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The Berimbau: Soul of Brazilian Music by Eric A. Galm (review)
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Reviewed by
Eric A. Galm. The Berimbau: Soul of Brazilian Music. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. 230 pp., with musical examples, photographs, glossary, appendix, endnotes, bibliography, discography, videography, and index. ISBN 978-1-60473-405-8.

The berimbau de barriga, commonly referred to as just berimbau, is one of Brazil's most recognizable musical instruments. It is a bow with a single steel string and a gourd resonator affixed near one end. The performer holds the instrument in a vertical position such that the hole of the gourd resonator faces the individual's midriff. With the free hand (typically the right), the musician strikes the string with a thin stick (baqueta), usually while holding a wicker rattle (caxixi). The other hand grasps the bow where the gourd is affixed, alters the pitch of the string or adds a buzzing sound by pressing a coin or stone against it, and may modify the instrument's timbre by moving the entire bow away from or closer to the pelvis. The result is a distinctive sound that has come to be especially associated with capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art- dance- game typically accompanied by the berimbau, other percussion, and singing.

In The Berimbau, the first book-length study in English on the instrument, Eric Galm seeks to avoid thinking about the bow as "a static object" (8) associated with capoeira, arguing instead that it is "a metaphor for constructed notions of tradition, blackness, and Brazilian nationalism" (6). In his introduction, Galm provides an overview of key dynamics of music and national identity in Brazil, such as the modernismo movement of the 1920s and 1930s and the importance of discourses of mixture and miscegenation to the Brazilian self-image. For Galm, these dynamics help explain how the berimbau has been able to "thrive as a national Brazilian icon" (16). If Brazilian identity celebrates how things can "undergo a transformative process, and emerge as a uniquely Brazilian entity" (16), the berimbau may exemplify this capacity, he argues. It is a kind of synthesis of characteristics from different African musical bows, and it has been "reinvented" as a "Brazilian national instrument" (16). At the same time, [End Page 119] however, the berimbau has come to symbolize black resistance to assimilation into dominant, white culture, thus complicating narratives of progressive racial/cultural integration and harmony (16- 17).

The book follows a mostly chronological structure, with particular emphasis on the 1950s to recent times. Galm begins with a historical introduction to the instrument and to capoeira, with ample discussion of primary and secondary sources, helping the reader to sort through some of the lore that has arisen around the berimbau. Although it is not known precisely when this musical bow was incorporated into capoeira—with some scholars arguing that it occurred around 1900—Galm reviews sources that, he believes, suggest that the instrument came to accompany capoeira earlier in the nineteenth century. (One might imagine, however, that the berimbau de barriga of the mid-nineteenth century must have sounded different from today's.) Galm then moves to an analysis of the instrument's role in the bossa nova movement of the 1960s, with a focus on Baden Powell's influential "Berimbau," in which Powell adapted a theme associated with capoeira to the guitar (42). Galm identifies a "musical trope" that emerged from this composition, showing how it has changed in recordings from the 1960s to the 1990s (17). He introduces notated musical examples here, comparing variations of the guitar motif to his transcription of the "Toque de capoeira angola." Galm also examines debates about the ownership of "folklore" in the context of Powell's utilization of capoeira lyrical material in his composition "Lapinha." In his examination of the various potential influences on this piece, he goes so far as to propose, plausibly, a connection with a popular carnival samba from 1933, "Fita amarela," by Noel Rosa. He continues by tracing the musical trope through selected other popular music examples, such as Gilberto Gil's "Domingo no parque," and the more recent "Berimbau," from the Bahian group Olodum.

Galm continues to examine the berimbau's place in Brazilian popular music of subsequent decades, revealing its...