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The Rabeca

The rabeca or rebeca is a stringed musical instrument played by bowing. It is related to the violin and generally viewed as a more rustic or primitive version of its counterpart. Despite the evident similarities between the two instruments, on close inspection the rabeca may be seen to have its own unique identity, particularly considering its construction and mode of playing.

Unlike the violin, there are no universal norms of construction of the rabeca and different instruments may vary widely in size, shape, the number of strings, tuning and the materials employed in fabrication. The characteristics of each instrument depend on regional traditions as well as the creativity of the maker and the means available, which are commonly few. As to the manner of playing, the violin is usually placed under the chin of the musician; the rabeca, which may also be played in the same way, is more often supported on the chest or left shoulder in a manner similar to that used on some medieval instruments. Both the physical characteristics of the instrument and its mode of playing grant the rabequeiro or rabequista (fiddler) a broad palette of timbres and sonorities quite distinct from those of the violin. For example, while the bridge of the violin is curved to allow the unobstructed sounding of one string at a time, the bridge of the rabeca is often much flatter, which favours the sounding of two or more strings simultaneously.

To identify a precise origin of the rabeca is a difficult task. Amongst its most remote ancestors are probably some of the first bowed stringed instruments brought to Europe by the Arabs, such as the rabab or rebab, of Persian origin, and the ar’abebah used by Berber tribes of northern Africa. Theses instruments have in general only one or two strings and a pear-shaped resonator covered by a piece of leather. More sophisticated versions of the instruments, called rabé, rabel or rebec with wooded top-plates in place of the leather and three strings tuned in just fifths, became popular in the Middle Ages, disseminating the sound and technique of bowed strings throughout all of Europe.

Over time these instruments merged with various forms of plucked instruments then in vogue in Europe, such as the Spanish vihuela, a type of guitar known under the name viola in Portuguese. The result was a new instrument that combined the sound of bowed strings with the characteristic form of the viola's resonating box, composed of two plates interconnected by flanks and with a central narrowing forming a type of waist. Unlike the viola the new instrument had thicker concave plates and continued to be tuned in fifths. It is with these characteristics that we encounter the first references to the instrument called the rabeca.

A smaller variant of this instrument, played under the chin and developed by successive generations of meticulous craftsmen to achieve a standard form, would result in the violin and other related instruments later to became dominant across Europe. With the popularisation of the violin, the rabeca became practically obsolete on the European continent, remaining only in a few small regions, particularly in mountainous rural areas. This is the case of the Portuguese rabeca chuleira, of the rabel in pastoral Spain and of the ribeca found in some parts of the Italian Alps.

It is likely that the rabeca, being an instrument popular on the Iberian Peninsula during the period of the discovery of Brazil, had arrived in the country in the early days of Portuguese settlement. There are some very old references to the use of the instrument in popular festivals, such as those in Bahia in 1760 in celebration of the wedding of the Princess of Brazil (the future Queen Maria I) with her uncle Dom Pedro (later Dom Pedro III): “On the eleventh the cobblers and leathersmiths celebrated with a dance of riches and flamboyant farce, which conceded nothing to that of the tailors and flowed through the streets to the strains of several rabecas deftly played.”1

In its diverse forms the rabeca may be encountered in practically all parts of Brazil: in the fandangos of Paraná, in the folias de reis of Minas Gerais, in the bois de reis and cavalo-marinho of the Zona da Mata region of the north east, in the music from the southern coasts of São Paulo, in the reisados and dances of São Gonçalo in all parts of the north east, in the Guarani indigenous communities of São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, in the marujada of coastal Pará and in many other regions. In each of these places, the rabeca possesses unique characteristics and repertoire, with the common theme being that of its integration in popular festivals.

1Francisco Calmon, Relação das faustíssimas festas (Facsimile reproduction from the original of 1762; Rio de Janeiro: Funarte, 1982) apud Nóbrega, 1998:8.

Translation by Iain Mott of the text: PACHECO, Gustavo; ABREU, Maria Clara. Rabecas de Mané Pitunga. Rio de Janeiro: CNFCP, Funarte, 2001:10-13.