Percussion is an inherent part of all human beings. The term comes from the Latin percutere, which means a sound that comes from shaking, hitting or striking with something. Besides the voice, the first elements created by man were percussion instruments, which came into existence through daily objects such as bones, rocks, branches, tree trunks and metals.
Percussion instruments are separated into idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, and aerophones, though some instruments are a combination of more than one.
Membranophones have a membrane, or a skin which is stretched out and vibrates when the instrument is played with drumsticks or the hands. These can come in the form of boxes, barrels or rims, and they are covered with animal skins on either or both ends. Just as is the case with pandeiros, adufes and tamborim (that has no resonance box), there are innumerable drums in the world made from high-quality wood, with some even cut out or carved out of whole tree trunks. Nowadays, many drums and sonorous structures are made with artificial materials, and they follow the sound, pitch and technical demands of the music market. Different membranophones can have varying levels, for example, within a group of three complementary drums, such as the rum, the rumpi and the lé.
Aerophones are generally considered to belong to the wind family, but some of them are categorized alongside percussion instruments, such as apitos (whistle), búzios (whelk), flautas de nariz (nose flute) and zunidores (an indigenous instrument).
Idiophones are those instruments whose sound is produced by the material of the instrument itself, without the use of strings or a tense membrane. Among the idiophones are a number of rattles with different qualities, materials and sounds, in addition to bells, claves, plates, triangles, and a number of instruments with keys made of metal, wood or stone, which are played with drumsticks. Idiophones can produce only one sound, one musical note or different pitches. Some examples of idiophones are: agogôs, with two or three different bells, Caribbean steel drums, and xylophones, metallophones and lithophones, which all have musical scales with a range of notes, from the most low-pitched to the most high-pitched.
Chordophones are musical instruments whose sound is produced by the vibration of a tense chord. Some examples of chordophones are violins, guitars, harps, zithers and pianos. In the percussion family, the most common chordophone is the berimbau.
For the diverse indigenous communities in Brazil, instruments are important tools for establishing communication between people and spirits; these communities use said instruments to create music that is generally associated with the dancing and movement in their numerous religious and social rituals. Rhythms and sounds are also produced with the body by clapping one’s hands, participating in collective chants, which serve as mantras, stomping one’s feet to make the floor vibrate, and to make the rattles around one’s feet, thighs, arms, neck and waist shake.
The most traditional instruments in these communities are percussion and wind instruments, but string instruments (the rabeca and the viola) were incorporated from the Portuguese, while some indigenous drums are the result of African influences.
Another instrument that should be noted is the zundidor, an aerophone that produces sound when it is whipped through the air. Netted rattles are used to produce mystic sounds, and are generally filled with seeds, shells and nuts, in addition to round rattles, known as maracas (gourds filled with seeds or grains), which are treated as entities and are used in spiritual rituals.
There is a long legacy of Galician-Portuguese popular music with medieval and Baroque influences within Arabic culture, which converged with indigenous and African influences and became part of the cultural heritage of a large part of oral tradition music in Brazil. Numerous verses, rhythms, melodies, prayers and jokes were preserved in the rural and peripheral regions of the country, revealing the rhythmic and dance-inspired past of European music. These roots can be found in Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso, Paraná and other states around the country, mainly in the northeast.
Some of the instruments from this heritage were modified in name of and to be used for popular Brazilian culture, but their origins continue to be present and pronounced some examples are the bombos (played in percussion groups in Portugal), the adufe (or the pandeiro, in Brazil), which evolved from large membranophones, with rhythms introduced in the Iberian Peninsula by Arabs between the eighth and twelfth centuries, the caixa (snare drum), the tamboril and the flauta (flute), which were represented in medieval Europe by the drum and fife (a set used to play military and ritualistic pieces, as well as to entertain), the sarronca (zamborra), the Portuguese and Spanish version of the African cuíca/puita, which probably originated from African Muslim culture, and is still present in certain regions of Portugal.
There are also idiophones such as castanets, ferrinhos (usually shaped like a triangle), matracas, which are used to accompany dances and songs in liturgical acts, and zaclitracs, used in Portugal during Lent.
Brazilian popular music was heavily influenced by African music, especially from the Congolese and Yoruba societies. The former contributed to Brazilian music with samba, as well as its different variations, such as jongo, carimbó, tambor de crioula, congada, batuque de umbigada and maracatu, among others. The latter culture is still alive in Afro-Brazilian religious music, as well as other resulting styles, and had a large impart on popular African music, especially in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.
Both matrices are characterized by polyrhythms played with percussion instruments, especially membranophones (a large range of drums). The drum strongly communicates the most intimate feelings of the African continent, which is all about music that speaks through rhythm and dance. In the absence of drums, the clapping of hands, stomping of feet, and singing with the voice emerge as rhythmical onomatopoeias.
Drums can also be made with a wide range of materials, and have a number of different shapes, uses, functions, sounds, pitches, playing styles and taboos. In many cases, they represent sacred beings and are stored in specific places. It should be noted, however, that African music is not only played with drums, but also with a variety of string instruments (harp, lute, zither and, more recently, guitar, electric guitar and others), and idiophones (rattles, bells, claves, cabaças, reco-recos, etc.), which are also present in Afro-Brazilian percussion.
Africans were responsible for introducing numerous instruments into Brazilian music, such as the cuíca, the berimbau, the ganzá and the reco-reco. They helped to maintain, transform and create the majority of the popular styles that have remained strong in the Americas and the Caribbean.