Chuck Bernstein – Delta Berimbau Blues (2009)

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by Pico

A berim-what???

Yeah, that’s right, a berimbau. Indigenous to the northeast region of Brazil, this bad boy is a single wire-stringed percussion musical instrument that’s sort of like a bow with a hollowed-out gourd on the bottom of it and played with a wooden stick, with the tone modulated by using a coin-like piece of metal.

The berimbau is not an instrument a whole lot of people in America know how to play, but from the time drummer and percussionist Chuck Bernstein saw Shelly Manne whip one out during a live performance back in the mid-seventies, he was hooked. “There was something about the instrument that totally captivated me” he said. “…its trance-like rhythms and sounds brought to mind Africa, the Samba, and the Mississippi Delta!!! I had to have one!”

Bernstein’s quest for mastery of this mysterious instrument eventually brought him someone who taught lessons on it, Dennis Broughton, and before long, he immersed himself in the local Brazilian music of Capoeira, a form of martial arts that the berimbau is used in setting the tempo and style of fighting.

But Chuck saw more out of this strange apparatus than simply keeping alive a rarely-recorded form of folk music. That berimbau emits this swampy, trance-like lightly buzzing sound where notes can be bent. It’s a sound that’s made for the Delta blues. Bernstein’s objective is very straighforward: “My goal, from the very beginning has been to make the berimbau a new voice in American music – Blues, R&B, Roots and Jazz.”

As Bernstein later discovered, the berimbau’s perfect fit for vintage blues is not quite the coincidental; the Delta slide technique on the guitar has its origin with an African-originated, single-stringed musical bow found in the old American South. This instrument was called the “Diddley Bow”; Bernstein had unwittingly fashioned a Brazilian version of the Diddley Bow!

Delta Berimbau Blues, the realization of Bernstein’s stated goal, may be the first berimbau record ever made where this instrument is used primarily outside its usual environs of Brazilian music. Taking advantage of such a wide-open frontier, Bernstein tries out a wide variety of collaborators both instrumentally and compositionally (along with a few covers), and it seems that the collaborative tunes were composed on the spot. Every song has its own character as a result, but the berimbau and the roots bent gives the album a consistent, overarching signature sound.

Throughout these sixteen tracks, blues is the predominant theme, but other forms show up here and there. Most of them are single chord songs, not displaying much melody. It’s all about playing off of a vibe. Some highlights:

“Delta Berimbau Blues” introduces the very natural combination of the berimbau and the acoustic guitar. Bernstein is able to handle both the rhythm and chordal key of the song, allowing guitarist Greg Douglass to freely improvise on his slide acoustic. It’s a deeply spiritual sound and even though there’s no lyrics as there isn’t throughout most of the album, the music evokes vivid imagery of backwoods rural Mississippi.

As if to demonstrate the adaptability of this bowed instrument, that song is followed up by the airy, Brazilian samba of “All Your Desires.” An acoustic guitar is again accompanying Bernstein, this time by the song’s composer, Paul Ledo.

On “Drop D,” Bernstein spins a terrific polyrhythm and a low, desolate chord that acoustic guitarist Debbie Sipes expertly uses to build upon with a fervid, building solo.

“Viola Foot Stompin’ Blues” pairs Bernstein with another berimbau player, his former teacher Broughton. Broughton plays a high-pitched viola berimbau, while Bernstein plays the low-pitched gunga berimbau, in a distinctive blend of blues and capoeira, high tones and low tones.

The bass player quotes “Bemsha Swing” in the song “Darling Cory,” which can be directly traced to Bernstein’s love of Thelonius Monk’s music. As the leader of Monk’s Music Trio and having once inserted a berimbau rhythm on Monk’s “”Friday the 13th” for the trio (an experiment Bernstein credits for opening “the door to all sorts of musical possibilities”), it’s quite logical to see a tip of the hat to the legendary jazz composer/pianist.

“Plunger In The Funk” combines Bernstein with his Monk’s Music Trio cohort stand-up bassist Sam Bevan and whack jazz trombonist extraordinaire Roswell Rudd. The three start with almost nothing to develop a persistent funky groove. Rudd’s plunger work with his ‘bone has the delightful effect of bringing a little bit of New Orleans to the Delta.

A couple of the songs do feature a vocal and again, Bernstein makes it work well. The first is a Pete Seeger tune “One Grain Of Sand,” sung by Lisa Kindred. With Kindred’s solemn voice going against the backdrop of the berimbau, the Seeger song comes across much like a spiritual. Bernstein himself sings on “Blues Para Guinga,” a tribute to Brazilian singer-songwriting guitarist Carlos Althier de Souza Lemos “Guinga” Escobar. In a marriage of two seemingly disparate cultures, Chuck sings his paean to Guinga in Creole French.

Chuck Bernstein’ Delta Berimbau Blues pulls off the impossible trick of recasting the Delta blues in an entirely new light while remaining faithful to its original spirit. Strangely enough, it’s comfortably familiar, even if you never heard anything like it before. Ted Gioia, author of “Delta Blues,” is already calling this January release a strong candidate for his list of best blues albums of the year. Best or not, it would be hard to come up with another blues record that’s as innovative and pure-sounding for this year or most other years, for that matter.

Here’s Bernstein performing one of his cuts from this album, “Delta Spirit Dance”:


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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