Once the branch is cut, the bark is cleaned with a sharp knife. The third phase consist in cutting the bottom to attach the arame (steel string) and nailing a leather protection to the top in order to hold the arame in place and avoid cutting through the bow itself. Afterward the arco is smoothed with sandpaper, primed and painted with one or two coats of transparent varnish to preserve the wood. Mestre Bimba used to say: “A painted berimbau loses its voice,” therefore the berimbaus used to play capoeira music are usually just varnished, while the painted ones are mainly for decoration.

The cabaça comes from the fruit of the bottle gourd (lagenaria vulgaris) also known as calabash, a plant very diffused in tropical climates of the same family of the cucumber and the pumpkin. There are three types of cabaça according to their size. The smallest one is called viola it has the highest pitch and is usually used for playing solos and virtuosisms. The mid-size cabaça is called precisely medio and has the role of the rhythm-keeper. The largest cabaça is the gunga and it plays the bassline, there is also a XL size cabaça called berra-boi but it is seldom used nowadays.

“According to Mestre Joao Grande it is the gunga that controls the game. The gunga is the master of the game, of the roda and of what’s outside the roda” says Cabello. His cabaças come from his own farm in Brazil, where he also gets the raw materials to build his very popular caxixis. A good gourd is smooth and as round-shaped as possible. To transform it in a cabaça, first, a circle is cut out at the top of the dry gourd and is usually used later to make the bottom of the caxixis. Then, the gourd is cleaned inside because a good cabaça is very thin to allow maximum resonance. Two holes are made at the bottom in order to pass the string that attaches it to the arco. Some capoeiristas add a piece of leather above the holes inside the cabaca in order to improve the sound. Like the bow, the gourd is smoothed and varnished to conserve it better. The final piece is the arame, the steel string is extracted by car wheels, in ancient times when there were no cars they used animal bowels. Each cabaça now needs to “get married” (Portuguese casado) with the right arco and here only experience and your ears can guide you.

You finally got your excellent berimbau; however, don’t forget: “A good [berimbau] player is not just someone that knows how to play, but someone that knows why he is playing. It’s part of the education of capoeira understanding what the toques demand and what the songs say,” Mestre Cavaco has pointed out. Cabello agrees and adds “The berimbau player controls the game and is responsible for it. When Mestre Joao Grande plays in a certain way we know immediately what he’s communicating. He always says we don’t play rhythms, we play songs. Playing the berimbau is like singing a song.”

Many thanks to:
Cabello – www.Caxixi.com
Matt Collins –www.CollinsRhythmCraft.com
Check out their excellent crafts!

Article originally from www.capoeira-shop.com