South Of The Border
by Norbert Goldberg
The techniques involved in playing Brazilian percussion instruments are quite varied and may seem complicated. In Brazil, fine percussionists, although playing other Brazilian instruments, specialize in only one or two, playing these with impressive skill and virtuosity.
Among these instruments is the SURDO, a large cylindrical bass drum made of light metal whose throbbing rhythm provides the backbone and sets the pulse for the rest of the Brazilian percussion section. The surdo’s characteristic rhythm, although quite simple, typifies the essence of samba. The sound of the surdo can be simulated by an unmuffled floor tom struck with a timpani mallet. The fingertips of the other hand are used to muffle the drum.No. 1
Tenor and snare drums are also used in the Brazilian percussion section. The tenor drums are usually played with one stick, using mostly rim shots, the remaining hand uses a slapping motion and fills out the rhythm by playing on the after beat. The tenor drum is also used as a solo instrument, playing cadences that bring in the rest of the players. Below is an example of a typical cadence and rhythm:
Snare drums are played with two sticks, one hand plays a samba rhythm, the other filling it in with a buzz roll played close to the rim.
There is much interplay between tenor and snare drums, resulting in very sophisticated rhythmic counterpoint. These drums are also made of light metal, the snare having a few wire strands on the top or bottom head, calf skins are usually used.
The smallest drum used is the “tamborim,” a single headed drum measuring about six inches in diameter which produces a very sharp and piercing sound. The tamborim is held with the left hand, the middle finger fills in the rhythm of the right by tapping on the inside of the head.
The tambourine or PANDEIRO, is also used in Brazilian percussion. The techniques involved in playing this instrument are quite sophisticated and take some time to develop.
The basic pandeiro technique involves a hand motion which combines three areas of the hand; the thumb, the palm, and the fingers. These play a sixteenth note pattern which if properly executed will produce a samba rhythm. The tambourine should be held level or slightly tilted, the striking hand staying close to the edge. The thumb strikes with a sideways motion, as if turning a door knob counterclockwise, and should produce an open ringing tone. The palm and fingers are played with a rocking motion.
The AGOGO is one instrument which has recently become quite popular, particularly in disco music. Consisting of two differently pitched bells joined by a curved metal rod, the agogo lends a semi-melodic feeling to the rhythmic patterns.
Perhaps the most fascinating instrument of all Brazilian percussion is the CUICA, whose roots can be traced to West Africa where samba rhythms are said to have originated. The cuica is a friction drum, and a thin bamboo stick is tucked into the skin inside a single headed drum made of metal or sometimes wood. Sound is created by rubbing the stick with a moistened cloth, thereby causing the skin to vibrate. By using varying pressure on the skin with the fingers of the other hand, many different sounds and effects can be produced. The cuica’s sound has been compared to screeching tires, grunts, and barks. One can even play melodies with it. The cuica is held to the body by the left hand, fingers on the skin. The right hand loosely grasps the stick inside the drum with a moistened cloth. Pressing on the head near the bead with the left middle finger raises the pitch; the more pressure, the higher the sound. By rhythmically alternating finger pressure on and off the skin with the right hand’s rubbing motion, the contrasts in sound are fully exploited. In some cases, two fingers may be used, one finger raises the sound, while the other alternates on and off the head. Here are some rhythms designed to help you achieve the proper sounds.
Other instruments used in Brazilian percussion are metal shakers of different shapes and sizes, triangles, wooden whistles, small frying pans, and an instrument called the “reco-reco,” a scraper which consists of bed springs mounted on a metal sound chamber.