The Machete of Madeira

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In July 2018 Lara Taylor and I travelled to Madeira to record a CD of music for machete and guitar. Lara’s mother, Josie came along as moral support, and, being a professional photographer, to take some photos.

I was invited to make the recording in December 2017 by Dr Paulo Esteireiro, the Head of the Research and Multimedia Division at the Arts and Multimedia Education Services in Madeira. It was a great privilege to be asked and a wonderful opportunity for Lara and I to record a selection of music by the little known 19th century composer Candido Drumond de Vasconcelos. The CD also has a bonus track featuring an original composition for solo machete by Paulo Esteireiro. Our sound engineer Eduardo Gonçalves was professional and patient ensuring the recording sessions were as efficient and stress free as possible.


with our sound engineer Eduardo


The Madierans looked after us wonderfully well! We were accommodated in the luxurious Hotel Eden Mar overlooking the sea. In the evenings we wandered the exotic gardens, sampled the odd cocktail, enjoyed the local cuisine and prepared for the next day. 


On the final day, having finished recording, we went into the mountains with a camera crew to make a couple of videos. This also gave us a chance to see some of the spectacular countryside.

s and l sm

copyright Josie Elias 2018

In the afternoon we visited the Santa Clara Convent, the Freitas Museum, and did a tour (and sample) of Blandy’s winery. We also stopped off at the Ritz to check out the ice cream! Madeira might be a small island but there is so much to see and do. As well as the museums and cultural life of Funchal there is walking in the levadas and visiting the small fishing villages dotted along the spectacular coastline. The people are polite, friendly and hospitable and everywhere we went the food and drink was excellent. We made many friends in Madeira and look forward to returning. I know it’s beginning to sound like we were on holiday but Lara and I had spent six months preparing for this recording and all the hard work paid off. 

The CD was released on the 22nd November 2018. A particularly nice touch as this was St Cecelia’s Day, and St Cecelia is the patron saint of music. 


Celebrating with Paulo Esteireiro & Mario Andre


Those of you that know I am doing a PhD on the ukulele might be wondering why I am so interested in the machete. For one thing, the machete is widely considered to be one of the forerunners of the ukulele. I’ve been researching that connection and, in so doing, I’m learning about where the ukulele came from. And where the ukulele came from is the island of Madeira. Historically speaking the ukulele doesn’t have a classical repertoire, but the machete does. Learning about, and playing, this unique repertoire is helping me to understand how the ukulele can develop as a classical instrument. 

The machete is a small (very small!) guitar with four strings. In the 19th century the machete was most commonly strung with gut. Nowadays players tend to use either nylon or fluorocarbon strings. The strings are tuned D G B D, and sometimes D G B E, thus sounding an octave higher than the top 4 strings for the guitar. Hence the machete is sometimes referred to as an octave, or a treble guitar. The Grove Dictionary of Music of 1900 has an entry for the machete which includes both tunings. The D G B E tuning is offered as the guitar players’ tuning.

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The full name, machete de braga, is most likely a reference to the instrument’s origins in the Braga region of Portugal. 

The photo below gives some perspective to the diminutive size of the machete. The soprano ukulele actually feels quite big by comparison! The strings of the machete are closer together than the strings of the ukulele requiring some deft finger work from both hands. 


machete & soprano ukulele from the side


machete & soprano ukulele from the front


Please don’t try tuning your ukuleles up to machete tuning! The extra tension is likely to damage the instrument!

On mainland Portugal the cavaquinho, a close relative of the machete, is also a small guitar with 4 strings. The cavaquinho is usually strung with wire. In this blog I am going to focus on the machete of Madeira. This is just a little overview for the curious.

One of the most fascinating things about the machete is that it has a dedicated repertoire dating from the mid 19th century. One the earliest collections of manuscripts is housed in the Horniman Museum in London. Dated 1843 these hand written, stitched booklets contain a variety of pieces including duets, songs, popular songs, dance tunes and a method. The method uses D G B E tuning. The booklets were all for the use of James Duff Gordon, a Scottish wine merchant in Madeira.


The manuscripts were found in the case of a machete made by Saldanha – which is also housed in the Horniman Museum – in the Dolmetsch Collection. The Horniman manuscripts are of easy to intermediate standard indicating James Duff Gordon was a student. 

The most sophisticated pieces for the machete are found in the The Collection of Pieces for Machete and Guitar by Candido Drumond de Vasconcelos dated 1846. This manuscript was found in the 1990s in Funchal and subsequently edited by Manuel Morais and published in 2003.


There is also an informative introductory essay by Morais. The majority of the 41 pieces are in the forms of European ballroom dances. These include waltzes, polkas, quadrilles and bolleras. There are also marches and four virtuosic pieces in the form of theme and variations. The pieces are melodic, and being dance forms, highly rhythmical. 

Drumond’s choice of European dances suggests he was targeting the wealthy, fashionable European and Portuguese members of Funchal society. I asked Ellis Rogers how suitable he thought the machete and guitar music of Candido Drumond was for dancing. Rogers is an expert on eighteenth and nineteenth century dance and the author of The Quadrille, a practical guide to the origin, development and performance of this form. He replied,

“It seems to me that the instrument with its short reverberation time would make it easier to get rhythm into the melody line, an essential requirement for our dances.”

The guitar accompaniments fill out the melody providing essential bass and harmony. 

Numerous 19th century sources confirm that balls, both in private houses and at the Funchal Club, were important sources of entertainment for fashionable Funchal society. Andrew Picken, in his guidebook of 1840, describes how the British and Portuguese residents and visitors would unite at balls hosted by the Funchal Club. These events would last until the early hours of the morning when chicken broth would be served. Picken tells us that, “the Portuguese are indefatigable dancers,” and lists some of the dances, “the usual routine of quadrilles, gallops, waltzes, & etc.”

In 1860 the Rev. Chas Thomas and his party attended a social event where they were treated to “very sweet music on the machete.” The music was followed by dancing. Being unfamiliar “with the Terpsichore of Madeira,” Thomas and his party were unable to join in. On this occasion the dance music was provided by a “pianoforte of very un-piano sound.” The reference to the Terpsichore of Madeira suggests a unique set of dance steps known to Madeira society. An indication of this is found in the The Fashionable Madeira Cotillions for the Piano Forte, composed by Ricardo Porphyrio da Fonseca and published in New York in 1830 which have the dance figures included below the notation.

MadeiraCotillions (dragged)

In a letter of 1854 Clara Phelps writes to her brother Arthur, “We were at a grand theatrical affair & ball the other night at Count Carvalhal’s which I enjoyed, as I danced every dance & had good men to go. I hate slowness.” (The Phelps Family and the Wine Trade in Madeira) Unfortunately there is no indication of who, or what types of instruments, provided the music. The pieces by Candido Drumond were certainly fashionable dance forms but were they used as incidental music or dance music?

A rare mention of Candido Drumond and his accompanist Manuel Cabral performing together is found in a letter by Charles Phelps of 1852:

“There have been some very nice parties this year…Mr Lowe played a great deal of music last night to a highly delighted audience as also Candido and Cabral on machete and guitar.” 

Newspaper reports of Drumond’s concerts in Funchal indicate that he was a leading concert artist on the machete. In December 1841 the Funchal newspaper Defensor reported that Drumond had delighted the audience at the Philharmonic Society (Sociedade Philharmonica) with his performance on the machete and received “thunderous applause.” (Morais, p.101)

American visitor John Dix noted in 1851 that there were 2 or 3 players in Funchal whose ‘execution is astonishing.’ Several of the Drumond pieces are virtuosic and explore a variety of techniques including scales, thirds, octaves, arpeggios and chords. The notes move up and down the entire fingerboard even as far as the 19th fret!

From personal experience the projection of the machete is surprising for such a small instrument and the guitar accompaniments, although relatively simple, compliment the melody perfectly. Rooms in private houses would have been ideal venues for this combination of instruments.

Today we tend to think of Madeira as a remote holiday destination but since the 16th century Madeira was a vital stopping off place in the mid Atlantic for sailing ships. Ships would call at the islands to load up with supplies, especially wine, before heading off to America, Brazil, the West Indies, South Africa, India and Australia. Favourable trade agreements with Portugal made Madeira a haven for British merchants. By the 18th century the powerful British Factory largely controlled much of the island’s commerce, particularly the lucrative wine industry. The aforementioned James Duff Gordon was one such wealthy British wine merchant.

During the 19th century the wine industry declined, due to overproduction and diseases in the vines, and tourism began to take over as the island’s main industry. As steam began to replace sail, travel time was reduced. Many British and other European travellers chose Madeira as an exotic, but not too distant, holiday destination. Numerous guidebooks were written in English containing advice for tourists. By the mid 19th century, as well as holiday makers and travellers, approximately 300 invalids per year were visiting the islands. The clean air and mild climate was promoted as offering respite for those suffering from chest complaints such as consumption. 

Ellen M. Taylor’s guidebook of 1882 lists essential services such as physicians and chemists. There is also advice on watchmakers, hammock bearers and teachers of the machete. Senior Barboza is listed as a teacher of the machete. He could be engaged for 6000 reis per hour. She also writes that, “machetes, both large and small are well made by Rufino Telles, 56 Rua da Carreira, and vary from 3,000rs. to 5,000rs.

The earliest known photographs of the machete were taken in Oxford, England, by the Reverend Charles Dodgson. Dodgson is better known to us as the author Lewis Carroll. Carroll didn’t visit Madeira but his subjects, Alice, Lorina and Edith Liddell visited Madeira with their parents in 1857. The photographs show the three Liddell sisters dressed in Madeira lace and holding machetes. The small guitars must have appealed to Carroll whose heroine Alice is only able to enter Wonderland after shrinking to a size where she can fit through a keyhole.


Another literary mention of the machete is found in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous. 

“Tom Platt leaned down to a locker and brought up and old white fiddle. Manuel’s eye glistened and from somewhere behind the pawl post he drew out a tiny, guitar like thing with wire strings, which he called a machette.”

“Then Manuel touched the jangling, jarring little machette to a queer tune, and sang something in Portuguese about “Nina, innocente!” ending with a full-handed sweep that brought the song up with a jerk.”

Interesting to note the use of wire strings! 

One of the most famous visitors to the island who was photographed holding a machete was the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, affectionately known as Sisi. The empress was sent to Madeira for health reasons in 1860 and spent six months on the islands. An old black and white photograph shows Sisi holding a machete. 


One curious fact…


Madam Pratten

The only music known to have been published for the machete in the 19th century was composed by the guitarist Catharina Pratten and published in England. These pieces were made known to me by my colleague Sarah Clarke during the symposium of the Consortium for Guitar Research, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 2016. The manuscripts are housed in the British Museum. Pratten’s Songs Without Words & Sketches for the guitar include an impromptu called Maud written for the machete. There is also a piece in her Duetts for Two Guitars which states that “the top line may be played a violin, concertina or a machette.” Both pieces have guitar accompaniments. Pratten does not specify the tuning but I found the pieces fall more comfortably using the guitarist’s tuning of D G B E. 




Research is ongoing into the right hand technique employed by Candido Drumond. Thus far, no images of Drumond or any written accounts of his precise playing technique have come to light. Drumond may have played guitar-style using thumb and fingers. He may have played lute-style with thumb and index finger. Or, he may have played exclusively with his thumb. The technical demands of a number of the pieces would have required an extremely agile thumb! The octave passages in the Introduction, Theme & Variations (number 36) have notes running up the fingerboard on strings 4 and 1 and would appear to call on both thumb and finger. Also, some of the fast scale-like passages seem to require alternating thumb and index finger. 

One possibility is that Drumond used the thumb nail of his right hand like a plectrum. In which case the thumb could play both up and down strokes. This fascinating account from The Crescendo of 1918 may provide some insight:

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I also wonder if different techniques might have been employed by different players in the same way that different tunings were used. Manuel Cabral played both the machete and the guitar and perhaps, like the ‘guitar-player’s tuning’ there was also a ‘guitar player’s technique’? As a guitarist I’ve found it more successful to have adapted my guitar technique to suit the machete. As my main objective is musical I have used the technique which provides the most satisfactory result. Audiences certainly haven’t complained! 

Bringing the music of Candido Drumond of Madeira to British audiences has been an exciting and rewarding experience. It is my hope that in promoting this music others will be inspired to play and study this music.

Please contact me if you are interested in buying the CD The Music of Candido Drumond de Vasconcelos.