The shekere is a handmade rattle.
It consists of a hollow gourd or calabash, covered on the outside with a net
of seeds, beads, shells, or any available material. Although its origins are
West African, today it is found in the Americas and Caribbean as well.
The calabash or gourd (as it's commonly known in the United States) is a functional creation of nature with a wide variety of uses and traditions in cultures around the world. A fruit of varied shape and size, it commonly grows on a vine not unlike the squash, but there are also varieties that grow on bushes and trees. In so-called "third world" countries the calabash was historically used as a container for water, and still is an essential utensil in many parts of the world. In rural areas of the U.S., they are often used as birdhouses. Throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean and the Americas, gourds are used as resonators for musical instruments.
"Shekere" is a general name to describe the beaded gourd rattle. It comes in many shapes and sizes, is played in a variety of styles, and has many different names. In Africa it is found primarily, but not exclusively, in the countries of Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Benin, Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire (there are many parts of Africa where you will not hear this instrument). Different language groups in each country often have their own names, styles, techniques, and traditions associated with the shekere.
In Nigeria, the very large beaded calabash is called an "agbe", and traditionally is owned and played only by professional musicians (Olatunji, Music in African Life). It is a personal instrument and never loaned of shared, even with family members. However, a son who is a professional musician may inherit his father's agbe. Shekeres among the Yeruba of Nigeria are often connected with religion, given great respect, and play a very important role in certain traditional musical forms.
Throughout West Africa you will also a smaller gourd, covered with a woven net which is tied off at the bottom, leaving a tail of loose strings. In Ghana and Togo among the Ewe language group it is known as the "axatse" and is often used to accompany a drum or bell orchestra on important occasions. In Sierra Leone you will find a similar type of shekere with a very loose net an long tail, often called a "shake-shake" or "shaburay".
When African slaves were taken to the "New World," they carried with them many of these rich musical traditions, which took root in varying degrees in different parts of the Americas and the Caribbean. In Cuba, Youruba religious traditions using drums and shekeres are found almost completely intact - with similar rhythmic patterns, names of instruments and accompanying chants. Brazilians sometimes use a beaded (with seeds) coconut called "afuxe" similar in name and style to the Ghanian "axatse". In the United States the shekere and other African related instruments continue to grown in popularity and are rapidly becoming part of our contemporary musical expression.
Resources for Gourds:
|American Gourd Society
P.O. Box 274
Mt. Giliad, Ohio 43338
Rt. 1, Box 73
Wrens, Georgia 30833
|West Mt. Gourd Farm
Rt 1., Box 853
Gilmer, Texas 75644
|Cary Gourd Club
Mary Ann Rood
4008 Green Level Road
Apex, North Carolina 27502
Making the Shekere
The basis for the shekere is the gourd or calabash. A wide variety of gourds are grown in the United States (especially in the Southeast) and are usually harvested in the fall. Almost any type can be used to make a rattle; however, the larger "birdhouse" or "bottle" gourds are desired for the deep, rich tones they produce when hollowed out. Look for gourds in October and November at roadside produce stands where you see pumpkins. When freshly harvested they are green in color and resemble winter squash. It's best to dry them in a warm dry area (attics are ideal), elevated on a screen or wire so that air can circulate underneath them. Be sure to check them every few weeks and wipe off the mold to avoid rot.
A gourd may take from one to six months to dry, depending on its size and the temperature and humidity of the drying area. You will know it is ready by the brown color, the hardness of the shell, and its lighter weight.
Preparing the Gourd:
When the gourd is completely dry, wash it with strong soap and water, using an abrasive scrubber to clean the surface thoroughly. Most stubborn blemishes will come off with some "elbow grease".
With a hacksaw, cut off the top of the gourd, leaving enough neck (be generous) to easily hold in your hand. Using a coat hanger or long stick, loosen the seeds and fiber that are inside and shake it all out (you can save the seeds to plant). Work GENTLY - gourds crack easily - until the inside of the gourd is completely free of fiber.
The cleaner and smoother the walls, the more it will resonate.
You can leave the gourd in its natural state, oil or stain it to deepen the color, shellac, polyurethane, or fiberglass the outside and (or) inside for added protection, or create your own finish. I let the thickness and strength of the gourd determine this process.
The Gourd As An Instrument
Your "calabash" is now a musical instrument. Tapping with the heel of your hand on the bottom, listen to its tone. How many other tones can you find? Create a repeated pattern using at least three different tones. Play the pattern as a round. Find two or three patterns to string together. Form groups and play the patterns simultaneously. Can you make the tones "talk" to each other? Find a simple phrase to play in unison for the beginning and ending.
Stringing the Shekere:
There are a variety of ways to make the net or skirt. The most common method is the following:
1. Cut a piece of string to use as a "collar" around the neck of the gourd. Tie it. It should be long enough to easily tie and hang loosely a little below the curve of the neck. When in doubt, leave extra. Most people prefer to use a thicker string for the collar.
2. Measure 15 to 30 lengths of nylon string, depending on the size of the gourd and the desired tightness of the weave. Each piece should be 6 to 8 times the length of the net. It is better to have too much rather than too little. Burn the ends of each length of to avoid raveling (no need for scissors).
3. To attach the strings to the collar, fold each string in half. Take the closed end (formed at the halfway point) and place it underneath the collar. Thread the two loose ends through the loop and tighten. This forms a slip know. Tie a "loop" knot right below it to secure it (form the shape of a "6", bring the ends back through hole, and tighten). Continue this process with all the strings and place them around the collar at equal distances apart (1/2"-1"). When the strings are in position, tighten the loop knots to hold them in place.
4. Thread a bead onto one of the strings. Thread another bead on the neighboring string (not the other half of that string). Push the beads to the top towards the neck, and tie off loosely with a loop knot. Continue this process horizontally around the circle and finish the first row completely before starting on the second.
Note: There are many variations on beading patterns. You can put 2 or 3 beads on each of the strings or on only one string in the pair. Some people put both strings through each bead. Be creative! Be consistent! Make sure the beads hang loosely.
5. When the net reaches the bottom of the gourd, you can finish it in one of two ways:
a.) Cut another piece of string the length and thickness of the top collar. Tie it to form a "collar" for the bottom. The circle should be about an inch smaller than the bottom diameter of the gourd. Tie each set of double strings to the collar with a loop knot (more than one if needed). When finished and secure, burn the ends off below the knot. Tighten or loosen the top or bottom collar to adjust the tension.
For smaller gourds:
b.) Cut another piece of string about 8" long and tightly tie all the loose ends together forming a "tail". The net should hang loosely a few inches below the gourd.
Playing the Shekere
There are as many different ways to play the shekere as there are names for the instrument (many), sizes of gourds, styles of netting, and personalities of players. Whatever style you adopt, make it "yours". Be gentle and treat the instrument with great respect.
The most common technique used in the United States has origins in Nigeria and Ghana. It uses a medium to large gourd, netted with an open bottom (the strings are tied off around the bottom collar). Rest the bottom of the gourd on the heel of one hand and hold the neck with the other; I use my left hand at the bottom and my right on the neck. Some people prefer the opposite. Hold it the way that is most comfortable for you. My descriptions of technique involving right/left are from my perspective. Reverse the directions if you prefer holding the bottom of the gourd with your right hand.
1. "Bass" (B) - Holding the shekere upright or at a slight diagonal, let the weight of the gourd fall on the heel of the hand, releasing a deep, mellow bass tone.
2. "Tap" (T) - Using the same hand, lightly slap the bottom of the gourd with the fingertips, producing a sharp, high sound ("tap").
3. "Dee" (De) - Toss the weight of the gourd from the bottom hand to the top hand (left to right), without either hand losing contact ("dee"). The gourd should now be horizontal, with the weight resting mostly in the right hand.
4. "Daa" (Da) - Toss the weight back to the left hand still maintaining contact with both hand at all times (daa). (This stroke is like that of the bass without using the heel of the hand to bring out bottom sounds.) The shekere should now be in a diagonal position.
5. "Shaa" (sha) - Holding the gourd in a horizontal position with the weight resting in both hands, use a sharp wrist action and flip the net away from you in a circular motion (shaa).
6. "Ray" (ra) - Flip the net towards you (ray).
These are some of the basic tones used in one style of shekere playing. The names I've given them are not necessarily traditional; they are designed as a tool for communicating clarity of tone and pattern.
**** The smaller style shekere with a "tail" involves a different technique. Find your own adaptations of the previous set of tones. In Togo, the neck of the gourd is held in one hand and a pattern is created by playing the gourd between the other hand and the leg. A sharp tone is produced by pulling on the tail.
Exploring Basic Patterns and Variations in 4/4
1. Standing in a circle, get a slow easy pulse going by walking in place. The feet will act as our metronome. Step on every [quarter note] (4/4), with the right foot on the downbeat. Keep the feet going throughout these exercises if possible.
2. Using imaginary shekeres, pantomime the movement of playing while singing the tones. Explore the following page of "Patterns and Variations in 4/4." Start with a leader/echo, repeating each set 4 times before moving on. Then go back and "play" the patterns in unison, 4 times each.
3. Using the shekeres, movement and voice, explore the "Patterns and Variations in 4/4."
a.) Begin by listening to the sound of each instrument individually (bass tone), passed around the circle in rhythm. Gradually, let the passing pattern become more complex. Choose volunteers to start new patterns. Find 3 of your favorite patterns (one should be simple). Have everyone play each pattern in unison. Create a sequence of these 3 patterns. Make up a rhythmic signal to start, to change patterns, and to end. Form a marching formation while you do this. Change direction or formation when each pattern changes, and freeze in a shape when you end.
b.) Explore the page of "Basic Patterns and Variations in 4/4," starting with a leader/echo and progressing to play in unison. Repeat each pattern 4 times and move on to the next.
c.) Combine 2 or more patterns to make longer repeated phrases.
d.) Explore Orchestration:
1. Play ("sing") one or more of these phrases as a round. Try it with 2, 3, then 4 groups.
2. Forming 2 groups, play 2 patterns together simultaneously. Try it with 3 groups, then 4 groups. Try combined patterns.
3. Build a "House of Rhythm." Starting with a simple foundation pattern, gradually layer on more complex parts.
Patterns and Variations in 4/4
Copyright 1990 Beverly Botsford