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Maracas have a rich history in Latin America and are a staple of Latin music. While this Latin percussion instrument may seem simple to play, mastering maracas takes practice and coordination.

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What Are Maracas?

Maracas, also known as rumba shakers, are a hand percussion instrument usually played in pairs and common in Caribbean, Latin American, and South American music. Maracas are a rattle instrument traditionally made of dried calabash gourds or turtle shells filled with beans, beads, or pebbles. Today maracas are made out of many different materials—you can find wood maracas, fiber maracas, rawhide maracas, and plastic maracas.

Maracas belong to the idiophone group, which consists of musical instruments that create sound by vibration without using strings, air, or membranes. Unlike idiophones that produce sound when struck (such as castanets, cymbals, and xylophones), maracas belong to a subcategory of shaken idiophones.

What Are the Origins of Maracas?

Rattles similar to maracas have existed for millennia in Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas. The Araucanian people, who live in what is now central Chile, may have been the first to use the word maraca to describe a gourd rattle around 500 BC. Some historians, though, attribute the word's origins to the Tupi people in pre-colonial Brazil. There are also ancient records of maracas in West Africa, where a Guinean legend describes a goddess who made a maraca out of a gourd and white pebbles.

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4 Ways Musicians Use Maracas

Maracas produce different sounds depending on the outer material, inner fillings, and size, and they’re common in many musical genres.

  1. In Cuban music: Musicians typically use maracas to keep the beat and supply rhythmic accompaniment in Cuban music genres like salsa, guaracha, son Cubano, cha cha chá, and mambo.
  2. In Afro-Puerto Rican music: Maraca players typically use one maraca with a higher pitch and one maraca with a lower pitch—except for the Afro-Puerto Rican musical style Bomba, which only uses one large maraca.
  3. In orchestral music: While maracas are most prevalent in Latin music, they aren't confined to the genre. For example, in 1942, famed American composer Leonard Bernstein used maracas as drumsticks in his Jeremiah Symphony.
  4. In rock ’n’ roll: Bo Diddley, pioneer of rock ’n’ roll, frequently used maracas in his songs.

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