Balancing the Berimbau

These are four episodes from a typical class in Tolnbridge. Similar analytic insight through dialogue came from exploring one incident from a class led by Perseus.

Bruxa: Can we go on to something that happened that night Diomedes was in town? Can I read what I’ve written, because I have no idea what was going on?

T: For sure

B: There’s a bit of introduction for our paper’s readers, OK?

Unusually Perseus is teaching in Tolnbridge, with Ulysses and Diomedes, who is visiting from Antwerp. All three are Brazilians living in Europe. We are in a university sports hall. There are ten male students including Trovao and four women. The group do a ninety minute class with Ulysses, and then a further ninety minute lesson with Diomedes.

T: I remember that - we were all exhausted.

B: OK – now the bit I don’t get.

Perseus is clearly unhappy with the sound quality of the berimbau Lunghri has brought. He asked Lunghri about the wire, which he felt was too slack. Was it from a car tyre? Lunghri said yes – Perseus asked ‘what kind of car?’ Lunghri, obviously fazed, said he had no idea: he and Raksha had strung it together. Raksha came over, Perseus repeated the question: Raksha said he had no idea what car the tyre had come from. Perseus told Lunghri that the gourd (the cabasa) was too big.

T: I don’t remember that, but Lunghri has talked about it since.

B: What was going on?

T: I don’t know – neither does Lunghri or Raksha – we never found out what Perseus didn’t like.

B: Speculate for me anyway. What effect does the wire have on the sound?


T: I am not sure I have much to say on the quality of the sounds. Regarding the slackness of the string, if it’s too slack it would (a) perhaps mean the berimbau isn’t curved and thus able to hold the cabasa on tightly enough, or get your hand between the string and the verde [The wood]. (b) my sense is it would be trickier to distinguish as a player of the berimbau between the note played with the stone pushed firmly against the string and the one where it’s held closely enough to vibrate against the stone when it’s hit. You would have to push really hard to get the first note and the second note may not work at all.

Regarding cabasa size and pitch, I am not too sure there is such a thing as a wrong pitch, as there are the three different types of berimbau each with a different pitch. Of course, once this set of categories has been mobilised a berimbau could be too low or high pitch to be one of the three types, gunga etc. Pitch of course is a product mostly of the cabasa. Although my knowledge of physics tells me a tighter string should also alter pitch (as with a guitar) I am not sure a berimbau is precise enough as a pitch device for this to have any impact.

In this long, serious comment Trovao reveals a great deal of experiential, embodied musical knowledge. While he says he can only speculate about Perseus’s concerns, he can speculate, in ways Bruxa could not begin to do herself.



Capoeira is intensely physical, thoroughly embodied. Talking allows Trovao and Bruxa to articulate Trovao’s embodied knowledge, as in the following dialogues on kicking and falling. In their shared project, and in the analyses that follow, the tacit knowledge of embodiment is contrasted with the explicit knowledge of the talk. The embodied understanding is contrasted with the observational eye and ear, and this tension mirrors the endless dialogues between experience and knowledge that characterises enculturation into a new cultural milieu. The two handed project parallels the inner dialogues that the single-handed ethnographer has: of engagement and disengagement, of commitment and detachment, of belonging and marginality, and of emotion versus detachment.


Kicks and Kicking


B: Tell me about the kicks in capoeira: you said once that having done karate gave you a headstart in the capoeira kicks – can you explain that a bit more?

T: Yeah – for sure: I guess that if you look at it at a basic, a fundamental level, it is something – probably to do with how power is generated: as you know well because you’ve seen it in capoeira most of the power is generated from spinning and momentum – you role on the floor and you stand up in the kick.

B: Yes.

T: It’s all about maintaining the spin and the momentum. Whereas with the type of karate I did, and it’s fairly common among karates, the fundamental principle was to use the muscles in your legs.

B: Right.


T: A lot of it is punching but also kicking. The point was that you keep your back straight and everything is to do with twisting your hips from an angled position ….. and keeping the back straight the power of your back leg is pushed through to your hands or the front leg.