Whenever I travel through an airport, I am usually asked one of two questions by airport security:
(1) "Uh, Sir, just what kind of a pipe is that?", or
(2) "I'm sorry but, are you planning on boarding with that bow and arrow?"
What they are referring to is my berimbau, which is most likely slung over my shoulder, as I always take it on board with me! The berimbau is definitely one of my favorite instruments in the world! Where at one time, the instrument's use was limited exclusively to the arena of the Capoeira practicioners (Brazil's national martial art!), at present, its characteristic tones and sound effects can be found gracing many varied styles of music, from jazz, to rock, to classical, to Latin, and more.
The berimbau is held vertically in the left hand by placing the little finger under the string that attaches the gourd to the bow. The fourth and middle fingers wrap around the bow while the coin (or washer or flat stone) is held horizontally by the index finger and the thumb. The caxixí (the little basket shaker) is inserted around the middle and fourth fingers of the right hand, while the beater is held by the thumb, index, and middle fingers. The open side of the gourd is held against your abdomen, but it does not remain there permanently! You need to be able to hold the berimbau entirely in your left hand because you must play it against, as well as away from the body. You see, it's the opening and closing of the gourd's open side against our stomach that makes the natural acoustic "wa-wa" effect, which is the beautiful sound so characteristic of a well played berimbau.
The right hand travels in a 45 degree angle, striking the wire below the coin's point of contact to extract the low tone. For attaining the higher notes, the beater strikes the wire above the coin. There is also a high, raspy snare-drum-like sound produced by striking the wire while holding the coin lightly in contact with it. And every time the right hand moves in on the wire, the caxixí makes its crisp, "dry-maraca" sound.
These are the traditional sounds associated with the berimbau. In a future article, we will go over some new and avant-garde sounds and rhythms which the berimbau is capable of producing. The possibilities for this instrument are truly vast, so much so, that I've come to respect it as being one of mankind's oldest "acoustic synthesizers"!
But.......back to the traditional execution of the berimbau.....the most common and most often played rhythm is the one by the name of "São Bento Pequeno". It's the rhythm that everybody learns to play first and, because it's done at a moderate to medium-lively tempo, it really swings once you get the various "wa-wa" effects happening! There are, at the most, three berimbaus going at one time and they are usually tuned at low, med , and high pitches. The one tuned low tends to "hold the bottom" or maintain the basic rhythm going while the other players improvise a little according to the heat of the battle going on right in front of them.
To obtain the so-called "wa-wa" effect (you know, like the guitar "Wa-Wa Pedal"!) the berimbau must always be touching your belly immediately preceeding a strike on the wire. The motion is gradual but large, in that, as soon as you strike the wire with your beater, you must move the berimbau's gourd away from your body, until you obtain the entire full, rich tone from the gourd. This should be done for the low and high notes.
The next most popular rhythm is called "Angola". This rhythm is played very slow, while the guys dueling in front do so in slow motion, each one trying to out-do the other in feats of agility and strength. Again, the low pitched berimbau pretty much "holds the fort" while the other performers play along, stepping outside of the pattern to improvise according to the movements of the capoeristas in the circle.
"Cavalaria" is the rhythm that is usually learned next. This rhythm is used exclusively to break up the function on account of the police arriving on the scene. As soon as someone plays this rhythm, everybody knows that it's time to scatter! This rhythm uses only the low note and the metallic rasp. Every time the low note is played, the note is "opened" by moving the gourd away from the body. The rasp note is produced at precisely the end of this outward trajectory, at the exact moment the berimbau begins to return back to the belly.
Each of these rhythms should be practiced over and over, many times! Your left hand must be able to grip the instrument firmly, for long periods of time, so you must work on strengthening your left hand and fingers. It takes, on the average, two to three months to get to a point where you can actually hold the berimbau with any sense of control. Up until this point, please practice far from glass shelves and crystal chandeliers!