Contextual Associations

The surdo is a Brazilian double-headed membranophone. Its strongest association is with the baterias (percussion sections) of Rio de Janiero samba schools, and with Afro-Brazilian Carnival music from Bahia in the northeast. It might today also be encountered at football/soccer matches in Brazil, or wherever Brazilian teams travel, as part of informal percussion groups stimulating fan excitement.


The two surdo pictured on this page differ in size and the material used for their shell; otherwise, their design and construction details are identical. They both have a cylindrical shell, but the larger surdo is made of laminated wood with a diameter of 20 in., while the smaller is made of aluminum with a diameter of 18 in. Their upward facing (playing) head is a multi-ply Mylar and Napa leather membrane mounted on a rigid flesh hoop slightly wider in diameter than that of the openings in the shell they cover. The other head (downward facing, resonating), which is not struck, is made of nylon. The drumheads are further tensioned with metal collars the diameter of which is slightly larger than that of the shell but slightly small than that of the flesh hoop. These collars each have a number of piers spaced around their circumference (ten on the larger surdo, eight on the smaller one). The piers accept threaded metal tension rods that run the length of the drum shell. By turning the nuts at the lower ends of these rods with a key, the amount and evenness of pressure on the membranes can be controlled. A metal-rimmed pressure hole is situated in the middle of the shell. The beater is made of wood with a thick rubber bulb at one end. A strap for carrying is attached to the tuning rods with clips.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The drum hangs from a shoulder or waist strap about waist high in front of the performer. Slightly tilted to the player's right side, only one head is actually struck. The performer strikes the upward facing head (the two-ply Napa leather one) either with a heavy rubber-tipped beater in one hand and the open palm of the other hand, or with two beaters one in each hand. Both ringing and muted tones can be produced, as well as rim shots, to produce distinctive repeated rhythmic patterns. Generally, two or three sizes of surdo produce as many different patterns in a bateria. The largest-size surdo, called the surdo de marcação or surdo de primeira, generally accentuates the second beat of each 2/4 measure, while the next largest surdo, called surdo de resposta, accentuates the first beat.


Not much information on the history of the surdo was found. Several types of bass drums are found throughout Brazil, including the zabumba and the alfaia, and the western military band bass drum has been present in Brazil since the 19th century. Of these, perhaps the alfaia might be seen as a likely prototype for the surdo, which seems to have come into existence in the latter half of the 20th century. Used for the maracuta, a Afro-Brazilan processional dance music from northeast Brazil, the alfaia is double headed, carried in a similar fashion to the surdo, struck with beaters, and comes in similar head diameters.

McGowan, Chris, and Ricardo Pessanha. 2009. The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: South America

Nation: Brazil

Formation: Afro-Brazilian

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.212.11 membranophone--individual double-skin cylindrical drum, one skin used for playing

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - cylindrical

Number and function of membranes: two, one for sounding and one for resonance

Membrane design: framed with rigid flesh hoop

Membrane attachment: counterhoop, lapped over framed membrane hoop, connected by lacing or tension rods to counterhoop lapped over framed membrane hoop

Membrane tension control: rotating screw rods or bolts

Sounding for membranophone: striking with one hand and one handheld beater

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


25.3 in. height (first instrument) 20 in. diameter of shell (first instrument) 22.7 in. height (second instrument) 18 in. diameter of shell (second instrument)

Primary Materials

wood - laminated
metal - sheet
membrane - synthetic





Entry Author

Roger Vetter