Earlier this year, Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” came on at a party I was at. I didn’t recognize the song at first; the room was crowded, and making out Simon’s strumming over multiple streams of chatter and conversation proved difficult. But then I heard it: a sharp noise, cutting through the track’s major chords in jagged intervals like a pair of blunt scissors. When I asked my friend what she thought the sound was, she paused, then guessed it might have been a duck. Another friend likened it to throat singing. They didn’t expect that the alien noise came from a type of drum — the cuíca.
The cuíca is an odd instrument. It can buzz, hum, squeak and squawk; it can moan or creak; sometimes it even sounds like it’s weeping. If we’re being specific, cuícas are Brazilian friction drums, and although the word “friction” refers to the method used to play the instrument (musicians reach inside the drum to manipulate a wooden stick while their second hand applies pressure to the other side), the word also describes the abrasive effect it can have on listeners. Punching through songs as if it disagrees with how they’re supposed to sound, the cuíca is a key instrument in the bateria, the drumming wing of Rio de Janeiro’s samba ensembles during Carnival.
I can’t remember the first time I heard it. Maybe it was in my grandmother’s living room in Brasília late one Christmas Eve, when, after a few drinks, my aunt Patrícia would put on Chico Buarque’s “Apesar de Você.” Or perhaps I heard it when I was still a baby, when my mom would play one of her favorite songs, “Carolina Carol Bela,” by Jorge Ben Jor and Toquinho. The particular moment hardly matters. The cuíca’s central role in most Brazilian music — from samba to Tropicália — means it has swathed me all my life. While I’ll never know where I first heard the drum, I keep going back to that sound, searching it out.
I left Brazil when I was 1 and have spent most of my life outside the country. Though I now live in London, I’m still sensitive to sounds and smells that remind me of my birthplace. I would be lying if I said I like to listen to the cuíca for that reason, though. When I hear the cuíca, it doesn’t take me back to Brazil; it takes me somewhere else altogether.
I struggle with being present, and often gravitate toward things that demand my attention in quick bursts: fountains, spicy food, the color orange, Leos. Cuícas fall into that category. They swallow me whole one moment, only to cough me back up the next. Hearing the sound feels like the aural equivalent of driving over a pothole. For a second or two, I jump in my seat. My stomach clenches. I lose track of space and time. Then, after a few measures, I’m back in the real world again, only now everything around me feels clearer and louder — and emptier, too. Sometimes I feel as though I may have misplaced something in the process. But when I rack my brain for what that might be, I can never figure out what I’m looking for.
It can buzz, hum, squeak and squawk; it can moan or creak; sometimes it even sounds like it’s weeping.
In some ways, the cuíca’s ability to transport listeners is part of its appeal. When Paul Simon was recording “Me and Julio” with the Brazilian jazz percussionist Airto Moreira, he said he wanted something that sounded “like a human voice” in the mix — a noise that would surprise and move people, making the song’s characters come alive. After Moreira played the cuíca for him, Simon knew he’d found what he needed. He wasn’t the only one who liked the way it sounded either: In 1972, the song charted in the U.S. for nine straight weeks.
It’s a strange yet pleasant sensation, often making me think of the different processes that move sounds across space and instruments across continents. Pain and joy commingle in the history of the cuíca. Some historians believe that, like many percussion instruments in the region, enslaved Africans brought it to the Americas; it took root in Brazil in the form of samba. It’s believed that people originally used the drum to hunt lions, hoping that the animals would mistake the noise for another living being. After all, not many instruments sound like weeping or laughing, ducks or singing.
The more I reflect on the uniqueness of the sound, the more I find myself reckoning with the complex history of migration — both forced and otherwise — that underpins it. It makes me think of how, in the Americas — where most of us are migrants or descendants of migrants — it’s hard to know exactly where or what “home” is. Sometimes it’s beans and bay leaves and strangers whose voices undulate when they talk. The cuíca, though, reminds me of my own history of movement. It complicates the idea of home.
A few months ago, I was out at a bar when I heard the instrument again — this time in the form of Jorge Ben Jor’s “Taj Mahal.” Seated at the table with my friend, I couldn’t keep track of what we were talking about. That strange noise — laughing? gasping? weeping? — in the background commanded my attention. Once the song was over, I returned to the conversation in full. Secretly, though, I’d been carried to a different time and place entirely, and found myself wishing I could stay there a while longer.
Carolina Abbott Galvão is a writer based in London.