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The cuica or Brazilian friction drum, which might also be called the laughing gourd, is an unusual percussion instrument that was first used in African music, and then made its way to Brazil and the Caribbean via the slave trade. Some suggest that the squeaking and almost hornlike sound produced by the cuica may have been used for practical reasons, like hunting lions. Sounds produced could almost mimic the sound of a female lion’s roar, and might have attracted predators much as a duck call attracts ducks.
Many percussion instruments, particularly drums, are played by hitting the top of the drumhead. The cuica is very different in this respect. The traditional instrument would have been made of wood, with a skin top, about 8 inches (20.32 cm) across. The bottom was hollow so the player could access a bamboo stick within the drum, hanging down from the center of the hide. The cuica player would rub the stick with a wet piece of cloth, and modulate the sound by tapping on the top of the hide with the other hand. Sound produced can range from the horn sound as mentioned above, to squeaks. Slight change in notes can be affected by the amount of pressure used on the stick and the degree to which the hand touches the drumhead.
If you’re a fan of true samba music, then you’ve very likely heard the cuica; it’s an important and essential sound in most samba tunes. For bands that play during celebrations of Carnival, there may be a whole section of cuica players, and they can march while playing since many of these instruments have attachable shoulder straps. Though the instruments were once made of wood, fiberglass or metal exteriors are also commonly found now, and drumheads may be composed of synthetic materials, though hide is still common.
The unique sound of the cuica is very well worth hearing. If you don’t happen to have samba music on hand, visit sites like YouTube, which feature numerous demonstrations of the instrument and how it is played. You can also hear the instrument in a few modern American songs. Of these, the easiest one to find is likely Paul Simon’s classic tune, Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard. You’ll also hear the cuica used in the music of prominent Reggae artists, past and present.
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