Making music with maracas

native instruments

Making music with maracas

My increasing fascination with Latin American music introduced me to a rattle-like instrument named maraca. Always played in pairs, maraca has a long history dating back to ancient civilisations. According to Latin Americans, maraca is as old as the drums. The word maraca is said to owe its origins to the Brazilian language of Tupi.

Egg or oval shaped with a handle to help shake the instrument, maraca has dried seeds, beans, beads, shells, metal pellets or stones inside it that generate a rhythmic sound when shaken. The sound generated by a maraca can be controlled by altering the type and number of seeds or beans inside.

Traditionally made of dried gourds, other plant pods or leather, maraca is the most recognisable of percussion instruments in Latin and South American music ensembles. Played across a wide region, maraca is known by different names in different regions, mainly after the material used in making the instrument. If it’s known as rumba shakers in some regions, it is called shac-shacs in Trinidad, gapachos in Andes Mountains (as they are filled with seeds from the gapacho plant), porrongo in Paraguay (after the porrongo gourd used to make it), clavellinas in Colombia’s Llanos region, and so on. The Hopi Indians in America and the natives of Congo in Africa even use turtle shells and baskets to make maraca, it is learnt.

Owing to its long history, maraca has many quirky facts associated with it. If the natives of Guinea, West Africa, relate the legend of a goddess making a maraca by filling white pebbles in a hard gourd named calabash, in South America, maraca is linked with supernatural beings with the witch doctors using maracas to summon the spirits!

Today, musical bands playing all styles of music use the maraca. Owing to its increasing use in orchestras and bands, manufacturers have started making them in plastic and fibre too. The designs on the outside of the hollowed top of the maraca, called the bell, are also varied to make them attractive. Painted in colours as bright as red, yellow and green, the designs on the maracas are made to reflect life from the land native to them. For instance, Hawaiian maracas have designs of beaches and trees on them, as also feathers suspended from the neck of the handle.

Mass manufacturers of maracas usually buy gourds from farmers, clean them out thoroughly, and dry both the gourds and their seeds in climate-controlled rooms for months together, before fashioning them into maracas by filling them with seeds, beans or stones. The filling generally depends on the kind of sound they want the instrument to generate. Sometimes, maracas are custom-made, depending on the sound requirement of the requisitioning band. However, when it comes to handles, wood, especially hard wood, is the preferred material.

This simple-looking instrument’s popularity is only growing by the day. Long live the maraca!

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