The pandeiro is perhaps the trickiest percussion instrument in Brazil. It is much like a North American tambourine, but for the tunable skin and slightly muffled jingles. The latter replace the sustained clatter made by tambourines with a constant and precise chicka-chicka-chicka. Playing the pandeiro is a three-footed tap dance for your dominant hand; it trips from fingertip to heel and back; boomy or subtle bass notes are thrown in by the thumb. Occasionally, a “belly flop” of a slap contributes oomph. A slick fingertip skids over the surface, throwing in a buzz.
Meanwhile, your other hand and wrist, holding the instrument, are usually twisting it back and forth so that the tap dancer performs on a stage that lifts alternately to meet each foot in succession.
Several North American gringos, notably Scott Feiner of pandeiro.com, have mastered the instrument and have begun applying it to American forms like jazz. In that deeper end of the pool, a great pandeiro player can provide all the complexity of a full drum kit. But those players, without exception, spent a great deal of time in Brazil learning from masters of the instrument such as Marcos Suzano.
Instructional books and videos have existed in Portuguese, but what’s a gringo samba enthusiast to do? Two solutions have arrived in the United States, A Comprehensive Guide to Brazilian Pandeiro by Jonathan Gregory, and the video Learn to Play Pandeiro Volume 1 by Robert Wallace. To my knowledge, they are the first commercial book and video to attempt a systematic course of instruction on the instrument in English.
Gregory’s volume, a 70-page paperback, is comprised largely of notated exercises and rhythms. It includes a short history of the instrument, illustrations of the various hand motions, and a key for the notation. (A clip on the author’s website demonstrates the basic moves, but the link is difficult to find and the student has to hunt around to find the relevant video.) The bulk of the volume is made up of rhythm notations, covering folk styles such as ciranda and jongo, recent genres including samba reggae and samba funk, as well as transcriptions of important players, including Jackson do Pandeiro.
Given the many pattern transcriptions and relative little commentary, the book resembles more than anything a high school marching band workbook for snare drummers. Can anyone short of musicologists or pro musicians understand the detailed notation? And doesn’t the subtlety of the instrument require feedback from an instructor to learn properly? Perhaps, but certainly for around $14 this is an invaluable resource for serious students of the instrument.
What alternatives to this book exist in the market today? Nothing in English, but the two volumes of Pandeiro Brasileiro by Luiz Roberto Sampaio and Victor Camargo Bub, include demonstration videos of several rhythms and an encyclopedic set of patterns and variations. The “basic moves” and background discussion (in Portuguese) are much shorter than Gregory’s, apparently assuming more familiarity from their primarily Brazilian audience.
The happy beginner unfamiliar with musical notation might be well served by a new video offering from Robert Wallace. He teaches to the camera just as he teaches to a group of students, in the manner of the Billy Blanks-style workout video. After an inordinate number of stretches, catch-phrases, and reminders to smile, he eventually teaches a range of beginning pandeiro rides that will be helpful to anyone new to the instrument. As a teacher, Bobby is extremely encouraging and he assumes no pre-knowledge of the subject. Trained musicians may find the workout vibe distracting, but drum circle enthusiasts should find much to like. For example, his tips on the care and tuning of a pandeiro are important for those learning without a teacher.
Some oversights prevent me from strongly recommending the video. Pandeiro music is a team sport; why couldn’t the video include a few percussionists on other instruments to demonstrate how simple pandeiro patterns fit into the larger picture? Covering capoeira patterns without berimbau or capoeiristas is merely counter-intuitive, but teaching partido alto and baião without other instruments is perverse.
There are other serious omissions. Why no modern, two-handed technique? And no attempt is made at teaching the kind of notation used in books like Gregory’s. Indeed, no written patterns at all are provided in this video. And Portuguese speakers may be put off by the gringo pronunciation he takes great pains to teach. The production standards are serviceable but not extremely high; occasionally, the camera loses focus, and the backgrounds are slightly distracting. Still, none of this will prevent aspiring pandeiristas from learning basic rhythms from the video.
A few years ago, a ticket to Brazil was the only way to learn instruments native to the country. Given the proliferation of free examples on YouTube and an international proliferation of samba schools, it’s never been easier to get started wherever you might live. But clearly, no single source of information can yet begin to replace an expert teacher.
Eric Crawford is the international operations manager for Na Roda, which organizes music lessons for foreigners in Rio de Janeiro.
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