One of the most recognizable of the percussion instruments is the maracas, a pair of rattles made from gourds. Maracas are essential to Latin and South American orchestras and bands, and other musical forms that have adopted the rhythm of the maracas.
Maracas are used as musical instruments, and they are usually oval or egg-shaped. The family of musical instruments is divided into groups depending on how sound is produced. Solid or sealed objects that have full, distinctive sounds are classified as "idiophones." Maracas are part of a further subgroup of instruments that are shaken rather than struck. Idiophones that are struck include cymbals, castanets, and the xylophone.
The most universal form of construction of maracas uses dried gourds with beads, beans, or small stones inside. A handle is attached to each gourd, and the handle not only can be used for shaking but also seals in the noisemakers. The manufacturing process has evolved from one using only natural materials including gourds or other plant pods, wood, and leather to using plastic and fiber. It also features more sophisticated machinery to fashion wood handles.
Percussion instruments, especially drums, existed as long ago as the Stone Age. Maracas may have originated among several ancient civilizations at almost the same time. African tribes are known to have played drums and a wide variety of rattles and similar instruments from the traditions that have been carried down through the ages. South Pacific Islanders also developed a wide range of rattles by using plants that produced gourd-like seed pods; rattles without handles were even made from coconuts that had been dried out. In South America, maracas linked music and magic because witch doctors used maracas as symbols of supernatural beings; the gourds represented the heads of the spirits, and the witch doctor shook the gourds to summon them.
Just as maracas are essential to today's Latin and South American ensembles, the history of the maracas is best traced through the artwork of pre-Columbian Indians, especially the tribes in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Paraguay. The word maraca is believed to have been given to the instrument by the Araucanian people of central Chile. It is used for all gourd rattles although some also have more specific names. In the region of West Africa along the Atlantic Ocean called Guinea, native people tell the legend of a goddess making a maraca by sealing white pebbles in a calabash, a hard gourd that is also shaped into cooking utensils. Natives of the Congo in Africa and the Hopi Indians in America share the tradition of using turtle shells and baskets for rattles; when settlers brought European goods to America, native Americans collected empty shell cartridges, metal spice boxes, and cans to make rattles.
Players of maracas in the countries and regions in South America favor gourds of different varieties as well as unique playing customs. The "typical" maracas are played in Colombia, but musical ensembles in the Andes Mountains play smaller maracas called gapachos because they are filled with seeds from the gapacho plant. In Colombia's Llanos region, instrumentalists play clavellinas, which are similar to gapachos. In Paraguay, the porrongo gourd is used to make maracas, but only the men play them. Venezuelan ensembles use the maracas to set basic rhythms, but only the singers in the groups play them.
Some maracas relatives have beads on the outside. The gourd is larger than those typical of the maracas; the calabash is most common. The end is cut off but farther from the round body of the gourd, so the neck can be used as a handle. Strings of the same length are cut and tied to a center circle of string. Beads are strung along the lengths and tied again to a circle around the neck. Shaking this instrument rattles the loose strings and beads against the outside of the hollow gourd.
In modern times, many rhythm and percussion bands playing all styles of music use maracas. Composers have even written parts for them in classical pieces; for example, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, written in 1935, calls for maracas in the fiery portions of this ballet. Maracas are even pounded on the heads of drums for interesting effects in classical music. Leonard Bernstein wrote the Jeremiah Symphony in 1942 and scored music for maracas used as drumsticks.
Materials for the three major parts of the maracas are needed for manufacture. The hollow oval top is called the bell. It can be made of almost any kind of gourd or seedpod that can be dried or hollowed out. Traditional construction also uses leather that is cut into two parts, shaped to make the bell, and stitched along the seams. Plastic or fiber can be molded into round or oval shapes for the bells. Plastic maracas with small, round bells made in bright colors are toys and teaching tools for children and are marketed under catchy names.
The pellets that make the sound when the maracas are shaken are traditionally the dried seeds from inside the gourd. Other seeds, beans, beads, metal pellets, and even shells and buttons can be used inside maracas. Changing the type of material and the number of beans inside will change the sound.
The handle is made of wood or plastic. Wood is the traditional material and was carved or whittled to fit the opening in the gourd and to make an attractive shape and one that was comfortable to hold and shake. Today, wood is still used, but it is shaped with a lathe to make a uniform, attractive handle. Makers of maracas prefer Caribbean wood, mostly for its beauty; but soft to ultra hard wood is chosen depending on the size, shape, and appearance of the maracas.
Lesser materials include heavy thread that is used to stitch the halves of leather maracas together, and thick string that is wound around the top of the handle and the base of the gourd, then glued to hold them together. Cloth bindings (much like hem tape) can also be wrapped around the join of the handle and gourd.
The design of maracas has assumed a traditional shape even though there are many variations within the family of rattles. Maracas have an oval top or bell in a hollow, outer shell and contains bean-sized objects that rattle against the shell when the instrument is shaken. To shake the maracas, a handle is attached.
Within this basic description, the materials used to make the bell, beans, and handle can vary in type of material, shape, and size. Traditional maracas are gourds or stitched leather with wood handles. However, modern technology has produced hard fibers and plastics for the bell as well as plastic noisemakers. Machinery like lathes can be used to shape handles that precisely fit the bell. Machines stitch the parts of the bell when they are made of leather. Modern glues are also a technical improvement that assures the long-lasting fit of bell, handles, and binding. Manufacturers use climate-controlled rooms to dry the gourds carefully. If they are dried too quickly, the outer skins will shrink and shrivel.
The designs on the outsides of the bells are also varied and made of different materials. Most gourds are painted on the outsides with bright colors from their native homes or with colors suited to the instrumental group or musical style. Red, yellow, and green are a vibrant, popular color combination, but images in dark brown on the yellow show instruments, native peoples, or beaches and trees or other scenes. Hawaiian dancers play gourds that have feathers suspended from the binding around the handle, and the feathers sway with the dancers.
- Manufacturers of percussion instruments typically make many varieties of instruments ranging from kettledrums (called tympani) to xylophones and maracas. They purchase natural materials from a suppliers but tool their own machines to their standards for cutting and shaping these materials. To produce maracas made of gourds, they buy gourds from a local supplier, often a farmer. The manufacturers cut off the narrow end of each gourd with a thin-bladed band saw. Knives or spoons with long handles and narrow bowls are used to scrap the membranes and seeds out of the gourd. The membranes are disposed, but the seeds are washed and saved.
- After the insides of the gourds are cleaned, the gourds and their seeds are dried in a climate-controlled room. For some styles and if the necks of the gourds are long enough, the necks are also dried and kept with the gourds they came from. Gourds are usually dried for months (and sometimes as much as a year) in these controlled conditions so that the interior will dry completely and the exterior will not wrinkle.
- If the necks of the gourds are not used, wooden handles are cut to appropriate lengths and general shapes. By using a lathe, the handle can be shaped with rounded ridges to make it easy to grip. In some cases, more of the neck end of the gourd is cut off to speed removal of membranes and seeds, as well as drying. In this case, the end of the handle that will be attached to the gourd is cut into a funnel-like shape that will fit the gourd. Some handles are much simpler and resemble rod-like pieces of wood called dowels. The various types and shapes of handles are stored in boxes for assembly when the gourds are ready.
- When the gourds and seeds are dried, the outsides of the gourds may be sanded to smooth any irregularities. Each gourd is then partially filled with seeds. Other noisemakers like beans or small stones may be used for different sound effects, and the quantity of seeds or other materials also influences the sound. Manufacturers usually have their own special formula for filling the gourds or maracas made of other materials. Percussionists also request certain sounds, so some maracas are custom made.
The handles are then attached to the gourds. Those with flared tops are
matched to the gourds with larger openings, and the handle tops are
shaped to suit the gourds. The fitted handles are then glued to the
gourds. After they have dried, the gourd-handle join may be sanded so
that the join can barely be seen. Long necks saved with their gourds are
also glued in place with high-strength, long-lasting glue.
When handles are not matched to the bells of the maracas, a transition join between the handle and each gourd may be needed. Some styles of maracas use a round piece of wood that is glued to both sections and wrapped with binding for an attractive finish. For other styles, twine soaked in glue is wound around the top of the handle and lower end of the bell. A second layer of twine binding is added to smooth the appearance.
- When assembly of the maracas is complete and glue has dried, the maracas are painted. In some cases, they are left in their natural finish. Bright enamels are used to paint the maracas by hand; usually, several layers are applied to create an even finish and blend the edges of the colors. When the paint has dried, the instruments are coated with shellac that is also dried.
- As a final step, the maracas are individually packaged as a pair in a box. Wrapping of the individual rattles prevents them from knocking against each other. The pairs in boxes are then packed in bulk for shipment to distributors or instrument shops.
Although maracas are relatively simple, they are still musical instruments that require care in manufacture. Skilled crafters complete all the steps in making maracas, and handcrafting is essential to many steps. Manufacturers oversee the process, but the workers themselves are the true quality control experts because pride in their work demands skill and attention. Workers also test the sound quality of the instrument. If the filling material is stuck together, the maraca must be discarded.
Manufacture of maracas does not generate any byproducts although many styles may be made in the same facility. Waste is also very limited. Membranes and seeds from the gourds can be disposed as green waste that can be composted. Wood shavings and saw dust and trimmings from other components are minor in volume.
Maracas have a long past and a promising future because of their rhythmic sound. They are often first instruments for children and so have happy associations. Musicologists, who preserve the history of musical styles that may not have been written down, are recording and documenting ethnic music using maracas in many parts of the world so this musical heritage will not be lost. In modern music, these percussion instruments have found comfortable homes in many musical styles. The recent and increasing popularity of Latin music has brought maracas great attention, and ethnic music demands the essential sound of the maracas. Recordings spread this fascination, building a larger and larger audience for the maracas.
Where to Learn More
Baines, Anthony, ed. Musical Instruments Through the Ages. New York: Walker and Company, 1976.
Buchner, Alexander. Folk Music Instruments. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1972.
Hunter, Ilene, and Marilyn Judson. Simple Folk Instruments to Make and to Play. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.
Sadie, Stanley, ed. The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. Vol. 2. London: Macmillan Press, 1984.
Jansky, Charlotte. "Allegro Music." Web Page. December 2001. < http://www.allegromusicfremont.com >.
Mambiza Drums & Percussion Web Page. December 2001. < http://www.mambiza.com >.
Gillian S. Holmes