The gourd and its use in music

By bill

In our first submission to the MTD site video series, Kalani introduced the axatse (ah-hah’-tsay), a gourd shaker originating with the Ewe people of Ghana (click here to see that video.) There are many similar gourd shakers, as well as many other types of gourd shakers, scrapers, drums, and other instruments.

Gourd instruments are often made with calabash gourds, but other types of gourds are used as well.

This post offers a quick overview of some common, and some not-so-common, gourd instruments.

Shakers:

  • “Maracas” :  We often refer to these instruments as maracas, but depending on the culture of origin, there are many names for this type of instrument.  For example, the Shona people of Zimbabwe use a gourd shaker very similar to maracas, but they are called hosho.   The maracas we commonly use  probably originated with the Taino Indians who inhabited Puerto Rico before colonization.

  • Axatse (a-hah-tsay):  Where some shakers (such as maracas) place items inside the gourd for sound, others, such as the axatse, place items around the outside of the gourd, using webbing to keep it in place.   The axatse is most commonly associated with the Ewe music of Ghana, West Africa.  It acts as a secondary timekeeper to the bell, which holds down the rhythms for the lead drum and three accompaniment drums.   The axatse is held with one hand and played on the knee and hand.

  • Shekere:  This type of gourd shaker most often uses larger gourds, with webbing to hold seeds (traditional) or beads (contemporary) around it.  The shaker is played with both hands, using gravity and movement to create shakes and strikes against the gourd.   The shekere is common in music of the African diaspora, and often associated with Cuban rumba music, amongst other styles.
  • Scrapers:

  • Guiro:  A rasp instrument traditionally made with gourds.   Common in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central and South America. Also given other names according to region.

Drums:

Large gourds create deep and resonant tones, making them unique sounding instruments for striking with hands or mallets.   Here are a few examples.

  • The “Water Drum,” one version known as Gi Dunu by the Senufo.  The drum is commonly played by women.  One larger half-gourd is filled with water.  A second, smaller half-gourd is turned upside-down and placed in the water.  The name “Gi Dunu” represents the sounds the instrument makes.

  • Ipu, also known as Ipu Heke, from Hawaii.  This instrument, along with other percussion instruments, have long been used to accompany traditional Hawaiian dances and chants.

Lamellophones:

  • Gourd “thumb pianos”/”kalimbas” – Gourds are often used as soundboards/resonators for various types of lamellophones/”thumb pianos.”   While most kalimbas are situated on wood boards, some are placed on gourds.   The “gongoma” is a large bass lamellophone from Guinea.  The tones of the metal tines are large and deep, and the player plucks the tines while also tapping the bottom of the gourd.

Resonators:

  • Gourds are also used for ‘xylophones’ such as the bala and gyil.   Their natural open quality traps and releases air to change the volume and resonance of these traditional xylophone-type instruments.

  • Deze are gourd resonators for mbira’s.  By placing the mbira inside the deze, the instrument is ampliefied.  The bottlecap-decorated deze also accentuates the buzzing sound of the mbira.

Gourds are, of course, used for instruments other than percussion, and we want to mention of few of these as well.

Stringed instruments:


  • Ngoni:  This stringed instrument is considered one of the likely predecessors to the banjo.

  • Kora: The Kora is a 21 string bridge harp that is situated on a calabash gourd.

Wind instrument:

  • Hulusi: A free-reed wind instrument from China with a pure tone, using a gourd and bamboo reeds.

Here is a book on how to make instruments using gourds.

There are, of course, many more examples of gourds being used in music.  If you have any additions, feel free to post them in the comments section.

Filed in: Ethnomusicology, Instruments, Music, Uncategorized • Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

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Music Therapy Drumming is a world drumming and clinical therapy curriculum primarily for Board-Certified Music Therapists (MT-BC). It is designed and presented by MT-BC's who are also professional percussionists.