The Viola Machete in the Bahian Recôncavo

One of the various denominations for the samba of the Santa Amaro region is samba de viola. And the viola referred to in this instance is the viola machete. This is not the customary bowed viola — like a violin but bigger; the violas of Brazilian regional music are akin to twelve-string guitars…with four or five pairs of strings…and smaller bodies. The body of the viola machete is smaller even than most viola variations, giving it a bright sound useful for cutting through the sound of percussion and making the instrument audible.

Of penultimate origin in Portugal, and ultimate origin on the island of Madeira off the coast of Morocco (or so thought by those who think of such things), the viola machete adapted perfectly to the musical needs of Africans in the Bahian Recôncavo.

Zé de Lelinha of Bahia, Brazil
Zé de Lelinha of São Francisco do Conde, Bahia. Master violeiro, now with God

Who played it in a manner quite unlike the Europeans who had brought it here, with repetitive, interlocking, kora-like patterns whirling like polyrhythmic dervishes through multi-kiltering percussion (much as their early-blues brothers in the United States Africanized the guitar in terms of not only microtones but in rhythmic complexity as well).

Celino dos Santos of Terra Nova, Bahia; photo taken April 7th, 2019

Alas, time has passed and the viola machetes brought from Portugual have ceded to the heat, humidity and languour of the Recôncavo. Over the years a handful of native luthiers in the region have struggled to provide the instruments once left over from the big houses on the plantations, but few of the Recôncavo’s masters have in the past several decades been able to get their hands on one.

Now though, a group of young guys in the town of São Francisco do Conde — luthiers in their own right — are building the instrument and getting it into the hands of the highly unknown masters of an almost forgotten instrument in a place not many people in the world have ever heard of or would care about if they had. And it’s beautiful!

Viola Machete
A viola machete constructed by Rodrigo Veras
Rodrigo Veras
Rodrigo Veras in Cana Brava Records; after a period here in Bahia Rodrigo is back in his native Pernambuco, in the backlands town of Serra Grande, where he continues as a luthier.

Below Milton Primo and Adson Sant’Anna deliver a new viola machete to Aurino de Jesus in the town of Maracangalha (made famous by the eponymous song by Dorival Caymmi)… It’s too bad Aurino doesn’t sing here…he has the voice of a keening angel.

For more information (em português) on this instrument and its place in the culture of the Recôncavo here’s Cássio Nobre’s dissertion:

Cássio Nobre
Cássio Nobre…PhD by now I believe. And salt of the earth violeiro.