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Music

Cabasa Guide: How to Play the Cabasa in Latin Percussion

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Aug 14, 2020 • 2 min read

Latin percussion ensembles include instruments like the bongos, congas, timbales, and many ancillary percussion instruments that bring out the full sound of Afro-Cuban, salsa, Latin jazz, and other genres of Latin music. One such instrument is the cabasa.

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What Is a Cabasa?

A cabasa is a popular hand percussion instrument with a thin wooden handle and a cylindrical body covered in loops of steel ball chain. Percussionists play the cabasa by shaking it. The casaba is an idiophone, a sub-family of percussion instruments that produce sound via the vibration of the instrument itself—as opposed to membranophones (like drums) that produce sound via a vibrating membrane fixed to the instrument's frame.

The Origins of the Cabasa

A cabasa is a modern-day version of a traditional African gourd instrument alternately known as an agbe or a shekere. Many African hand percussion instruments incorporate dried gourds, but the agbe or shekere is unique in that it includes a net of beads that rattle against the main instrument.

Today’s common commercially available cabasas are similar, but they’re typically made of wood and textured steel. The credited inventor of the metal cabasa is Martin Cohen, the founder of Latin Percussion. Close cousins to the cabasa include the Cuban chekeré (or aggué) and the Brazilian xequerê. Unlike the cabasa, both of these instruments are still commonly made using dried gourds. Both the cabasa and the xequerê are typical of Brazilian styles like samba and bossa nova.

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What Does the Cabasa Sound Like?

A wooden cabasa bridges the gap between the sounds of various drums and percussion instruments. While not quite as bright as cymbals or the jingles of tambourines, the traditional cabasa sound emphasizes upper-register pitches and can easily cut through a band mix. In a way, a cabasa almost sounds like a rattle, although it’s more versatile than other rattle-style instruments like maracas.

For a mellower sound, some cabasas come with wooden flanges rather than textured steel beads. For a brighter, more cutting sound, you can invest in a model with a stainless steel cylinder rather than one made of wood. Smaller cabasas tend to produce higher-pitched sounds, while larger ones are more resonant on account of their larger wood cylinders. Plastic cabasas cannot produce the full sounds required in a Latin percussion ensemble and are only useful for beginners on their first set of musical instruments.

How to Play the Cabasa

To play the standard cabasa, hold the handle in your dominant hand, and shake it in a rhythmic pattern like a rattle. Use your non-dominant hand to hover over the metal beads, tapping and releasing to create more complex rhythms and timbre. You can also play a cabasa with a foot pedal, either with a specially-designed foot cabasa or by attaching a standard cabasa to a foot pedal built for a drum kit.

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