DrumsOnTheWeb.com ... Drum Key : Informal Lessons with Frank Colon (part 2)

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Frank Colon's Informal Lesson #2

berimbau Andrew writes...


... I just bought a berimbau and would like some assistance in assembling it. It didn't come with instructions of it's own, so I stumbled upon your site. I would like to know how to play it. I've read the information that you have on your site, but I still can't figure it out. The gourd is detached and has it's own twine rope looped around the two holes on the top. The berimbau has a twine string attached to the metal string. It also came with a stick and a caxixí. How is the gourd attached to the berimbau? is it tied to it, or is it held in place by my fingers?

I heard it played in some Bossa Nova and thought it had such an interesting sound. I went over to the local music store and they got one for me! I just picked it up today. Thanks for your help in advance.


Frank responds...

Hello, Andrew!

I've been touring Europe with Gato Barbieri's band and have therefore been away from a computer for a little while....

Congratulations on acquiring a new berimbau! This instrument happens to be one of my favorite, as I consider it (along with the cuica drum) to be one of the world's original "acoustic synthesizers"!!!

Here's how you put it together: First of all, you've got to make a bow out of the long stick and the wire with the twine on it. I would change the twine on both the wire and the gourd for something more sturdy and permanent, like a tightly braided nylon string, about 1/16 of an inch thick.

The wire should already have a small loop on one end where the string will be tied to and a larger loop which will hook on to bottom of the long stick. Once you've looped the wire on to the stick, place this bottom end on the inside of your foot as the other end of the wire should pass over the top of the stick, wrapping around in a circular fashion as you bend the stick with the same knee of the leg that's securing the instrument. In this way, you'll make a tight bow, which should already have a "twang" when you pluck it with your fingernail.

Next, tie the nylon string into a loop through the two holes that should already be drilled into the gourd, on the opposite side of the gourd's large opening. This loop should be about 1 & 1/2 inches in length, when stretched away from the gourd. It's good to do this in a way in which the knot will remain inside the gourd.

Once this loop is created on the gourd's string, you slide the berimbau bow's bottom end through the gourd's loop. I recommend that you squeeze the bow's wire as you do this sliding to prevent unnecessary wear on the string, releasing the squeezing when you feel that the gourd is placed in the correct tuning that you want.

You will play the berimbau by holding it upright in your "weak" hand, the gourd facing your belly. This hand will also hold the coin / washer / stone that your fingers will move on and off of the wire to produce the different tones. Your "strong" hand hold the caxixi and the beater stick with which you will extract the tones by striking the wire. By moving the instrument on and off of your body / belly, you will achieve the natural "wah-wah" effect for which this unique percussion instrument is known for.

Andrew, go back and consult the berimbau article at www.drumsontheweb.com for more detailed info on playing techniques, as well as some basic fundamental rhythms which will get you well on your way to enjoying this profound and special instrument!

Oh.... as for getting it on the plane, what I did was modify a regular-size berimbau, making it a little shorter so that it will fit in all of the airlines' overhead stowage space. As you are new at playing and dealing with this instrument, I don't recommend that you modify yours just yet.... Perhaps you can acquire a shorter one. While a traditional berimbau measures between 56 and 62 inches, the ones that I travel with are 50 inches.

When I go to board a plane, I don't have the long beater stick with me. Instead, I've got a small and thin triangle beater (the one with half of it covered with a rubber tube) which lives inserted between the corner of the gourd and the bow. Now, what happens when airport security questions me on "What exactly is that thing?", I tell them, very politely, that it's a musical instrument. "No....you're kidding!", is usually the next statement (although, I also get comments like, "Wow!!!", or "Really? I've never seen anything like that!", etc.).... Now, either or both of two things can happen: (1) Security doesn't really believe it or, (2) They are curious to the point of asking to hear it. Either way, the next thing I do is give them a quick but musical demonstration, usually leaving the whole security area in awe. I tell them it's a percussion instrument from brazil and, usually, everything's cool from that point on.

Now, remember, the main thing is for you to be cool and polite. I've had this still not work and a security agent require that an airline supervisor approve on this "thing" to board the plane. One thing that you should be aware of, Andrew, is that, by law, anything that could possibly be used as a club to hit people with can be prohibited from the passenger cabin! So, here's something that "could be used as a club" and looks like a bow and arrow, as well!!! So, it's worth it to conduct yourself in a light and courteous and educated manner so as to leave everybody in this same state.

If worse comes to worse and, because of size or any other reason, you are unable to board the cabin with the berimbau, take the gourd off and check the bow as luggage!

I take great pleasure in welcoming another new friend to the brotherhood! If you're ever in New York City, give me a call and stop by for a free lesson!

All the best,


Frank Colón
Technoprimal Productions, Inc.