Fulbright Scholar, composer, educator, and “prodigiously talented percussionist” (Chicago Classical Review), Gregory Beyer is a contemporary music specialist who blends the disciplines of orchestral, jazz, and world music into a singular artistic voice. Beyer is Associate Professor and Head of Percussion Studies at Northern Illinois University, and a core member of the Chicago-based new music ensemble, Dal Niente. Through support from the Fulbright program, he spent the 2015-2016 year in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, teaching at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, training capoeira Angola with Contramestra Alcione Oliveira of the Capoeira Angola Dobrada Association, and working with a tremendous group of musicians, Arcomusical Brasil, with whom he traveled to Africa to present and perform at the international Bow Music Conference.
How I started playing the berimbau…
During graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music, one day I was browsing in midtown at the legendary Drummer’s World, when suddenly from the back of the shop I heard an amazing sound. Following the source, I was surprised to find a young businessman in formal attire playing a berimbau with impressive musicality and control. My curiosity led to conversation. Both kind and informative, he reflected upon his own inspiration and said, “If there is one album you need to check out, it is Naná Vasconcelos’s Saudades.”
I left Drummer’s World with excitement and headed to Virgin Records to find the recording. I rushed home, placed the CD in my stereo, and instantly the berimbau stole my heart and captured my imagination. As is my wont, I began transcribing what I heard.
Within two weeks’s time, I received a phone call from a Brazilian singer/songwriter with whom I had been gigging. “Greg, please come over. We have to rehearse! By the way, I just got home from family vacation. We were in Brazil for three weeks. I brought you something.”
When I arrived at his house, he smiled, ran up the staircase, and came down to hand me my very first berimbau. I was floored. When life hands you such a clear message, you cannot say “no.”
I went home. I called around, looking for recommendations for a teacher. Everyone pointed me to a man by the nickname of Cabello. I scheduled a first lesson.
At his lower east side apartment, Cabello showed me the basics. He was kind, patient, and meticulous in detail. I liked him. I took my transcription to show him, but quickly discovered that he didn’t read music. So I resolved to memorize and play the transcription at a second lesson.
A few weeks later, I went back. I played for him. He smiled! He was impressed! He said, “Greg, this is great. You have learned quickly, and well! But…” his smile faded, he looked at me seriously, “you aren’t a capoeirista, and you are not and never will be Naná Vasconcelos. So, what will you do with the berimbau that will bring something new to the world? What will you say with the berimbau?”
He clearly didn’t understand. I wanted to be Naná Vasconcelos! But, after a time, I realized he understood something much more profound. He challenged me to find my own way.
In the summer of 2015, shortly after recording MeiaMeia, and with the generous support of Northern Illinois University, I took Projeto Arcomusical with me on my first month of sabbatical and Fulbright work in Brazil. We performed half a dozen concerts and festivals in Minas Gerais and Bahia. The last stop was the most meaningful. We performed at the Barracão d’Angola, an incredible cultural center for dance, music, capoeira, and children’s programs co-directed by Mestre Cabello and his wife who had left New York years earlier to begin a new chapter in their lives.
Before we performed I told the audience, “Years ago, Mestre Cabello challenged me to do something different with the berimbau. Mestre, here is my response.”
Full circle. It was an incredible evening – unforgettably moving for everyone present.
And still, now, almost two decades after the berimbau entered my life, my passion for this instrument continues to guide Arcomusical’s mission to build a vibrant and diverse repertoire for gourd-resonated musical bows.
And in our mission, I am reminded of the recent words of the great congressmen and civil rights leader John Robert Lewis, quoting A. Philip Randolph: “Maybe our forefathers and mothers all came to this great land in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now. We all live in the same house. The American house.”
Through Arcomusical, it is humbling to attempt to bring new light and possibility to a rich, magical instrument with incredibly deep African roots.