The Berimbau: Soul of Brazilian Music

By Eric A. Galm. 2010. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 224 pages. ISBN: 978-1-60473-405-8 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Winifred Lambrecht, The Rhode Island School of Design

[Review length: 553 words • Review posted on February 16, 2011]

In spite of its controversial association with capoeira, the Brazilian berimbau has remained more closely associated with its original context than any other instrument accompanying dance or martial art in that part of the world.

In this work Eric Galm is proposing to show the evolution of the berimbau from a localized (Bahia) percussive accompanying instrument to not only a major player in Brazilian identity, but also to a noted participant in the global music scene. More importantly, he is tracing the instrument’s trajectory from its early association with African slaves to its use—starting in the 1930s when capoeira was legalized—as a positive expression of national pride and its eventual appearance on the global stage in the 1970s. At the same time as losing its long-standing negative stigma over time, the berimbau also lost some of its connections to African-based religious practices, though not its affiliation with its African roots. Galm attributes the evolution of the berimbau to some key events in Brazilian socio-political and artistic life and the changeable context and nature of ethnicity and identity. A large part of the book is devoted to the analysis of the instrument’s uses from the 1950s to the present and the transformations brought to berimbau music by some of Brazil’s musical giants such as Baden Powell, Gilberto Gil, Nana Vasconclos, Dinho Nascimento, and Ramiro Musotto. But those changes could not happen until the berimbau could free itself from some of the earlier constraints of capoeira and from the prejudice associated with its origins; the country’s political search for a national voice and identity also played a major role.

The book, which is a musical portrait of Brazilian nationalism, is replete with details on many featured musicians and composers; it includes lyrics and musical notations, showing the transformative elements—organological and other—brought in by numerous players and by regional, national, and global cultural changes. These eventually led to the “ascent” of an instrument originally deemed “primitive,” a notion that was capitalized on, to one that became a major player in the development of Brazil’s vision of itself (162). According to the author, the popularization of individual songs (such as “Berimbau” by Baden Powell and Vinícius de Moraes' or Gilberto Gil's “Domingo no Parque”) raised the status of the berimbau while also fueling controversies, notably about intellectual property (54) and political movements.

Of particular interest is the information on musical notation for the berimbau, an instrument that has, until recently, been learned and performed through the traditional and informal means of apprenticeship and the face-to-face contact between capoeira performers. Its inclusion in symphonic pieces certainly contributed to the creation of a formal notation system, notably by D’Anunciaçao, though he is seldom credited for this contribution (132).

The final chapter of the book includes “visual and literary” references in children’s books and comic books as well as in poetry and media, reinforcing the idea that this instrument has suffused all of Brazil’s creative activities.

In summary, Galm states that, through a confluence of re-interpretative and transformative processes, the berimbau was propelled into a symbol of both Brazil’s Africanity and the country’s nationalism.

This book is a focused and detailed addition to the growing literature on musical instruments that have transcended their original boundaries while remaining firmly identified with their homeland and a detailed “portrait” of Brazil’s iconic instrument.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.