Unraveling The Berimbau, A Simple Instrument With A Trove Of Hidden Talents

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Gregory Beyer is the artistic director of the musical ensemble Arcomusical, whose new album, <em>MeiaMeia</em>, is dedicated to berimbau master Naná Vasconcelos.

Last year, Brazil lost one of its most famous musicians: Naná Vasconcelos, who put an instrument called the berimbau on the world's musical map. It's a kind of bow with a gourd attached, and it is the inspiration for a new album, MeiaMeia: New Music for Berimbau, by the group Arcomusical.

"The instrument's history is extremely deep," says Gregory Beyer, the group's artistic director. "Cave paintings depict people with musical bows thousands of years ago, but the more recent history shows that the instrument has its tradition among the Bantu-speaking peoples throughout the region of southern Africa."

Beyer spent time with Vasconcelos before his passing. He says that some of how the late musician mastered and reinvented the instrument came out of necessity.

"When he moved from the northeast to Rio de Janeiro to work specifically with [Brazilian singer] Milton Nascimento, he moved into a small apartment where his drum set was no longer acceptable to his neighbors — and so the berimbau became an ersatz drum set for him," Beyer says. "He had low notes that would represent a bass drum, high notes that would represent a snare drum ... and he put all these things together and created just an incredibly inspired performance style that was like nothing that anyone had heard before."

Beyer joined NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro, berimbau in hand, to talk about the legacy of Naná Vasconcelos and demonstrate how the instrument creates its unique sound. Hear their conversation, and the music, at the audio link.

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