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Music is constantly evolving, and one factor that affects that is the development of musical instruments. As time passes by, people create more instruments or improve on what they already have.
Such is the case with Brazilian instruments. If you’re interested in Brazilian music, then it’s a must to familiarize yourself with the instruments used in the country.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at 15 types of Brazilian instruments you might not know are essential to Brazil’s musical heritage. So sit back, relax, and let’s explore the world of Brazilian music!
Up first is the Cuíca, a type of friction drum that produces a very distinctive high-pitched sound.
The body of this drum is made either of metal or synthetic material. Its head, made of animal skin, is about six to 10 inches in diameter. It has a bamboo stick attached to the center of the drum head and runs perpendicular to the drum’s interior.
To play Cuíca, the player holds it under one arm at chest height. The player then uses a wet cloth to rub the stick up and down. At the same time, he uses the fingers of his other hand to press on the skin of the drum near the stick. You can change the pitch depending on the pressure applied to the drum head.
The Cuíca found its place in Brazilian music as it is usually used in samba, choro, and bossa nova. This instrument is also used in folk songs, urban pop dances, and parades. You can also find a group of Cuíca players in Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival groups.
The Brazilian Bandolim evolved from the mandolin. The Portuguese colonizers are responsible for introducing this instrument to the country. The man considered a master of this instrument was Jacob do Bandolim.
The Bandolim is a small, lute-like instrument. It has a straight fretted neck, a pear-shaped body, and a flat back. Unlike traditional mandolins, Bandolims have 15 strings rather than eight.
The strings are separated into five courses of triple strings for guitar tuning. They run over a floating bridge to a metal tailpiece located at the end of the body.
Bandolim is one of the primary instruments used in choro, a popular music genre in Brazil. It is also played in dance and music festivals. Some of the virtuosos Brazil has produced include Luperce Miranda and Hamilton de Holanda.
Another percussion instrument on our list is the Pandeiro, a round-hand drum. Think of a tambourine. However, Pandeiro has a crisper tone due to the cupped metal jingles attached to the sidewall.
There are many ways to play this instrument. You hold it in one hand and use the other to strike the head to make a sound. There are also patterns you can use by using your thumb, fingertips, heel, or palm of your hand. You can also shake it or run your finger along the head.
Pandeiro has cemented its place in Brazilian music. You can find it almost always used in different Brazilian forms of music, such as samba, capoeira, and choro. In samba schools, the Pandeiro can be found in the percussion section. In other music genres, Pandeiro serves as an auxiliary instrument.
Yet another percussion instrument is the Alfaia, a wooden drum made of animal skin loosened using ropes placed on the body of the instrument. It measures between 16 and 22 inches in diameter. The drum head is clamped to the body with the help of wooden hoops.
As Alfaia is a little bulky, it has to be strapped over the shoulder. The instrument is played using a pair of wooden drumsticks. Sometimes, the stick used by the dominant hand is larger than the other one.
Alfaia is played with a technique unique to the instrument. The player holds the weak-hand drumstick in an inverted manner to produce a deep, heavy sound. This sound makes it different from other bass drums.
Alfaia is mainly used in Brazilian dances such as ciranda, coco-de-roda, and maracatu. It’s also played in Northeastern folk rhythms. Here you can see the Alfaia being played together with Agogô and other instruments.
Our next instrument is the Ganzá, also known as the Brazilian rattle. This is a cylindrically shaped hand instrument made from either a hand-woven basket or a metal canister.
It’s filled with pebbles, beads, or similar items to produce a sound. The metal canisters produce a louder sound.
If you’re familiar with the African calabash and Indian maracas, the Ganzá is played similarly. You simply move the instrument up and down to create sound.
But in the hands of an expert, the instrument can produce complex rhythms. And with the right control, the player can increase and decrease the loudness of the sound to produce variations. This control is highly valued in pagode and jazz-samba.
In samba, the Ganzá serves as an undertone. But if played in a band, it is used to play a rhythm underneath the rest of the instruments.
Up next is a string instrument called the Cavaquinho. This is a small guitar-like instrument with four wires and is considered a cousin of the ukulele. In Brazil, it is called the Cavaquinho Brasileiro (Brazilian cavaquinho). Its smaller version is called the Cavaco.
The Cavaquinho is similar to a guitar in its shape and the use of metal strings. The traditional Cavaco is made with 17 to 19 frets. However, these frets are small and difficult to play. For such reason, most beginners will only use the first 3 to 5 frets. Other sophisticated Cavaquinhos have longer fretboards.
This instrument is usually played with a pick and sophisticated percussive strumming beats. It features a stronger, more prominent sound. It’s primarily because the strings are tuned to higher tension. The standard tuning of the Cavaquinho in Portugal is C, G, A, D. But in Brazil, it’s tuned D, G, B, D.
The Cavaquinho is among the most important instruments in Brazilian culture. It’s typically used in most folk music, such as choro and samba. One can also see this instrument played in festivities and carnivals.
Our list seems to be dominated by percussion instruments as we got the Atabaque next. Also known as Atabaque de Corda, this is a drum-like instrument with Afro-Brazilian origins.
Traditionally, the Atabaque shell is made of Jacaranda wood from Brazil, and the head is made from calfskin. Ropes intertwine around the body and connect a metal ring at the base to the head.
Wooden wedges can be found between the ring and the body. The player uses a hammer to tighten or loosen the ropes, thereby lowering or raising the pitch.
Playing Atabaque can be done in three ways. A player can use sticks, hands, or a combination of both. It’s more comfortable to play the instrument while standing.
The Candomblé and Umbanda religions treat the Atabaque as a sacred instrument. Three Atabaques are often used in the Brazilian martial arts Capoeira and one in the traditional dance Maculelê.
Our next instrument on the list is the Caxixi, a percussion instrument that’s played by shaking. The body of the instrument is made of wicker woven into the shape of a bell. The bottom is made of dried gourd, and the inside contains seeds. There is a handle at the top of the bell for ease of playing.
The Caxixi is usually played alongside another Brazilian instrument, the berimbau. The player holds the Caxixi in the same hand holding the stick that strikes the berimbau. This motion shakes the Caxixi to produce a sound.
But if played on its own, the player holds the handle and shakes it in an up-and-down motion. Depending on the angle at which the Caxixi is shaken, the sound can be soft when the seeds hit the basket. The sound is loud when the seeds hit the bottom.
Before it became a secondary source for berimbau, some indigenous Brazilian Indian groups used the Caxixi for rituals. Its origins showed that the instrument was used to drive away evil spirits and summon the good ones.
The Agogô is an instrument consisting of one or two bells. Arguably, this is the oldest samba instrument and is connected to the Afro-Brazilian culture.
Originally, the Agogô was made from wrought iron. However, it’s now produced using metals of all shapes and sizes to create different sounds. The Agogô usually comes with two metallic bells in the shape of a U. The smaller bell is held higher than, the larger bell.
The instrument can be played in two ways. One, you hit the bell using a wooden stick to produce a cowbell-like sound. Two, you squeeze the bells together to create a clicking sound.
Like the Caxixi, the Agogô is played alongside the berimbau in capoeira. It is also played in religious activities such as candomblé. Not only that. the Agogô is a staple in samba baterias or percussion ensembles.
One of the most common traditional instruments in Brazil is the Berimbau. This is a single-stringed percussion instrument popular in the Afro-Brazilian community.
The Berimbau consists of the following parts: verga, cabaça, arame, dobrão, and baqueta. Verga is the wooden bow, traditionally made of biribá wood, that grows in Brazil. The bow is four to five feet with a steel string (arame) tied from one end of the bow to the other.
The cabaça is the gourd resonator with a big opening. The baqueta is the stick used to play the Berimbau, while the dobrão is a coin or stone used to stop the string.
The Berimbau is popularly known for accompanying the game dance capoeira. The faster Berimbau is played, the faster the capoeira player moves. The instrument is also an important part of the Candomblé-de-caboclo tradition.
The Repinique is another common instrument used in samba baterias. It’s almost always used in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro Carnival baterias, as well as the Bahia baterias (where it’s called Repique).
The Repinique consists of a metal body and a nylon head tightened with metal tuning rods. Like the Alfaia, the Repinique is carried with a shoulder strap attached to a tuning rod.
In Bahia-style samba, The Repinique is played with two wooden sticks. In Rio, it’s played with only one.
The Repinique is quite similar to the tenor drum used in marching bands and the tom drum. As a lead instrument, it alerts the rest of the bateria of rhythmic changes. In samba, it guides the dancer to keep the tempo and rhythm.
These days, you can find this instrument in soccer or football matches. It is used along with other percussion groups to incite excitement.
Up next is a scraper percussion instrument. The Reco-reco, also known as the querequexé or the caracaxá, is often used in Brazilian music.
Traditionally, the Reco-reco was made from bamboo or wood and played with a wooden stick. It consisted of a sawtooth-notched cylindrical body with strings attached.
Modern Reco-reco now features a metallic body, resulting in a louder, echoing sound. The resonator is made from sheet metal with spring coils attached. It’s also played with a metal stick rather than a wooden stick.
To produce a sound, the player uses the metal rod to brush up and down the spring coils. What comes out is a scrapping sound amplified by the resonator.
The Reco-reco has long been used to accompany capoeira, rural dances, and samba. It also serves as an auxiliary instrument.
The Tamborim is a super-small Brazilian frame drum that is no more than six inches in length and is typically made of wood, plastic, or metal. It is often mistaken for the common tambourine. However, unlike the tambourine, the Tamborim doesn’t have snares or jingles.
In most parts of Brazil, the Tamborim is played with a small wooden drumstick. In samba-batucada, it’s played with a beater made of plastic or nylon threads bound at the end using tape. The Tamborim is rarely played by hand.
This instrument is used in a myriad of Brazilian music genres, including samba, bossa nova, chorinho, and pagode. It’s also used in cucumbi, a northeastern folklore rhythm. In commercial music genres, the Tamborim serves as an auxiliary instrument.
Up next is the Accordion, popular in southern and northeastern Brazil. The Portuguese brought the instrument to the country in the 19th century. Notably, it became the Rio Grande do Sul state’s official symbol instrument.
In some parts of Brazil, the Accordion serves as the main instrument in many styles of Forró and Sertanejo. Forró is a musical genre popular in the northeastern region of Brazil. Sertanejo, on the other hand, is a musical style that came from the midwest and southeast Brazil.
Not only that. The Accordion is a principal instrument in Junina music of the São João Festival.
Several notable Brazilian accordionists include José Domingos de Morais and Mestrinho. The video above shows Mestrinho with another Brazilian musician.
One notable addition to the array of Brazilian musical instruments is the Saxophone. Heitor Villa-Lobos, the foremost representative of concerto music, played a key role in popularizing this instrument in Brazil.
His renowned work, “Fantasia for Soprano Saxophone and Orchestra,” remains a cornerstone of the Brazilian Saxophone repertoire and has inspired countless young musicians to learn and embrace the instrument.
From street performers to bossa nova compositions, the Saxophone continues to be a prevalent feature of Brazil’s music scene, adding a jazzy, bohemian vibe to performances and enriching the melodies with its unique sound. Even today, it remains a beloved and important instrument in Brazil’s rich musical tradition.
Summing Up Our List Of Brazilian Instruments
One of the things that make a certain country different from others is music. It gives the place its uniqueness and adds to its cultural identity.
Brazil, as our list showed you, is a musically-rich country with dozens of unique instruments worth checking out. Most of them are featured in live samba performances and traditional Brazilian festivals.
If you ever have the chance to visit Brazil, don’t miss the country’s spectacular music performances. It’s an experience unlike any other! In the meantime, have fun listening to the instruments above.