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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!

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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….

A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

Before summer ends I want to write about the cucuzzi, which is also known as the “Indian squash” or the “Italian edible gourd”. One of my friends, a robust native New Yorker (married to a Sicilian-American) brought me one of these long green snake-like vegetables from his garden. It was a remarkable conversation piece—as long as a broom handle and slightly obscene. He averred it was a sort of squash and advised us to skin off its waxy pale green skin and sauté it in olive oil. This lead to a confusing conversation wherein I stated that squashes are from the New World while my friend stolidly maintained that the cucuzzi was some ancient Sicilian farm thing which predated the Romans.

2009_09_02-Cucuzza

It turns out my friend was right (although I was right that true squashes and pumpkins are from the Americas). The cucuzzi is not a squash, but a gourd which is descended directly from the bottle gourd of Africa. There are arguments to be made that the bottle gourd was actually the first domesticated plant of any sort—but it was first used as a container and not as a foodstuff. Our distant ancestors carried it to the Near East and thence to Asia and Europe. It probably traveled across the Bering land bridge with the first American peoples and their domesticated dogs in the depths of time (estimate: ca. 14,000 years ago?), although a few experts instead contend it drifted across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa on its own!

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

The bottle gourd first found use as a bottle (as subtly hinted at in the common name). It grew true from wild seeds into a tough water-proof container which was of profound use to our thirsty ancestors as they trekked across deserts and arid scrublands. Presumably some of these bottles also held whatever elixirs and medicines our nomadic forbears took as they left our first homeland. Since the gourd has been around a long time, generations of farmers were able to gradually selectively breed it into an edible form (although my friend assures me that if it develops to maturity it is not worth eating). The cucuzzi is an Italian form, but the Chinese still keep bottle gourds for bottles (and as ceremonial art objects). I have a Chinese bottle gourd inscribed with a Song dynasty poem in beautiful calligraphy by my ex-girlfriend’s father (I really liked that guy). Other cultures make them into pipes, traps, or decorations.

or even clothing!

or even clothing!

I did ultimately eat the Cacuzzi sautéed with onions and olive oil (with salt and black pepper). The first night, I found them bland and green tasting, but when I reheated them and put them on noodles they were delicious…and now I want more. When I was trying to find out how to obtain seeds for these strange shape-shifting gourds from the remote depths of humankind’s past, I discovered that their name is a (friendly?) insult in contemporary Brooklyn-Italian slang. If a person is not fired by the dreadful engines of ambition, and simply sits around the house getting slowly bigger and duller he is a “gagootz”—the goomba’s way of saying cacuzzi. So, not only did humankind carry these remarkable plants from the cradle of our evolution, but, as technology and globalization take away various employment options, we are turning into them!

Man with a calabash pipe

Man with a calabash pipe

Winter always leaves everyone a bit down–especially considering that it has hardly begun and we have already been shellacked by numerous terrible snow storms.  To raise everyone’s spirits, here is the photo of a lovely late Ming double gourd vase.  For some reason the top of the vase features wallowing water buffalos, but there on the bottom globe of this tiny 16th century porcelain masterpiece is a leaping quilin—the legendary beast of heaven whose appearance presages good fortune.  He is disporting himself among Chinese white pines and fire scrolls.

A late Ming Double Gourd Vase with Pines, Magical Creatures, Fire scrolls, and Buffaloes

I’m sorry I don’t have a better picture.  The English merchants who were selling this piece didn’t quite photograph the Quilin in focus.  However even in this blurry form, the graceful lines of the magic animal are evident and the artistry of the unknown creator is very apparent.  Perhaps it was made on a bleak winter day half a millenium ago by some Jingdezhen potter who was dreaming of good fortune and summer in the mountains.

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