The Cuica - a Brazilian Drum Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Cuica - a Brazilian Drum

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The cuíca (pronounced kwee-kah) is a percussion instrument, but most unlike any other musical instrument you're likely to hear (or indeed see). It is described as a 'friction drum': unlike most percussion instruments, the cuíca's sound is not created by hitting the drum's skin surface with hand, beater or stick. It is also known as a puita, boi, or onca, and has also been termed a 'laughing gourd' - probably a comment on the sound of the instrument.

The Brazilian cuíca is most traditionally associated with samba music, but has also been used in a wide variety of musical styles, for example:

  • Paul Simon's 'Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard'

  • Barenaked Ladies' 'Enid'

  • Bob Marley's 'Could You Be Loved'

Friction drums are also known as a folk instrument in Europe under many different names, such as the Flemish rommelpot1, the Italian caccavella and the Spanish zambomba.


Recognisable as a drum in many respects, the cuíca has a skin surface at one end. The body of the drum can be made from various materials, including metal and wood. Most often the body is made of metal, and the single head of six to ten inches (15-25 cm) is animal skin, usually goatskin. Some cheaper drums have the drum head made from some man-made material. Attached perpendicular to the drum head is a small bamboo stick, which runs inside the main body of the instrument.

In order to make a noise, the cuíca player does not hit the drum head, but rubs the bamboo stick with a wet cloth. The friction created causes the head to vibrate, making the drum's distinctive sound, the pitch of which can be changed by pressing on the skin. Typically a player will hold the drum at about chest height, either perching it on the knee, or carrying it with the aid of a shoulder strap, as is commonly seen in live performances, most notably in carnival. It is a good idea to hold it with the head pointing upwards at a 45 degree angle, as this will prevent moisture from the cloth from getting on to the drum head and rendering it too slack.


The cuíca originated in Africa, then made its way to Brazil and the Caribbean via the slave trade. It has been suggested that the drum was originally used in Africa to hunt A12921428; the noise of the drum may mimic the sound of a female lion's roar, and thereby attract predators, in a similar way to a duck call attracting ducks.

Samba is probably the most characteristic style of native Brazilian music. Its origin can be traced back to the 17th Century in the state of Bahia, where the slaves captured in the African regions of Angola and the Congo were landed. Tribes from these areas brought with them their traditional Semba music gatherings, and the music spread with the slave trade throughout the country, in much the same way as the Blues did in the United States). By the end of the 19th Century, the capital city, Rio de Janiero was Brazil’s major cultural centre, where Samba was born through blending the Semba rhythms with those of many diverse origins, including polka rhythms and habanera.

1Literally 'rumble pot'.

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