The music which accompanies Capoeira is an essential element in the practice. The music provides the rhythm and the beat to which the opponents perform to, and is just as important as the opponents themselves.
Let us first define what Capoeira is. Capoeira is an energetic, Afro-Brazilian martial game or dance, played in a circle with musical accompaniment, in which two players try to take each other down, or otherwise dominate each other, whilst showing a mastery of movement. The players evade touching any part of the body to the ground excluding the hands, feet, and head. Becoming skilled demands long-term training. Full involvement requires learning how to play instruments, as well as learning the necessary movement skills.
Some of the players will take their instruments and sing around the edge of the ring (the roda), fashioning a musical setting for the two players involved in the physical competition within. It has been suggested that the player’s form a circle to enclose the game was to screen the competition from the persecuting authorities.
There are several instruments essential to the music; the berimbau, a single-stringed, gourd-resonating musical bow, leads the Capoeira band. Other instruments include an atabaque, a tall, cylindrical, single-faced drum; pandeiros, tambourine-like frame drums; a double bell-gong called an ago-go; and a ‘reco-reco’, a type of scraper typically made of wood. If one is not proficient in these instruments, then the term ‘capenga’, which translates as ‘lame’, is applied to that individual.
The berimbau is considered the most important instrument in the roda. The instruments is generally believed to originate in southern Africa or Angola, and then modified to suit the needs of the musicians on arrival in Brazil. The bow of the berimbau is shaped from the flexible trunk of a small biriba tree or another hardwood and preferably strung with a steel belt. A hard-shelled gourd, called a cabaca, is attached to one end of the bow. The musician hits the bow with a stick.
To then modify the tone the musician takes a large metal coin or smooth stone and presses it against the string. From this method, the musician can create three separate tones: a low open note, a higher-pitched, and a buzzing, intermediate gray tone. In some cases, just carrying the instrument was enough to get the carrier arrested in the times when Capoeira was illegal.
Singing is seen as totally fundamental to the achievement by many players, and in some cases no physical play can occur without a sung invocation. In a few cases there are verbal contests, or singing duels, that intimately parallel the physical challenges between players. The formal verbal contest is a widespread custom in many Afro-Brazilian genres besides Capoeira.
The music is an integral part in Capoeira. Disruptions in the instrumental music, however, even a backing instrument which is played out of rhythm or a string breaking on a musical bow, can bring the players’ in the middle of the roda to an immediate standstill. It is said by players that the music of Capoeira can draw the past into the present. Perhaps it is this, this connection with the past, which the players of Capoeira still love to perform the dance and the music.
Lewis, J. Lowell (1999) Sex and Violence in Brazil: “Carnaval, Capoeira”, and the Problem of Everday Life, American Ethnologist, Blackwell publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Associastion.