The Berimbau: A Hidden Past of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

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The Berimbau: A Hidden Past of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

By: Jacob Y. Chin

A double buzz akin to a rasp, then a deep resonating clear tone of a perfect note, followed by the high-pitched note when a taut wire is struck, finished with a rattle made when beans shake around a basket. Then rinse and repeat. This combination of sounds is the basic rhythm a berimbau will make to carry the music of capoeira. The berimbau is a one-string bow-shaped instrument with a hollow gourd attached using a piece of string near the bottom of the bow. This relatively simple looking instrument is played with a stone and stick to control the rhythm and sound the berimbau will make. Within the Brazilian martial art of capoeira, the berimbau is the heart and soul. As a capoeirista, a practitioner of capoeira, myself, this instrument is in many ways more important to my art than even the physical movements. No matter the school, style, or history of capoeira the berimbau is the strongest connection I have to all those who came before me as well as all those who practice today. My berimbau is my connection to the past that informed, influenced and ultimately created the martial art of capoeira.

For the uninformed eye, capoeira looks more akin to a dance than to an actual martial art. This perception comes from the instruments played and songs sung in a circle while the movements of the two capoeiristas in the circle seeming to look more like movements seen in a breakdancing than martial arts. These elements allowed capoeira to be hidden in plain sight passed off as nothing more than an intricate partner dance. Throughout this ritual the beriambau is the instrument that dictates the game played inside through the patterns called toques. In a game of capoeira each toque carries a different messages to the capoeiristas playing. Thus making the berimbau the beginning, middle and end of a game of capoeira.

Capoeira is a martial arts started by Afro Brazilian slaves during the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade when there was over four million African slaves shipped to Brazil. The details and exact origins of capoeira are highly debated but the common consensus among historians was the heavy influence of African cultures upon capoeira, specifically seen in the usage of the berimbau and other instruments used in capoeira (Almeida). As further evidence of capoeira’s roots in African culture, the berimbau’s origins can be traced back to Africa where similar instruments can be seen in regions outside of Portugal’s colonial empire. Furthermore, similar instruments are seen in Guam, Cuba, and other places where African slaves were imported in large quantities (Berimbau). The lack of an appearance in African American culture can probably be attributed to the type of growth of slavery in the United States being more homegrown than imported. This does not mean that there were no instances of African musical culture to be transferred over to the United States (Wood). Other instruments such as the xylophone, drums and the banjo arrived in the United States and were used to create and inform African American culture much in the way the berimbau helped to create and inform Afro Brazilian culture.

This makes a crucial aspect of capoeira the construction of the instruments. All instruments including the berimbau can be hand made. This aspect of capoeira of instrument construction is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost of those reasons being the connections made between capoeiristas. Advancement within capoeira is multifaceted. On top of reaching levels of physical proficiency it is just as, if not more important to know how to make the instruments used in capoeira. The student learns from the teacher every step of the way for all these aspects of capoeira. This means that the lessons and history of capoeira are passed down from teacher to student (Almeida). This transfer of knowledge from teacher to student is a very organic process, which has added to and continued the growth of capoeira around the world. Without the musical traditions as the connection between teacher and student capoeira would have most likely been turned into a mainstreamed commercialized martial arts without substance. Capoeira then would be lacking any sort of respect for the history of capoeira and the events that led to its creation.

In essence, by learning the berimbau in capoeira it becomes the door to learning about the richness and depth of capoeira. In doing so this act of learning challenges the dominant paradigm of culture in modern society where culture is seen merely as entertainment (Harris). Since the culture of capoeira is intertwined with the history of slavery in Brazil, taking the time to learn about culture means taking the time to learn about the struggle and hardships that became capoeira (Mann). This is why the berimbau is so much more than just another instrument in capoeira. The berimbau is not only a powerful piece of capoeira’s history but also Brazil’s history. Expanding upon this concept even further, just as with capoeira and the berimbau, the usage and development of instruments brought from Africa was and still is a vital piece in the creation of culture for the African Diaspora in the Americas.

History told with a focus upon culture is a challenge to the dominant Eurocentric model of history (Wood). By seeing culture as the focal point and thus a site of power rather than entertainment who and what are seen and heard radically shift and change. In looking towards the origins of African American music, different doors open up to other cultures that share intersections in history. Thus by narrowing the focus upon the origins of instruments and how specific instruments affected the development of different cultures, it brings into the light the stories of those overlooked in history. To trace the origins of these instruments through the Transatlantic Slave Trade to different countries it becomes very painfully apparent the struggle to develop identity and community is a reoccurring struggle time and time again. And while each culture becomes unique the origins of these cultures touched by the slave trade are all too similar.

It is somewhat of a stretch to claim one musical instrument can tell such a story. An instrument is just an instrument. However, it is the small things that act as keys to history. By simply asking, “Where did the berimbau come from?” I was led to another question, which led to another, which led to another and before I knew it the scope and number of those questions had exponentially grown. The way this line of inquiry developed into a web demonstrates two things; first everything is connected and second, there is no such thing as one definitive answer to these questions. When studying history of those oppressed, marginalized, and made invisible a simple question is the first step to doing so. It is the simple questions we ask that acknowledge there is always more to something than what is on the surface.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Almeida, Bira. “Capoeira.” Mestre Acordeon – Capoeira. The Latin American Institute, UNM, Albuquerque. Web.

Arsenault, Natalie, and Christopher Rose. “Africa Enslaved: A Curriculum Unit on Comparative Slave Systems for Grades 9-12.” Print.

“Berimbau.” Capoeira Song Book. Web. <http://capoeirasongbook.com/instruments/berimbau/&gt;.

Harris, Robert. “The Intellectual and Institutional Development of Africana Studies.” The Black Studies Reader. Routledge. 15-20. Print.

Mann, Charles, and Susanna Hecht. “Where Slaves Ruled.” National Geographic 1 Apr. 2012. Print.

Mann, Charles, and Susanna Hecht. “Where Slaves Ruled.” National Geographic 1 Apr. 2012. Print.

“The Portuguese in Brazil.” The World Economy. Web. <http://www.theworldeconomy.org/impact/The_Portuguese_in_Brazil.html&gt;.

“A Strange New Land.” To Make Our World Anew. 53-102. Print.

Film

Capoeira – Professor Manganga and Mugunje – Seattle Capoeira Center – Capoeira Angola Palmares. Perf. Profe Mangaga & Mugunje. Film.

Picture

Courtesy of Seattle Capoeira Center

 

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