Discreetly or a solo role, the pathways of the berimbau cross continents, practices and traditions, between the sacred and the profane. From Miles Davis to Danyèl Waro, from Simon Winsé's musical mouth bow to Hermeto Pascoal's musique concrète, the berimbau sometimes drifts where it is not expected to, into realms of experimentation and proud resistance... Here is Qwest TV's overview.
As a very popular staple in Brazilian folk music – known above all for being the emblematic instrument of capoeira whereby the roda depends on its rhythms – the berimbau traces its roots back to Africa and, like many migratory instruments, the routes of slavery. It incarnates as the mbela among the Aka Pygmies, the umuduri in Burundi, the malunga among the Siddis, the xitende in Mozambique, the bobre in Reunion Island, the jejylava in Madagascar and the villâdivâdyam (spanning nearly three meters) in Kerala. As such, the berimbau is not the instrument of a single people and changes significantly according to its geography. It’s a musical bow whose vegetal, animal or metallic string is struck with a wooden stick, the cordophone – which dates back to prehistoric times – producing bewitching vibrations with a strong sense of evocation, amplified by the mouth or by a calabash.
The berimbau in the land of conquered Brazil
Having passed away in 2016, the eight Grammy-winning Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos, an international star of berimbau, jazz and Nordeste rhythms, promoted his favorite instrument worldwide alongside renowned musicians such as Caetano Veloso, Trilok Gurtu, Arto Lindsay and Art Blakey. He could pass naturally from the Talking Heads to Pina Bausch all the way to the cinema of Jim Jarmusch. Nicknamed “The Jungle Man” by the American press, Naná Vasconcelos was above all one of the pioneers of jazz’s expansion into the world and a passionate experimenter. He demonstrated as much alongside Don Cherry within the Codona trio and with the Organic Music Theater. A born improviser and major figure of Brazilian contemporary music, Naná Vasconcelos developed more than a just a berimbau technique – it was poetry, rhythmic and melodic virtuosity, as evidenced by Africadeus, the first record he put his name to in 1975. Released in Paris by Saravah, its opening track is none other than a breathtaking twenty-minute berimbau solo!
Caetano Veloso (Brazil)
Known throughout the world for his angelic falsetto, his Bossa languor and his anti-dictatorial stances (in 1964 and 2018), Caetano Veloso – with Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa in particular – is at the origin of a great cultural upheaval in Brazil: tropicalism, mixing rock’n roll, psychedelism, local folklore and avant-garde music. It’s all part of a cultural movement but also a political one in that it disturbs the landscape by rejecting the dominant academic culture associated with colonialism. Caetano Veloso, who was imprisoned in 1968 for “anti-government activities” and then sentenced to exile, eventually returned to Brazil in 1972 with Transa, a record made in London in which the singer kept his sights set on what caused him this misfortune. In “Sad Bahia,” the berimbau participates in its celebration of Nordeste rhythms and more broadly of Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian culture, often referred to as the “blackest region” of Brazil where the roots of capoeira can be found.
Hermeto Pascoal (Brésil)
The berimbau has often been at the heart of sound experiments, from Fred Frith to Don Cherry. With the nature wizard of Arapiraca, “the best musician in the world” according to Miles Davis, the classical technique of the berimbau is completely deconstructed and brought into contact with musique concrète. What fascinates him is the very nature of the sound matter. If Hermeto Pascoal comes from the forro, flutes, kettles, pipes, toys, bandoneon, mouth sounds, saxophone, whistles, loops, collages, water baths and animals now help to make up the surrealist musical galaxy of the musician who, often compared to a tropical Sun Ra, will give new directions to Brazilian jazz with fundamental records like A Música Livre (1973) from which this wonderful “Gaio Da Roseira” is taken.
A thousand miles from preconceptions, the berimbau also appears in Soulfly’s raging repertoire, the group of Brazilian Max Cavalera, ex-Sepultura member from Belo Horizonte who became an international star for his roaring and conscious thrash metal, into which sitar, berimbau and rhythms specific to the Amazon peoples regularly slip in. Max Cavalera has a very spiritual side, and has clearly positioned himself against slavery and colonial crimes in all his work, in albums such as Primitive (2000), Enslaved (2011) and Savages (2013) for example. On “Tribe,” released in 1998, Max Cavalera utilized the berimbau for a tribute to Zumbi, the first slave to rebel fighting against colonial authorities, still celebrated as a symbol of resistance in Brazil.
Simon Winsé (Burkina Faso)
While Simon Winsé has mastered the kora, the tambin flute, and the kundé, he particularly excels at the musical (mouth) bow, the “lolo” in Samo, an ancestor of the berimbau whose sound is now disappearing in San country. “The young people no longer play them because it makes them seem like villagers: they are ashamed, it is a pity. If I play the mouth bow during the dust-blow in the villages I will find myself alone! Young people prefer to play drum machines on their phones,” explains the musician, originally from Lankoué, a village of red earth in northwestern Burkina Faso. There, the musical bow is traditionally played among farmers to accompany dances, yambo wrestling, stories and working songs during the harvest season. An ardent defender of Samoan cultural heritage, Simon Winsé seeks to rehabilitate the musical bow by bringing it to jazz, blues, rock and the violin-rourouga sounds of Clément Janinet on his first record, the excellent Dangada (2018), whose title is inspired by the musical bows signature rhythm, “Joy.”
Danyel Waro (La Réunion)
A descendant of the Malagasy jejylava and the only melodic instrument of Maloya, ternary blues inherited from the former slaves of Reunion Island, the bobre or bob’ blends with the incandescent pulses of traditional percussion staples such as kayamb, roulèr, pikèr, sati to accompany the fonnkèr with songs and laments. Like his elders Etienne Bobre and Lo Rwa Kaf, Danyèl Waro uses the hypnotic waves of the bobre for his militant maloya, from Gafourn in 1987, the first cassette released with cover art decorated with a bobre, seeming to claim the Africanness of Reunion Island, to Monmon (2018). Danyèl Waro also makes his own instruments, practicing the art as more than a mere hobbyist. These instruments include the bobre, which is made in his workshop in the upper reaches of Le Tampon. Yet, it is an object that crosses registers and generations as evidenced by Jako Maron’s electro-maloya experiments which, during the time of a record called Zamalgame, formed the Creole trip-hop trio Force Indigène with the Reunionese poets Babou B’Jalah and Franky Lauret in 2004 … and Waro’s son playing his bobre here and there!
Read: Danyel Waro – Aou Amwin
The berimbau in jazz
Miles Davis (United States)
Miles Davis’ foray into the berimbau allows us to discover another excellent Brazilian percussionist: Airto Moreira, recruited by the trumpeter at the end of the 60s for the anthology sessions of the future Bitches Brew and Live/Evil. When released, these records had less than ten tracks each but so many hours of recording had been accumulated and were in stock, helping toward the release of Big Fun in 1974 and then The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions in 1998 in a super-enlarged version. Among these studio off-cuts (!) were “Trevere” and “Lonely Fire,” titles where Airto Moreira’s berimbau discreetly supports the electric jazz revolution and Miles Davis’ exotico-electronic fusions. It mixed with the strings of the sitar, tamboura, guitar, and the groove of an all-star band – Wayne Shorter, Sonny Fortune, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Benny Maupin and Joe Zawinul. Here’s an anecdote: we also hear Hermeto Pascoal, a wizard and prodigious musician on the evanescent choirs of “Nem Um Talvez” (Life/Evil). Why? Because they were playing together in Brazil, Pascoal introduced Moreira to Joe Zawinul who then introduced him to Miles Davis. Later, Airto Moreira turned up in Weather Report… it’s very small world!
Archie Shepp (United States)
While the saxophone is political in Archie Shepp’s work, the berimbau is too! An eminent architect of free jazz, Archie Shepp has long shown a great interest in African music, with The Magic of Ju-Ju in 1968 for example, a real percussion fest, or when he improvised spectacularly within a Tuareg orchestra at the 1969 Pan-African Festival in Algiers, to which the Black Panthers, Miriam Makeba, Maya Angelou and Nina Simone were also invited. As François and Yves Billard wrote in 1986 in Histoires du Saxophone, Shepp’s fascination with Black Power, which expressed through political action what he himself wanted to express with his saxophone, was growing. So when a prisoner uprising broke out in 1971 in Attica prison following the murder of a Black Panthers activist, Archie Shepp recorded Attica Blues and The Cry of My People the following year, enraged works operating at the crossroads between free jazz and blues, gospel and soul in which the saxophonist gives free rein to his revolt, claiming the history and culture of the Black American community with, in this African Drum Suite Part 2 in particular, percussion and berimbau as intercontinental links.
Switch to electronics!
Zombie Zombie Zombie (France)
Here the berimbau offers itself to the electro-psychodelic distortions of the French duo Zombie Zombie Zombie in Rituels d’un nouveau monde (2012, Versatile Records), a percussive disc that navigates between Sun Ra’s cosmic jazz (whose track “Rocket #9” receives a cover) hovering krautrock and soundtracks of John Carpenter-type horror films. Saxophonist Etienne Jaumet and Néman (Herman Düne’s drummer), are enthusiastic about a tour in Argentina and Brazil, opening up new musical horizons here and integrating cuica, pandeiro and berimbau into the soundtrack of their twilight universe. Played by Francisco Lopez aka Flóp, the berimbau goes from a state of rawness to the modern world of beats … and it’s very good!
Just one question: where are the women?