The Triangle in Brazilian Sonic Culture


As an idiophone, the triangle produces a clang, followed by an extended high-pitched sound. It is played with a small metal beater, and it may be suspended by a rope, but this is quite rare in popular Brazilian music. It is more common for the instrument to be held in the hand of the player, “who makes finger movements to perform rhythmical ‘damping’ and drumming internally, with vertical movements, on the longer side (the basis) and on one of the smaller sides” (Frungillo 2003: 358). Damping is the act of diminishing or abruptly stopping the vibrations of the musical instrument – which in the case of the triangle as it is played in Brazil is executed with the hand that holds the idiophone.


In Brazilian music, the triangle is essential for Northern and Northeastern groups that play the baião. When this research began, I also associated the chegadinho vendors’ triangles with the instrument played by these musical groups. Maybe the practice of these itinerant vendors might be, in a way, influenced by this music, which has contributed substantially to the consolidation of a regional identity. Furthermore, in other Brazilian regions where the biscuit is sold, the role of the triangle was filled by other instruments. Vendors on the beach of Capão da Canoa and in the city of Belo Horizonte, for example, promote their sales with a ratchet, as we can see in the video at the right and picture 3, both taken in 2011.


However, early researchers such as Silvio Romero and Rodrigues de Carvalho, and those who wrote later, such as Oneyda Alvarenga (1960) and Mario de Andrade (1962; 1965), do not provide records of the use of the triangle in baião. Soloist in the group tap-danced, clapped their hands, or played the castanets, and if castanets were not available, they snapped their fingers. According to Alvarenga, the viola (Brazilian five-course guitar) used to be the main accompanying instrument, “joined by, from what I gather, the pandeiro[12] in Sergipe, the botijão[13] in Paraíba, and the rebec in Maranhão” (Alvarenga 1960: 157).


From 1946 on, however, the baião was recorded and broadcast in a stylized form during the golden age of radio in Brazil, which turned it into an immediate national success. It was then that the triangle became more prominent. Musician Luiz Gonzaga and lyricist Humberto Teixeira were primarily responsible for shaping the baião style until it became a musical genre in the music industry context. The baião presented by composer and performer Gonzaga opened possibilities in mass media for a number of musical styles from their region, whose characteristics were highlighted and reworked to suit the taste of listeners in large urban centers in Brazil – especially Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian capital at that time, where the cultural industry established its main bases. The new instrumentation created by Luiz Gonzaga by the late 1940s was based on trios of accordion, zabumba,[14] and triangle. Sometime later, Gonzaga (in Lerner 1972) explained what inspired him to arrange this ensemble:


I'd been singing on my own, but I needed some rhythm. […] First I created the zabumba based on the leather bands from the sertão [the backcountry], those we call esquenta-muié [women-warmers]. But with the zabumba ... one of my wings was broken. I needed to find an instrument that was vibrant and high enough to fight the zabumba. Then I saw, in Recife, a boy selling [the biscuit] cavaco chinês, with that tube on his back, playing the ding-a-ling, as they called it – the ding-a-ling. So he did it with a certain cadence, right? And that was it! I had found a husband for the zabumba! What a marriage![15]


The story reappears in a statement given by Gonzaga to his biographer, Dominique Dreyfus, in which the artist pointed out that the power of the triangle sound made the instrument a better option for accompanying the accordion than the fife, typical instrument of the sertão (backlands) cabaçal bands (Dreyfus 2007: 152). This shows that Gonzaga's music was both densely interwoven with sound elements from the countryside (Silvers 2015) as well as with the urban sonic environment of the capitals in Northeastern Brazil.


These reports also help shed light on some aspects of the relationship between baião and the use of the triangle to sell biscuits. First of all, the triangle that belonged to the cavaco chinês vendor played a fundamental part in Luiz Gonzaga's creative process. That could partially explain why the sonority of this instrument is so characteristic of Northeastern music. Nevertheless, this sound had already been present in the repertoire of the region's inhabitants, where the triangle was already a part of other popular celebrations, such as June bonfire parties, Christmas ceremonies, and reisados, festivities belonging to the Christian calendar brought to Brazil by Portuguese colonizers (Leça 1940s). These celebrations are influential in the cultures of the Northeastern states to this day.


It is thus reasonable to think that, before the mass dissemination of the stylized baião of Luiz Gonzaga, the sound of the triangle in the everyday life of the region's inhabitants was intrinsically connected to these popular parties. As has been explained before, one of the chegadinho sellers I interviewed said that before he engaged with this craft, he had already played the triangle in reisados in rural areas. This weakens the idea that the triangle entered the sale of the chegadinho sale due to the influence of the baião that became a phonographic genre in the 1940s. Furthermore, vendors of barquillos and obleas in Mexican and Uruguayan cities also play the triangle, and they do not share a baião tradition with their Brazilian counterparts. On the other hand, the baião that was itself influenced by the triangles played by the cavaco chinês seller in the 1940s is now widely spread through the cultural industry and, in turn, influences the practice of present-day sellers. It is common to hear its rhythmic figures reproduced by vendors in Fortaleza.

Casquinha seller in Capão da Canoa, Brazil

Picture 3: Biju seller in Belo Horizonte, Brazil