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Gearhead: The Cuíca, Here’s the Rub

A drum you don’t hit like a drum?

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Outside of a cuíca (photo: Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection)
Outside of a cuíca (photo: Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection)

The word “percussion” comes from a Latin word meaning to beat or strike, which is exactly what you do with most percussion instruments. But there’s an interesting exception to this rule: a subclass of instruments called friction drums. Instead of hitting these drums, you rub their skins. And depending on how hard you rub them, you can produce a bunch of ear-grabbing and oddly voice-like sounds: squeaks, grunts, gasps, laughs, low moans.

Friction drums are found in many cultures, but the most famous is probably the Brazilian cuíca [ku-WEE-kah], the name of which comes from the Portuguese word for a small opossum that makes similar noises. Like so many key elements of Brazilian culture, it was introduced to South America by African slaves. The cuíca is generally made of metal with some kind of animal skin stretched over the top, although more traditional models can be made from gourds—thus lending it a common nickname, the “laughing gourd.” Inside each cuíca, a thin wooden stick is attached to the underside of the drum skin. Holding the instrument under an arm, a cuíca player reaches inside the drum with one hand and rubs the stick up and down with a wet cloth; that friction creates a distinctive sound. The player’s other hand makes the pitch of that sound higher or lower by pressing on the drum skin from the front.

An essential part of samba music, the sound of the cuíca is a fixture every year during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, when whole sections of cuica players can be heard rubbing away. It’s also a common ingredient in Brazilian-influenced pop; you can pick out those trademark laughing tones in a wide range of hit songs, from Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” to Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” to Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven.”

Inside of a cuíca (photo: Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection)
Inside of a cuíca (photo: Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection)

For jazz fans, the most well-known user of the cuíca is probably percussionist Airto Moreira, who used it alongside Miles Davis, Weather Report, and Return to Forever. (Listeners familiar with the 1998 Davis box The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions could be forgiven for feeling that Moreira may have overused the instrument on those late-’69/early-’70 recordings. There’s likely more than one reason that the unreleased tracks on this set lingered in the vaults for nearly 20 years, but at points—such as the uncannily bark-like creaks on “The Big Green Serpent” or “Feio”—it’s not hard to imagine producer Teo Macero visualizing potential listeners yelling at their hi-fi speakers, “Why didn’t somebody get that damn dog out of the studio?”)

Cuícas aren’t that hard to find; several percussion manufacturers make them, including Pearl, Remo, Meinl, and Latin Percussion. But if you’re feeling experimental, you can make a halfway decent approximation of one yourself using an empty coffee can, a bamboo skewer, and a few other simple ingredients.

Scroll through the slideshow below to learn about new instruments and musical gear.

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Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.