What Are Maracas?

maracas Credit: Nino H. Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

Maracas, sometimes referred to as rumba shakers, are percussion instruments traditionally made out of a hollow gourd and filled with pebbles, beans, seeds, beads or other, similar, objects.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word originates in the Portuguese language, and the first known use of the maraca was in 1598. They are typically oval or egg-shaped and have an attached handle. Modern maracas can be constructed of materials like wood, leather and plastic. However, the most authentic and valuable ones are still made from gourds or dried seed pods. In some cultures, such as the American Southwest and the African Congo, maracas are made of turtle shells and baskets. They are almost always played in pairs and shaken like a rattle. They belong to the group of instruments identified as idiophones, primarily because they are solid and sealed. However, they differ from other idiophones, such as castanets and cymbals, in that they are shaken rather than struck with an object or clanged together. Maracas are an integral part of musicality in many regions, including the South Pacific, Africa, the Caribbean and South America. Latin American music is renowned for the use of maracas, bringing them into mainstream pop culture.