The Atabaque is an Arabic instrument (aT-Tabaq, which means “flat”), introduced in Africa by the merchants that entered the continent after crossing the Northern countries. It appears that the Atabaque was the first instrument used in Capoeira, well before the berimbau. The slaves may have made them and used them to play Capoeira, but also used them as a means to communicate between the senzalas. We could imagine that at that time, the manufacturing method would have been very different, but the form of the drum would have been similar.
The atabaque maintains the rhythm of the game. The gunga dictates the speed and the type of game played, but the atabaque maintains this rhythm in case the gunga occasionally strings a variation.
Only one atabaque is used in a Capoeira roda, and it is most often placed to the left of the gunga.
Even though the atabaque can be a very loud instrument, it cannot be louder than the sound of the berimbaus. It should support the berimbaus, and not dominate them.
Currently, it’s hardly ever possible not to find an Atabaque in a roda. The groups that do not use any atabaque use pandeiros (two of them) to replace the beats obtained from the atabaque.
It’s also an important instrument used in religious Afro-Brazilian rituals in which worships are performed to the sound of three of these drums, with a low, medium and high tone. It’s without doubt for this reason that, although Capoeira music is based on pairs of instruments that respond to each other, the Capoeira orchestras often have three berimbaus, one large and low (Rum), one average (Rum-pi) and one smaller and higher (Lê).
In Candomblé, the atabaque is considered as sacred.
The atabaque is usually made of wood such as jacaranda, cedar or mahogany clipped in large panels tied together by steel arcs of different diameters which, from bottom to top, given the atabaque its unique conical-cylindrical form. Its bottom is narrower than the top where steel brackets (these brackets can be substituted by small chords) hold out a piece of bullock leather.