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What is a Cabasa?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 July 2014
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A cabasa is a percussion instrument that is composed of a round wheel or cylinder (usually made of wood) that is looped with steel ball chain. It normally has a handle, and the instrument is shaken to create a sound similar to that made by using brushes on a high hat cymbal. Cabasas are used in a number of different types of Latin American music and are best known for their easily distinguished sound in bossa nova, a Latin jazz style that derives from samba.

The inspiration for creating the cabasa is definitely the African instrument called the shekere. This was a hollowed out gourd over which beads were strung in a net. When shaken, the sound is very similar to the cabasa, although the latter instrument has a more metallic sound. Cabasas are also more likely to come in reasonably standard sizes. Since shekeres are traditionally made out of gourds, size, and length of the handle depends very much on how large the gourd grows.

The cabasa is an instrument that is great for beginning musicians. Like the claves, a beginner can quickly be participating in the rhythmic elements of a piece. However, learning rhythm and timing, and the degree to which you must shake the instrument to produce its sound, is a matter of practice. While beginners can learn the elements of rhythm, true percussionists can really make the cabasa sound marvelous and create a variety of rhythmic effects with it.

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Some cabasas are patented. This is true of the LP Afuche® Cabasa, which was created about four decades ago, by percussionist and music specialist Martin Cohen. His designs by far outsell any other type of cabasas on the market, and comes in several different sizes. Large sized models have a deeper, fuller sound and the bead strings can be manipulated more easily by the hands to create not only the “shake” sound, but also numerous other effects.

If you look for cabasas on sale, you will note many rounded models. These are in truth, shekeres, and not cabasas, if a net of beads surrounds a rounded top. Both are excellent instruments and models made from cheaper materials can be purchased for about $20-30 US Dollars (USD). The larger LP Afuche® cabasa models tend to cost about $40 USD and are typically made from quality wood and metal materials.

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