Also:       berimbau de barriga      birimbau      urucungu      berimbau gunga      berimbau médio      

Title: Capoeira Angola from Salvador, Brazil; Grupo de Capoeira Angola Pelourinho. Label: Smithsonian/Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: SF CD 40465. Track: 22.

Contextual Associations

The berimbau is a struck stick-zither chordophone used to accompany the Afro-Brazilian game-dance called capoeira (for more on this tradition see ‘Capoeira Ensemble from Brazil’). It carries a strong regional association with the Bahia state of northeastern Brazil and cultural association with Brazilians of African decent. However, the berimbau has in recent decades come to have a much greater diffusion as capoeira is now practiced not only outside of Bahia in Brazil, but also by Brazilians and non-Brazilians living in major cities around the world.


The berimbau consists of a wooden string carrier (verga or arco), a gourd resonator with a large opening (cabaça) tied to it, and a single metal string (arame or corda, frequently acquired from the sidewall of an automobile tire). Three different sizes are recognized that vary form one another more in the relative size of their cabaças than in the length of their vergas: gunga (largest); médio or centro (middle sized); and viola (smallest). The two birimbau pictured here were purchased as a berimbau gunga and a berimbau médio. The arame, which is shorter than the length of the verga, is tensioned by fitting loops tied at its ends over notches carved in the ends of the bow (the bow must be flexed considerably to accomplish this). The apex of the cabaça is pressure connected to the verga with a string tension loop (or sliding nut) that passes over the arame near the bottom end of the bow. A metal coin called a dobrao or moeda is used to stop the string. A thin striking stick (baqueta) is used to activate the string, and a small wicker rattle called a caxixi is held in the same hand.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, either standing or seated, holds the bow vertically with his left hand, the arch of the bow pointing away from him and the opening of the cabaca facing his abdomen  (this instrument is sometimes referred to as the ‘belly bow,’ or berimbau de barriga). Pinched between his left hand thumb and index finger is the dobrao. The baqueta is held in the player's right hand along with the caxixi. The string is activated by striking it near its bottom end with the baqueta with the caxixi sounding in response to the energy of these strokes. The bow's fundamental pitch can be changed approximately an interval of a M2 by occasionally stopping the string a short distance above the tuning noose with the dobrao. By occasionally pressing the cabaca against his abdomen, the player can produce timbral changes. Named rhythmic patterns, called toques, are defined by the specific combination of rhythm, pitch and timbre created on the berimbau


Many authors, but not all, assume the berimbau originated in the Angolan region of west-central Africa, one of several areas from which slaves were taken for plantation work in Brazil. There are indeed to this day morphologically similar instruments in use in and around Angola such as the lungungu of the Mbala and Sonde peoples and the lukungo of the Luluwa, Mwanza, and Bapende (Fryer, p. 35).  It is unlikely that bows were brought by slaves to Brazil; more likely they were reconstituted from memory by individuals once relocated to Brazil. The earliest mention of a berimbau precursor (called urucongo) dates to the early 19th century, and of the use of the basket-rattle caxixi by bow players to 1856 (Fryer, p. 37).  The earliest references to capoeira date from the second half of the 19th century, but at that time drums were used for accompaniment, not the musical bows, which were instead associated with a specific dance. Exactly when the berimbau became utilized in capoeira practice is not known, but the early 20th century seems most likely (Talmon-Chvaicer, pp.128-129).

Bibliographic Citations

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

Downey, Greg, et al. 1996. Capoeira Angola from Salvador, Brazil. CD and booklet. Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40465.

Fryer, Peter. 2000. Rhythms of Resistance: African Musical Heritage in Brazil. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.

Galm, Eric A. 2010. The Berimbau: Soul of Brazilian Music. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Lewis, J. Lowell. 1992. Ring of Liberation: Deceptive Discourse in Brazilian Capoeira. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Talmon-Chvaicer, Maya. 2008. The Hidden History of Capoeira. Austin: University of Texas Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: South America

Nation: Brazil

Formation: Afro-Brazilian

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

311.121.222 chordophone--mono-heterochord musical bow (the bow has one heterochord string only): with resonator, with tuning noose

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: zither - bow

Resonator design, chordophone: non-integral, open vessel

String courses: single

Vibrational length: string carrier to sliding nut

String tension control: stretch and knot

Method of sounding: striking (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by direct free stopping)


62.5 in. length of bow 25 in. circumference of larger calabash 19 in. circumference of smaller calabash 5 in. height of caxixi 15 in. length of beater

Primary Materials

string - wire
shell - calabash

Entry Author

Roger Vetter