Are percussion instruments consisting of resonant objects strung together and set in a sliding frame or enclosed in a container such that when it is shaken the parts strike against each other, producing sound. They can be hand-held or attached to the limbs or other parts of the body and shaken while dancing or playing another instrument. They may also be fastened onto another instrument.

They are one of the oldest forms of instrumental accompaniment. In their simplest form they consist of a dried seedpod where the seeds rattle inside or can be a number of hard objects such as teeth, hooves, shells or seeds bunched or laced together.



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They are prominent in nomadic and hunting tribes, where they frequently consist of animal hoofs or of imitations. This type of jingle and rattle are the instruments par excellence of dancers, although they can also be worn on the leg simply to provide walking rhythm.

Palm-Leaf Rattle
Small Seed Rattle
Large Seed Rattle
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Rattles can be made from numerous materials such as animal hide or shells, wood, clay, woven basketry and metal. There are rattles made from the ears of springboks sewn together and partly filled with pieces of ostrich shell or dried berries.
The seeds or beads that rattle can be either contained within or woven onto the outside of the instrument.

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These instruments have played an important part of music and magical/mythological rites of people all over the world for thousands of years.

In many cultures, rattles are used in healing rites and invoking the gods by the shaman, witchdoctor or healer. Only that person was allowed to make and play the instrument and the rattle was the primary form of communication with the spirits or ancestors. In many cases, the instrument itself came to hold special magical powers and in some tribes, the rattle was regarded as the dwelling place of great spirits and ancestors or even the devil. Ritualistic rattles would have been embellished with design and symbols.

Rattles play an important part in many Native American tribes in both North and South America. Some unusual rattles used by Native American Indians are that of the rattlesnake rattle and rattles made from tortoise shells and horns. Some of the following may be of interest.
Alaskan Eskimo dancers shake mittens with attached puffin beaks and belts with animal teeth. Deer hoofs seen to be the most common type of rattle and are used by many American Indian tribes. They are fastened to the belts of the maso, or deer dancer, and the chapayekas dancers of the Yaqui tribe of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. They are also attached to bands worn across the shoulders of the peyote (hikuli) dancers of the Huichol, a tribe of northern Mexico. From northern Mexico to South America, deer hoofs are worn on the girdles and ankles of curing shamans, or medicine men. Deer, peccary, or tapir claws are worn on the legs or ankles among Brazilian tribes such as the Kamakán, Apinayé, and the Amazonian Huitoto.

Antelope, elk, goat, ox, or buffalo hoofs may augment or substitute for the deer hoofs, as on Iroquois dancers' knee bands in the knee-rattle dance. Among eastern tribes in the United States, they are used by the Shawnee and Delaware and in the Penobscot and Wabanaki leading dance.

In California and South America the deer-hoof rattle is commonly associated with girls' puberty ceremonies. Among the Maidu and Karok of California, the girl herself shakes the rattle. Usually, older women surround the girl and thump long, hoof-tipped poles on the ground, as among the California Klamath, Tolowa, Shasta, Achomawi, and Maidu mountain tribes, as well as among the Chaco tribes of South America. In modern times, metal cones in hoof shapes have been fastened onto the dress of the adolescent Apache girl where they are used in the puberty rites. They are also woven onto dresses of women dancers of the tribe Havasupai of the Grand Canyon.

Aztec dancers fastened gold, copper, or shell bells on ankles or breast. In South America, snail shells or nuts are commonly substituted, as among the Brazilian Bororo and Amazonian Jívaro. The Incas of ancient Peru used anklets of fruits shells or gold.

Sand-filled butterfly cocoons were fastened on sticks manipulated by the leader of boys' initiation rites of the Yoke, Maidu, Pome, and Midweek of California. In the rain ceremony of the Arizona Papa tribe, the singer-dancers wear cocoons, along with bells and shells, and the Yaqui native dancers all tie strings of cocoons around their ankles.

There are many types of gourd rattle from many cultures throughout the world. They are found most commonly in Africa and the Americas.

The simplest form of a gourd rattle is the gourd itself with it's own seeds. The sound from this instrument is usually quiet as the pulp inside the gourd softens the sound. To enhance the sound the gourd can be cleaned out and then, either the seeds reinstalled or replaced by harder seeds, pellets or stones. The gourd can be cut open for this and then glued back together or a small hole can be cut out carefully and then glued back into place or filled when cleaning and reinstalling of seeds is completed.

With these types of rattles, the handle is a part of the gourd and to play them you need to be aware that you need the seeds or pellets in the bulbous part of the instrument to produce the sound.

To produce sounds you need to shake the instrument rapidly up and down or back and forth, you can move it around with a circular motion to produce a varying sound. The combinations of the differing sounds produce rhythms.

Another form of gourd rattle adds a handle rather than using the natural gourd. This type is more common as varying shapes and sizes of gourds can be used in the making. The simplest type has a hole with a handle inserted and glued into place, the problem with these is that the pressure exerted when playing usually loosens the handle. A better alternative is the through handle that is tapered and has a shoulder for the gourd to sit on.


Another type of handle is the woven alternative such as the uli' uli used to accompany dancing in Hawaii.

Gourd rattles can also be beaded with seeds, shells, glass beads or other rattling objects on the outside.



Maracas are a pair of egg-shaped musical rattles a member of the idiophone family of musical instruments. Maracas originated in South America, where they were first made from dried gourd shells containing beans or beads. (See above)

Modern maracas are often made from plastic or wood and are a vital rhythmic component of many kinds of Latin American music. They are also used in music influenced by the various Latin-American styles, such as jazz, and are sometimes employed to produce unique musical effects in classical music.
They are usually played in pairs with differing sounds.

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The maracas pictured in the poster are of two types:

Maracas Burilados made from gourds without an extra handle. The burilados in the name refers to the designs carved and painted onto the surface.

Coconut Maracas made from coconut shells with a handle. The surface of the coconut has been carved with designs of parrots. The carving relief has produced a contrast between the outer shell's darker colour and the sub surface's lighter colour.


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The most common form of netted and beaded shaker is probably the Shekere from Africa.

While there are various forms of shekere (pronounced shay-ka-ray) they all share common elements of a gourd covered by a loose fitting net, into which are woven hard objects. These vary depending on location and what is available and can be made from fish bones, glass beads, cowrie shells, seedpods, metal jingles, pieces of bamboo or millet.

These instruments are played in several ways differing from the simpler gourd rattles.

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With a twisting, circular movement in the air.
Shaking back and forth or up and down.
By holding the beaded web in the open palm and twisting the gourd back and forth.
By hitting the beaded web with the open palm.
By pulling the tail.
By tossing and spinning.
By spinning the web around with one hand.


Sistrums are a type or rattle that use metal to produce the sound.

Known in ancient Sumeria in the third millennium BC, the sistrum was then a rattle in U form with a short handle and two crossbars that rattled when shaken. Sistra of the same form have been found near Tiflis, Georgia, Central Asia, this ancient horseshoe and rectangular form of sistrum are still played in Ethiopia in the Monophysite Christian church.

Sistrums of the same shape are found among the Yaqui Indians of Mexico and the U.S., and the Kaduveo Indians of Brazil, and are made of wood, with jingles strung on wires.

Sistrum-like forked sticks strung with threaded pairs of calabash fragments have an important part in fertility and initiation rites among the Mande of West Africa.

The Egyptian sistrum is characterized by being closed at the top; it then took on the shape of the anhk. It was sacred to Hathor, and when Hathor was later metamorphosed into Isis, it became sacred to Isis. (And was then played by women)

Gold and silver, metal, wood, and clay were used in making sistra. They are still used as magical ceremonial rattles.

The sistrum is common throughout Africa and has a couple of different forms. One is a split stick with metal disks (made from old tin cans or flattened bottle tops) attached to a wire. The other is a circular frame with a number of wires strung across for the metal discs.
To play the instrument you need to shake it so the metal discs hit against each other and the frame. You can also spin the discs for a different effect. Sometimes gourd discs are used to replace the metal ones this gives a much softer sound. Play Sound Play Video    


There are many ideas above to start you making rattles. They can virtually be made from anything. Have some fun and experiment with the myriad of sounds that you will be able to produce.

I found some instructions on making shekeres on the Internet, and have included them on this CD. They seem to be easy enough to follow and show how the netting is made.

If you have enough room, you might even want to grow your own gourds with the children. They need certain growing conditions and have to be dried correctly but what a lesson for the children.



Kyamba Rattle

Pecay Rattle
Ulili Rattle
Gourd Rattle




Kyamba Rattle

Pecay Rattle
Ulili Rattle
Gourd Rattle