Traditional Musical Instruments of Brazil: Sambas, Capoeiras, and More

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Music has been part of Brazilian culture for longer than anyone can remember, and an eclectic mix of instruments helps to make Brazilian music unique and exciting. From traditional samba in Rio to nightlife beats in São Paulo, music is the lifeblood of Brazil.

The first traditional musical instruments in Brazil came mainly from Africans, forced to work as slaves to European masters. In the 16th century, those same Europeans started occupying South America and brought their slaves with them. Thrown together with slaves from other tribes, the Africans rekindled an old religion known as candomblé, which translates as ‘dance in honor of the gods’. 

Music, especially the use of percussion, was a crucial element in candomblé rituals. The slaves believed that the musical instruments they played had healing powers, and were possessed with a lifeforce which they called axé. Complex rhythms were developed that required specialized percussion instruments; always accompanied by sensual and undulating body movements that increased in tempo to the beat of the loudest drum.

These ancient tribal rhythms are at the heart of all Brazilian music, and are still played using traditional instruments. There are literally hundreds of different Brazilian rhythms, but we can cover most of the musical instruments used by focussing on just two Brazilian music styles. Later, we’ll look at the percussion used for the iconic samba. But first, we’re going to visit a uniquely Brazilian sport that always features its own live music: the capoeira. 

Brazilian Rhythms: The Capoeira

Capoeira
Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen @ Wikimedia

Rooted in the struggles of African slaves, Capoeira combines martial arts, rhythmic dance, and heart-stopping acrobatics; all performed in a circle known as a roda. It was originally a form of street fighting, used by gangs of escaped slaves who fought against local authorities and other gangs; particularly in Rio de Janeiro. Nowadays, the capoeiristas who ‘fight’ each other do so by keeping in a state of constant motion, which makes them a difficult target, and by using fakes and feints to trick their opponent, leaving them open a counter-attack.

The capoeira musicians actually dictate the action, starting with a slow rhythm that leads to careful but clever moves full of tricks. Then the tempo increases, and the fighters’ moves are faster, more energetic, and more dangerous. Traditional capoeira bands always use three berimbaus, two pandeiros, an atabaque and an agog, with each instrument playing an important part in dictating the action. You can hear (and see) capoeira featuring amazingly acrobatic fighters in this video

Berimbau

Berimbau
Photo credit: Marinko T Knific @ Wikimedia

The most important instrument for the Capoeira is the Berimbau. One of the few traditional Brazilian instruments that uses a string, the Berimbau is considered a sacred instrument as the sound made by the string reminds Brazilians of the cries of their slave ancestors. This instrument dictates the rhythm of the capoeira players, and every subtle change means something different. 

Origins

The roots of the Berimbau are unknown, although most agree it originated in Africa as no indigenous Brazilian instruments use a musical bow. Experts suggest it was first used by hunter-gatherer tribes in the Congolese and Cameroonian rainforests, and some add that it’s very similar to the amazingly-named m’bulumbumba that comes from southwest Angola. 

Design

The main component of the berimbau is a curved wooden bow, known as the verga, usually 4 to 5 feet long and made from Brazilian biribá wood. These bows are identical to the ones used by hunters in ancient Africa. A steel string, called the arame (often ‘sourced’ from the inside of a car tire), is then stretched across both ends of the verga. Finally, a dried, hollowed-out gourd (called the cabaça), is fixed to the lower end of the verga by a loop of tough string, and this is held against the player’s chest to act as a resonator.

Playing

The berimbau is played by striking the string with a wooden stick (the baqueta). A small stone (the dobrão) is held in the same hand that holds the berimbau, and moving this forward so it presses against the string changes the pitch. Most players hold a small shaker called a caxixi in the same hand as the stick, so when the string is struck the caxixi makes an accompanying shaking noise. Experienced players can also move the cabaça back and forth at the same time, which produces a ‘wah’ sound. 

For the capoeira, three types of berimbau (of three different sizes) are used at the same time; all tuned to different pitches. In this situation, each berimbau has a different name: the Gunga has the lowest tone, the Médio has a medium tone, and the highest-pitched is called the Viola (or sometimes Violinha).

Pandeiro

A Brazilian pandiero drum
The pandeiro has six jingles, usually in pairs but sometimes mounted singly, as in this example. | Image Credit: frenciscobcn via CC BY-SA 1.0

The pandeiro is a type of hand drum, similar to a modern tambourine but often larger, with diameters of up to 12 inches. It’s a very versatile instrument, so much so that it’s earned the nickname bateria no bolso, which translates as ‘drumset in a bag’. You’ll see it being used in many different Brazilian music forms, including samba, choro, coco, and of course capoeira. The pandeiro is also used in an acrobatic way, often thrown high in the air and then caught in time to the music, which adds a thrilling visual aspect to performances (and the occasional laugh if the player fails to catch it!).

Origins

Although the pandeiro is claimed to be the (unofficial) national musical instrument of Brazil, it did not originate there. Instead, the earliest known examples come from Portugal, where it was known as the pandeireta. Confusingly, the name ‘pandeiro’ was previously used to describe a square-shaped double-skinned frame drum, often with a bell inside.

Design

Pandeiros are built on a round wooden frame, and six pairs of metal jingles (platinelas) are fitted along the sides. The head is traditionally made from animal skin, although modern versions use a nylon head, similar to what you’d find on a regular drum kit. Unlike a tambourine, the pandeiro is designed to be tuneable — meaning the pitch can be raised or lowered — by altering the tension of the head with a drum key. Some models have small plastic discs in between the platinelas, which stops them from ringing too much.

Playing

Rather than shaking it from side to side, as you would with a modern tambourine, the pandeiro is usually held in one hand and struck with the other. Often the jingles are cupped by the hand holding the drum, which mutes them and allows the sound of the skin to dominate. Typical pandeiro patterns are played by alternating the thumb, fingertips, heel, and palm of the hand, and some players also run a finger along the head to produce a drum roll. For the capoeira, two pandeiros are used at the same time; one tuned higher than the other to give two distinct sounds.

Atabaque 

An atabaque and berimba being played side by side
The atabaque (right) being played alongside a berimbau (left) during a capoeira event | Image Credit: Cristiano de Jesus via CC BY-NC 2.0

The atabaque is a single-headed conical drum, quite similar in size and shape to the Cuban conga drum. For capoeira rituals a solo atabaque is used, but in fact there are three different-sized atabaque drums, known as the rum (largest and lowest-pitched), the rum-pi (medium-sized), and the lê (smallest and highest-pitched). All three are used for candomblé religious rituals, and candomblé houses keep their own rum-pi and lê drums, as atabaque players are not usually allowed to bring their own. 

Traditional atabaque drums are made by hand, and they have such a strong religious significance that the skins must be from ritually-sacrificed animals. All atabaques have a ‘personality’, and are often described not only as male or female but also happy or sad, hungry or full, and dressed or undressed.

Origins

The word ‘atabaque’ is of Arabic origin. This instrument was definitely used in medieval times, as poetry of that era makes reference to the drum by name. It was a favorite with royalty, who used it for parties, games, and musical gatherings. Atabaque drums became well known all over Africa, but it was most likely brought to Brazil in the hands of the Portuguese.

Design

The atabaque is between 3 and 4 feet in height, depending on which size is being used. The shell is historically made from Brazilian jacaranda wood, and the head, known as couro de boi, is from stretched calfskin. Natural-fiber sisal ropes (corda) are used to secure the head to the shell, and metal hoops (aros) then hold the ropes in place.

The ropes are used for tuning, and many capoeiristas also fit wedges of wood tightly in between the bottom aro and the shell. These can be carefully adjusted (usually by hitting them with a hammer!) to further alter the tone and pitch.  More recent models are fitted with a mechanical tensioning system for tuning, but most players prefer the traditional rope system.

Playing

The largest atabaque, the rum, is played by beating the skin with the hands. Striking the middle of the skin produces the deepest tone, whereas hitting the skin where it joins the shell gives a higher and crisper sound. The two smaller drums, rum-pi and lê, are used almost exclusively for the candomblé and are played with sticks, called agidavis, which produce a sharp, bright timbre. Although the atabaque can be a loud instrument, it should never be played so loud that it overpowers the berimbau.

Agogô

The two-bell metal agogo is a Traditional Brazilian percussion instrument
A two-bell metal agogo is the most common type used in Brazil | Image Credit: Alno via CC BY-SA 3.0

The agogô (pronounced “ah-go-GO” in Brazil), is considered to be the oldest of all the samba percussion instruments. Its dual bells can be heard ringing out over the top of any batacuda, and the standard agogô pattern will be instantly familiar to anyone who remembers the intro to Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’. 

The first agogôs were simply two different-sized bells attached to a wooden stick, and originally the bells were made from any naturally-available materials, such as coconuts, gourds, large seeds, or castanhas-do-Pará (Brazil nut shells). Later versions were cast from wrought iron, although Brazil nut agogôs are still preferred by capoeiristas, as the natural sound works better alongside the berimbau and pandeiro. 

Origins 

The first evidence of a double bell instrument comes from the 12th century, when the Ewe tribe of Ghana used a rudimentary version which they called a gankogui. Use in Africa was widespread, and it was the early Nigerians who named it ágogo (“AH-go-go”), because that’s the sound it makes when you hit the small one once and the big one twice. (You just said it out loud, didn’t you!)

Design

The main components of an agogô are two metal bells, shaped like a cowbell but more rounded, with the largest roughly 7 by 3.5 inches and the other an inch thinner. Almost all agogôs sold today are made out of steel sheet, commonly coated with lacquer or chrome to protect against rust. Professional players also use bells made from stainless steel, which is more expensive but far more durable.  

The most common musical interval between the two standard bells is a fourth (the same as a police car siren). Some agogôs come with three or even four bells: popular with sambistas who use them to play occasional melodies as well as standard agogô patterns.  

Playing

To play, the agogô is held at the U-shaped join between the bells, which are then struck with a stick. The stick is typically made of a medium-hard wood like hickory, although harder woods are available for a brighter tone. Most recently, some players have been experimenting with metal sticks that are only millimeters thin, which changes the sound yet again. 

Because the metal that joins the two bells is quite springy, players can tap the two bells against each other, which gives a characteristic clicking sound. Experienced players can place a click in between each stick hit, which opens the possibilities for quite complex rhythmic patterns.

Brazilian Rhythms: The Samba

samba
Photo by Mukund Kulur on Unsplash

The samba is arguably the most typical and most familiar music of Brazil, although samba music actually has its roots in the lundu, a popular dance with African tribes. Famously performed at the Rio de Janeiro Carnival, the samba is fast and lively and has an infectious rhythm that most people can’t help but dance to. The rhythm section of a Brazilian samba band is known by the special name of batacuda, and typically includes caixa, tamborin, agogo bells, cuíca, and pandeiro, as well as other Afro- Brazilian instruments. In more recent years others have been added: most notably the Brazilian Guitar, or cavaquinho

Cavaquinho

cavaquinho
Photo credit: GuusPr @ Wikimedia

The cavaquinho is a 4-string guitar-like instrument, similar in size and shape to a Ukulele. In Brazil, it’s mainly used in samba music and also for choro, which is a slow, ballad-style of music played on cavaquinho, flute, and standard 6-string guitar. The word ‘cavaquinho’ translates as ‘little wood splint’, but there are plenty of other colloquial names for the instrument, including, machimbo, braguinho, and even machete!

Origins

The cavaquinho started life in Portugal and dates back to the late 19th century. Because of its small size, it was the perfect travel companion, and sailors brought it to Brazil via Madeira, the Azores, and the Cape Verde Islands. At about the same time, the cavaquinho arrived in Hawaii, where it became the Ukelele, which translates as ‘jumping flea’: a reference to the lightning-fast fingers of the original Portuguese players.

Design

The Brazilian cavaquinho has a strong resemblance to a small classical guitar, approximately 22 inches long and 8 inches wide, although these dimensions can vary considerably. Similar to a guitar, strings can be of either nylon or wound steel, although there are only four strings as opposed to six. The body is made from solid or laminated wood, with the former offering a stronger and rounder tone. Professional instruments are completely made of solid wood, usually from mahogany or African blackwood which are said to give the most pleasing sound. 

Playing

The cavaquinho is mainly strummed with the ‘fingerstyle’ technique (which uses either fingertips, fingernails, or specially-designed picks attached to the fingers), rather than being plucked with a plectrum as favored by standard guitarists. Although it can be used as a solo instrument to carry a melody, the cavaquinho is used more as tuned percussion, with complex strumming patterns that connect the rhythm to the chord structure in a technique known as ‘comping’. Purists prefer to play the instrument acoustically without amplification, although more modern cavaquinhos are fitted with a piezo pickup that connects to a standard guitar amp.

Caixa

The caixa takes the place of a snare drum
This caixa uses four guitar strings on the top skin instead of wire to generate a ‘buzz” sound | Image Credit: Alno via GFDL + CC-BY-SA

The caixa (pronounced “casha”) fills the role of the contemporary snare drum, and is played using modern drumsticks. Notably, the snare strings are stretched across the top of the caixa, rather than across the bottom skin as with modern snare drums. 

In samba, the caixas are there to lay down a constant swinging groove. Every samba school has its own specific caixa pattern, and an experienced listener can recognize the samba school even before they see the bateria.

Origins

The caixa started life as the tabor, which was used by Swiss foot soldiers to sound military commands as early as the 13th century. Later, It was used alongside a flute to accompany military marches. A version of the drum was used by the Portuguese, who renamed it caixa de guerra (literally “box of war), and this design found its way to Brazil in the late 18th century.  

Design

Based on an aluminum shell with a diameter of between 12 and 14 inches, the caixa differs from the European snare drum as it’s a lot deeper, with depths of up to 20 inches. The batter head (the one that’s hit) and the resonator head (the one at the bottom of the drum) are made of nylon, and are tensioned with up to eight rods that run the full depth of the instrument.

In Brazil, particularly in Rio, players prefer models with simple guitar strings stretched across the head, which gives a dry tone ideal for playing samba music. Caixas with wire snares offer a sharper, buzzier sound: they’re less common, but are produced in small numbers for players who specialize in maracatu and afro-samba styles.

Playing

The caixa can be played in two positions: either em baixo (at waist level secured by a strap), or em cima (held in the crook of one arm). The first method is a lot easier and allows both hands to be free. Caixcas are hit with standard drum sticks, and there are some specifically-Brazilian techniques commonly used, such as the one-handed roll.

Another common style is known as ‘mixed stick’, where the right hand plays a strong basic rhythm, and the left fills in with so-called ‘ghost’ notes (quieter hits) on syncopated beats. The strings stretched over the batter head are very delicate and break easily, so players are constantly checking they don’t hit them accidentally. Most experienced players always carry a spare drum, just in case… 

Tamborim

The Brazilian traditional taborim, not to be confused with a tambourine.
The Brazilian tamborim is not a tambourine! | Image Credit: Rodrigo.Argenton via CC BY-SA 4.0

Despite the similar name, this drum is quite unlike a modern tambourine. Although it’s a similar size, the drum has no jingles and is most often played with sticks, rather than the hand. Tamborims produce a high, sharp sound, and can be heard quite clearly above the deeper drums in the batucada. For this reason, they’re mainly used to create off-beat counter-rhythms.

Origins

Because of its small size, simple construction, and high, piercing tone, historians suggest the tamborim was first used to send signals between African tribesmen. When the Portuguese brought African slaves to Brazil in the early 16th century, a lot of their musical instruments came with them, including the tamborin. Some experts in early music have suggested the tamborim may be related to the similarly-constructed Irish bodhran and Moroccon bendir, although no historical link has ever been proven.

Design

The traditional tamborim is made of a circular wooden frame (the shell), with animal hide stretched very tightly over one side. More modern versions have added the options of an aluminum or stainless steel shell, and a nylon or plastic head. Compared to other hand-held frame drums it’s quite small: only 6 to 8 inches in diameter and with a shell approximately 2 inches deep. There are up to 8 tensioning rods to keep the head or skin taut, although professional players never use more than 5 rods, to allow fast tuning ‘on the fly’. 

Playing

The tamborim is played by striking it with either a regular drumstick or a special beater called a baqueta. This beater splits half-way along its length into three or more strands, known as pins. This not only makes the sound of the drum extremely loud (so earplugs are a necessity!), but each pin strikes the drum at a slightly different time, which fattens the sound considerably — a technique that modern drummers call ‘flamming’. For an even louder and sharper sound, the player can hit the edge of the skin (known as a rimshot), which produces a mighty ‘CRACK!’

The hand holding the drum can also change the sound, by stretching the skin from underneath to alter the pitch. Alternatively, resting one or more fingers against the inside of the skin will produce a muffled sound, which can be very effective in quiet sections of a tune. Experienced players also have a special playing method called virado, in which the drum is flipped upside-down in the middle of a rhythmic pattern. This technique produces one note that is very slightly delayed, which helps to give the samba its characteristic swinging lilt.

Cuica

A modern cuica drum
A modern Cuica, showing the thin ‘gambito’ attched to the top skin | Image Credit: www.multirio.rj.gov.br

The Cuica (pronounced “qweeka”) is officially categorized as a friction drum, but it’s more commonly known as ‘the monkey-sound drum’, made famous when Quincy Jones used it for his ‘Soul Bossa Nova’ as featured in Austin Powers. As well as being an essential part of the samba batacuda, the unique sound has been featured by Miles Davis, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and even the Beastie Boys!

Fittingly enough, the word ‘cuíca’ is indeed related to an animal: but it’s Portugal’s four-eyed opossum, rather than a cute monkey from Brazil. The cuíca has also been called a ‘talking’ or — even better — a ‘laughing’ gourd, again due to its unique sound.

Design

Cuicas are usually made from a steel sheet or aluminum shell, with a standard diameter of 8 or 9 inches. The top of the shell is covered with either a natural goatskin or a synthetic alternative. A stem made of reed or bamboo, called the gambito, is then pushed through the underside of the skin, and secured from the outside with a tight knot or a special metal fastener.

Origins

The origin of the cuica is unclear–research has traced it to Spain, to Muslim traders, and to Bantu parts of Africa–but there is agreement that African slaves introduced it to Brazil.

Playing

To play the cuica, the musician puts one arm inside the shell and grabs the gambito whilst holding a wet sponge or cloth. Moving the sponge up and down builds up friction, causing the skin to vibrate and thus produce a continuous sound, which is amplified by the deep shell of the drum. With the other hand, players press down on the head of the drum from the outside, which changes the pitch of the sound. Players have to stop every few minutes to moisten the sponge, to prevent it from drying in the hot Brazilian climate.

A Final Word

Thanks for reading our article, and we hope you’ve gained some useful information about the traditional musical instruments of Brazil, and how they still dominate the rhythms of today’s Afro-Brazilian music. If you fancy digging a little deeper, we recommend visiting the non-profit website Brazilian Music Day, which maintain a superbly comprehensive database of less-common traditional Brazilian instruments.

Dancers at the Rio carnival
Well, what’s an article about Brazil without at least one Rio Carnival picture? | Image Credit: sfmission.com via CC BY 2.0

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most popular instrument in Brazil?

The most popular instrument in Brazil is probably the pandeiro, which is a type of hand drum, similar to a modern tambourine. It’s one of the three (unofficial) national instruments of Brazil, which also includes the Brazilian guitar and a single-stringed musical bow called the berimbau. Although the pandeiro is one of Brazil’s most popular instruments, it actually originated in Portugal.

The great thing about the pandeiro is its versatility, which has earned it the nickname bateria no bolso, which translates as ‘drumset in a bag’. It’s used for all manner of Brazilian music forms, including samba, choro, coco, and capoeira, and you’ll hear it ringing out almost constantly during carnival. The pandeiro is also an exciting instrument to watch being played, as the panderistas often throw the instrument high in the air and then catch it just before it hits the ground, but still in time to the music.

What is the best known Brazilian tuned percussion instrument?

The most common and best known tuned percussion instrument in Brazil is the berimbau. It’s fashioned from a 4 to 5 feet wooden bow, identical to the ones used by hunters in ancient Africa, and a musical string is stretched from top to bottom. The berimbau is played by striking the string with a wooden stick, and players change the pitch by moving a small stone back and forwards against the string.

The berimbau is vitally important in the Brazilian martial art dance known as Capoeira, where performers trade acrobatic fighting moves in time to the beat laid down by three of these instruments, all tuned slightly differently to each other. Because of its importance in this and other religious ceremonies, Brazilians regard the berimbau as a sacred instrument.