It is likely that the fife as we know it today, probably arrived in Brazil through the hands of the Jesuits and Portuguese military, and was then introduced to the indigenous people. To the sertões, he was taken by the miscegenated populations, this around 1500-1600. There are currently hundreds of bands across Brazil, largely composed of descendants of the first fife players, some centuries ago. It is interesting to note that the fife was introduced to the population in two ways: the indigenous way, which comes from the time of colonization, the introduction of the fife by the Indians and has the second way - in Minas, for example, where it is linked to blacks, without any indigenous traits and with a military touch.

The Origin of the Fife 1

Nowadays it is possible to find bands of fife in a large number of cities in the northeast, north of Minas, notably in the interior. In the capitals or large cities, the same tradition is no longer maintained. These groups are known by different names, depending on the region where they operate: Banda de Pífanos, Banda de Pife, Pife Music, Zabumba, Cabaçal, Heater Woman, Banda de Negro, Suit, Banda de Couro (Goiás), Moss do Mato , Pipiruí (Minas Gerais). Just as their denomination varies, the composition of these bands also has noticeable differences, but they are basically composed of two fives, a deaf, a snare drum and a bass drum or bass drum.

Indigenous peoples of Brazil manufactured, and still manufacture, flutes made with taboca bamboo. This is an instrument that has a strong presence among the diverse Brazilian indigenous ethnicities. Other countries such as Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay, Mexico and Colombia, also present in their musical culture, wind instruments identical to the Brazilian fife, but with other names. In addition to these, very similar instruments are found all over the world, such as the Japanese shinobue, nohkan and ryuteki, and the Indian bansuri.

“The sound of the steak came from the forest. It came from the Indian and passed from generation to generation ”. João do Pife, caruaru fifeiro


There is a relationship of affinity and dependence between the bands of fife and Catholic rites, especially in the time of novenas - a meeting for prayers, held during the period of nine days, in devotion to the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, angels or saints. In the Northeast, novenas occur practically throughout the year. Among the most celebrated are São Sebastião, São José, Santo Antônio, Santa Luzia, Nossa Senhora de Lourdes.

The repertoire played are the blessed, the prayers, often accompanied by butts and devotees singing in Latin. In novenas the band is of great importance - from the moment of the opening, in the placement of the flagpole, until the end of the nine days. Religious festivals help to safeguard fife bands and the family budget of musicians. “A novena without a pife band is almost a wake”, says José Cesário, from the band Frei Damião, from Tabira, in the hinterland, 400 kilometers from Recife.

Recently, the fife has lost its more religious connotation and has become part of other manifestations. He became the embryo of musical genres linked to forró, is present in carnival blocks and started to be introduced in the commercial music market, gaining space through discs, CDs, videos, concerts, digital media and etc.



I make pife, I play pife, I sell pife, as with the pife's money and after I get old I get pipado - João do Pife

The pifeiro is a self-taught musician, knows the songs, the melodies orally, many of them created by himself, by other bands or by someone he knows and knows by ear. He is usually a member of a family of fifeiros, or is within a community where he learns by ear. Their references are visual and auditory. The members of the bands are mostly rural workers engaged in subsistence agriculture in their small fields. They are simple people, who deal with the countryside, plantations, cattle, situated on a social level that is sometimes less favored. But this is not only a characteristic of the pifeiros because, in the past, those who played in the music bands were slaves who did other services and played various instruments. For some time now, urban fifeiros have also emerged, who learned fifano through records, CDs and other media.

João do Pife
João do Pife | image: RB (

Some of the most famous pifeiros are those that are part of the ancestral history of this instrument. João do Pife, from the band Dois Irmãos is an icon of the fife bands in Brazil, has played in more than 27 countries. According to him:

the pife musician, to become a master, has to make, play and teach everything about the instrument.

Born in 1943, João do Pife learned to play and produce bamboo fives with his father in his childhood, while working in the fields, and he still maintains today the Banda de Pífanos Dois Irmãos created by his father in 1928. He is currently a teacher, teaches how to build the instrument based on standard measures, probably inherited from its ancestors. This practice is guided by an oral culture, transmitted to his disciples. However, this experience turns out to be inaccessible and does not allow a greater spread of this knowledge to a wider audience.

Musicians such as: Edmilson do Pífano (PE - Banda Flor de Taquary), Zé do Pífano (PE- Banda de Pífanos de Caruaru), Chau do Pife (AL) and Alfredo Miranda de Viçosa do Ceará (CE), Anderson do Pife de Caruaru (PE). They tell stories very similar to the story of Mestre João do Pife, where the learning took place as a child, passed on by his ancestors and tell that the instrument has been present in family culture for generations.

The Origin of Fife 2

Zabé da Loca
Zabé da Loca

But among all these icons of folk music, a woman was a character of fundamental importance in the spread of fife in Brazil. Izabel Marques da Silva, better known as Zabé da Loca. Woman who broke all the paradigms related to this culture that has always been predominantly male. Her work was discovered and recognized by the rest of the country when she was 79 years old (2003), but Zabé started playing at 10 years old. Coming from a family of farmers and flutists, she learned the instrument from her brother. For these people accustomed to putting their hands on the earth, and understanding the cycles of nature, their roots are their basis and music is part of those roots. A pioneer of body and soul, Zabé loved playing, dancing and having fun, playing even in environments that were theoretically prohibited for women. His firmness and joy were so great that no one would question. For her, life was always perfect and abundant, even with all the adversities, she had no time to complain. Despite enormous musical wealth and contagious joy, Zabé lived a simplicity that impressed even his countrymen. The flutist understood like no one that you need little to be happy. She had 3 children from her single marriage and soon became a widow, not always having food to serve her children. At one point in his life, his simple clay house was destroyed after a storm, so Zabé went to live under a rock. There he built his new home and lived for tens of years. Hence the “Loca” of its name, a name given to this type of dwelling inside stones. This simple little house inside a stone became the symbol of this warrior woman and outside her time. After discovering, the artist traveled all over the country taking her art and at the age of 85 she received the Brazilian Music Revelation Award. Zabé da loca lived until the age of 93 (2017), and still enchanted all Cariri with his joy.

Carlos Malta
Carlos Malta

Today's Pife

Interest in the beautiful and exotic sound of the pife has been growing. Renowned multi-instrumentalist Carlos Malta modernized the fife bands with his work “Pife Muderno” taking this musicality from the Northeast to Rio de Janeiro. Carlos Malta played a long time with Hermeto Pascoal who is from Alagoas, and who influenced him a lot. Also in Rio, we have the block "Tupife" that brings all the joy, theatricality and magic of the folk culture of the Northeast to the Rio carnival. In Botucatu, São Paulo, the movement of the Pife is made by Zé Cláudio, also having the Block of Pífanos that moves the Carnival Paulistano. In Campinas, Carlos Valverde is the one who rescues this culture. In Minas Gerais we have the Cataventoré group, there is the group “Cor de Fubá” and in Uberlândia there is another group called “Pifarinha”, which even recorded a CD. Further south, there is news of pifeiros in Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul. Pífano seems to be spreading across the country.

The shape of the instrument was also undergoing updates. The instrument that in northern and indigenous culture was originally made of taboca, a plant of the bamboo family. And that for some cultures it may have even been made of bones, today it can also be found in aluminum and pvc.

The Origin of Fife 3

A little more about its history

Fife bands are made up of wind and percussion instruments, but this definition seems to have started in the 1960s, as until this time they were called Zabumba or Cabaçal. The name band was probably an influence of rock bands that started in the 60s. The bibliographic information about the appearance of fife bands in Brazil is few and contradictory. Certain authors support the European origin of these formations, others the African and others claim that they come from the indigenous environment.

It seems that the word fife comes from the German: Pfifer, which in this language means whistle. What corroborating the European origin of this instrument, there are also fife in France and England (in military music).

In Larousse, Encyclopedia of Music, we also find mention of the existence of fives in European antiquity:

In France, wind instruments were part of the constitution of the Great Cavalry. Appropriating brass and woodwind instruments, they were composed of oboes, bassons, crumhorns, bagpipes, fives and drums, trumpets. We were able to verify that some of these instruments were used in the coronation of Louis XIV, and in the nave of the cathedral they probably performed a splendid sound.

We can also find out the Portuguese origin of fife:

When shepherds keep their cattle, they always bring a small flute which in Beira-alta is called fife (fife). These flutes in some lands of Traz-dos-montes, where they are called fritas, are very well recorded. (Melo, 1882, p.238).

He reports an observation in loco, which he made in Serra da Estrela, in Portugal, on September 4, 1916:

Next to the tent were two shepherds, (...). One of the shepherds plays fife and the other sits on the floor, listening to his companion's music. (Melo, 1927, p.181).

It also describes the use of wicker, a kind of bamboo or bamboo, for the manufacture of fife:

(…), For example, in Barco (Fundão) [region of Portugal] they are made of wicker, pierced with hot iron ”(Oliveira, 1966, p.184). Still talking about the fives, Oliveira mentions their use along with percussion: (…), in the body are the holes, in variable number according to the regions: in the North and East of Trás-os-Montes, namely in Terras de Miranda, and in the strip Algerian Alentejo, they usually have three holes, two on the top and one on the bottom, and hold and touch with one hand. This type is therefore the only one that allows the simultaneous playing of the tambourine and the flute by the same person. (…) (Oliveira, 1966, p.183).

Native Musicians Emberá - Panama
Native Musicians Emberá - Panama

We can deduce that fife has been used in Brazil since the beginning of colonization and often accompanied by percussion instruments. We also noticed its use by Indians and blacks, peoples who formed the Brazilian population. As for its likely black origin, in addition to the obvious observation about the widespread use of percussion by the peoples of black Africa, Abelardo Duarte refers to an article in the Portuguese magazine Panorama called “Medieval Theater in São Tomé and Príncipe”, in which its author , Fernando Reis, describes the orchestra that accompanies the aforementioned self:

The orchestra is made up of three skillful bamboo flute players, two or three sucalo or succaia players - rattle corruption (...). (Duarte, 1974, p.122).

This African Orchestra with a formation very similar to the fife bands, makes us reflect on this probable relationship. We cannot specifically state whether the origin is from a particular country, region or cultural group. Portuguese percussion ensembles and rustic flutes; the use, by Brazilian Indians, and the flutes of taquara and bone and membranophones of the African tradition provide us with characteristics present in the gourd groups (pife bands). However, the most sensible thing would be to say that elements of these three musical cultures amalgamated and formed the gourd groups of Brazil, making it clear that the flute is closely related to our people and to our entire cultural mix.


The Origin of Fife 4
Native Musicians Emberá - Panama


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