A Single String, An Infinite History: The Art of the Berimbau

by Maggie Molloy

At first glance, the berimbau looks like a pretty simple instrument. A wooden bow strung with a single steel string and a hollow gourd resonator—how complicated could it be?

But despite its simple appearance, the berimbau is actually quite rich with history and musical nuance. The instrument originated in Sub-Saharan Africa before making its way to Brazil via the transatlantic slave trade. It became integral musical accompaniment for the Afro-Brazilian capoeira, which was in itself an art of liberation. Capoeira was a martial art disguised as dance and practiced among the African slaves in Brazil as an inconspicuous means of survival, self-defense, and cultural identity.

Arcomusical is a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve and expand the history of the berimbau through composition, performance, community, research, and education. This weekend, Projeto Arcomusical is travelling to Washington to share the music and history of the berimbau through performances in Bellingham (Nov. 5) and Seattle (Nov. 6).

The program features a blend of original works from Projeto Arcomusical’s album MeiaMeia, traditional bow music from Brazil and Angola, a new composition by ensemble member Kyle Flens, and a Chamber Music America commission by composer Elliot Cole.

We were thrilled for the opportunity learn more through our conversation with Arcomusical founder and director Gregory Beyer, a composer, percussionist, and educator who embodies the nonprofit’s commitment to both the history and the future of the berimbau:

Second Inversion: Can you tell us about the historical significance of the berimbau? Why is the advancement of this instrument (and musical bows in general) important in the 21st century?

Gregory Beyer: The berimbau is an icon of African musical culture in Brazil and, thanks to its association with the worldwide practice of capoeira, throughout the world. It is precisely this connection to the popular body game which, scholars argue, saved it from an otherwise certain extinction. Other African bows that once existed in Brazil are either near extinction or are totally forgotten. And it should be said that the relationship of the berimbau and capoeira is mutually beneficial. Capoeira, too, faced harsh oppression in Brazil’s history. It is capoeira’s connection to the berimbau that allowed it to disguise itself as a musical pastime, as a dance, and kept it from further persecution and elimination. And through the poetry of the music, capoeira and the berimbau have become powerfully laden with a collective African cultural consciousness in Brazil.

SI: What inspires you most about the instrument?

GB: Its elegant simplicity and the intimacy of its voice. Unlike most other musical instruments that have a “mouth” that points outward to an intended audience, the “mouth” of the cabaça of the berimbau faces the belly of the performer. In fact, the stomach becomes an integral surface to create the instrument’s signature timbral shift, the “open/close” or “wah-wah” of its voice. I met a wonderful Brazilian capoeirista in Belo Horizonte who told me that when she was twice pregnant, in each pregnancy she would hold the instrument particularly close to her belly and play softly so that her yet-to-be born daughters could hear. I like to think that the instrument is capable of some of the most intimate lullabies on the planet.

SI: You first discovered the berimbau through the music of Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos. How did he inspire you in your training, and how is Arcomusical expanding upon (or contrasting with) his work?

GB: My introduction to the instrument was not through capoeira but through the work of Naná Vasconcelos. Naná was my hero and first big inspiration to play the berimbau at a high level. His virtuosity coupled with the immediacy of the voice of the instrument, and his own signature ability to blend his own voice with the instrument to create a meta-instrument, were powerfully moving to me. I had two opportunities to spend time with him, and each time was sheer joy. I was so thankful to him for his connection to the instrument and to his musical voice. And I know that I am not alone in this. Naná has inspired so many of my friends and colleagues who play or appreciate the musical bow.

Arcomusical sees Naná as a guiding spirit to our mission to spread awareness of the musical bow here in the United States (where it is little known) and to bring majesty to its voice. In doing this work, we aim to create a culture and a community in the United States that will enjoy playing musical bows for years to come. We know that Naná’s spirit will live on in the work that we do. I love the fact that Arcomusical has become a 501(c)(3) organization because it legally belongs to no one. This is a legal underpinning of an idea that has taken hold for us rather intensely this past year. This work we do is not about us. Rather, Arcomusical is a vehicle through which the berimbau and its African cousins will live long and prosper.

SI: In what ways is the music of Projeto Arcomusical similar to and different from the Western classical tradition?

GB: We definitely approach our music making like a classical chamber music group. We discuss form, phrasing, dynamics, intonation, cueing, and so on. Yet we take very distinct cues from the tradition of capoeira that make our shows and our music-making in general very special to us.

Because the berimbau is played in an oral tradition, we memorize everything that we perform to remove the music stand from the stage. Furthermore, capoeira is such an expressive physical activity that we feel compelled to move, to dance, to breathe, to step in time, together, as a single unit, to enhance our connection with our shared music-making. And because the berimbau is, unlike a violin or any member of the Western classical string family for that matter, a very limited instrument in terms of its available pitches at any given moment, our compositions are not unlike those written for a handbell choir. Each member of the group is responsible for only certain notes in a given melodic line, in a given harmonic field, etc. So our melodies and counterpoint lines are literally shared and dispersed throughout the ensemble constantly. And the audience can literally SEE the music being passed around the ensemble. In this sense, we bring a synergy of the Western and non-western traditions to our unique form of chamber music-making.

Beyond this, the music itself takes many cues from the tradition. My most recent sextet for the ensemble, Berimbau Sextet no. 2, “Traíra” takes huge inspiration from the first commercial recording of capoeira released in Brazil. When in 1963 Mestre Traíra and his companions released “Capoeira da Bahia,” that recording became the gold standard for a generation of capoeiristas that now hold the highest positions of mastery and leadership in the capoeira community. On my Fulbright and sabbatical in Belo Horizonte, I generated over 70 pages of transcriptions from this recording and I utilized elements of those transcriptions as inspiration for the work. This kind of music composition, alongside singing traditional songs and engaging the audience in the capoeira roda experience, make for a unique and unforgettable concert experience. [Editor’s note: The roda is a circle (or half-circle) formed by the musicians, inside of which the capoeiristas perform movements.]

SI: Can you tell us about the new grant-funded work on the program, “Roda” by Elliot Cole?

GB: Working together with Elliot Cole over the past year has been richly rewarding. Cole, a deeply sensitive and intelligent artist, sensed the seriousness of purpose that Arcomusical brings to its work. While preparing to write “Roda,” he purchased and learned how to play a berimbau, studied our scores from MeiaMeia, and found a capoeira community in his hometown of Jersey City with whom he trained (and continues to train!) capoeira. In “Roda,” Cole utilizes elements from the capoeira tradition in his own unique way. The result is incredible. “Roda” is the most powerful commission that Arcomusical has received from a composer outside of the organization.

I am thrilled about our current concert program, “Rodar na roda,” and Elliot’s new work is the grand finale. It is an incredible journey for us—a four-movement, 21-minute composition that is easily the most thrilling work we have yet to bring to life.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance, and what can audience members expect?

GB: My research in Brazil in 2015-2016 has completely transformed the content and presentation of Arcomusical’s live performances. In concerts, Projeto Arcomusical now presents capoeira music in between our original chamber music selections and we actually invite the audience to come up on stage and create a “roda” as we play capoeira in the penultimate break immediately prior to our performance of Elliot Cole’s “Roda.” After our shows, we always invite audiences onto the stage to talk and to try playing our instruments. The tactile immediacy of holding a unique musical instrument for the first time always brings joy and smiles. We especially love it when we have children and families in the audience because it makes this audience interaction afterward all the more vibrant and engaging.


Projeto Arcomusical performs at Western Washington University’s Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Nov. 5 at 7:30pm, and at Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall on Monday, Nov. 6 at 8pm. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: MeiaMeia from Arcomusical

by Maggie Molloy

It doesn’t take a lot to make beautiful music—in fact, sometimes all it takes is one single string.

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The Afro-Brazilian berimbau is, quite literally, a musical bow: it’s comprised of a long, thin wooden branch strung with a single metal wire and a hollow, open-backed gourd resonator. It’s played with a thin stick, a small basket rattle, and a small coin or stone.

Often used as musical accompaniment for the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira, the instrument arcs like a bow and arrow but plays like—well, nothing you’ve ever heard before. Which raises the question: why haven’t you ever heard it before?

Arcomusical is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the artistic advancement of the berimbau and related musical bows through composition, performance, publication, research, and community. To date, Arcomusical has created over 30 new works for the berimbau—and counting.

Most recent among them is a 12-work chamber music cycle titled MeiaMeia: New Music for Berimbau. Composed by Artistic Director Gregory Beyer and his former student, Alexis C. Lamb, the album’s title is Portuguese for “HalfHalf,” as in “six of one, a half dozen of the other”—six pieces by each composer.

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MeiaMeia is brought to life by Beyer and Lamb’s world music sextet Projeto Arcomusical, whose hand-painted instruments sport a Piet Mondrian-esque design created by their bandmate Daniel Eastwood. Clocking in at just over an hour, the chamber cycle makes its way through a wide spread of solos, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets, each exploring the unique timbral colors and textures of this inimitable instrument.

The result is a collection of pieces which draw on influences ranging from the minimalist musings of Steve Reich to the folk tunes of Béla Bartók, traditional capoeira music to palindromes and numerical patterns. Pieces blend patiently into and out of one another, enfolding the listener in a meditative trance.

And yet, that trancelike soundscape that is bursting with color. The musical language is at once playful, rhythmic, buoyant, and beautiful—ostinati bounce energetically from one player to another, pitches bend back and forth, hocketed melodies echo above gentle glissandi, and kaleidoscopic melodies circle and expand in ever-changing patterns.

As a listener, it’s easy to lose yourself in that ever-evolving soundscape—but Projeto Arcomusical doesn’t miss a beat. The sextet is so tuned in to one another that at times it becomes difficult (if not impossible) to tell where one instrument ends and another begins. The players are so precise, so blissfully engaged with their instruments and one another that the individual pieces and the individual players melt away, and you begin to discover the uniquely captivating character of the instrument itself.

Sure, it may only take a single string to make music—but as Projeto Arcomusical demonstrates, it takes also takes a whole lot of patience, passion, and precision.

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