Today we are going to talk about a typical Portuguese instrument that has been widely used in many countries such as Hawaii and Brazil: the cavaquinho. Similar to a guitar but small, with four strings, this instrument is widely used in popular music and linked to folklore.
There are currently two types of cavaquinhos in mainland Portugal, which correspond to many other areas: the Minho type and the Lisbon type.
It is undoubtedly fundamentally in Minho that the cavaquinho appears today as a typically popular species, linked to the essential forms of music characteristic of this province.
The cavaquinho is one of the favorite and most popular instruments of the Minho festivals sharing with them, and with their own musical genre, a playful and festive character which excludes other ceremonial or austere uses. Using alone, with a harmonic function and to accompany the singing, the cavaquinho often appears accompanied by the viola or other instruments – in addition to some percussion instruments such as the drum.
The dimensions of the instrument differ little from case to case, not exceeding 52 cm in total length in a common specimen. The height of the box is the least constant element – with 5 cm in most cases -, although very low cavaquinhos appear, which have a more striking sound. The cavaquinho also exists in the Portuguese islands and in other countries that had contact with Portugal at different times in its history.
Regarding its geo-cultural expansion, the cavaquinho seems to constitute a species mainly established in Minho, from where it radiated to other regions – Coimbra, Lisbon, Algarve, Madeira, Azores, Cape Verde and Brazil.
In this way, the cavaquinho will have spread in Madeira by the hand of the Minho emigrant. Far from its focus of origin and its more traditional tradition, it changes its shape by influence and association with other species there, preserving its popular character but acquiring a new higher status in the city of Funchal. It will be like this that it returns to the Continent, Algarve and Lisbon, in the hands of people from those areas who know him there only from this aspect. The same may have happened with Brazil; although it is also possible to admit the establishment of direct relations between Madeira and that country.
The cavaquinho in Brazil, appears in all regional groups of choros, emboladas, sambas, ranches, chulas, etc., with a popular but urban character.
The cavaquinho also exists in Cape Verde, in a larger format than that of its Portuguese counterpart linked to the traditional forms of local music.
In the islands of Hawaii there is an instrument similar to the cavaquinho – the «ukulele» – which seems to have been taken there by Portuguese emigrants in 1879. Like our cavaquinho, the Hawaiian «ukulele» has four strings and the same general shape .
Portuguese navigation also took the cavaquinho to Indonesia. Its local adaptation gained the name of kroncong, a name also given to a musical style influenced by fado and created in the 16th century.
And now that you know more about the history of this instrument, it’s time to enjoy your music!