The Maraca

Series Cultural Heritage

The thirties and forties, a world without television, computers and plastic, but full of music. The Latin-American rhythms came from Venezuela and later from Cuba to Curaçao: música llanera, son, rumba. And with the music, the instruments followed, such as the maraca.
“The era of the calabash”, is what Elis Juliana calls the decade before the Second World War. “All kinds of things were made from it: scoops, candies and musical instruments, but unlike the bastèl, a kind of drum, the gorobí, a simple flute from a small calabash with two little holes and the raspu, the grater made from the long calabash, the maraca is not a typical Curaçao instrument. Nowadays the cheap version of the ‘rattle’ -a small dried calabash, the kalbas di mondi, filled with corn seeds or beans- is mainly sold to tourists as a souvenir. But originally, the instrument had a spiritual function. Together with drums and flutes, it was used during the rituals of the Incas, the Mayas, the Aztecs and, until recently, of the Kogi and other indigenous population groups of Latin America. “Mostly one in the hand and sometimes even tied to the feet”, says Harry Moen, leader of the music group Serenada. The Piaroa in the Amazon area still use the maraca when performing curative rituas. The maraca then contains a blue stone.

“Voices of Indians”, thus Cuban sources from the nineteenth century describe the sound of the rattle. The word maraca presumably comes from ‘mbaraca’, which means holy or divine calabash in the language of the Guarani Indians. But the Cuna Indians in the border region of Colombia and Panama, use the word nacha or nassi and the inhabitants of the Colombian llanos -the steppes or pampas- call the rattle capacho. Since the twentieth century the instrument has been generally known as maraca.
The maraca is found in the whole Latin American region, but especially along the Caribbean coasts of Venezuela and Colombia. Not until the thirties does Curaçao become acquainted with the rhythmical sound of the beans in the hollow calabash. Harry Moen: “At the time, there was a lot of traffic between the island and the mainland of South America. Curaçao cane-cutters, for example, brought along the maraca from Venezuela.” There, it is impossible to imagine not having a maraca player when interpreting the música llanera. At wedding parties, religious and harvest-festivals the inhabitants of the Venezuelan countryside improvise new texts and melodies for the ballads of the Llanera. The Cunas entertain their children with the sound of a nassi filled with corn seeds. During celebrations they fill the maracas with the seeds of the no tree.
“Playing the maraca is an art”, says Juliana. “That show, those tricks, can only be done by the South American, like nobody else can.” Nevertheless, dozens of trios, quartets and septets that interpret the Latino music were formed in Curaçao in the thirties and forties. Groups like Septeto Kòrsou, Grupo Britania, Conhunto La Perla and Conhunto Victoria were the talk of the town. Almost all of them had their own maraca player who, together with the bongo player, marked the rhythm of the Cuban son, the rumba and the bolero. Moen calls the Cuban technique toma i dame, take and give me. “Unlike the Venezuelan who moves his maracas up and down, the Cuban thrusts his forwards. That produces quite a different sound. The maraca that is used in Cuba for the son music sounds at any rate heavier, because it is made of leather and contains coffee beans.” The roots of the traditional Curaçao music lie in the times of slavery. The African rhythm of the tambú, the seú and the muzik di zumbi is marked on instruments like the chapi, the iron part of the hoe, the tambú grandi, the big drum, and the raspu, the grater. But not on the maraca. The soft rustling of the beans against the rind of the calabash remains once and for all the trade mark of Latin-American music.

(collection Brenneker/Juliana, NAAM)


Interviews with Elis Juliana, Harrie Moen, Richard Doest, Gerardo Reyes.
Henk Dennert, Oude Curaçaose Muziekinstrumenten (Curaçaose Tafereeltjes), Willemstad, Curaçao (jaar onbekend)
Elis Juliana, Guia Etnologiko no.1, Willemstad, Curaçao, 1976
Paul Brenneker, Sambumbu Volkskunde van Curaçao, Aruba en Bonaire, Willemstad, Curaçao, 1973
Arte y Vida, catálogo del Museo Etnologico ‘Mons. Enzo Ceccarelli’ (Territorio Federal Amazonas), 1988
Victoria Eli Rodriquez e.a. Instrumentos de la música folclórico-popular de Cuba, Volumen 1, La Habana 1997
S. ‘Yapi’ Martijn, Kòrsou Musikal, Willemstad, Curaçao
Guillermo Abadia Morales, Instrumentos Musicales. Folklore Colombiano. 1991

Photo by Prince Victor, Text Eva Breukink