Accepted Papers:

The Berimbau: ritual agency of a musical instrument in Afro-Brazilian capoeira  


Sergio Varela (University College London)

Paper Short Abstract:

The berimbau is the most important musical instrument in the Afro-Brazilian martial art called capoeira. It guides the actions of the participants and is considered sacred. It is not only an object but also a being that has human attributes. This paper explores how the berimbau becomes ‘a person’, and the effects it has over the actions of the participants.

Paper long abstract:

The aim of this paper is to show how an object, an artifact affects a whole ritual practice, Capoeira. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines fight and symbolic violence with play. Physical movements are followed always by music, which is performed live and played by the own capoeira practitioners. Music is essential to capoeira, especially in the style called Angola (considered the most traditional one), as it provides a dynamic for interaction and regulates the intensity of every fight. There are eight musical instruments from which the berimbaus are the most important. A berimbau is a one-string instrument that resembles a bow. It consists of a wood stick (called Beriba), a gourd that makes resonance, a tensed wire string, a rattle, and a small stone or coin. The sound of the berimbau is very loud and echoes a 'crying voice' that could be either in a grave or a higher pitch. For practitioners, a berimbau is sacred because it embodies the spirits of the ancestor and the dead. It is not regarded as an object, an instrument, but on the contrary, it bears human qualities, because 'It cries', 'it gives orders', 'it talks' to the players, and it induces altered states of consciousness. In a sense, this instrument is considered one more player in the capoeira gatherings. Therefore, I argue that the personalisation of an artifact evinces a constitutive part of capoeira cosmology, where the distance and separation between object and subject are not easy to discern.

panel P01
Thinking, acting and knowing through religious 'things': artefacts in the making of cosmology