Knowing about the origins of many African slaves forcibly brought to Cuba - relatively many from the Congo and Nigeria regions -, an African origin of this Cuban instrument seems thus probable. Yet, comparable scraped instruments were found to be present among Amerindian, indigenous peoples as well. The Aztecs – for instance – reportedly made scrapers from bones. The Arowaks in Cuba probably had scraper instruments too. Other scrapers (used in the US) were made of jawbones, and others of course from flora (trees and plants). Etymologically, the word “güiro” is also of Amerindian origin, referring also to a tree and its fruit.
What’s typical for the original Cuban güiro, anyway, is that it is made of a gourd/calabash, and played with a small wooden stick. Its total length tends to be between 30 cm and 50 cm. Other scraped instruments are made of other material, or have different sizes, of course. Metal variants (including metal scraping stick or device) can be found in the Dominican Republic, where a scraped instrument called “güira” is used in the Merengue genre, and in some parts of Cuba a metal “güiro”-like instrument called “Guaya” is used in a specific subgenre of Son called 'Changüi', found mainly in the far eastern province in Cuba called Guantánamo. There are scrapers made from different kind of trees (e.g. from coconut trees in Colombia, or hardwood a.o.), and scrapers made from bamboo are found in both Africa and in Brazil. I myself employ also (both in my compositions and when jamming) a “wooden agogo”, made from hardwood, which consists of wooden bells/blocks of different lengths, doubling as a güiro scraper, with added tonal variety. Added to all this, household items have also since long been used as scrapers, such as washboards. Etcetera, etcetera..
There are different theories about the güiro and its origins, but an African, especially Bantu/Central African, origin with some other influences in Cuba, seems most plausible. Its historical place in the Son and Salsa music genre – heavily Congo/Bantu-influenced – and related genres in Eastern Cuba, as well as other folk music in Cuba, seems to confirm this origin as well. The cultural Congo/Central African heritage is strong in Eastern Cuba.
Cultural anthropologist and author on Cuban musical history Fernando Ortiz pointed at its early presence in rural Cuban folk and traditional music, while another author on Cuban music, Ned Sublette, noted in his work ‘Cuba and its music : from the first drums to the Mambo’ (I mentioned this same book in earlier posts on this blog), that around 1852 the güiro also started to be used more in dance orchestras (i.e. in concert halls), at that time as a novel instrument for upper classes. The classical composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) from New Orleans, but residing in Havana, was according to Sublette the first one to use the güiro in concert music (along with also typically Cuban “maraca” shakers), in a concert he gave in Puerto Rico in 1858. Its folk use is much older, of course.
Either way, the güiro has an important place in specifically Afro-Cuban music genres, such as the originally East Cuban Son, which in turn gave much of its base characteristics to what we know as Salsa music, wherein the güiro is likewise much used. This goes – as can be expected – with specific patterns, to fit the “clave” (old Spanish for “key”): a rhythmic key pattern (2/3 or 3/2) forming the structure of traditional Afro-Cuban music (and much traditional African polyrhythmic music). There is within the whole of Afro-Cuban music variety, as well as space for improvisation, with the güiro, but mostly its patterns are relatively “fixed” or standard, because it has to fit a clave-based frame.
Considering the different tonality the güiro offers – long, extended scrapes and short ones, by moving up and down with the stick – a common pattern in Cuban genres as Son is for instance: long-short-short-long. Thus: a long “scrape” on the One and Four, of a 4/4 bar, interchanged with short ones in between, on the 2 and 3, sounding like: Trrrrrrrrr Tr Tr Trrrrrrrrr. Or the long scrapes on the 1 and 3, when you count in double time (One-AND-Two-AND-Three-AND-Four). Some may recognize this common “long scrape-short-short-long” pattern from e.g. Son, Salsa or Latin songs. Other Caribbean/Latin American genres have other patterns, in Puerto Rican Bomba (4/4 based), the long scrape is at the end of the bar, after three short ones, for instance. The güiro and related scrapers have also an own place and patterns within Colombian music genres, such as Cumbia.
It is somewhat simplified, I admit. This because I will not delve in its many variations and uses in Cuban or Latin American music too deep: there are for those interested many instructional videos on YouTube, or theoretical studies elsewhere regarding the use of the güiro in Latin American music. This basis is still necessary here, however, as a point of departure for the main theme of this post, I wish to expound on: the use of the güiro in Jamaican reggae music.
It is also used in reggae music, and in fact quite commonly. It is not so remarkable that Cuban instruments are heard in other genres. After all, the well-known instruments of Afro-Cuban origin, the bongos, congas, maracas shakers, and other instruments, have spread globally, including throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, but also to the US, Europe and elsewhere. These instruments by now can be found in many genres, also in the Western world.
Jamaica is moreover even in the same region as Cuba, as a “bordering” island, and with a population with mainly African roots (like many Cubans, and known Afro-Cuban instruments). People who know something about the history of Jamaican popular music might know that Cuban music influenced reggae, since the Ska genre developed (around 1960), and in earlier folk genres in Jamaica (Mento). Cuban musical instruments travelled to Jamaica. Partly because of its relative proximity, but there also were many Jamaican migrant labourers in a period (earlier 20th c.), working in Cuba’s sugar industry, and returning to Jamaica. Some of the Skatalites band members, influential in Ska, were born in Cuba, or even had a Cuban parent (like Rico Rodriguez), as were other Jamaican artists active since the 1950s and 1960s, like Laurel Aitken. Rita Marley was also born in Cuba. Mortimer Planno, a known Jamaican Rastaman, was born in Cuba too. In other words, linkages were there, even beyond a select group of travelling musicians, or music spread through media (discs, radio).
Even without such proximity or extra linkages, Cuban music itself of course has travelled to the US and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, influencing genres and musicians. This occurred already since roughly the 1930s. Besides this, percussionists in Jamaican music were, like those in other genres, often internationally and broadly oriented: the Brazilian “Cuíca” drum – a friction drum, with a stick being rubbed – can also be heard in a number of reggae songs since the 1970s.
Cuban music thus travelled internationally since the early 20th c., but not just throughout Latin America, leaving also influences in US Black music genres as jazz, rhythm & blues, funk, soul a.o. For that reason, the güiro can be heard on occasion in these genres as well, sometimes to add a Cuban, “latin” or “salsa” touch, sometimes even in structurally rhythmic roles: It can be heard for instance in songs by Curtis Mayfield (e.g. 'Superfly'), several Motown songs, songs by Marvin Gaye, and others. The güiro even found its way in European classical music; it can be heard in ‘Le sacre du printemps’ (1913) by Stravinsky.
In British pop music (albeit influenced by Black music) it is also found, such as in David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, where the güiro seems to follow a basic salsa pattern during the verses of the song.
All interesting, but what about reggae? A genre I more or less specialized myzelf in over the years. I wrote already that it is quite commonly used in Jamaican and reggae music, because I heard it in several reggae songs by different artists. I also know of its use in older Jamaican genres (Mento, Ska, Rocksteady..).
An early example of its use in Ska was in the Wailers song, sung by Bunny Wailer, a slow ska tune called ‘Let Him Go’ (1966). A güiro is used (alongside other Afro-Cuban percussion) in this song, although quite “buried in the mix”, so to speak, so not very prominent, yet softly audible. The musicians were the Skatalites, and it was recorded at Studio One. What’s interesting is that later versions of this song, such as by Bunny Wailer himself, still faithfully maintained this (subtle) güiro use.
The Cuban connections of the Skatalites notwithstanding, the güiro use in Jamaican music became even more prominent after the Ska period, since Rocksteady developed (around 1966), and especially when Reggae arose, since about 1968. This can, I think, be related to a certain musical attitude increasing since the early 1970s, when Rastafari began to influence Reggae more strongly.
What has this to do with specifically the scraper/güiro? Well, in the so-called Roots Reggae period from around 1973 onward, a focus on African roots and Rastafari translated in lyrical messages, but also musically in several ways: in the increased use of hand drums and other percussion, for instance. Musical experimentation, and perhaps simply Reggae’s tempo slowing down, influenced the space for more percussion. I also think that active, talented percussionists of name like Bongo Herman (Herman Davis), Skully (Noel Simms), Sky Juice (Chris Blake), Sticky (Uzziah Thompson), and others came at their peak in this period. These percussion players were very active session musicians playing on many Jamaican records in especially the 1970s and 1980s. These percussionists were broadly, internationally oriented, while also connected to Africa, Rastafari, and local, acoustic folk music and percussion/drumming.
All these factors combined can explain, I argue, the increased variety and presence of percussions in Jamaican records since the 1970s. The Nyabinghi, kete-based hand drums, used among Rastafari adherents, became very commonly used in Roots Reggae music and on records, but also other hand drums of Afro-Cuban origin (conga, bongos) or Afro-Jamaican origin, African djembe’s, as well as other rhythmic, percussive “Africanizing” folk-like sounds like rattles, shakers, wood blocks, bells, the cuíca, and, yes, also scrapers and güiros.
Interesting is that some noted, by the way, that the Cuban güiro (made from gourd/calabash) became most often the scraper of choice on Jamaican records. Metal scrapers like used in Merengue or Brazilian reco-reco’s are heard in comparison much less in reggae, for some reason. Indeed this may be simply because internationally, the Afro-Cuban calabash-based “güiro” as such is the best known scraper, maybe because of its links to Salsa.
Anyway, this güiro scraper appeared on many Jamaican reggae records of the 1970s and 1980s, and not just on a few, or as a novelty thing. In fact, it became commonly used on recordings of many bands and artists, including the better-known ones: Culture, the Wailing Souls, Burning Spear, Hugh Mundell, the Twinkle Brothers, the Wailers, Max Romeo, the Congos, Israel Vibration, the Itals, Gregory Isaacs, Peter Tosh, Lee Perry etcetera etcetera. Not in each song, but it recurred regularly. This leads to the assumption that the best-known percussion players at the time (Bongo Herman, Sticky, Skully, Sky Juice and others) usually at least had a güiro at their disposal during studio work. Alongside of course other types of commonly used “professional” percussion instruments (e.g. tambourines, wood blocks, agogo, kete/binghi drums, bongos, djembe’s, shakers, rattles, vibraslap, shekere, cabasa etcetera).
That is what I appreciate about percussion playing: the variety of sounds possible from different smaller and larger instruments, with diverse, multicultural origins. Africa, as musically the most “percussive” continent, is the source or roots of most percussion instruments, but many can be found in other continents as well (Asia, Americas, Europe..).
It is interesting to note that specifically the Cuban güiro is used in many reggae songs, as is its historical cultural context. On the other hand it is not that remarkable: like I said: percussion players tend to use different, and several, percussive instruments in many genres, and many musical influences travel internationally, especially also relatively influential Cuban music.
Therefore, from now on, I will move away from detached and abstract theoretical elaborations, and focus more on where the enjoyment of music ultimately lies: in concretely experiencing music and songs. Getting in the groove, so to speak. Through examples I will illustrate some differing uses of the güiro in Jamaican reggae songs: how it fits in the rhythm and whole song. This I can compare to its use in e.g. Cuban or Latin American music.
Not just for his post, but also out of personal interest, I have studied before what “güiro patterns” I encountered in reggae songs. This had an educational as well as practical purpose for me: I compose, but also play with other musicians, adding percussion to reggae-based jam sessions, on occasion. Trap drummers, bass and guitar players, often keyboard players or horns as well, tend to play on such occasions, often existing reggae songs (or improvizing around them). When I take a scraper, like my wooden agogo or a güiro, it is therefore good for me to know some common patterns in reggae.
Yet, the question is: are there actually recurring güiro patterns in reggae from, say the 1970s and 1980s? Or is its use more whimsical and unfixed? The instrument was used so commonly in reggae, that an exhaustive study would require much more than a blog post or even an extensive article: a voluminous book would be required.
I can therefore not be exhaustive here, but will give some examples in reggae (especially from the 1970s and 1980s) of the use of the güiro scraper, and will hint at some common threads.
Producer Lee “Scratch” Perry is an extravagant and influential artist, who had an own studio for a period in Jamaica, called the Black Ark, wherein he stamped his own mark on albums and records by many Jamaican artists recording there, with a peak in the later 1970s: the Roots Reggae period. With some artists he came in conflict (related to finance or otherwise), but artists (even these) recognized him as a genius - even if also as a person also at times strange or “mad” - and saw the Black Ark as a haven of musical creativity and freedom. Perry, though, said in a recent documentary I saw that musicians had to follow fully his musical frame in his studio.
Anyhow, I liked that Perry in his musical productions seemed to favour more percussion use than other producers. He even mixed it quite prominently in the mix (not buried amid other sounds, as other producers). A well-known reggae song included a güiro quite prominently, and was produced by Perry: Max Romeo’s ‘Chase the Devil’ (1976). This was part of an album ‘War Ina Babylon’, that also in other songs (such a the title track) included the güiro scraper. Interesting is that the güiro, to the basic “bass-drum-rhythm guitar” reggae rhythm of ‘Chase the Devil’ adds a simple, but effective rhythm pattern (three short scrapes on One-AND-Two..), creating a “swinging” polyrhythmic feel. Listeners feel this, so the güiro is part of the appeal of this quite popular song. On the album ‘Heart of the Congos’ (1976), by the Congos – by many regarded as a classic -, also recorded at the Black Ark, the güiro joins the varied percussion, being especially prominent on the song ‘Solid Foundation’.
On the finely produced album Colombia Colly (1976) by Jah Lion, also recorded at Black Ark, the güiro is quite present, most notably on the song ‘Bad Luck Natty’. Just another example, but overall Perry productions can be said to favor the use of güiro. Interestingly, along with, but also compared to, other percussion instruments.
Perry’s work with the Wailers is also interesting. The early version of ‘Small Axe’ (recorded in 1970), sung by the well-known Bob Marley, later rerecorded for Island records, included an interesting güiro rhythmic pattern throughout, also crucial for the rhythmic feel of the song. This güiro pattern did – unfortunately – not survive later versions for the Island label: the güiro can thus no longer be heard in later versions of ‘Small Axe’, notably the one on the Wailers’ album ‘Burnin’ (1973).
Often rather “drowned in the mix”, güiros can also be heard in important albums by another reggae icon: Burning Spear: such as on some songs of the 1978 ‘Social Living’ album (percussion by Sticky), on the “jazzy” ‘Man in the Hills’ album from 1976 (on which Burning Spear/Winston Rodney plays also percussion himself), on which I especially liked the güiro pattern on the song ‘Groovy’, where it helps shape the riddim/groove. It plays a three-two pattern around the snare drum accent on the 3 (of 4/4), with a long scrape as tasteful finish.
Likewise around the snare drum accent in reggae on the Third beat (or on the Second, when counting in double time) is the nice güiro in Gregory Isaacs’ classic ‘Soon Forward’ (1979), a varying, multifold güiro pattern, ending with a longer scrape. Somewhat soft in the mix, but still crucial. Here, a “metal” scraper seems to have been used (as well).
It furthermore varied per album, artist, or producer how often the güiro sounds can be heard on reggae records. Like I already mentioned, the way it is mixed also influences how “prominent” the güiro sounds, dependent perhaps on personal mixing preferences in the studios. The legendary Culture band, with the late Joseph Hill as singer (and occasional percussion player), made quite often use of the güiro, though on some albums more than others. The same can be said of the Twinkle Brothers (e.g. to crucial effect on a groovy song like ‘Big Bam Bam’ from 1975), and the Wailing Souls. The latter’s classic album (one of my favourites, by the way) ‘Fire House Rock’ (1980) figures the güiro quite prominently on great songs like ‘A Fool Will Fall’, and ‘Kingdom Rise, Kingdom Fall’, mostly with crucial, “swinging” counter-rhythms, adding to a nice, polyrhythmic feel. The güiro pattern on ‘Kingdom Rise, Kingdom Fall’ is not too complex and threefold and circular (long scrape-short scrape-long scrape), but what is funny is that it seems to fit the lyrics: the short scrape on the AND between the 2 and 3 (just before the snare drum accent) consists of an upward motion (Kingdom Rise!)., after which follows a longer downward motion. So.. rise and fall, haha.. This can of course be coincidence.
Quite well-known songs by the band Culture, then, like ‘Jah Rastafari’ (1979), ‘It a Guh Dread’ (same period), ‘Land We Belong’, ‘Cumbolo’, ’Love Shines Brighter’ (and other songs), also have likewise crucial roles for the güiro in the whole musical, rhythmic whole. These tend to add rhythmic patterns around the drum accent, though often a longer scrape rests on this drum accent. Again the güiro on these songs is crucial for their feel, to differing degrees, depending (again) on its relative audibility in the mix, or distinctiveness. On ‘Cumbolo’ a guitar partly does the same pattern as the güiro, making it less unique, for example.
The beautiful song ‘Jah Is The Way’ (1981) by Israel Vibration also has creative, varied güiro patterns (interchanging faster and slower/short and long scrapes), making this strong, emotive song even more interesting. Also a strong song is the Mighty Diamonds ‘Africa’ (1976), wherein a güiro is also important. Intestingly, here the güiro “departs” from the snare drum accent.
Whether playing around it, toward it, or departing from it: that snare drum accent on the Third count remains crucial of course, in structuring the song: the drum is the heart beat of reggae music, and it is not called an “accent” for nothing. In several songs, nonetheless, a güiro scrape falls on the same Third drum count, but without disturbing it.
Peter Tosh’s ‘Glass House’, from the 1983 Mama Africa album, has a 2-4 (short scrapes) güiro pattern, with the 4-part directly after that Third Count snare drum accent. It starts on the AND between 3 and 4..
I can give many more examples, but I cannot fail to mention a particularly great example of güiro use in reggae: Leroy Sibbles’emotive, soulful tune called ‘Jah Soon Come’ (1980). The güiro is quite prominent in this song (and relatively loud), contributing to the song’s strength. It is a bit similar, though, to a güiro pattern used before on Culture’s ‘Jah Rastafari’, but that does not spoil it.
As I write this, recently Jamaican reggae artist Trevor Junior deceased. He is not the best known artist, maybe, but made some great Roots and Early Dancehall tunes, especially in the 1980s. His good ‘I and I Time’ (1984) also included the nice and crucial contribution of a güiro: adding a “swinging” feel and going “toward” the drum accent. Its pattern finishes, as other ones, with a long scrape.
Like I mentioned, the güiro is often used throughout reggae. The digital era that influenced reggae increasingly since the later 1980s was of course not so dominant that live music recording (including percussion) halted, but it diminished it somewhat. Somewhat modernized Roots Reggae kept being made (New Roots), and percussionists Sticky or Skully played also on 1990s and 2000s albums by younger artists like Everton Blender, Richie Spice, Sizzla, Etana, Bushman, Luciano etcetera. Percussion can still be heard in reggae riddims since 1990, including on some songs the güiro, though more often “buried” in fuller mixes (including since the 1990s more digital effects and sounds). A later album by Culture, namely ‘Payday’, from 2000, still makes much use of the güiro, for instance.
Another example: a “big tune”, actually a hit in the reggae world, Richie Spice’s ‘Earth A Run Red’ (first released in 1998) also features the güiro instrument among other percussion (by Bongo Herman). Again, somewhat “drowned” in the mix, but audible.
Besides these later records, I probably did not mention some other crucial reggae songs from the 1970s or 1980s, or even from before, that had crucial roles for the güiro. I think my overview is nevertheless a quite representative sample. The use of the güiro on another classic reggae album ‘Africa Must Be Free by 1983’ (1975) by Hugh Mundell, is finally also worth of mention, I think. Fun fact: it is the first instrument - after the drums - heard on the album’s opening song (‘Let’s All Unite’). More often the güiro appears early on (“opening” as it were) in reggae songs.
It is further important to point out, I think, that globally still the best known reggae artist, Bob Marley and his band the Wailers, did unfortunately not make much use of the güiro. Also other “percussion” was relatively subdued on later Bob Marley albums. This might relate to commercial considerations by Island and Chris Blackwell, perhaps deeming foregrounding such Afro-Caribbean acoustic percussion not appropriate for the tastes of Western Rock “cross over” audiences. It is their loss, I would say. Bob’s percussion player (Alvin “Seeco” Patterson) therefore found most of his contributions (often still nice on occasion) very soft or “buried” in the final mixes of songs. Anyway, even in many Bob Marley songs with more audible percussion, more often e.g. wood blocks, or shaker instruments (incl. the cabasa) can be heard, and the güiro relatively less.
Still, there are some “later” Bob Marley songs that have an audible güiro in them, even if not very loud in the mix or a bit “drowned” sonically. Examples I can give are ‘Africa Unite’ (from the Surival album), and several songs from the Uprising album (‘Bad Card’, ‘We and Dem’ and others).
What can I conclude from this examination? This especially in relation to an earlier question I posed: are there “fixed” or even recurring güiro patterns in reggae, as is known for Son/Salsa, Merengue, Bomba, Cumbia and other Latin American styles? Not that in these Cuban and other genres there is never variation or improvisation with the güiro, it is just a bit more common that set patterns are followed per genre (Trrrrrrr-Tr-Tr-Trrrrrrr in Salsa, for example); it has to be relatively tighter to follow the rhythmic “clave” frame.
The answer can be short: there is no such “fixed” or prescribed pattern for the güiro in reggae. It simply has a freer role in reggae. Yet, I noted that per song there are patterns that are set and recur throughout the song in proper timing. In most reggae songs with the güiro a tight pattern is followed from the beginning to the end of the song, differing perhaps from verse to chorus, but repeated. There is thus a structure behind this güiro in each song and tightly followed patterns: only..these patterns differ per reggae song. It is not fixed throughout the entire genre, as applies to e.g. Salsa.
Overall, the güiro scraping sound adds (obviously) “texture” to reggae songs and riddims sonically, increasing variety in sound and depth. Jamaican percussion players like the mentioned Sticky, Skully, and Bongo Herman in interviews made an analogy between their percussive contributions to reggae and the adding of spices and seasoning to food: to make its flavour “nicer” and more complete.
Moreover, the güiro’s function tends in most reggae songs to be rhythmic more than for “effect” or “mood”, explaining the repeated (rhythmic) patterns that relate to the main (One Drop or Rockers) rhythm set by the drum, bass, and rhythm guitar in reggae music. Interesting is that the güiro use differs a bit per song: on some songs it provided “counter/cross rhythms”, “answering” to (yet interlocking with) other rhythms, in the age-old sub-Saharan African polyrhythm tradition (that also influenced the “clave” and Afro-Cuban music). A tradition also coming from the Bantu-speaking areas in Africa, or Southern-Nigerian-Benin regions, where the predecessors of the Cuban güiro (probably) came from.
On the other hand, in its origins Jamaican music was also influenced by the more “swinging” traditions of Rhythm & Blues, and Jazz, including “off-beat” phrasing, around main rhythms. This tradition relates according to some more to the Griot parts of Africa (Mali, Guinea) influencing the Blues in the US, with Islamic and string instrument influences mixed with African rhythmic traditions (see my previous post). This is still a bit “polyrhythmic”, you can say, but in another, moderated way. Anyway, it led to the musical concept and term “swinging”, playing around the main beats, characteristic of Rhythm & Blues from the US in the 1950s that once influenced Jamaican Ska. Such swinging or “shuffling”, can be found in reggae. So..also on how the güiro is used on some reggae songs, including “off-beat” accents (i.e. on the AND between counts ) throughout, giving a kind of “R&B feel”.
In certain cases, the güiro partly follows the bass line, which is another possible use, such as on Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Cool Ruler Come Again’, whereas on ‘Mr. Know It All’ (1979) by the same Gregory Isaacs the güiro has a more prominent, as well as independent and improvizing role.
All this differs per reggae song, however, and this variety (cross-rhythm or swing?) is yet another intriguing aspect of the güiro use in reggae music.
On a final note: even I as a percussion aficionado must admit that it would be too simplistic to state that merely the use of a güiro – or other added percussion, for that matter – makes a song by itself better: it depends of course on its use within the whole. In most cases I find it tends to add nice "spice", though. I do sincerely opine, furthermore, that the use of the güiro in reggae songs is mostly to good effect, and that several great reggae songs – some of those I consider “classic” – include the güiro as quite prominent. At least as a nice “touch”: or even: a “finishing” touch. That must mean something..