Hand-Held Folk Percussion

Many forms of hand-held percussive instruments have become commonplace in folk music circles for they provide a powerful way to augment the beat of the music. All are used by the Society performing group.

The Djembe Drum

A hollow fallen log, which by accident was found to produce sound, was probably the origin of both music and human communication, even predating vocal speech. There are of course many hundreds of forms of drums, and most anything like an old tin, can in some way be used for drumming, but one of the most popular instruments today used in folk music circles is the djembe drum. The Djembe drum is actually a hollowed African tree trunk with a skin drum head, a form which evolved from the early hollow log drum. The Djembe is played with both hands and a good percussionist can develop incredibly complex rhythms and tones adding depth to the band.

The Tambourine

The tambourine is a musical instrument in the percussion family consisting of a circular frame, often of wood or plastic, with pairs of small metal jingles, called "zils". Classically the term tambourine denotes an instrument with a drumhead, though some variants, as shown above, have no head at all. Tambourines and many other drum forms originating on the African continent and evolved over time. Most other percussion sounds --jingles, rasps and other sound-making techniques, like hand-clapping, probably evolved in a similar way to help ancient villagers who were separated by distance and culture to communicate in a universal language. Tambourine percussion is characteristic in many forms of folk music: Turkish, Greek, Italian and Persian folk music, and in gospel music in religious contexts. The tambourine can be held in the hand or mounted on a stand, and can be played in numerous ways, from stroking or shaking the jingles to striking it sharply with the hand or a stick or using the tambourine to strike the leg or hip.


The Washboard and The Spoons

Many folk percussionists specialize in other more modern instruments that originated in the mountain music of Appalachia - the spoons and the washboard. Mountain musicians grabbed onto just about anything they could from the kitchen to the laundry to carry the beat to the lively music to which they sang and danced. The washboard is played with either the raw fingers or with fingerpicks and strummed to the rhythm of the music along the washboard face with a downward and upward motion producing that country folk sound. Any pair of spoons will do - wooden spoons or metal spoons. They are played by "clacking" them together to set the beat.

The Castanets

Castanets are a percussion instrument much used in Spanish and Latin American music for the calypso and flamenco folk styles. The instrument consists of a pair of concave shells joined on one edge by string. These are held in the hand and used to produce clicks for rhythmic accents or a ripping or rattling sound consisting of a rapid series of clicks. They are traditionally made of hardwoods, such as oak.


The Shakers

Shakers are another large family of hand-held percussive musical instruments used commonly to create riding rhythms in folk music. Common examples are the rainstick, egg shakers and maracas. They are so called shakers because the method of creating the sound involves shaking them-moving them back and forth rather than striking them. Often, one shaker is pitched high and the other low. Most may also be struck for a greater accent on certain beats. A shaker is made simply of a container, partially full of small loose objects such as beads or stones, which create the percussive sounds as they collide with each other and the inside surface, or other fixed objects inside the container. Players hold them by their handles, usually in pairs, and shake them. Some traditional shakers consisted of hollow balls made from dried gourds or coconut shells filled with seeds or dried beans and mounted on a wooden handle. Shakers are a simple instrument, but require modest skill to play in time to music. When the player changes the direction of motion to produce the sound, the seeds or dried beans must travel some distance before they hit the hard outer surface. This creates a slight delay that requires that the player anticipate the rhythm. Players also strike maracas against their hand or leg to get a different sound.


The cabasa is yet another common hand-held percussion instrument that is today constructed with loops of steel ball chain wrapped around a wide cylinder. The cylinder is fixed to a long, narrow wooden or plastic handle. The original version of the cabasa was originally of African origin, and constructed from dried oval- or pear-shaped gourds with beads strung on the outer surface. The metal cabasa was created by Martin Cohen, founder of Latin Percussion. He built a more durable cabasa providing a metallic, rattling sound when shaken or twisted, similar to the sound of a rattlesnake. Precise rhythmic effects can be gained by the advanced player. The player places his non-dominant hand on the metal chain, to provide pressure, while holding the wooden handle with the other hand and twisting the instrument back and forth as per the rhythmic pattern desired.

Sand Blocks

The sand blocks produce a scratchy sound to the beat that sits in the background of the music to add a subtle percussive effect. The blocks are made by fastening various grits of sandpaper around wooden blocks. They are simple to make and different kinds of sandpaper produces different percussive sounds when the blocks are rubbed together to the beat of the music.