By Sue Rakowski
Author bio: Sue Rakowski is a New York Acker Award winner, professional writer and musician. Her bylines have appeared in buzzfeed, The Advocate and The Wall Street Journal. She edited the small business magazines for Harris Publications. Sue toured with musician Phoebe Legere and played bass in Phoebe’s band opening for David Bowie on his ‘Sound and Vision’ tour. She purchased her cavaquinho in a music shop in Centro, Rio, AO Bandolim de Ouro.
Traveling with a guitar has become increasingly impractical in today’s anti-baggage climate with airlines often taking a callous and heartless view of musical instruments as cargo.
According to the Department of Transportation, more than 684,000 bags were mishandled in the first quarter of 2022: how many of them were cracked, shattered and splintered guitars that were tossed, roughed up or fell off the ‘no-sides’ baggage carts?
Today’s travel guitars are often 30+ inches in length. A four steel-stringed Cavaquinho (22.6 inches in length) can easily fit under the seat in front of you or in the overhead and fill the musical craving gap when traveling without your beloved axe.
The cavaquinho is the sweet aristocrat of the European guitar family.
Well-traveled, sporting and dignified, the small, yet colorfully bold, fretted four wire or gut-stringed instrument has been traced back to the Greek tetrachord of Hellenistic times–a four-string harp-like instrument such as the lyre or kithara.
The Hellenistic period ranges from 323 BC with the death of Alexandra The Great and the emergence of Ancient Rome as signified by conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt in 30 BC.
Despite noteworthy and considerable links to Ancient Greece, the cavaquinho is most traditionally rooted and claimed by Portugal. Two varieties developed in the late 15th century: one in Portugal’s Northeast mainland region of Minho and a cavaquinho ‘cousin’ hailing from the city of Lisbon.
The Minho or “Minhoto” cavaquinho hails from the River Minho region. This river creates the border between Spain and Portugal. The Minhoto cavaquinho has the neck on the same level as the body, and the sound hole is usually in the “boca de raia” format: shaped like a ray fish mouth, not round. It has twelve frets.
Used in “rusgas” (strolling parties often referred to as “raids,” merry gatherings or festivals with dance) the cavaquinho was played solo or with guitar, mandolin, harmonica and accordion as the player or folk group moved through the village streets.
The word “cavaquinho” was first used in 1822 according to Italian geographer Adrien Babbi (1782-1848). Variations prior to this were called marchete, machete, branquina, manchete, machimbo, machim.
The Portuguese word “cavaco” means “fragment of wood, or “little pieces of discarded wood.” “Cavaquinho” is the diminutive version. Some will add that the early cavaquinho definition included unfinished woodwork, lacking any wax or varnish, just like the soundboards of the early instruments.
The Minho playing style was aggressive and rough and would likely remove any layer of varnish on the soundboard. For the same reason, a stronger Blackwood was used on the top of the cavaquinho to withstand the dynamic and forceful playing attack. Often a Minhoto cavaquinho would feature a stronger wood on the upper half of the soundboard. These dual wood cavaquinhos are called “meio tamp” (“half-soundboarded”). The sides were made of a softer wood like pine.
The Lisbon Cavaquinho features a shorter neck and longer body, and is slightly wider than the Minhoto cavaquinho. This instrument features an elevated neck in relation to the body and the sound hole is traditionally round.
This 17-fretted Lisbon cavaquinho was played by women who used a pick or plectrum to produce tremolo as with the mandolin. The Lisbon cavaquinho was considered more middle class and urban in the mid-1800’s.
The Lisbon-style cavaquinho traveled to Algarve, Portugal, the southern region, where it was played by students.
The Lisbon cavaquinho also traveled to Portugal’s Madeira Islands. This variety has also been called braga, braguinha, machete de braga and used the same tuning D-G-B-D (re-sol-si-re). The better made versions, manufactured with luxurious woods and inlay details, were played by the middle class. Students and the poor created very rustic versions.
The cavaquinho and the guitar may have been brought to Braga, Portugal from the Basque region of Spain. The requinto is a small guitar in Spain with four strings and ten frets tuned D-A-C#-E (re-la-do sharp-mi. The requinto’s neck is level with the soundboard. Portuguese ethnologist and anthropologist, Antonio Jorge Dias (1907-1973) suggested the cavaquinho came from Spain. Dias wrote of the Biscayan influence in Braga: there is the 18th century Palacio dos Biscainhos and a Museum of Biscainhos.
Other musicologists say the cavaquinho first went to Madrid in 1854 from Braga, Portugal and thus became known as the “braquinha.”
While these nuances in the very early journey of the cavaquinho will continue to be fine-tuned, suffice to say that it was the Portuguese colonists who are credited with introducing the cavaquinho around the world. Wherever Portuguese plantation workers, traders and sailors traveled, so did the cavaquinho.
The versatile sounds and styles of the cavaquinho traversed formal European court life, African ports including Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Angola and Mozambique, and made its way to Goa in India. The cavaquinho was introduced to South American Indian cultures. The little journeyer navigated to Jakarta in Indonesia via Portugal’s trading posts where a ukulele-like cavaquinho version morphed into the “kerontijong.”
At each stop around the world native woods were used to create local versions of the cavaquinho. These varying timbers serve as a family tree of the instrument’s lineage. The indigenous woods used also dictated the various tunings for the cavaquinho.
When the cavaquinho reached Brazil, it was elevated from sheer entertainment and mastered into an Art form.
Brazil was ‘discovered” in April, 1500 by Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral who landed in the lush tropical coast we now call Bahia.
The Brazlian cavaquinho is the Lisbon/Madeira Islands version and has become a musical hero. Brazilian musicians have It was used in choros, embolados, sambas, ranchos, chulas, bumbas-meu-boi, chengancas de marujos, cateretes, and played along with guitar, mandolin, clarinet, pandeiro, rebecas, flutes and oficleides.
The high register of the cavaquinho is able to cut through the deep, rich, low timbres of the booming percussion section of the samba bands.
From choro and folk to Musica Popular Brasileira (MBP) and the acoustic-electronic rhythms of today, fans of Brazilian music embrace the cavaquinho as an emblem of their beloved obsession with melody and rhythm. Cavaquistos in Brazil have elevated their playing into an art form.
On August 23, 1879, The Ravenscraft ship of 419 men, women and children from Madeira, Portugal arrived in Honolulu. The ship’s voyage took four months and 22 days crossing Cape Horn on its way to the sugar plantations. Legend has it that Madeira-based sailor Joao Fernandez (born in 1854) played the cavaquinho when the ship docked and the locals watching him frenetically dance and play dubbed him –and the instrument he played– “little flea”—in Hawaiian, “ukulele.”
Joao Fernandes was asked to play at parties, events, balls and serenades and formed a musical group with fellow sailors Augusto Dias and Joao Luis Correia. He performed for King Kalakaua, for Princess Emma and Queen Liliuokalani in the summer pavilion of Iolani.
After these events the cavaquinho became extremely popular and sought after. Augusto Dias opened a musical instrument shop in Honolulu followed by Manuel Nunes, a Portuguese immigrant instrument maker, in 1884. Nunes is credited with developing the ukulele from the cavaquinho. Later in 1888 Jose do Espirito Santo also began to manufacture ukuleles.
The trio of Dias, Nunes and Santo made instruments using Hawaii’s local koa wood and the tuning of the cavaquinho-turned-ukulele became G-C-E-A
There are many tunings for the cavaquinho. The particular tuning is dictated by the local woods used in the region of the world where the cavaquinho is crafted; the tuning is also adapted to accommodate local musical forms.
The natural tuning is, from low to high, D-G-B-D (re-sol-si-re). This is the main tuning in Brazil.
Musicians also tune the cavaquinho to the four lower guitar strings E-A-D-G (mi-sol-re-la), or the four highest guitar strings for soloing D-G-B-E (re-la-si-mi) which is recognized as today’s modern tuning.
The mandolin tuning is also used by some cavaquinho players G-D-A-E (sol-re-sol-la). It is also G-G-B-D (sol-sol-si-re) or A-A-C#-E (la-la-do sharp-mi)
The G-C-E-A (sol-do-mi-la) tuning is for the cavaquinho’s grandchild—the soprano ukulele in Hawaii; the Baritone ukulele tuning D-G-B-E (re-sol-si-mi) is also used.
Julio Pereira has used the Portugues ancient tuning of D-A-B-D (re-la-si-re).
In Spain, the D-A-Csharp-E (re-la-do sharp-mi) is basic.
Several types of dry and seasoned, mature woods are used to manufacture a cavaquinho. A balance of hard and soft woods help to achieve a good sound.
Soft woods used on the soundboard/top help to create sustain insofar as they will vibrate more than hard woods. The back and the sides of the cavaquinho are made of hardwood and help project volume as they “reflect” the sound.
The neck and the fretboard are made of hardwood. Woods used to build a cavaquinho include: spruce, pine, cedar, alder, cherry, walnut, rosewood, linden, poplar, maple, mahogany, ebony, basswood.
There are simple, rustic cavaquinhos and there are those made of more luxurious woods.
While most cavaquinhos are still made in Portugal and Brazil, luthier Alan Simcoe makes cavaquinhos in his Seattle shop.
Cavaquinho players’ sampler:
Jacob do Bandolim
Paulino da Viola
Resource Guide to MANUFACTURERS:
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