The capacho tree (Canna Generalis Bailey) is a large flower and its colors can be yellow, red or orange. The fruit they produce has seeds used by Venezuelan folklorists to create the filling of the maracas and, in turn, get their sonority.
For this process, there are three steps to make them and obtain the final product.
In Venezuela, the typical llanera maraca is filled with seeds of capacho, which are very hard and do not wear out easily.
Another material used is the so-called “espuma e sapo” which are a type of seed that also give a very good sound to the maracas.
I have been collecting these seeds you can see in the photos for the maracas that we are going to make for the dancing devils of Tinaquillo in my community of Santa Rita in the lower part of El Valle.
Manuel Alejandro Rangel
The maraca in Venezuela has been present mainly among our native peoples. It is used to accompany the dance, be a child’s toy, invoke, heal and cleanse at the hands of the shaman. This small and powerful Venezuelan instrument is composed of three elements of nature: mango or stick extracted from the wood of wild trees; tapara or gourd, fruit of a climbing plant with the same name and originally African; and finally, seeds of capacho (Achira) or seeds of Espuma e ́ Sapo (wild plant) that go inside the tapara and are commonly found in Latin America.
For being an idiophone instrument, the maraca produces sound thanks to the vibration of its own body, that is, to the shock of the seeds inside against the walls of the tapara when it is shaken, generating a dry and strong sound. Besides resonating when shaken, when we hold the maraca and make repeated circular movements with the wrist, we achieve that the seeds result in friction with the walls of the tapara, which produces a sound with greater sustain, similar to the sweep of a broom, called for this reason by several cultists escobilla’o.
Over the years, the maraca in Venezuela was incorporated into musical expressions of different regions, becoming an almost essential accompanying instrument and varying its playing technique according to the regions and genres that have adopted it. That is why in the Venezuelan plains, the maraca performance resembles the sound of galloping hooves, that is to say, the blows of the seeds to the tapara when shaking it are mostly dry or staccato, with an possible use of the escobilla’o technique that we will explain in detail in this method.
Unlike the performance in the Venezuelan plains, in the east of Venezuela the maraca emulates the sound of the sea with the prominent use of the escobilla’o; while in the center of the country, the use of this technique is low and the shaking of the seeds is less staccato or forceful than in the plains, making its rhythm function as the main guide for the dancers. The maraca can also be seen in different Afro-descendant drum ensembles in the country, and is generally played by the singers, who use only one maraca instead of two as in the aforementioned regions.
The Venezuelan maraca is fundamentally a popular instrument. Maybe that is why, until now there has not been a specific academic musical writing that allows to know in depth all its language. The most direct way to learn to play this instrument is mainly by oral tradition, as well as by observing, listening, and deciphering great maraca players who, thanks to the cultural heritage and family tradition of their towns, play it in a very genuine and masterful way. Insignificant Venezuelan maraca players who were masters in this field such as: Santana Torrealba, Máximo Teppa, Pedro Aquilino Díaz “Mandarina”, José Pérez, Coromoto Martínez, Trino “Chiche” Morillo, Ernesto Laya, Jorge Linares “Masamorra”, Lorenzo Alvarado, Manuel García, and from the Colombian region masters who have adopted the Venezuelan maraca tradition such as Gilberto Castaño, Diego Mosquera, William León, Emanuel Contreras, among many other anonymous heroes from different regions of Venezuela, have been and will continue to be the most important guide for the teaching and evolution of the maraca in the world, providing new generations with a cultural connection to the deepest roots.
Thanks to the legacy left by each of these maraca makers, a vital source of inspiration for many performers for decades, the commitment to continue with important educational inputs that allow the expansion of knowledge and the evolution of our popular Venezuelan instruments at the academic level is born, since these instruments per se, require a rigorous study in terms of vocabulary, technique, and history.
In this method 5 Movements are the key, I want to share the experience that helped me to understand the traditional playing techniques of the Venezuelan maraca and that led me to the design of a musical writing that shows its performance with clarity and discernment for each Venezuelan genre according to the vocabulary and variations that have been standardized over time.
And when I talk about variations, I emphasize five basic movements that I consider to be the key to the playing of the maraca. Five movements that will later become the musical discourse of those who master them.
Five movements that will show the student why and how the main traditional Venezuelan rhythms are born. Five movements that I have not invented, but that are the vocabulary of tradition, and that the student will observe in the performance of Venezuelan maraca players who have dedicated their lives to this instrument.
Personally, Special mention should be made of maestro Juan Ernesto Laya “Layita”, who instilled in me much of the basic knowledge of the maracas in the workshops dictated by the Ensamble Gurrufío: Aprende y toca con Gurrufío in 2000. Years later, once graduated as a classical guitarist from the Vicente Emilio Sojo Conservatory of Music in 2004, I began to design exercises that would allow me to pedagogically transmit to my students the language learned with maestro Laya and with several of the musicians mentioned in this writing.
An important step if we take into account that no music school in Venezuela had a pedagogical program for the teaching or application of theory to this instrument at that time.
It should be noted that I have put these exercises into practice in various clinics, master classes, courses, and seminars that I have had the opportunity to dictate around the world, where the development and learning of the participants has been satisfactory in a large percentage. Especially in the Simon Bolivar Conservatory (Ccs- Vzla) where I teach since 2014, in the Venezuelan Music seminar organized by Venezuelan percussionist Fran Vielma at Berklee College of Music (Boston-USA) in 2014, and in the “Venezuelan Creole Music Course” (Mirecourt-France) produced by maestro Cristobal Soto, in which I participate since 2015, among others.
With regard to the writing of the Venezuelan maraca, over the years I came across Venezuelan works for orchestra where there are specific parts for maracas such as the guitar concertos by Antonio Lauro, the works of Evencio Castellanos, La Cantata Criolla by Antonio Estévez, La Fuga con Pajarillo by Aldemaro Romero, and the Concierto para Maracas y Orquesta Pataruco by Ricardo Lorenz, to name a few. When I read them, I realized that their writing was not entirely idiomatic, so I had to interpret and adapt to the technique and idiosyncrasy of the Venezuelan maracas what the composer wanted to say and that the writing was not able to convey to me.
That is why in 5 Movements are the key, I propose the musical writing for the Venezuelan maracas in a bigrama, since, within the large family of percussion instruments, the maraca is one of the few that produces sound with the movement of the arm both up and down. And therefore, the upward movement is part of the rhythmic phrase.
In the bigram I suggest, the upper line represents the right hand, and the lower line the left hand, very similar to the piano writing in two clefs: right hand treble clef, and left-hand bass clef. In this way, the polyrhythm of the two maracas is visually separated when carrying out their movements. In addition to the bigram, I assigned to each movement a symbol that defines which of the five that I describe will be used in each figure.
Finally, I would like to comment that one of the main objectives of this method is that these five movements and their combinations show how basic traditional Venezuelan rhythms are accompanied, and besides, how they link or build connections that allow the performer to go from an accompaniment pattern to a variation, and then back without interrupting at any time the rhythmic stability, the sound, or the movement of the arm or wrist. I would also like to add that this method not only applies to Venezuelan music genres, but can also be used to incorporate this sublime and powerful instrument into any musical culture in the world.
Maracas in Latin rhythms belong to the minor percussion section.
A classic of Latin percussion. It is an idiophone instrument, it uses its body as a resonator element, which has its own sound. The origin of the maracas is South American and dates from the pre-Columbian era in America. Originally only one maraca was played, nowadays they are usually played in pairs. Its operation is simple, the sphere is filled with small elements that when shaken impact the inner wall producing the sound we all know. These small elements can be small stones, seeds, pieces of metal or glass… They are normally used to mark the rhythm in Latin music.
Hands to the maracas!
Photographs: Alberto Cardenas
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