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Welcome To
DJEMBE-L
FAQ
HOW TO MAKE A SHEKERE
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HOW TO MAKE A SHEKERE
by Steve Tierra
© 1996-2000 Djembe-L FAQ. All Rights Reserved. (last revision 03/13/2005)


shekere         chekere         achere      shek'er'e           shaker        axatse

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INTRODUCTION

The following information is merely a presentation of my personal experience of making a shekere (shay-ka-ray ). I developed this page so that others might have ready access to the basic information that I had to search out. I've tried to offer alternate perspectives when I've known of them. I'm sure that many of the techniques listed below can be improved upon. Remember: There is no right way to this....the idea to have fun and end up with a percussion toy that has your personal touch throughout.

[Note: Photos are thumbnails for quick loading - click for large size)
Pictures of 4th & 5th graders making shekere's

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Table of Contents:

Materials List
 
Gourds
 
Finding Gourds
Choosing a Gourd
Prices of Gourds
Cleaning and Preparing for Covering

Beads
 
 
Cord
 
Cord Arrangement
Type of Cord / How Much Cord?
Covering the Gourd
 
Foundation Rings
Foundation Rings - How Big?
Cord Length - Cutting and Attaching to the Foundation Ring
Putting the Ring on the Gourd and Starting the Mesh
Adding the Beads
Completing the Mesh

Materials List

one or more dried, hard shell gourds - 4 to 18 " in diameter
small saw (hacksaw or small wood saw)
coat hanger(s)
assorted kitchen tools (spoons, scrapers, etc.) broken drum sticks, etc.
water and scrub brush
sandpaper (optional)
a vase or upturned ashiko
a few round wooden toothpicks or short bamboo skewers
4 or 6 wide fat rubber bands
crazy glue (optional)
shellac or tung oil (wood stain if you want other than a natural tan gourd) (optional)
cord (nylon, cotton/linen, polyester)
beads (wooden, plastic, glass) in quantities to match the size of the gourd
small lighter if using nylon or polyester cord
patience


Gourds

Finding Gourds

If you have the time to grow your own gourds the experience can be rewarding (though quite possibly frustrating as well). Check local nurseries or seed catalogs for hard shell bottle gourds. They go out in the ground in the Spring, mature in the Fall like pumpkins but will not be dried and ready to use until months later. I purchased one green from the field in early October, it wasn't ready to work with until the following March.

If you want to buy one already dried, start by calling your county Agricultural Commissioner or call or visit a local feed store or nursery to see if someone in your area grows gourds for sale to the public. Flea markets and farmers markets are also a good place to check. Craft stores might also have a few. Since gourds require several months to dry you might not find them until the spring rather than expect to see them as a Fall product.

If they are not available locally or you don't want to search, try:

West Mountain Gourd Farm
Rt 1 Box 853
Gilmer, Texas 75644
903 734-5204
pre cleaned
Lena Braswell Gourds
Box 73
Wrens, GA 30833
706 547-6784
raw- not cleaned
 
The Gourd Factory
PO Box 9
Linden, CA 95236
209 887-3694
most cleaned, ready to use
American Gourd Society 
www.americangourdsociety.org
New address:
American Gourd Society
317 Maple Ct.
Kokomo, IN 46902-3633
765-453-5047


Shekeres come in many sizes and variations of shape. They can be small enough to be played in one hand by the natural handle, or large enough that they must be played using both hands. You'll obviously have to decide how large a shekere you'll want when choosing the gourd. The best way to make your choice is "in person", when you can handle them and check their feel in your hands. If you order through the mail be sure and tell the supplier what you plan to do with it....take a chance and tell them more than you think they want to know....it might make the difference between getting a gourd that fits and one that doesn't.


Choosing a Gourd (Green)

I bought one right from the field, just before the plants had been killed by frost, and took it home green. I had seen the ugly rotted look of gourds left to mature outside and thought I could get a better looking surface by drying it at home, out of the weather. I cut it from the plant and left about an inch of stem. Aside from checking the fit in your hand, be sure that the gourd is firm and has no weak or discolored areas that might be problems as it dries. I hung it (inside) on the back porch using a coat hanger loosely looped around the narrowed neck. It took weeks before it seemed to loose any weight and seemed to be drying at all. It developed a yellow -tan color and mottled areas of gray and white mold. Do not attempt to hasten the drying process by cutting off the stem end, when I tried this on another gourd it shriveled in odd places and began to dry with many surface flaws and depressions.

 

Choosing a Gourd (Dried)

Don't be surprised (or shocked) if you find a gourd at a farm or supply store that looks rotten and ugly. Most farms let the plants grow till the first frost kills the plants and even then they let them lay in the field to dry (at least here in California). By spring the gourds will look dirty and covered with mold and peeling, rotten black and brown skin. Look for the size, shape, and fit you want and then check to be sure that the gourd has no weak spots, holes, or bad blemishes. The ugly skin will actually wash off and the gourd will be much nicer than it appears at first. Compare the weights and the "thunk’ sound of gourd against your palm to find one that has a good thick shell.

 

Price

I purchased two gourds recently from a local farm. They used a plywood circle gauge and set the price by the size of the gourd....about a dollar an inch over about 4". The larger the gourd the greater the price. So for a gourd that fit through an 8" hole (but not a 7") I paid $8.00.

 


 

Cleaning and Preparing for Covering

Before you can use the gourd to make your shekere be sure that it is dry, you’ll need to clean it up, cut the end off, remove the seeds and at least remove the thin layer of skin.

I cleaned up the two gourds I bought in two different ways. While I knew that accepted method for cleaning the outside was to merely wash them, I decided to handle the gourd that dried inside and did not develop at funky rotten skin differently. In comparing the two gourds  I found that the one that dried inside seemed to have it's skin intact. I used 220 grit sandpaper to remove the yellow skin and reveal the wood colored tan layer beneath. When the dried gourd is actually thicker than you might imagine, in the range of 1/4" in places, I believe that the second surface (just under the skin) is somewhat thin, so I would not suggest sanding the surface too much. I used 100 grit paper to even the job, but even them many scratches are still evident. The hand sanding job took about two hours. The surface of this gourd has wonderful burl-shaped markings from the mold patches and the surface is smooth to the touch. I spent some time carefully sanding the "nub" at the large end (where the flower scar leaves a mark) so that it would be easy on the hand.

 

On the other hand, the gourd that had dried in the field cleaned up quickly with warm water and scrubber backed sponge. I filled a bucket with warm water, briefly dipped the gourd in and allowed the water to soak the skin for a minute or so. The black patches and funky surface scrubbed off also displaying a nice mottled surface of the gourd. In this case the actually surface is less smooth than if it were sanded, somewhat like a fine orange peel texture. This took about 10 minutes. As soon as I was finished washing it I wiped the excess water off and set in the sun to dry again.

Once both were dry I used a saw from a miter box to cut off the stem ends at a point that felt right when they were held in my hands. Try the fit I your hands several times (remember: Measure twice , cut once.) Be sure that you don't cut it too short, so that it is uncomfortable to hold while you play. The gourd cuts like pine. The opening allows you to clean them out, but also to allow the sound of beads against the surface to resonant. I've seen small bottle gourds (hand rattle size) with the stem left intact and a hole cut in the side of the gourd.

Once the ends were off I took a plain wire coat hanger, collapsed it into a long loop, and twisted the hook end into a small loop with only a tiny sharp point sticking out. I used the hanger to poke and twist and pry the seeds and paper-like material from the body of the gourd. Be careful not to poke a hole with hanger while you do the best you can to get everything out of the cavity or to leave more than a tiny point or else the wire will catch and stick inside the gourd!

 

Use whatever you can find to clean up the inside, including the neck. The cleaner the inside the less sealer (next step) will be absorbed by the left over dried material inside. Once I was satisfied with the body I found that the curve of a simple teaspoon worked great to clean up the soft white lining of the inside of the neck. A grapefruit knife (or spoon) would be good as well. I sanded the saw cut smooth and worked the sharp edge of the cut to a softer feel around the neck.

Seal the inside of the gourd to strengthen it as well as improve the resonance. I used 3lb white shellac on the inside; others suggest tung oil. In any case spread some papers, have your clean up stuff handy and just pour the solution into the gourd. Roll it around and slowly turn the gourd neck down to allow the material to coat the inside until it drips (or pours) from the neck. Wipe off any excess from the outside of the neck. If you didn't clean the dried material out very well it might take more than you think to coat it the first time. Set the gourd in the sun to dry....over night or a long day would be good. Repeat this step for a total of two coats inside the gourd.

When the inside is good and dry, lightly sand any excess on the outside of the neck. Opinions differ on what to do with the outside. The choice is yours and apparently no treatment to the outside is really necessary. The gourd will respond like a light wood, so you can seal it, stain it, or leave it plain.

I chose to use clear satin Tung oil on the outside rather than the thicker shellac. I wiped the oil on wipe a soft rag and it deepened the colors of the surface without building up a thick evident coat of sealer. Take your coat hanger, form the large loop so that it is a press fit into the neck. It will expand slightly in the body and allow you to treat the outside and hang it to dry when you are done. I used #000 steel wool on the first coat, then wiped on a second. After the second was dry I went over the surface with the steel wool again to cut the sheen a bit. You could, of course, use a stain, or a combination stain sealer like Watco. I have seen shekeres that have had a small patterned border painted on the neck near the opening. I considered doing some light wood burning of a pattern into mine, but saved that for another model.

 


Beads

Choice of Beads

The beads you choose will have a direct impact on the sound, endurance, and cost of your shaker. Hard materials like shell or glass beads will make a louder brighter sound against the gourd but can also break more easily if the shekere is accidentally dropped. Plastic beads are cheaper than glass, produce a softer sound, and don't break as easily but also are just that...plastic.

You might also want to consider where and how you plan to use it (primarily). If you play outside with fifteen djembe players (and a couple of djun djuns) you might want glass; inside, at home with one or two drums, plastic might be just fine.

In any case I opted for plastic because of cost, easy mail order availability and because I know I tend to obsess over my projects. I figured I could always either (1) recover the shekere if I hated the sound (or the look) or (2) make another using glass beads later. Note: Arthur Hull (at his famous shekere making workshops) uses plastic beads.

 

The number of beads you'll need is a factor of the size of the gourd, the size of the bead, the number of verticals you attach and the mesh pattern you plan on using. I've seen numbers like 1200 glass crow beads on a "medium" shekere, 600-700 plastic beads on a "medium" shekere. I've seen simple diamond mesh weaves with only a few beads per row and others with tight packed rows of beads covering most of the surface.

Your shekere can be made of all one color bead. or as in the photos, composed of several colors in a design. Alternating rows of color are easiest to plan, simply be sure you have enough beads of each color to complete the job.
The shekere in the left side of the  photo  has 12 rows of beads, 24 to a row (288 total). You'll notice that beads knot to the mesh with the next row offset slightly, giving a diagonal effect to the rows. You can take advantage of this by planning designs that use alternating colors within the rows to produce designs on these diagonals. It helps to lay out the rows of beads on a table to plan how the alternating colors should be strung and knotted..

African beads  - Trade beads and African beads history. Producers, manufactures.
 


Cord

Cord Arrangements

Your shekere will be composed of only three materials: the gourd, the beads and the cord that holds them. Consideration of the cord; what type, how many verticals, how long to make them, what kind of knots to use, how to start and end, etc is an important part of the project.

 

Type of Cord / How Much ?

First you have to decide what type of cord to use. Essentially what you are looking for is strong light weight "string" that you can string beads on and knot over the surface of the gourd. Some folks use cotton / linen carpet sewing thread , some use nylon string from hardware stores. I felt that braided rather than twisted cord would be a better choice, and since I'd already sacrificed the aestics by using plastic beads I felt that the polyester or nylon line would be all right. I searched in hardware and craft stores before realizing that what I wanted was the kind of cord used by stunt kite pilots! I found a 1000' spool of braided polyester cord (rated 80# test) less than 1mm in diameter at a local kite store for $18.00. A lighter weight cord would also be fine. You can also find a similar cord sold in home furnishing stores as replacement cord for the pulls on window shades. A friend found the cord he wanted being sold in marine supply stores as fishing net repair cord by Sampson Cord Company.

How much cord you need obviously depends on the size of gourd you are covering, but it also depends on the number of verticals and what bead pattern you plan on using. The two larger shekeres pictured in this presentation used no more than 150 feet of cord each. For example on the first shekere approx. 7" in diameter (20" at it's equator) I used 16 doubled over 60" strands of cord; that equaled 32 strands hanging from the top ring, each 30 " long. On the second , approximately 10" in diameter, I used 24 doubled over 60" strands of cord (resulting in 48 pieces each 30" long). You'll see in photo of the completed shekers that the result of the increase in strands is a smaller mesh with many more beads. In each case I had plenty of cord to complete the project.

 


Covering the Gourd

Foundation Rings

I have no idea if 'Foundation Rings' is the real name for these parts of shekere but the verticals must attached to something, so I've chosen to call the ring(s) at the top and the neck to which the verticals are attached Foundation Rings. I've seen several methods of creating these rings, and in one case have played small shekeres that have only one. One simple method is to make them out of 'standard' nylon -camping-store-utility-cord. Simply cut the cord to the length necessary (I cut the rings for my first shekere on an angled scarf), heat two ends quickly in a flame, and, while still sticky hot, weld together.

Another, more attractive method, is to braid a length of the same cord used for the verticals into a decorative pattern and tie the correct length together.

To do this, take one end of your cord running off the spool and tie it to a firm, chest high attachment - a towel rack is handy. With the cord running down at your feet from the attachment point make a loop by pinching the cord about 8" down from the knot between the thumb and index finger of your left hand. Then, about 6 inches below that point, pinch the cord with the thumb and index finger of your right hand and carry the cord to touch itself about three inches about your left hand. Pinch at the point of contact with your right hand and reach down through the loop with your left and grab the cord and pull it up through the loop. Pull down on this new loop until the previous loop closes up around the point of contact. OK. You now have a loop in the cord, right?

To braid the cord, pull the loop closed until its about 2" in diameter and reach in with the thumb and index finger of your left hand and spread the loop open (don't stretch it bigger). Turn the loop vertical with the extra cord coming off the contact point to the right.

Now just grab the extra cord with your right index finger and thumb about 6" down from the loop and pull it taut and to the left (toward the loop) so that you can snag it between the thumb and index finger of your left hand.

Pinch it tight in your left and pull the extra through. When you pull tight the "old" loop will close up and a new loop will form...repeat this process until you have the length you need.

To finish the braid just cut the cord about 8" beyond the last loop and pass the end (not another loop) through the "old" loop. Pull tight, and you're done.

Lay the braid on a table, let it settle as it wants, and tie the braid together using the two loose, single strand ends. If you are using nylon or polyester cord, cut the ends about 1/4" too long and singe back to the knot carefully with the flame of a lighter. Warning: the braid will not lie perfectly flat - don't worry, it will work out when you add the mesh to it.

 

Foundation Rings - How Big?

If you choose the Two Foundation Ring method (see the One Ring Method below) you'll have to decide what diameter to make the rings and whether to bead the mesh from top to bottom, or bottom to top. For purposes of this presentation "top" means the fatter rounded end of the gourd farthest from the stem; "bottom" means that more narrow neck of the gourd closer to the stem.

Since the mesh will be completed with at least one set of knots as the last connections; you might want to think about where you want those knots to occur. If you are making a small shekere from a bottle shaped gourd such as those pictured that you intend to play by holding in your hand and shaking, you should probably attach the verticals to a smaller foundation ring at the bottom and ending with a row of knots at the top. That puts the smoother initial connections closer to the hand and the bumpy knots farthest away. If you are planning a larger shekere (cubano style), played with two hands, palms or finger tips against the top and fingers around the neck at the bottom, then you might want those knots out of the way at the smaller ring at the bottom.

 

If you are using a bottle shaped gourd to be held in the hand, you could make your shekere with One Foundation Ring by placing that ring around the neck. After you've finished the beading net, the remaining length of the verticals can be gathered up and simply knotted at the top.

Whichever way you've decided to work the mesh, top to bottom or vice versa, you'll need to form a ring that is small enough (in relation to the gourd at that point) to not slip over the waist of the gourd, but not so small as to prevent easy movement. Remember that the sound of your shekere will come from the loose mesh of beadwork hitting the hollow gourd. On the red and white beaded shekere in I used a 14" (long) top foundation ring and a 11"(long) neck ring. Use smaller sizes for smaller gourds.

 

 

Cord Length - Cutting and Attaching to the Foundation Rings

I'm sure there must be a formula to calculate the length of cord required for the verticals of shekere based on the diameter of the gourd, the number of verticals and the bead pattern planned, but I haven't bothered to look into it. I used 30" verticals on the two larger sizes, 24" on the smaller. To save knots and make smoother connections at the beginning end I cut the cord twice as long (60" in this case) and looped them through the initial foundation ring.

I cut them by making a quick jig suggested by Arthur Hull's workshop, a length of 2 x4 with nails spaced the required distance to wrap the cord around. I've modified the idea a bit and ended up with a 36" long scrape of wood. I pounded a hefty nail in the face at one end and two other nails 2" apart, 30" away. I wrapped the cord around and around until I had the number needed and cut them (and sealed the polyester line I was using at the same time) by heating an old putty knife on the stove and cutting / burning between the nails that were 2" apart. If you gather the cut cord off the jig at the single nail, they'll be halved for you to loop on the foundation ring.

Lay the foundation ring out on a big table or the floor and make a big star by slipping the loop end of the double verticals under the ring from outside the ring, then pulling the ends through so that the cord forms a half hitch over the ring and the verticals lie flat. It's easy this way to space the verticals on the ring properly. The polyester cord I used didn't want to stay tightly looped so I slipped a piece of wax paper underneath and put a drop of crazy glue at each loop to hold it until the mesh was completed.

 


 

Putting the Ring on the Gourd and Starting the Mesh

Regardless of whether you've chosen to work top to the neck or the other way around, lay the ring on the top (or over the neck ) with the verticals looping over the ring lying against the gourd. The next challenge is to get the ring to hold still on the gourd. After struggling with the ring slipping all around I got the idea of holding it down with rubber bands. You'll note in the photo that I've put them over the ring but under all the verticals and begun the knotting while they hold the ring in place.....believe me this will make your knotting much much easier. (You'll just cut them off when you're done.)

Depending on your design and how big you've made the rings you might want to start the mesh with a simple row of plain knots without beads.

The knots are made from two adjoining verticals that come from opposite pairs; the right of one and the left of the other. To form the knot (assuming you are right handed) have a toothpick ready and reach under the two vertical and pinch them together between the thumb and middle finger of your left hand close to location where you want the knot. Be sure that the length of the two verticals is even and centered.

Take the excess length of the two verticals and flip it up and over the pinch (counterclockwise), so that the verticals form a loop around your thumb. Pinch the verticals behind the open loop and reach in with the tip of the toothpick, snag the verticals and pull them completely out toward you. Reach back in loop with the toothpick (at the 12 o'clock position) and adjust the knot as you pull the verticals tight. Be sure that the knot is even with it's neighbor and that the shape that it forms is even and balanced. Complete the row and, after checking that they are even, pull the knots snug.

 


 

Adding the Beads

Knotting the verticals with the beads uses the same simple knot. Slip the correct color bead to complete your design on either the right or left vertical and knot as above. You'll note that the size of diamond formed by the knotting increases as the mesh grows toward the waist of the gourd. It is important that the mesh be knotted loosely over the surface, increasing the size of diamonds will help insure this.

Once you have reached the equator of the gourd you can continue to use larger size diamonds, or if you wish to keep the mesh tidy, you can gradually diminish the size as you work toward the end of the project. It is critical that the mesh not be too tight against the gourd. If you don’t intentionally make the diamonds bigger when knotting the mesh it will not give you the sound you expect when you are done. You'll note in that the rows of beads extends beyond the end of the gourd to allow the mesh a loose fit.

 

Completing the Mesh

You can test the fit (and how close you are to finishing) by gathering the loose ends in your hand, pulling the mesh tightly against the gourd, and then allowing it to relax until the mesh sags at least 1/2" to 3/4" from the gourd. There should be enough rows to fit up to the crown of the gourd but not so many as to have them all meet in the middle. If you have chosen the Two Ring Method, you'll tie all the verticals to another ring at the other end of the gourd. You do want some bare gourd to show through (enough perhaps to allow it to stand on the table with the beads being mashed) but not so much that the mesh will want to slip back down the gourd.

When you are satisfied with the length of your mesh, measure the circumference of the second foundation ring at the point where the last knots of your work come together when gathered loosely at the top (as above). Make or braid that ring and tie each of the verticals to it, evenly spaced, with two plain overhand knots. Cut the verticals to within 1/8" of an inch and heat seal them with the flame of lighter.

If you have chosen the One Ring Method, simply gather the verticals together and tie one last knot in them all. Be sure to leave the mesh loose enough to play well against the gourd.

 

 

 


Congratulations!
Now you've got a percussion toy with your personal touch!
 


From:  Mary Skaggs, Ft. Thomas Schools (Ft. Thomas, Kentucky)
Here are some pictures that we took of the shekere's that we made, using
your directions from the internet. These students are fourth and fifth
grade students identified in the gifted class for the Arts.

Thanks for the instructions.!
Mary Scaggs
Fort Thomas Schools (Fort Thomas, Kentucky)

Pictures ........  click here
 

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© 1996-2002 Djembe-L FAQ. All Rights Reserved. (last revision 03/13/200513 Mar 2005 16:54:38 -0600 )