by Peter Tracy
Circles, cycles, and wheels. These images and ideas are important to musical cultures from around the world, including Western classical music: think song cycles, ritornello form, or theme and variations. On their newest album, Spinning in the Wheel, Projeto Arcomusical finds this same imagery in the Afro-Brazilian musical tradition of the berimbau, and use it to inspire groundbreaking new repertoire for their chosen instrument.
The berimbau, a single-stringed musical bow, is played using a thin wooden stick, a small rattle, and a coin or stone slid on the instrument’s string. This allows the berimbau to incorporate both pitched and unpitched percussive sounds, as well as a wide variety of timbres. If you haven’t heard this instrument before, you might be reminded of instruments like the West African kora, the East African mbira, and even the acoustic guitar, as well as a host of percussion instruments from maracas to marimbas. Each aspect of the berimbau is used to full effect in the ensemble’s latest album to create a surprisingly diverse and colorful musical language.
Spinning in the Wheel is not only the name of the album, but an idea that informs the entire aesthetic of the release, from the cover art to the album’s structure, which moves from larger to smaller instrumentation and back again in a sort of circle. In fact, this idea of a wheel or circle is intimately connected with the berimbau itself and its traditional use as accompaniment to the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira. This art takes place in a roda (Portuguese for “wheel”), where musicians and dancers come together in a circle to celebrate, sing, compete, and play. Capoeira, therefore, could be considered its own kind of spinning in a wheel.
“Roda” is also the title of the album’s opening track, a berimbau sextet by composer Elliot Cole. This work features four movements of varying texture and intensity and cycles back around to end in much the same celebratory and energetic place it began. It gives a broad and exciting overview of the berimbau’s potential, from the contemplative cross-rhythms of “Dreaming” to the joyful grooves and expressive group vocals of “Singing.”
The group also sings admirably in Portuguese on “Traíra,” a sextet by Projeto Arcomusical founder and director Gregory Beyer which reworks and expands upon music from the first commercially released recording of capoeira music in Brazil. Other highlights include Kyle Flens’ drifting and nostalgic “Echoes,” Alexis C. Lamb’s ostinato-filled trio “Ondulação” (meaning wave or ripple), and Beyer’s virtuosic “Berimbau Solo no. 5, ‘For Mô.’”
Throughout the album, the sextet imparts a sense of joy in communal music-making, which is reinforced by the group’s impeccably tight performances. The members of the ensemble are incredibly in tune with each other and their instruments to the point where no one player stands out from the sound of the group as a whole. Though they draw plenty of inspiration from Afro-Brazilian folk music, the ensemble’s roots are in Western classical music, and they approach the music much like other chamber musicians would. Out of respect for the oral tradition of their instrument, however, they perform without sheet music, freeing them to move around and engage with each other in performance just like the musicians of a roda.
It can feel at times when listening to Spinning in the Wheel that the music is quite literally spinning and dancing around one’s head, but it is never spinning in place for long, and the members of the ensemble manage to keep listeners on their toes while simultaneously presenting a calmingly cyclical and trance-like listening experience. With elements of minimalism, traditional capoeira songs, and folk music from around the world, Spinning in the Wheel presents a blend of influences and styles which come together to form a truly unique sound.
In addition to composing and performing new music, Projeto Arcomusical is also part of a broader nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating and expanding upon the rich musical history of the berimbau. In a sense, it is the communal spirit of this art form which truly shines through in all of Projeto Arcomusical’s endeavors, whether that be educating listeners worldwide about the berimbau and its history, seeking out and engaging with players of musical bows from across Africa and Brazil, or composing and performing a unique music of their own.