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What are Maracas?

By Y. Chen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Maracas, also known as rhumba shakers, are a type of handheld instrument that are usually found in pairs. In shape they resemble a pair of rattles, with an oval-shaped head and a slender handle. They belong to the percussion family, a category of instruments that means "the hitting of one body against another." Similar instruments found in this family include the conga, bongo, and timbale. Because maracas are musical instruments that are sealed and create a full, distinctive tone, they are also classified as idiophones.

People of all ages can handle maracas, since they can be played both recreationally and professionally. Maracas are traditionally made of a dried shell, like from a coconut or gourd, and filled with seeds, small stones, or beans. Most maracas are made of a variety of gourd, with the most common kind being the calabash. The dried seeds naturally found inside these gourds become the pellets that make the instrument's sounds. Due to advancing technology, more modern varieties of maracas may use leather, wood, or plastic for the shells instead. Nevertheless, when shaken, the maracas create a hollow, untuned sound, resulting from pellets hitting against the insides of the shell.

Maracas are of ancient Moroccan origin but are frequently used in ethnic music, particularly Latin, pop, and classical compositions today. It is especially prevalent in music of South American and Caribbean countries, such as Brazil and Colombia. Despite the simplicity of its form, maracas actually take some skill to maneuver. The instruments should play in harmony with an orchestra or band and thus the maraca player must be able to demonstrate timed precision in shaking them.

Skilled craftsmen are required to make a truly high-quality pair of maracas, but anyone can make a simple model. Handicraft websites have recommended using seeds, beans, beads, or a combination of these pellets as the filler for a simple maraca. A pair of plastic cups or paper plates sealed along the edges can make up the shell. When put together these materials easily construct a pair of handheld instruments that complement a spontaneous musical shindig.

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Discussion Comments

By Logicfest — On Feb 07, 2014

What's really fascinating is how many uses people find for maracas. The drummer for Sonic Youth, for example, got a distinctive sound on the "Dirty Boots" track by using one to drum with in addition to his usual stick. Such simple instruments often pop up in unexpected ways.

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