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The Guiro (by Nino)

The Guiro (manufactured by Nino)

I was busy drawing musicians playing crazy instruments for a project when the sinking feeling hit me that I would have to scrape together a blog entry for Valentine’s Day. Then it further hit me that I would also have to scrape together an additional post before that. Suddenly, there was the answer, right in front of me: scrape…weird musical instrument…the guiro!

A Guiro Made from a Gourd

A Guiro Made from a Gourd

The guiro is a percussion instrument with hard ribbed sides which produce an insectoid clicking when rubbed with a little stick. Musicologists classify such a thing as a scraped idiophone. The ratchet sound which the guiro produces doesn’t sound very good when I describe it, but it is delightful in traditional Latin American music (especially music from the Greater Antilles—Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, etc.). Some sources contend that the guiro has Pre-Colombian roots and is an ancient part of the culture of the Americas, but, sadly, I couldn’t find any unimpeachable examples online (and it’s too late to bang on the Met’s door)—so believe this dubious history at your peril.

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Traditional guiros are made with gourds, wood, or horn. Modern ones can also be made of fiberglass and plastic. Although I like the sound which they make, the best part of the guiro tends to be its fanciful appearance. The instrument can be a big utilitarian cylinder, however for aesthetic reasons, it is often made in a fanciful animal shape—particularly that of a colorful fish. During music class in first grade, the teacher would sometimes dump out a huge box of simple percussion instruments—chimes, bells, triangles, castanets, maracas, tambourines, rattles, and clackers of all sorts—and we would each choose one and all play together to make a terrible cacophonous din (maybe the music teacher was trying to scare evil spirits away from Falmouth). Anyway there was always a fight for the magnificent fish guiro—which was then always allocated by the teacher to a student who was not me.

A Magnificently Colored Fish Guiro

A Magnificently Colored Fish Guiro

Below is a video demonstrating how to play the guiro (although I feel like most individuals could figure this out on their own). It does however present the rasping sound of the guiro. Another one of these little video clips put forth some useful pronunciation advice: the “g” in guiro is a Spanish “g” and is pronounced rather like a “w” in English. “Guiro” should be said sort of like “weirdo” (but with no “d” sound). Hmm…


The fish is colorful and traditional, but it is not the only animal shape which guiros come in. Here are some animal-shaped guiros which include a crocodile, an armadillo, and even a snail!

crocodile-guiro

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frog-woodblockguiro-14-cm

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Snail Guiro!

Snail Guiro!

These are beautiful! I wonder if I added one of these things to my music collection, would my roommates fight for it—or would they just fight me for making such musical scraping noises. Maybe we had better appreciate the guiro from afar for the moment….

Pullman-Train-Clive-Hanley

So, I tremendously appreciated all of the thoughtful responses to last week’s post about branding.  I took all of your kind words and good ideas to heart and I am continuing to mull over the secret mysteries of what makes some things so profoundly popular.  In fact, this concept of branding (and the psychological and practical underpinnings of recognizable things) bears on today’s post about color…specifically about the color brown, which Ferrebeekeeper has shamefully overlooked in the many posts concerning different hues.  But first, we must digress back to America’s railroad past…

Pullman Car Interior. Box #16 Folder #723.

Pullman Car Interior. Box #16 Folder #723.

The Pullman Co. was a railroad concern which operated sleeping cars from 1867 until 1968 throughout the United States. The name was legendary for comfort, style, and service.  Pullman was a visionary entrepreneur who discovered inspiration in a bad railroad journey he had suffered during his youth. This uncomfortable ordeal became the impetus for a lifelong obsession with traveling well.  His cars featured comfortable foldaway beds, separator drapes, fashionable furniture, and other amenities unknown in the day. In time there were even libraries, dining rooms, and rolling kitchens which served meals cooked on the (traveling) premises.

sleeping car porters

The Pullman Co. also played a big role in African American history, since the attendants who worked on Pullman cars—the equally legendary Pullman porters–were largely black.  The porters’ union was important in American labor struggles and was one of the first nationally organized entities to stand up for African-American concerns at the workplace and beyond.

In fact, the story of the company touches on all sorts of different aspects of late nineteenth and early twentieth century life. There was a sprawling company town in Illinois where everything was Pullman.  There were horrifying strikes, and strange incestuous deals with railroad monopolies, and all sorts of turn of the century business and political shenanigans.  Eventually there were manufacturing alliances, and anti-trust cases. However all of this is part of a different & bigger story…

Gosh...

Gosh…

As the railroads were replaced by highly dangerous automobiles, the Pullman Company attempted to branch out into trolleys and even buses, but the concept of comfortable and elegant travel was doomed to fade from the world.  Sadly the era of luxury travel by light rail has receded into the storied past and Pullman cars seem like they belong to a vastly bygone era—like clipper ships, powdered wigs, or eel pies.

A Brunswick Green Locomotive with Pullman Brown Cars

A Brunswick Green Locomotive with Pullman Brown Cars

However, the name does not just live on in sad railroad ballads, it also had an associated color—Pullman brown.   Pullman selected a shade of brown for aesthetic reasons and because it was easy to clean (no mean feat on a nineteenth century railroad).   Presumably he liked the color too (although here I am speculating). When the company died, this color lived on…and there was another national company which operated big boxy wheeled things ready to pounce.  People who have never seen a Pullman sleeper car should instantly recognize the color, because UPS uses it as an integral part of their brand.  All UPS trucks and uniforms are Pullman brown.

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The reasons for this are multifold. Perhaps most importantly most parcels were (and are) packaged in brown cardboard so the association was natural.  Also the color apparently is easy to keep clean (or perhaps a more punctilious person would say it doesn’t show dirt).   Apparently, early on, UPS discovered that people had fond memories of Pullman brown and associated it with luxury and competence. Today UPS has all sorts of trademarks, patents, and suchlike legalistic protections over the color (!) and it is even part of their off-putting slogan “What can Brown do for you?”  I wonder what other corporate branding choices trace their history back into bygone worlds.

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