At the basic level, the size of the cabaça determines whether the berimbau will be a viola, medio or gunga.
The Viola is the smallest of the 3, and therefore has the highest pitch. Generally, they pair better with a stiffer verga (translate that to portuguese at your peril!). The viola is usually the berimbau which plays lots of variations (repiques) and solos. If Jimmy Page played Berimbau, he’d play the viola.
The Medio is the medium-sized, and has the mid-tone, and pairs best with a biriba of medium stiffness. Hence the name, duh! It is generally the one that keeps the rhythm, though of course one can still play repiques and variations. Keith Richards would be on the Medio (If he wasn’t on the cachaça).
The Gunga is the largest of 3, and provides the bass line, but more importantly, commands the roda. Usually it is the Mestre who has the gunga, and the rest of the batteria follow their rhythm and tempo. A more flexible biriba typically works best. It would be interesting to see what type of game developed with Flea on the Gunga! (NB occasionally, even bigger gourds are used called a berra-boi, but these are not very common nowadays).
It’s not just size that counts though! There are many other factors to take into consideration when selecting your cabaça.
Selecting your Lustrous Pumpkin
Apparently, the name cabaça (pt) or calabash (en) comes from the Arabic kara bassasa, which translates as “Lustrous Pumpkin”, aww!
Various different gourds can be used to make the berimbau cabaça, but the most common are the Calabash or Bottle Gourd (Latin name Lagenaria siceraria) and the fruit of the Calabash Tree, actually a different species (Latin name Crescentia cujete).
The Bootle Gourd is thought to be one of the first plants to be cultivated by humans. Originating in Africa, it’s unknown whether the seeds travelled to Asia and America with human migration, or by seeds carried in Gourds which floated across the ocean (They arrived prior to Christopher Columbus)
Paptoid: The Calabash Tree flowers at night, and is pollinated by bats. In addition to being dried and used for many other purposes, from containers to decorations, the pulp of the cabaça is used by many indigenous tribes for traditional medicine .
After being harvested, the cabaças must be left to dry out, until the skin becomes brown and hardened. Generally speaking, unless you are harvesting your own, this process will already have been done when you get hold of one.
Cabaças of both varieties can grow to all different shapes and sizes, so it’s important to select one that is suitable for a berimbau.
Ideally, the cabaça should be as symmetrical as possible, with a uniform, roughly spherical shape.
Pay particular attention to the “base” of the cabaça – the part where it will make contact with the berimbau. Some cabaças have a hollow dent or protrusion in this area. This is not good for a berimbau, as it will not fit snugly to the biriba, meaning the sound won’t be transmitted well, and it will be prone to slipping around the verga. A cabaça with a flattish base is ideal.
Preparing the Gourd for the Berimbau
Once you have found your dried cabaça, you need to do a fair bit of work to turn it into your viola, medio or gunga.
You will need:
- A Hacksaw
- A scrapy thing
- A Bradawl or small pointy knife
- Varnish and Paintbrush
There are 6 steps that need to be followed to prep the gourd:
**IMPORTANT: Cabaças are pretty fragile, take care not to drop them, especially on a hard surface or they are likely to crack. Should the worst happen though, a bit of super glue should leave it scared but functional
- Soak and Scrub the Skin
Pop the cabaça(s) in the bath for a quick soak (1-2) hours, then give them a good scrub to remove any dirt or imperfections from the skin.
- Cut off the “Nipple”
Cut the opening of the cabaça using a hacksaw. To get a good sound, the diameter of the opening wants to be no bigger than around half the diameter of the cabaça at its widest point. We recommend drawing a circle with a pencil first, to ensure you cut straight, it should be parallel with the flattish bottom of the gourd. Cut the opening smaller than you want it to be, as later you will sand the edge, and the hole will grow in diameter.
Don’t throw the off cut away! You can use this for the base of a home made caxixi 🙂
- Scrape out the Insides
The cabaça will be full of seeds and dried out flesh. These need to be scraped out using a “Raspinha” (scrapy thing).
If you’re lucky, it will all come out really easily leaving a smooth finish on the inside. If not, keep calm and carry on scraping…
Don’t throw away the seeds – if you’ve got green fingers you can plant them, and grow your own gourds!
- Sand Down the Edge of the Opening
Starting with some rough sand paper, begin to sand down the edge of the mouth of the cabaça. Once it’s nearly like in the photo, switch to finer sand paper to get a really smooth edge.
- Make the holes for the string
Measure the width of your biriba around the area where the gourd will be placed. The two holes need to be just a few millimeters closer together than this width. If they are too wide, or too narrow, the gourd will slip around the verga making the berimbau more difficult to play.
If the cabaça is not totally symmetrical (which is probably isn’t), think about which way up is should go. Bear in mind the biriba is curved, so if part of the base sticks out, this should go at the bottom so the opening faces forward.
- Varnish the Outside
Varnishing the cabaça will help protect it. Another option is to paint it, but apparently Mestre Bimba said that “A painted berimbau loses its voice” so be warned…
So now you have your biriba and your cabaça – you’re nearly there!
In the 3rd and final part of this series, we’ll look at how to prepare the arame, and then finally how to put it all together and arm the berimbau so it’s ready to play.