How to make a Berimbau: Part 1 – Preparing the Biriba

There are many elements that make up a well rounded Capoerista.

A wide range of movements, skill in the roda, awareness of the rhythm and style of game, malicía and mandinga, musical and singing ability, understanding of the culture and history of capoeira, to name but a few.

The berimbau is central to capoeira. Without it, there is no roda, there is no way to direct the game and the energy.

Berimbau tocou, Eu vou jogar!

To be a complete capoerista, it is essential that you learn to play the berimbau, at least to the level to be able to play the basic toques and sing at the same time.

But how about making a berimbau?

Perhaps it’s not essential to be able to make your own berimbau from scratch in order to be a well-rounded capoerista, but we certainly think it is worth the effort to learn the process, and have a go at doing it yourself.

Perhaps it won’t be the best berimbau ever made, but we’re sure you’ll get a great sense of achievement, and will really feel connected, both to the berimbau itself, and to the capoeristas of yesteryear who didn’t have the option of buying their instruments from Amazon!

Kit List:

  • Hacksaw
  • Hammer
  • Glass Bottle
  • Old Towel
  • Fine Sandpaper
  • Stanley Knife
  • Pen Knife

Step 1: Finding and seasoning the Verga

The name Berimbau is derived from the type of wood “Biriba” (from the Eschweilera Ovata tree) traditionally used to make the “verga”, the wooden backbone of the instrument.

The biriba is used due to its combination of strength and suppleness (just like a capoerista!). This allows the berimbau to be flexed and armed many times throughout its life, without losing it’s tension or breaking (Bear in mind, however, they are not indestructible, and be careful not to over tense them especially when they are new, and disarm them when you are not using them).

The Berimbau in its Natural Habitat…

Unfortunately, due to the explosion in popularity of capoeira and with it, the berimbau over the last few decades, the biriba has been over exploited. This (rightly so), means that finding a genuine biriba for your verga may not be an easy task. Search hard enough, and you can still find them, but please make sure that they are from a sustainable source. The tree is fast growing, and if cut properly and cared for, the biriba will regrow.

Alternatively, it is possible to make your verga from other woods, quite possibly a more local and sustainable source such as maple, ash, red oak or locust. Though it won’t look the same, bamboo is also a popular option due to its strength, flexibility and sustainability.

Whatever wood you are using, it needs to come from a living tree. Dead wood will not suffice, it won’t have the strength of flexibility required. The verga needs to be 3-4cm in diameter and 150-180cm long.

In general, the strongest/least flexible vergas are best for violas, intermediates for medios, and the most flexible for gungas, though one can never be guaranteed that a verga and cabaça are going to “marry”, and the only way to find a good paring is to try various combinations (for this reason, it’s good is you can organise making berimbaus with your group, so you’ve got lots of different vergas and cabaças to try with one another).

Before starting to work on the verga, the wood must be seasoned, (allowed to dry out slowly) by storing it in a dry place, out of direct sunlight, for at least a month. It is possible to do the drying process more quickly by gently heating the biriba over an open fire (keeping it at least 1m away and turning constantly). We’d recommend waiting, however, as an overly dry berimbau can become brittle and break.

Step 2: Preparing the Verga

Once the wood has been seasoned, it’s time to turn it into the verga, via the following steps:

    1. Strip off the bark

If you’re lucky, it will peel of nice and easily, like the skin of a fruit. If you’re not so lucky, it will cling on for dear life until your fingers bleed… But that’s all just part of the fun!

If you’re lucky, the bark will peel off easily in long strips like this

 

  • Cut off/file down any knots and stems

 

The verga needs to be relatively smooth and uniform. Any big bumps, shoots or knots that are sticking out need to be trimmed down with a Stanley knife. This is particularly important around the area where the cabaça goes. Take care when doing this not to strip the wood. Use lots of small strokes and don’t be too aggressve!

As you can see, we recommend using and old, rusty, blunt knife…

 

  • Start to smooth the surface of the verga with glass

 

Traditionally vergas are smoothed out using a shard of broken glass.

I’d recommend drinking a large bottle of good beer, then wash out the bottle, wrap it in a towel, then smash it with a hammer. Rinse the shards with water to remove any tiny pieces which might cut you. Don’t try this at home without adult supervision capoeira kids!

Scrape the surface of the verga until you get a uniform, relatively smooth finish (as in the photo below). Keep turning the piece of glass/changing for a new one to get a fresh edge as it will blunt quickly.

Don’t try this at home kids

 

  • Sand to a smooth finish with fine glass/sandpaper

 

Sweating yet? We’re nearly there!

Though you could stop after the glass scraping stage, to get a really smooth finish, we’d recommend passing over the biriba with some really find sandpaper. Keep going until it’s smoother than a 1960s Bossa Nova groove.

Smoother than a freshly blended bowl of açaí

This is the kind of finish you should be looking for

Excellent work so far chaps. Hands hurting yet? Just wait till you have to make the arame! 😉

Step 3: Making the Foot

Now we have our nice smooth verga, the next step is to make the foot – this is where we’ll attach the arame at the bottom.

There are 2 main types of foot – a square foot or a pointed foot (see photos).

Mestre Bimba used a pointed foot on his berimbaus – this was the traditional form, from the days when the berimbau also served as a potential weapon! The point of the verga could be jabbed into your adversary with painful results!

Pointed foot, as used by Mestre Bimba and his students

The square foot was developed as capoeira sought to distance itself from its more violent roots and gain respectability with the middle classes.

The square style food also has the advantage of being easier to make!

Our personal preference is the square foot. Our berimbaus are lovers, not fighters…

To make the square foot, cut a groove around 3 cm from the base of the verga, just a few mm deep. The depth will depend on the width of your verga.

No Mestres were harmed in the making of this Berimbau.

Once you’ve cut a uniform groove all the way around, slot a sturdy but thin blade into the groove, and pry off the outer layer of the base of the berimbau. Do this all the way around, then smooth off the foot with a sharp blade and then sandpaper.

Wiggle it, just a little bit

Step 4: Varnish or Paint to protect the wood

The final step for today is to varnish or pain the verga to protect it from the elements, insects or other damage.

Personally, we prefer a simple varnish, wich allows the original wood colour of the biriba to show through, but each to their own!

Varnishing the Verga will protect it from the elements and pests

Step 5: Make the Leather Cap

The leather cap is important as without it, eventually the arame will cut into the end of the berimbau and cause it to split.

You can either buy a small square of leather from a craft or specialist leather shop, or, if you’re a bit more thrifty and resourceful, upcycle some from some old, unwanted leather goods.

You’ll need a very sharp knife to cut the leather. Unless it’s a really good / specialist knife, making circular caps is probably going to be very difficult, but don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You can start square, then trim the corners to make an octagonal cap, and it’ll work fine. Just make sure it covers the whole tip, or very slightly overlaps, so that the beriba is protected.

If there are several of you from your group all making berimbaus at the same time, it may be an idea to go to a specialist leather/craft place, buy a square of leather, and ask them to cut the caps for you – unless of course you think that’s malendragem!

Cutting Leather Cap for Berimbau

Luckily our Mestre had a special cutting tool!

Now you must nail the cap to the top of the berimbau.

Take care, where you put the nails is important!

If the arame touches the nails when the berimbau is armed, it can cause the berimbau to make an unpleasent metalic ringing noise.

Also, it’s possible to split the beriba if you’re not careful. You must avoid placing both nails in the same grain of the wood.

To achieve this, if you imagine that the end of the beriba is a watch face, and the arame is going to cross from 6.00 to 12.00 (bottom to top), the nails should go at 9.10. I’m talking about an old-fashioned clock here with hands, if people still remember what that is!

The nails need to be far enough from the centre so the arame can pass between them without touching, but not too close to the edges to avoid the wood splitting.

Positioning of the leather cap of the berimbau

Here’s one I made earlier…

Step 6: Have another beer!

Phew! Though it is a relatively simple instrument, by now we think you’ll have developed a new-found respect for the capoeiristas of yesteryear, no?

There’s still plenty of work left – prepare the arame, choose and make the cabaça, and put it all together. In theory, you could get on with the arame and the cabaça straight away, but personally, we’ve had enough for one day, so we’re going to empty some more beer bottles just for fun.

Saúde!

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