vrijdag 2 september 2016

Rub-A-Drum : Brazil, the cuíca, and reggae

That reggae music – originally from Jamaica – has gone international is quite well-known by now. It is a theme that I also discussed here and there on occasion on my – this - blog.

Reggae has also spread to Brazil, the largest country of Latin America, and not too far from Jamaica. Moreover, it shares with Jamaica a history of slavery of Africans; in fact it was historically overall the biggest “slave market” (in numbers) in the Americas, where proportionally most slaves from Africa ended up. Estimations are that a total of about 5 million Africans were brought forcibly to what is now Brazil (and many died along the way). Its large territory accounts for this, as well as the relatively long period of colonization by the Portuguese. Plantation-based slavery developed in Brazil, before it went (and became more “efficient”) to (e.g.) the Caribbean, since the 17th century. In this regrettable process, not only the Portuguese, but also the Dutch (owning a period a part of what is now North East Brazil) were historically influential.

Either way, this made in the present day, Brazil the country with – numerically – the most people of sub-Saharan African descent, outside of Africa itself. Many of these are mixed, as Brazil is a racially and culturally more “mixed” society, when compared to elsewhere in the Americas, where Black and White remained – at least nominally – more separate socially. The presence of some White blood in Black people in e.g. the US or Jamaica is more often explained by White slave-owners or overseers raping/sexually exploiting female slaves during slavery. Racially mixed unions were in these English-speaking parts not totally absent after slavery up to now, but relatively limited, when compared to e.g. Brazil (and elsewhere in Latin America), where racial mixture became more common.

Anyway, the African connection might explain why reggae is and remained quite popular in Brazil, starting in the 1970s, via the popularity of Bob Marley and other reggae artists. There are now quite a few good Roots Reggae bands in Brazil – with often lyrics in Portuguese. I personally like several songs of the band Ponto de Equilibrio, for example. Local reggae or fusion variants have also developed in Brazilian music by now. I recently for example wrote a concert review for an online journal about the band O Rappa from Rio de Janeiro, a band that mixes reggae with funk, hip-hop, rock, and samba. Reggae has in Brazil even mixed with traditional local styles, into e.g. Samba Reggae.

Although these aspects are interesting as a theme – perhaps for another blog post in the future -, “Reggae in Brazil” is not the topic of this post. I would rather turn it around. The topic is “Brazil in Reggae”. Does the fact that Brazil has the most people of African descent outside of Africa, translate somehow in reggae music; in its lyrics, perhaps in the attention of the Rastafari movement? And musically? These are the two lines of inquiry I will focus on in this post. I will see where it leads me, haha.


The Rastafari movement developed in Jamaica since the 1930s. It was essentially a movement of Black Power, focussing on the African roots, thus regaining cultural self-respect, combining this with spiritual aspects and a specific way of life. It was inspired by the Jamaican thinker and activist Marcus Garvey, who worked for Black empowerment, African unity worldwide, repatriation to Africa, and upliftment of both the African continent and Black/African people world wide.

Though Marcus Garvey’s activities and ideas were indeed international, it was however more strongly focussed on the English-speaking world, due to language barriers. Garvey had attention – of course – to Black people in Latin America, including Brazil, and knew its history. Nonetheless, he focussed more on Black people in the US, and the British Caribbean. Chapters of Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), were set up since about 1917 also in Latin American countries. In fact, numerically most UNIA chapters were at one point found in Cuba, but these had mostly members among British Caribbean migrants there (not exclusively though, there was an influence on Afro-Cubans too). Author Kim D. Butler points out that Garveyism came to Brazil also mainly through British Caribbean migrants (and via North American colonization plans), yet also reached – indirectly – Afro-Brazilians, as UNIA-like organizations developed in Brazil by the 1930s, influenced by the Garvey movement, though not explicitly part of it.

The Rastafari movement (1930s) is thus older than the also Jamaica-originated Reggae music genre. The latter developed around 1968, following related genres developed in Jamaica, earlier in the 1960s: Ska and Rocksteady. These fed into Reggae.

The Rastafari movement would in time influence Reggae strongly, especially by the 1970s. This might be also well-known by many readers. Bob Marley was a Rastafari-adherent, as were many other reggae artistes, to differing degrees. This showed of course in Reggae lyrics. These referenced Marcus Garvey, Africa, Haile Selassie, the history of slavery, reparations, repatriation to Africa etcetera.

Again, the language barrier plays a role, and there is (lyrically) a stronger connection with the English-speaking world, e.g. connections with African Americans in the US, or with the people of Trinidad or Guyana. Or the “smaller islands” as some Jamaicans call them (Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent etcetera).

Slavery in the Americas is mentioned broadly in many Reggae lyrics, but geographical specificity tends to be insular (within Jamaica itself), and if not, it refers to other Caribbean islands, or the US. Slavery in Brazil is rarely mentioned as such in Reggae lyrics, not even slavery in nearby Cuba. On a more joyous note, Brazilian culture is referred too in Jamaican lyrics, especially because Brazilian football (soccer) and Pélé as footballer were very popular in Jamaica, probably because of a Black/African or regional connection. This was also the case with Bob Marley, who loved to play football as well, and admired Brazilian football and players. He even wrote a song about it, early in his career: ‘Lick Samba’ (1971). In 1970 Brazil had won the Football/Soccer World Cup.

The Portuguese were overall – despite Portugal’s size and economic weight – one of the largest slave traders. Portugal – as a more seafaring nation - started with African enslavement early, even before the Spanish and their American colonization: namely off the coast of Africa. As a practice it was reputedly influenced by Moors or Arabs (ruling Portugal and Spain for a period), who tended to have (also) Black African slaves.

It is said that the Genoese Columbus – later inaugurating Spain’s dominance in the Americas – participated already in such slave trade well before 1492, working with Portuguese. He also lived in Portugal, before going to Spain. Even this strong involvement with slavery of the Portuguese (in Brazil) is rarely mentioned in Reggae lyrics, even less so that that of the Spanish. Jamaica was a British colony, so people like the pirates Hawkins and Morgan – conquering and enslaving with the support of the British King or Queen - are mentioned more often in Reggae lyrics. Columbus is discussed as well, of course. A recent song by artist Chronixx, ‘Capture Land’, criticizes King Ferdinand of Spain (King at the time of Columbus “discovery”, financing – after hesitation – Columbus’ voyage), along with also the “thieving Queen from England" , in recounting Jamaican history. These lyrics do mention Latin America as well, by the way.

In short, Afro-Brazilians and slavery in Brazil, are implied in many (Rastafari-influenced) reggae lyrics (“slavery to the West, the Americas, or to “Babylon”), and in cases also the related Portuguese colonization in Africa, e.g. Angola, or Moçambique. These are one of the “unhappy” regimes Haile Selassie I referred to in his speech, that Bob Marley turned into the lyrics for the song ‘War’. So, Brazil and its history is “implied”, “indirect”, yet seldom specifically mentioned in reggae lyrics as such, Rastafari-influenced or not.


There is, however, another way in which “Brazil” is present in Reggae music, and more explicitly so. This concerns the music itself. Not so much in Reggae’s structural and basic characteristics (though there were a few early influences from Brazilian music genres in Jamaica in the 1960s), but regarding musical instruments. I am talking about the use of the friction drum the “Cuíca”. This can be heard quite regularly in several Reggae songs. First something about this “cuíca”, though… that seems appropriate.


The Cuíca is an Afro-Brazilian instrument, used much in Brazilian Samba music, and later spread internationally. Its characteristic, unusual sound from rubbing – ressembling animal roars, according to many – sets it apart from both other drums (beaten/percussed), or other percussive instruments, like shakers or scrapers, common in Brazilian music. The cuíca drum’s body tends to be made of metal. The Brazilian cuíca further has a bamboo stick attached to its drumhead. This stick is then rubbed within the drum, underneath the drum skin with a wet cloth – producing its sound -, which is then tuned/pitched with the other hand pressing the outer drumhead. Many point out that it is certainly not an easy instrument to learn to play really well.

It can produce relatively high sounds (some say, ressembling “monkey sounds”) . The cuíca’s metal body influences its sound too, of course. Wood-based friction drums sound different (deeper, lower).


The cuíca’s origins are most commonly assumed to be African. That is not to say that “friction drums” as such are confined to Africa. In fact, “friction drums” – or: “rubbing drums” – have been historically long common in Europe and elsewhere as well. This includes Portugal and Spain, where “friction drums” are mostly made of clay pots, and with only a stick pulled from the outside. In Portuguese it is called a “sarronca” or “zamburra”, while the Spanish friction drum is called “zambomba”. I know about this zambomba that it was traditionally played in Spain during the Christmas period, and remained up to now quite common in traditional and folk music. Some musicians incorporated it even in Flamenco music, in the South of Spain (Andalusia), somewhat outside its original Christmas celebration context.

Historians assume, however, that - despite colonial ties - the Portuguese Sarronca / Zamburra (or Spanish Zambomba), is not a direct ancestor to the Cuíca, though perhaps influencing it. These find most probable as ancestors “friction drums” played similarly to the cuíca, found historically in several parts of Africa, including in the Congo and Angola area (influential culturally on Samba music and on Afro-Brazilian culture).

A pity that the Wikipedia article on “Friction Drums” (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friction_drum ) does not give examples from Africa. It does give American, and also several European examples. Besides in Iberia (historically, after all, a bit more African- and Latin American-influenced), friction drums have also been found as far North as Northern Europe, and was a period quite commonly used in parts of (Flemish) Belgium and the bordering Netherlands. It was known there as “rommelpot” or “foekepot”. Here it tended also to be associated with New Year or Christian celebrations. Also in Northern Germany, it was used, and also in Slovenia, Ukraine, Southern Italy, and several other places. The Wikipedia articles points at this, though neglects Africa too much, unfortunately.

Due to friction drums’ unusual, “voice-like” sound, they tend to be connected – in different continents and cultures – with rituals and spirituality, in some sense.


In this interesting online article by John H. Donahue (http://www.famsi.org/research/kerr/articles/friction_drum/), the author departs from friction drums present among Amerindians, to further discuss friction drums elsewhere as well: Asia (like India), Europe, as well as Africa. He discusses Central African friction drums, such as the “Kwita” among the Chokwe and Pende peoples in what is now DR Congo and NE Angola, and among neighbouring peoples and cultures. Donahue sees this kwita drum as the direct ancestor of the Brazilian cuíca. It is indeed played in a similar fashion. He points at different rital uses of friction drums in Africa: sometimes connected with initiation rites (Southern Africa), sometimes with “spirits of the dead” (in the Congo region), or with other spirits. In some African cultures the friction drum is solely played by women, while in other ones solely by men. That differs.

Some authors point out that “friction drums” in Africa can mainly be found in Angola, Southern DR Congo, parts of Zambia, and Botswana. It is also found among the Zulu, who have the “Ingungu” friction drum. These are thus mainly Bantu-speaking areas in Central-South Africa. Indeed, many slaves ending up in Brazil came from the Angola area. Friction drums were also found, however, among the Khoi people, who speak a non-Bantu language.

Other authors, however, also justly point at the presence of friction drums in other parts of Africa, like Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroun. One example is the “Etwie” among the Akan in Ghana. The etwie and other drums are however played differently: not by a stick or reed within the drum (as the cuíca and Central and Southern African ones), but rather from the outside. Moisture - and: evidently: rubbing - remains however necessary.


The reason that so many African or African-based percussion instruments survived in Brazil, and less in the British Caribbean, has to do with colonial policies in Brazil. These allowed African slaves – despite undeniable dehumanization inherent in the slavery system – some “free” cultural space, more than in British and Protestant colonies. Similar policies as in Brazil, applied in the Spanish colony of Cuba. Also in Cuba, African slaves had some relatively free cultural spaces. African-based percussion instruments from Cuba (conga’s, bongo’s, guïro’s a.o.) could develop, and became in time well-known even outside of Cuban music, and became used in other genres. The same applies – to a lesser degree – to Afro-Brazilian instruments. The “cuíca” seems to have made its way into other genres (jazz, pop a.o.), relatively more than other Brazilian instruments.

Cuba is interesting, because of some colonial similarities. Colonizers Portugal and Spain are of course two different countries – yet are bordering and with similarities, including a partly shared history, including in colonization in the Americas. Many enslaved Africans ending up in Spanish colonies like Cuba, Colombia or elsewhere were often brought by Portuguese slave traders (though in some epochs also by British, French, or Dutch traders). The Spanish tended after all to “contract out” the nasty business of the slave trading from Africa itself, after ordering African slaves for the plantations in their colonies. Other colonizing countries, like the British, in turn handled the trading in slaves also directly themselves.

Anyway, friction drums survived in Afro-Cuban culture as well. An interesting example is the “Kinfuiti” drums used in rituals of Palo Congo or Mayombe: a religious/spiritual complex among Afro-Cubans, of Congo origin. This includes “spirits” of ancestors (or “the dead”). The kinfuiti drum is a wood-based friction drum, played with a stick within the drum, producing a low sound, according to some referencing the spirits of the dead. The Kinfuiti sounds lower than the Brazilian Cuíca.


More similar, also in playing style, to Ghanaian models of friction drums (i.e. not by a stick within the drum, but with a wetted cloth), is the Ekue drum, found in the Abakuá secret society rituals among Afro-Cubans. The Abakuá tradition has its origins in the Cross River region (between Nigeria and Cameroun), explaining the different type of friction drum and playing style. The deep, low sound of the Ekue is not so much rhythmic, as it is atmospheric or spiritual, referring to a “leopard” or a “voice” of a secret, adding this sound to the more rhythmic drumming parts within Abakuá. Author Ned Sublette describes the difference as such: “the cuíca is played rhythmically to yield the high-pitched, rhythmic animal cry that animates Brazilian samba; but this (i.e. the Ekue) was a steady tenor-range drone, with the friction kept continually” (Sublette, “Cuba and its music : from the first drums to the mambo’, 2004). The Ekue is in addition heard but not seen, and its player even according to ritual tradition blindfolded, all in line with the Abakuá society’s ideas about the “secret”.

In some Afro-Brazilian religious or spiritual traditions, similar low-sounding friction drums with spiritual ritual functions exist or have been known to exist. Yet, nowadays the Cuíca is the best-known Brazilian friction drum, used mostly in secular, popular music, namely the well-known and varied Samba genre, and during carnival.


I spoke with a person I know, Carlos (also known as Nariz), who is the founder and manager of the Foundation (Stichting) Agogô (see: http://www.agogo.nl) , based in the Netherlands. This foundation gives attention to Capoeira, but also to wider (Afro-) Brazilian culture, Brazil, and other related aspects. Carlos has also travelled in Brazil, and plays Brazilian music, in a band called Banda SambaSim. He described how in Brazil and specifically Rio de Janeiro – the world’s samba hotspot – there are many samba schools (“Escolas”, in Portuguese). These compete with each other as seriously as in any professional sport league (like football), including differing divisions of level and quality. Well now, these different samba schools have different preferences and specializations: some use the cuíca a lot, others less or not.

The cuíca recurs strongly throughout samba or samba-based Brazilian music, that is certainly true. Carlos, however, also points out that it is often added, but not necessarily part of the most basic “standard set” of samba bands: this consists of the most basic and indispensable bass drums (surdo) and equally crucial accompanying drums, and further certain frame drums, e.g. the tambor repique, Brazilian-style tambourines (pandeiros), among them. Some samba bands or schools add the Cuíca to this more regularly or prominently, others less so.

The cuíca’s use – Carlos further explained – differs between different types of samba. Some are more rhythmically-focussed (e.g. at carnival processions), and the Cuícas (mostly several at once) accordingly get a more rhythmic role. In other types of samba (outside of carnival parades), it is used more for “embellishing” or “spicing up” songs and the music. This distinction – between rhythmic or embellishing - applies of course to other percussion instruments as well.


This instrument spread internationally with Brazilian music, but certainly also to other genres. Reggae in Jamaica is certainly one of these genres. Several well-known percussion players in Jamaican music and Reggae (like Bongo Herman, Skully, Sticky, Seeco) used the cuíca friction drum on many recordings and songs, since the later 1970s. Within the musical reggae framework, that is. This concerns specifically the Brazilian cuíca drum, not a friction drum of another origin. Sometimes the cuíca is used in reggae songs to “spice things up”, or add sonic “spice” – one of the functions of percussion –, or with a clear rhythmical function: the other important function of percussion. As mentioned before, not unlike its differing use within Samba in Brazil.

Bob Marley’s ’Could You Be Loved’ (1980) is in fact just one (well-known) example of its use in Reggae. There are several other songs, by different reggae artists (Mighty Diamonds, Bunny Wailer, Burning Spear, Culture and several others) that include the cuíca instrument. This is thus a direct musical influence from Brazil in reggae.

When compared to the (Afro-Cuban) “Guïro” (scraper) instrument’s use within Reggae- to which I dedicated another blog post (of February, 2016) – it is however used relatively less often. The guïro – a scraper instrument – is much more widely used within Reggae: on many songs by many different artists, and in different periods.

Okay, compared to that, the cuíca is used less in reggae. The guïro is almost “structurally” (though not universally) present in reggae percussion. The cuíca admittedly more incidentally. Yet, the sound of the cuíca recurs regularly throughout reggae, and in several songs by different artists as well. In short, reggae percussionists (e.g. Uzziah “Sticky” Thompson) use the cuíca, though less regularly than the Cuban guïro (for instance).

The Wikipedia article on the Cuíca (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cu%C3%ADca ) mentions some reggae songs with the cuíca, but the list is far from complete. People can of course make additions in Wikipedia if they encounter its use within Reggae songs not mentioned. It is difficult to get a complete overview of the “cuíca use in reggae”, though, because it is not really documented as such specifically (on what songs cuíca’s are used): it is mostly buried in the wide category of “percussion”, in most liner notes.

I like the use of the cuíca in Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Treat the Youths Right’, one of my favourite Jimmy Cliff songs, by the way. Also in Culture’s song ‘Peace and Love’ (from Culture’s 1991 album ‘Culture In Culture’) the cuíca is present quite prominently, yet well-used. Other uses I liked as well (e.g. in Bunny Wailer’s ‘Rule Dance Hall’, the Mighty Diamonds’ ‘Kinarky’). On the Wailing Souls' 'Old Broom' (from 1980, a hit in Jamaica at the time), the cuíca is a bit more improvisational, and less purely rhythmic. The cuíca certainly adds a nice touch to these songs, in my opinion. Also the biggest reggae (if funk-influenced) hit with the cuíca, Bob Marley’s well-known groovy song ‘Could You Be Loved’, would not have been the same without the crucial role of the cuíca in it.

The Wikipedia article on the Cuíca gives thus an indication of its use in reggae, if only a limited one. Further can be added that the reggae artist from Ivory Coast, Africa, Alpha Blondy, used the cuíca too on some songs (subtly/softly on ‘Jah Music’ for example).

I know that I will hear the cuíca in reggae songs not mentioned here or on the Wikipedia article as yet, or will be reminded of these songs in the course of time.

In conclusion, anyway, I think it is an interesting influence of Afro-Brazilian music on Afro-Jamaican music, and at that an interesting connection within the broader African Diaspora.

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