zondag 2 juli 2017

Castanets in a wider context

Within the wide and varied world of percussion you also have the “castanets”. Interestingly, this small wooden percussion instrument has a quite specific geographic association. Castanets are seen as typically Spanish and as one of Spain’s “national instruments”, along with the Spanish guitar. They are often played while dancing, and the way they are attached around the thumb of each hand, plus their size, facilitate this. They consist of two wooden pieces connected by rope, and attached, as said, usually around the thumb of each hand. This leaves the other four fingers free to hit the castanets.

Its use – presently and historically – is not totally exclusive to Spain, though it’s there that the castanet tradition is preserved and developed most, found in different folk music genres there. These genres include the Jota, the Fandango: spread throughout Spain in variants, and – more in South Spain - in the Sevillana and certain (not all) Flamenco types. So, in different parts of Spain: North, Centre, and South. Interestingly, it combines with different local instruments, such as the bagpipes in certain Northwestern parts of Spain (Galicia and Asturias), or more with guitars, flutes, drums, or other percussion in other parts of Spain, without that bagpipe tradition.

It is further also used in Portugal, in historically Spanish-infuenced Latin America and the Philippines, but is also found in different variants also in countries like Croatia and (South) Italy. Interestingly, in the Philippines (where local variants of Spanish genres, like the Jota, also developed) castanets are often made of bamboo (in Spain of wood, once chestnut wood, now often tropical hardwood).


I am of Spanish descent from my maternal side, so have encountered castanets (usually played in pairs) at my parents’or family members or friends’ houses, since I was a child. I also saw them being played, and tried to play them myself some times. Much later, as I specialized in percussion, I began to look at the castanets from that perspective. I specialized more in conga’s, bongos, ashiko, djembe, kete, and talking drums – let’s say African and Afro-Caribbean drums - , yet I also maintained a parallel interest in “small percussion” of different kinds (shakers, wooden, metal, or bamboo instruments), and all its intriguing variation in sounds. This includes the castanets. In my composition (instrumental) underneath I play the castanets, for instance.


Africa is the continent most associated with both rhythm and percussion, though harmony and melody, and nonrhythmic instruments, play roles there too. It is all relative and a matter of proportion. A very simplistic overview I once read is that in African music the emphasis is on rhythm, in Europe on harmony, and in Asia on melody. In fact, all three are found in traditional musics of the mentioned continents. It is just a matter of emphasis, but a point can be made that relatively Africa is the most “percussive” continent. This was also argued by scholar Robert Farris-Thompson.

The castanets – as a percussion instrument - seem to represent such an exception to a generalized rule of “nonrhythmical”or “nonpercussive” Europeans. It is associated with one South European country most (Spain), and with some other parts of Southern Europe.


Its historical origins, however, date them back to similar instruments in Ancient Egypt, and later among the Phoenicians, a travelling, trading people with a Semitic language, spreading it throughout the Mediterranean, including Spain, since around 3000 BC. These ancient instruments similar to later castanets transformed maybe into what are called “crótalos” in Spanish, or “zill” in English, but now referring to small, metal cymbals around the fingers, known presently in Turkish and Greek folk dances. Similar in size to the castanets, but other, namely metal material.

Originally, though, these were derived from earlier Egyptian wooden versions. These “proto-castanets”were even depicted in paintings from Ancient Egypt. Historians see specifically the “menat”, small, flat slabs of wood or ivory, as such “proto-castanets”, used back then in worshipping musically Hathor, the goddess of banquets and music making (!).


Hair and other physical features from the people playing them on such drawings, looked more African than European or even Mediterranean, as much more in Ancient Egypt came from more to the South in Africa. Distancing Ancient Egypt from Black Africa and what is now the Sudan area – further down the Nile – is historically incorrect, but was probably done deliberately by European, colonial and imperial forces to maintain the “uncivilized” and “wild” Africa stereotype.


For this reason, denoting castanets as “European percussion instrument” is not even entirely accurate.


However interesting these origins, equally interesting is how the castanets got used so much in traditional Spanish music. Its main sound is “clicking” (some say: “clacking”) variously – both “slamming” and “rolling” so to speak - allowing therefore mainly a rhythmic function. I play castanets better by now, and experience first-hand the variety of sounds that they can produce. Melodies can be played with it, though with limitations. The lower-pitched castanets on the left hand plays main slams and accentuates basic rhythms, whereas with the higher-pitched castanet on the right (or apt) hand there is more variation, with all four remaining fingers used (it is usually tied around the thumb), with the small finger producing for instance a higher sound than the middle finger, etcetera.

This tonality range allows for some semi-melodical patterns, but the same applies for other well-known percussion instruments like the congas and bongos, or other drums with differing pitches. Melodies are not impossible, but their use is mainly rhythmical.

I found it furthermore intriguing that the supportive, base rhythm is traditionally played with the lower-pitched castanet, and the variation and free patterns by the higher-pitched one. This very same distinction is found in other percussive traditions outside of Spain too. Such as in the Afro-Cuban congas, and bongos. In the case of Cuba one might assume a Spanish influence, but the same principle can be found in some traditional African music: low pitch drums as base rhythms, higher pitched ones as improvizing, varying, and freer: dundun and djembe combinations in the Guinee/Mande-speaking region, for instance. Also, in Nyabinghi and other Jamaican Afro-folk drumming (Burru, Kumina) the same principle more or less applies.

Apparently there are universal percussive principles, across continents and cultures.


The very “clicking”sound of the castanets is also interesting symbolically. No European language really has “click” sounds as letters – not any -, unlike some African languages do (especially Southern Bantu languages like Xhosa and Zulu, as well as in Khoi San languages, such as those of the Bushmen). The well-known movie The Gods Must Be Crazy (set in Botswana) made such languages relatively more known globally. There are – by the way – various click sounds in these languages, representing different letters. African peoples speaking such “click” languages are known to have the oldest human DNA , giving the castanet sound symbolically even more meaning. It must be said, though, that “click-like” high pitched wood sounds, and wooden rattles (the faster rolling patterns of the castanets can ressemble a rattle), are found in Africa traditionally too.


Be that as it may, the castanets as such are in international music culture, mostly associated with Spanish culture. When used outside of Spanish folk music - or by non-Spanish musicians - they were mostly used also as a referrence to “something Spanish” or Hispanic or Spanish music. By classical composers like Ravel, but also by great jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, such as on his Sketches of Spain album (1960), which was essentially Miles’ ode to Spanish folk music..

The US Soul band the Impressions, led by Curtis Mayfield, used them on their song Gipsy Woman (1961), probably as referrence to Spanish gipsy culture. The castanets are used in some forms of the South-Spanish genre Flamenco too, by the way, and Flamenco became in time strongly Gipsy-influenced. (Flamenco is however not really or solely of “Gipsy origin” as I read somewhere).


Outside of Spanish music as such – from Spain itself: folk genres like the Jota, the Fandango, Sevillana, the Flamenco etcetera -, or referrences to it, it was long not very commonly used among percussionists. This differs from other “smaller” percussion instruments like the cowbell, shakers, tambourines, scrapers, “barchimes”, the “triangle” or woodblock or jamblock instruments, more widely used by percussionists than the castanets, and often without specific geographical association .

There are, however, some examples of castanet use in songs in different genres as just another percussion instrument without referrence to “something Spanish” in particular (in funk, reggae, jazz, pop), though not very much as yet. More experimental jazz and other artists use them occasionally, by the way.

I know much about Reggae music, and use of percussion in it, and neither know of too many examples of castanet use in this genre. At the same time the guïro scraper (after all from nearby Cuba) is heard very commonly (Max Romeo’s Chase The Devil being a relatively well-known example) throughout reggae, as are rattles, bells, shakers, and blocks. Even the cover of the aforementioned Impressions tune Gipsy Woman by the great Mighty Diamonds, did not maintain the castanets of the original. This cover is nonetheless very good musically in my opinion: a very good version – the Mighty Diamonds’singer Donald “Tabby” Shaw has a marvelous voice, and the harmonies are fine - , only without the castanets of the original. There is at least one Reggae song, though, where I think to hear a castanet sound, or at least a very similar-sounding instrument (maybe a castanet stick/with handle?). That is on Johnny Clarke’s Babylon. An interesting, “groovy” use, while I found funny (don’t know exactly why) that the dub version of the song has even a reverb effect on that castanet sound..

I am thinking that it would be an interesting task for me: to broaden these castanets’ use. Spreading its use musically to different genres, beyond Spanish folk music. After all I am percussionist, am of Spanish descent, actually can play castanets a bit too, and am a fan of reggae music, liking funk, soul, and African music too.

I guess you have to set goals in life..


That’s one aspect that keeps fascinating me about the world of percussion: the associated variety in sounds through often simple means. The essential, existential art of “enjoying the small things in life”.. Percussion’s rhythmic function places hereby more emphasis on the basic, essential “sound” as such, than of other instruments, somewhat “drowned” and hidden, within harmonies or melodies.

There is a great variety of sounds possible in nature, and in the entire world – of course -, being produced already by the earliest of humans musically. Wood (and stone) of course came before metal or glass, that developed later in history. Drums (with added animal skin), but also wood logs, belong to the oldest percussion instruments, including hollowed out tree trunks or branches, used both as drum in Africa (as log or tongue drums) since a long time, and the equally ancient Didgeridoo wind instrument of the Aboriginals in Australia, traditionally made by hollowed out (by termites, by the way) eucalyptus tree branches.

Other cultures have long traditions of such wooden instruments too, including China. Some historians even claim that the small woodblock, now common also among percussionists in the West and in different pop genres, has its origins in Chinese music by monks. Asian traditional music is more associated with, regarding percussion, material made of metal (gongs) and bamboo, but there are wooden instruments used in Asian cultures too historically.

In traditional African music, wood was and is commonly used as percussion (like the ancient log drums), besides of course as frame for drums with skins, including for more melodic xylophone-like instruments (balafon).

Within Europe, some wooden instruments have long traditions too, such as certain wooden rattles in the Ukraine area, sticks, and the Txalaparta instrument among the Basques.

In Cuba, a known example are the “claves”: two wooden sticks used in Afro-Cuban music (son, rumba, salsa), as rhythmic time keeper (2-3, or 3-2), with some similarities to castanets, notably in its high, sharp - if less flexible – sound. Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz once assumed that the castanets might have been a partial influence on these Cuban claves, although the playing style is different. Cuba was after all a Spanish colony, and similar “clave”-like instruments are not really found in other colonies and cultures. The drum shells being hit in traditional African music might be another probable predecessor to the Cuban claves, though..

What interests me here, is whether there are similar sounding wooden percussion instruments, played also through “wood on wood”, but with comparable “clicking” sounds, like the castanets. In other words: might the castanets therefore add something “new” and unique to the palet and possibilities for percussionists in different genres?


The already mentioned woodblock – common in standard percussion sets, and according to some of Chinese origin – has a vaguely similar high sound, but quite different (“rounder”, deeper) than most sound castanets can produce. The woodblock is at times added to (trap) drum kits, and is a precursor to the jamblock (using tougher, artificial material called weniger), even more commonly used in modern music circles nowadays. Both these woodblocks and jamblocks – the high, middle, and low pitch – have a “rounder”, deeper sound when compared to the sounds of the castanets.

Interestingly, with trap drum kits, the “rim shot” has become a common technique, achieved by hitting the top half of drum stick on the (usually metal) rim of the snare drum, while resting the hand on the drum skin itself. The rim shot has become a common technique among (trap) drummers, also in a genre like Reggae. Due to its “sharp” sound, it has a vague similarity to certain castanet sounds, epecially as also a “slow rattle”can be produced through a repeated rim-shot. Not quite the same, but showing that in modern music genres, there is a felt need for such “high-pitched” percussive sounds.

Rattles have a long history, connected with human kind and different cultures from ancient days, and on different continents. The Amerindians used these relatively often, but it is also known in Africa and certain parts of Europe. The castanets combine two pairs that combined – the one hand basic beats, the other hand finger work – can produce a fast or slower “rattle”or “roll”sound, or half-rattle or half-roll. Especially more skilled players such as in Spain, and elsewhere (such as the famous and skilled Mexican castanet player Lucero Tena), can produce remarkably fast “rattles” with these castanets. As said, the Cuban claves sound high, but also “rounder” than the castanets, without the variety possible: hands are used to hit one stick against another: finger work is here not used. The claves Africano (or Rumba claves) I play at times sound even”lower” and rounder than the original claves. In my own instrumental percussion composition Mbao I use only wooden instruments, yet not the castanets. Some of those I play in it have nonetheless sonic similarities with the castanets (the little pot was not meant as instrument).

Thus, somewhat similar instruments exist, simply because wooden material is often hit with wooden sticks, as some international examples I gave before. Castanets and related instruments have, on the other hand, still something unique in their small, similar size, and the two wooden parts slammed together with the fingers. The pieces’ form – roundish, hollowed and open on one side – combined for this with the type of wood used (traditionally chestnut wood: the Spanish term Castañuela for Castanets is dervied from this), although now other wood types are preferred by specialists (notably tropical hard woods like granadillo and rosewood).

These factors, plus the specific finger use, and its attachment to the thumb of each hand, makes that the castanets are overall quite unique in their “clicking” sound, including “rolling” and even a clicking “rattle” sound – with some flexibility, even “half-rolls”are possible - , when played fast (read: when: fingers move faster).


This rolling click sound make castanets quite unique, at least when compared to the “standard kit” of many percussionists in the West. I am collecting various percussion instruments for quite some time now (even relatively unknown ones), but when I started to attend and later play live performances, such as on jam sessions in various music clubs, I noticed the recurrence of an almost standardized set of percussion in some genres, such as in the genres Salsa, other Latin American genres, in Reggae, Funk, Pop, Soul, or Jazz. The originally Afro-Cuban congas and bongos are well-known and usually part of such a standard set, the also Cuban-oriented Timbales often too, but also usually the mentioned woodblocks, the jamblocks, cowbells, tambourines, the - for some reason – omnipresent “bar chimes”, and often also a guïro scraper.

These are simply relatively well-known percussion instruments, being relatively longer used in Western pop music. It differs a bit per genre, and some musicians or artists have a more experimental approach, of course, adding other “rarer” percussion instruments. In Reggae music one often finds such a quite functional “standard percussion set” as in other genres, but to which is often added a specific, cylindrical drum called “kete”, or “nyabinghi drum”, mostly of Ghanaian origin, and connected historically to both Afro-Jamaican folk music (Burru), and to music by Rastafari adherents in Jamaica. This kete drum therefore represents a specific, once local culture. Not so strange, as the conga and bongo drums were once limited to Cuba – based on African models, like the kete - but spread internationally earlier. Also local Brazilian percussion instruments have begun to spread globally, such as the cuíca friction drum, the agogo, while other instruments still remain mainly within Brazilian music contexts.

This last also applies to the castanets: they mostly remain within Spanish music contexts, safe a few exceptions of experimental artists just focussing on the “sound”, rather than its musical context. Thus, it is hardly ever part of that “standard percussion set” in modern popular music.

Perhaps, it is a matter of time, and the castanets soon will become commonly used outside of Spanish or Spanish-referring music, and not just within it, as a common instrument for percussionists in whatever genre.


I am willing to promote this use in Reggae, Funk, Blues, Rock, Soul or other genres, but will at the same time not forget or neglect its intriguing ancient roots and history in Ancient Egypt and in Spanish folk traditions, wherein castanets even helped “shape” certain genres. Moreover, castanets remain a “living tradition” in Spain and its folk music at present, which I find good to cherish.

It is almost funny that several Spanish music stores have much similarities with music stores elsewhere in Europe, only with often distinctive “Spanish cultural” instruments, relatively many Spanish guitars, but also Flamenco cajóns (or: rumba boxes), as well as often a specific castanets section. In my experience of visiting such music stores in the Netherlands, I noticed that castanets were instead rather a, well, exotic “oddity”, with seldom more than one or two pairs in even bigger stores.

I opine that one must not be conservative culturally – there is too often a thin line between being conservative and reactionary - , or should maintain a tradition simply for its own sake. I also think, though, that such traditions can be good to build on and develop an own culture from, to grow from such roots, and then maintain what’s really valuable, artistic, and enduring over time.

In addition, countries with own musical traditions (some European ones maintained this relatively more, such as Ireland, Spain, Greece, parts of Eastern Europe and rural Italy) may feel less the need to simply steal or copy other people’s culture and claim it as their own, dishonestly. English “tea drinking” being a good example (copied from India). Italian pasta (once based on Asian mie), another example. This has happened throughout colonial history too, being often the result of unequal relations and conquest, rather than an equal mutuality of influences.

Let us all develop our own traditions and cultures on an equal basis, and see whether we can inspire each other, I would say..

In conclusion, castanets remain at present as a percussion instrument mainly contextualized within the confines of Spanish traditional folk music. Perhaps this is too confined, as the “clicking” sound has in itself unique qualities, possibly fitting various, international music genres..

Maybe, just maybe, there is a task there for me..