Maracas are a musical instrument native to Latin America, used to provide rhythm especially for music with a Latin beat. They are usually played in pairs, often with one higher and one lower in pitch. Maracas are used extensively in the music of Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia.
Maracas are important to the sounds of salsa music, as they provide a distinctive driving pulse that is at a higher frequency than the drums. It takes some practice to play these simple instruments. Usually they are shaken, and the musician must anticipate the rhythm. The player has to learn how long it takes the seed to travel inside the gourd, before striking the surface. Maracas can also be bounced off the body, usually a hand or leg, to create a different, more mellowed sound.
The word "maraca" has been attributed both to the Tupi language of Brazil, and the Araucanian people of central Chile. The instruments are called gapachos in the Andes Mountains, because they are filled with seed of the gapacho plant. In Paraguay they are made from porrongo gourds and take that name, whereas they are called shac-shacs in Trinidad, and calabash in West Africa.
Maracas may have originated in several parts of the world at roughly the same time. They were known to exist in Colombia 1500 years ago, but Puerto Rico's native Taino people also claim the invention. In Puerto Rico, the percussion instrument is made from the fruit of the higuera tree, which grows everywhere on the island. The fruit is picked when it is round and small. Two holes are drilled into it so that the pulp can be removed. When the shell of the fruit is completely dried, small pebbles are put inside through the same holes, and a handle is attached. By putting a different amount of pebbles into each of the pair, the two maracas of a pair are "tuned." Maracas are also native to West Africa and the Congo.
Traditional maracas are made from different types of dried gourds or calabash, with dried seeds or small pebbles inside creating the sound. Some are made from coconut shells with dried seeds or beans inside. They can also be made of leather, wood or plastic. Clay maracas have been found in Colombia that can be traced back to native people of 1500 years ago. Some modern maracas are made by stringing a net of beads over the outside of a hollow gourd, or gourd shaped object made of wood, clay or even paper mache.
Modern Classical music composers, including Prokofiev and Bernstein, have written maracas into the scores for ballets and symphonies. Sometimes maracas are used in place of drumsticks for dramatic effects in fiery classical pieces.
Paula Swenson is a writer, artist and teacher. She has a degree in communication arts and has worked for NPR, NBC and the NEA. Swenson has been writing about art, business, travel and the English language for over 10 years. She also teaches English to business people and travelers from around the globe.