A rainstick is a long, hollow tube partially filled with small objects such as pebbles or beans. When turned over, the falling objects collide and fall to the other end of the tube, creating a sound similar to falling rain, hence the name. Rainsticks are frequently used in many genres of music and have a wide variety of uses.
Some believe the rainstick was created by the Diaguita Indians of Chile to bring rain. The true origins of the musical instrument, however, most likely lie in the tubular rattle, a similar instrument. The rattle was made and used in Panama, Ecuador, northern Amazonia and northern Mexico. Tubular rattles have also been found along the coast of Peru, but their dates are disputed. No matter its true roots, the rainstick likely originated somewhere in Central or South America.
The rainstick tube is usually made out of a cactus, which is hollowed and dried out in the sun. The pellets inside can consist of any material -- pebbles, sand and dried beans are common -- as long as the sound is effective. Within the body are numerous small pins placed along the length of the tube, pointing inward. It is the bouncing of the pellets against the pins that creates the characteristic sound of the rainstick.
How to Play a Rainstick
The sound of a rainstick comes from turning it over, allowing the pellets within to collide and fall. Altering the angle changes the speed of the pellets, which in turn changes the sound. For example, holding the rainstick at a 90-degree angle allows the pellets to fall gradually, making a very atmospheric sound. The rainstick can also be tapped for a more controlled sound or even used as a shaker for more percussive sounds.
Rainsticks have both symbolic and musical relevance. Ancient Chilean tribes believed that rainsticks evoked the rain spirits, which was important in their harsh, dry climate. Some scholars believe the popularity of Andean music, which uses rainsticks, fostered the adoption of the rainstick into popular Mexican music. The rainstick has also been used as a symbol by ecology movements to save the Amazon rain forests. Finally, rainsticks are used in concert and other musical settings for their unique sound and properties.