Also:       atabaque cunha grande      tambor      

Contextual Associations

The atabaque is a single-head membranophone from northeastern Brazil where it is associated with a number of Afro-Brazilian sacred and secular traditions. For the Yoruba-derived Candomblé religious practice, three atabaques of like construction but differing in size are used. Candomblé is a collective act of worship where music and dance serve as a means to communicate with the deities. Instruments used in this spiritual practice often have to go through a series of painstaking consecratory rites and women are strictly forbidden from playing them. A single atabaque is used in the African-derived martial arts tradition of capoeira Angola. In this rich tradition the atabaque is one of a small number of drums that along with musical bows (berimbaus) produce the strong and inspiring rhythms for the dancers. Additionally, baterias, the percussion ensemble of samba schools, can employ atabaques along with a wide array of other drums.


Its shell/body is constructed like a barrel but its shape might best be described as conical with a bulge. The drum shell is comprised of seven wooden staves that are coopered together with five metal bands. The membrane is pelt from a cow with the fur still completely intact. The membrane is lapped around a stiff hoop slightly larger in diameter than the opening in the shell that it covers. Hemp rope zig-zags from the head hoop to a metal tension ring (or counter hoop) near the base of the shell. This ring is sufficiently larger in diameter than the drum shell at that point, allowing for eight wedges (cunha) to be driven between it and the shell (atabaques using this mechanism are referred to as atabaque cunha, or ‘wedge atabaque’). Atabaques can also utilize a tension control mechanism involving several pegs puncturing the shell in a circle just below the head. In lieu of a foot the drum rests on a metal tripod ring-frame.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Atabaques are played with sticks, with hand and stick, or with the hands alone, depending on the particular musical tradition. The drummer is usually standing when playing. Before playing the drummer can adjust the head tension by pounding on the wedges.


The atabaque is derived from West and Central African drums the knowledge of which was carried to Brazil by slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Bibliographic Citations

Béhague, Gerard. 1984. "Atabaque [tambor]." NGDMI v.1: 82.

________.  1998. "Afro-Brazilian Traditions." In Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.2. ed. Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 340-355.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: South America

Nation: Brazil

Formation: Afro-Brazilian

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.251.1 membranophone--individual single-skin conical drum

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - bulging-conical

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: framed with rigid flesh hoop

Membrane attachment: framed membrane hoop connected, by lacing or tension rods, to counterhoop encircling shell

Membrane tension control: wedges between counterhoop and shell

Sounding for membranophone: striking with variable combinations of hand and handheld beaters

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


36 in. height of shell 11 in. diameter of shell at top 5 in. diameter of shell at foot 15 in. diameter of head 1.5 in. height of wedges

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal pelt
rope - hemp

Entry Author

Gaelyn Hutchinson