What instruments are used in Capoeira?

What instruments are used in capoeiraCapoeira is a highly athletic Brazilian martial art that is practiced in the form of a game: two capoeiristas play inside a circle formed by the remaining members of the group who sing to the music of the band.. The band is an integral part of capoeira, determining the pace, style and aggressiveness of the movements of the capoeiristas.  In the article we look at what instruments are used in capoeira?

The musical ‘band’ or bateria (meaning ‘drum kit’ in Portugese and Spanish) forms part of the roda – the circle of capoeira practitioners (capoeiristas) in which the game is played.  As the instruments play, the remaining members will sing and clap in time with the music.

The bateria is traditionally made up of three berimbaus, two pandeiros, three atabaques, one agogô and one ganzá.  The exact format may vary between each group.

The following instruments are used:

The Berimbau

The instrument consists of a 4 to 5 foot wooden bow (verga) with a taut steel cord (arame) tied from one end to the other; the cord is often taken from a car tire.  At one end of the verga, a dried and hardened, hollowed out fruit shell (cabaça) is attached with string. This acts as a resonator, helping to project the sound of the instrument.

To play it, the verga is held by the middle two fingers of one hand, with the thumb and index finger holding a coin or stone.  The cabaça is held against the abdomen and can be moved back and forth to create a wah-wah effect.  The other hand holds a wooden stick (baqueta) which is used to strike the arame (steel cord) to produce a sound.  The coin or stone is pressed against the arame to change its pitch.

A caxixi (or shaker) is also held in the hand that holds the stick (baqueta) and provides an accompanying sound.


The Berimbau is regarded as the lead instrument of the bateria. It acts to set the tempo of the music; this then determines the speed, style and aggressiveness of the game itself.  The other instruments in the band follow the berimbau’s lead.

In a traditional bateria, there will be two low pitch berimbaus (called berra-boi and médio) which provide the bass and a higher pitched berimbau (called viola) which improvises over the top.

The cost of these instruments can be seen here (link to Amazon).

The pandeiro

The pandeiro is a hand drum that looks a lot like a tambourine, except that the ‘jingles’ provide a drier, crisper tone.  The drumhead is also tunable so that the tone of the drum can be changed when it is struck.

It is held in one hand and struck with the other usually with the fingertips, the side of the thumb, heel or palm  of the hand.  The cost of these instruments can be seen here (link to Amazon).


The Atabaque

This is a hand drum, traditionally made from Jacaranda wood from Brazil.  Calfskin is stretched across the top to form the head.  In more traditional versions, thin ropes attach the head to a metal ring near the base.  Wooden wedges are inserted into this ring in order to adjust the tension of the ropes thereby changing the tone of the drum.

There are three versions of atabaque:

Rum which is the tallest and has the deepest tone

which is the smallest and therefore has the highest pitched tone

Rum-pi which sits in between the above two sizes and has mid ranged tone.

The Agogô

This capoeira instrument consists of two conical shaped bells joined by a band of U shaped metal.  The instrument was traditionally made of iron and the two bells are of different sizes, producing different tones when struck.

The Agogô is played by gently striking each bell with a stick and by squeezing the two bells together to make a clacking sound.

The design is based on West African bells which was brought to Brazil by the African slaves.  The cost of these can be seen here (link to Amazon).

The Ganzá

This is a shaker traditionally made from a hand-woven basket containing beads or pebbles. More modern versions are made out of a metal cylinder.

When shaken rhythmically, the Ganzá adds an additional percussive element to the music.  The cost of these can be seen here (link to Amazon).


Capoeira Songs

The musical ‘band’ or bateria that accompanies the Capoeira ‘dance’, also sing as they play.  Many of the songs are in the form of a ‘call and response’ where the band will call out a verse and the rest of the circle will respond by singing a verse in  response.

There are four types of song, which are determined by the degree to which the non-band members are involved in the song.

The Ladaínha is essentially a solo sung by the most experienced capoeirista  at the start of the session when the circle (called a roda) first forms.

The Chula, where the main singer sings most of the song with little involvement from other members of the roda. The singer might sing nine verses with the rest of the group singing one.

The Corrido, where the singer sings the number of verses as the rest of the group.  This might mean two choruses by the singer, followed by two sung in response.

The Quadra, where the same chorus is sung repeatedly four times.  Each chorus may alternate between the singer and the roda, or the singer may sing the first three, with the remainder of the group responding in the final chorus.

Put together, the band and the singing looks like the following:


Where did Capoeira originate?

Capoeira is a Briazilian martial art that was developed and practiced by African slaves during the 16th Century.  It involves flowing, dance-like movements that are designed to prevent the practitioner from being still and open to attack. 

The style is highly acrobatic involving cartwheels and backflips and leg strikes are dominant including kicks, sweeps and knee strikes.

Music and dance was intertwined with the fighting techniques to disguise the fact that the slaves were practicing a fighting art.  When salvery was eventually abolished, capoeira was declared illegal at the end of the 19th century as a perceived threat to the ruling regime.   

This ban was relaxed in the 1920s and from 1970, Capoeira masters began to travel the world spreading this fighting style.


Where is Capoeira performed?

In a capoeira session, the capoeira practitioners (capoeiristas) form a circle (called a roda).  Some individuals will play traditional capoeira instruments, while the remaining members will sing and clap their hands in time with the music.  Two capoeiristas will then enter the roda and begin to play what is considered to be a game.  

The style and speed of their movements will be determined by the rhythm of the music.  In many respects, the movements and the accompanying music makes it look much like a dance.

The game will end when one of the capoeiristas decides to leave the roda, or when another enters to play with one of the existing players or another, or when the musician holding the berimbau determines it.


What is the main instrument in Capoeira?

The Berimbau is the main instrument in the musical ‘band’ or bateria.  It is 4 to 5 foot wooden bow (verga) with a taut steel cord (arame) tied from one end to the other, which is struck by a wooden stick (baqueta).  At the lower end of the stick, a dried and hardened, hollowed out fruit shell (cabaça) acts as a resonator, helping to project the sound of the instrument.

The berimbau acts to set the tempo of the music which then determines the speed, style and aggressiveness of the game itself.  The other instruments in the band follow the berimbau’s lead.


Are Capoeira instruments percussion?

All the instruments in the capoeira band or bateria are in the percussion family:  they all make a sound when hit or shaken.  They include the berimbaus, pandeiros,  atabaques, agogô and  ganzá (which are described above).


What is the name of the bowed instrument that accompanies Capoeira?

This is the Berimbau which is the main instrument in the musical ‘band’ or bateria and acts to set the rhythm of the music which heavily influences the style and aggressiveness of the game.  There are usually three berimbau in a bateria. 


Where did the Berimbau come from?

The berimbau is originally from Africa and a type of gourde muscial bow.  It is very similar to the m’bulumbumba of Angola.  It came to Brazil via the slave trade and is now a central instrument in Capoeira.


What is the Berimbau classified as?

The berimbau is a single stringed musical bow that is part of the percussion family: it is played by striking the steel string with a stick.  The sound is projected via a dried and hardened, hollowed out fruit shell (cabaça) attached to the bottom of the bow which  acts as a resonator.


What sound does a Berimbau make?

The berimbau makes a deep twanging sound which varies slightly in pitch depending on how much pressure is placed in the wire when it is struck.  It provides a backing rhythm to the capoeira game.


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“capoeira” flickr photo by jmarconi https://flickr.com/photos/jmarconi/4331674123 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license