Summoning Rain

Liberian rain stick and tribal masks

Across cultures, from Australia to Argentina to Mexico to Tibet, the rainstick serves as a musical instrument, a necessary adjunct to tribal ceremonies, and a means of calling up rain.  My own rainstick comes from Liberia, West Africa, where I worked for a few years. Unlike those made from dried cacti and filled with beads or seeds, mine was formed from a stalk of a different sort of plant; I’ve always assumed its sound depends on falling rice or seeds.

Some say rainsticks are magical. Whether that’s true I can’t say, but now and then I ponder my stick’s survival for nearly fifty years in the heat and humidity of both Liberia and Texas. Occasionally I turn it as I walk by, and find myself transported back the bush: hearing again the sound of approaching rain. Sometimes, if long anticipated and much needed rain is in the forecast, I turn the stick several times, hoping the magic is real.

Seamus Heaney, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet known for works exalting everyday miracles, has considered the rain stick. His poem celebrating its qualities was published in The New Republic in 1993; its words still fall on the ear as easily as the sound of coming rain.

Up-end the stick and what happens next
is a music that you never would have known
to listen for. In a cactus stalk
Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
being played by water, you shake it again lightly
and diminuendo runs through all its scales
like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
a sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,
Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
the glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Up-end the stick again. What happens next
is undiminished for having happened once,
twice, ten, and thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires
is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.


Comments always are welcome.

47 thoughts on “Summoning Rain

            1. I sometimes share little vingiettes in comments, and I’ve posted a few related tales, but at this remove in time, and given the history of the country, I’d be reluctant to do much more. Since I was there, there’s been a coup and a civil war. Many of the Liberians I knew have disappeared, and may be dead, and a good number of the expats I worked with are gone now.

              On the other hand, I connected with a fellow who taught in the same town where I taught — and we connected through our blogs. It’s been quite fun to compare notes now and then; we shopped in the same markets, and had many of the same experiences.

            2. Yes, much water under the bridge and many changes. I travelled to Central and S. America in 1979, and I probably wouldn’t recognize the places I lived and visited. My sister just the other day returned a packet of my letters and it was so fun to read them and remember that girl I once was.

    1. From what I’ve read, one of the most favored cacti to use is the Capado cactus from Chile. I couldn’t find its scientific name, but it seems to be much like the cholla.Articles say that it dries into a more solid cylinder that allows the beans or seeds to be contained.

      1. The concept of “rain sticks” sticks in popular lore, but one online article questions it:

        “A rain stick is a rattle made of hollowed plant stalks which, when turned or shaken, produces a pattering sound similar to rain. The sound produced by the instrument has contributed to the common notion that the rain stick has historically been used in rituals to summon rain by indigenous peoples of arid climates. Despite this popular belief, the origin and history of the rain stick remain unclear.”

        1. I found several articles which questioned its use as anything more than a percussive instrument like the shekere. On the other hand, a Liberian acquaintance once told me the rainstick can be used to ‘encourage’ rains at the end of the dry season; even in a rain forest, it seems the absence of expected rains can cause some anxiety.

          Of course, if the use of charms to influence weather is considered primitive, that primitive impulse exists even in so-called civilized societies. The drier it gets, the more often I hear people saying that they need to wash their car, or mow their lawn. They laugh, but they still say it.

        1. That’s right. I took a better look at mine and wondered what had been used, since the stick itself clearly isn’t from a cactus. Whatever was used, it makes a pleasing pattern on the outside as well as performing well on the inside.

  1. I’ve played with the South American cactus version. Maybe I should order one and practice a little sympathetic magic. We could sure use the rain here.

    1. It couldn’t hurt. Of course, apart from the rainstick’s actual ability to produce rain — or not — I do love the sound. I’d love to know what mine’s actually made of; the one thing I’m sure of is that it’s not cactus. It feels rather like balsa wood, but it’s surely some sort of reed or vine.

    1. Well, whether the rainstick worked or didn’t, there’s no denying the arrival overnight of our first steady, soaking rain in weeks. Who knows? Maybe writing about rain is as effective as a rainstick.

  2. Here I have a rain stick made from bamboo; every so often there is a subtle shift, and it adds a layer of rhythm to the quiet room. I’ll bet that yours does that too.
    I usually ponder the sound, wonder if a ghost had just brushed past it, or if it’s a five-second warning for another earthquake…

    1. It never had occurred to me that a rainstick could serve as an earthquake early warning system, but of course it could. Every now and then, if I’ve been turning mine and then put it back in place, the last of the seeds will suddenly drop. Perhaps it’s only gravity at work, or a slammed door elsewhere in the building, or a heavy truck passing by somewhere and sending out its vibrations, but the sense of presence that’s evoked is real.

  3. People in the western parts of North America experiencing drought and fire year after year had better start making lots of rain sticks!

      1. There is that. It’s good to see you, and to be reminded of your perspective on such things. Before writing this, I also realized I didn’t know if rainsticks are part of Australian traditions. Obviously, the answer is ‘yes.’

    1. If only it were that easy! On the other hand, it couldn’t hurt a thing, so it might make a nice adjunct to other forms of coping with the situation.

  4. I love rain sticks. I use them as background sounds in my flute recordings.
    Once, when we were moving from one state to another, a moving van and its crew were loading our packed boxes. One of the boxes contained my rain stick. When the man loading it laid it down it began making the “rain” sound…he screamed and jumped out the back of the van and ran. He thought it was a rattlesnake.

    1. What a great story! Thanks for the laugh to go along with my coffee. I can’t say I blame the man. There are times in life when “run first, inquire later” is the best approach.

      It’s interesting that you’ve used rainsticks as musical instruments. They certainly blend well with the sound of a flute; are any of your recordings available?

  5. Only one cup of coffee and I have already learned something today.


    Who cares if such traditions actually work? At a certain time in a certain place among a certain culture, someone turned the stick and clouds gathered on the horizon.

    It is enough.

    1. Does a dowsing rod truly work? My grandfather would say yes. Is Cenizo, or purple sage, truly a ‘barometer bush’ that predicts rain? I confess belief. Perhaps it’s only increased sensitivity to the signs that makes such ‘work,’ but as you say, it is enough. I still listen for the rain raven’s call.

  6. So you’ve been dry there, huh? I can’t say the same for us. In fact, just this morning the weatherman admitted we really don’t need any more rain. I can’t give you statistics, but I can assure you it’s becoming difficult to find enough dry days for our farmers to get out in the fields, prepare the soil, and plant the seeds. Pray they do in time, or we’ll face food shortages and even higher prices. (Great story, Linda, and I hope you get your rain!)

    1. It depends on the area of the state, Debbie. Here, we’re dry, but not exceptionally so. On the other hand, when I visited my friend who lives near Kerrville at the beginning of the month, all of her beautifully gardens were completely dried up, since she’s on well water and can’t bring herself to use any of that water for her plants. And then, on the other other hand, on my way home I passed field after field filled with tall, already tasseled corn. It’s easy to see who’s been lucky with the rainfall!

      We did get rain last night, and more is predicted for the coming week. Some fell in the midcoast area, too, where the drought’s becoming a real problem. We’ll keep hoping.

  7. I should think that your rain stick from Liberia would be one of those treasured things we have that we cart around from one move to another, knowing it just belongs with us, something we must have. I love that the sound “takes you back.”

    1. Never mind moves — when it’s hurricane evacuation time, the rainstick is one of the things that goes with me. It’s always an interesting exercise to select the “must keep” items at the beginning of every hurricane season. They change from year to year — and now that there’s no need to make room for a litter box, a carrier, a big china bowl, a scratching post, a water dish, a variety of toys… Well, you get the point. There’s room for a few more of my own treasures!

  8. I tried to summon rain by watering the plants outside yesterday when a thunderstorm was in the forecast, but it didn’t really work out. Most of it went past north and south of us and we only got a pitiful 0.12″. Let’s hope for more in the next few days. We desparately need it.

    1. I really had hopes for you and my friend in Kerrville, but she’s in the same situation as you; only .05″ fell in her neighborhood. It does look as though things might work out better in the midweek period. I hope so. We got about an inch, and it sure was nice to wake up to the sound of rain. It came over several hours, too, so it all soaked in. Here’s to more for us all.

    1. It’s a wonderful sound. Mine startled me this evening. I’d put it back in its place after messing with it, but obviously didn’t let all the ‘rain’ fall to the bottom. Something in the house vibrated, and the rain fell again–it took me a minute to figure out what the sound was.

  9. I’ve never heard of a rain stick such as yours. Those that dowsers use, yes, but not one that give us the sound of it. The idea of it reminds me of an episode of Mash where Hawkeye loses his sight temporarily and notices that the sound of falling rain sounds like a steak sizzling on a skillet. I imagine that lately you consider shaking or turning that rain stick more often than usual.

    1. Now I’m sitting here thinking about fajitas served up on a hot metal plate, sizzling away. Sure enough; it’s a similar sound. The most fun with the rain stick is when I don’t get all the ‘rain’ to the bottom, and occasional household vibrations set it off again.

      We had about an inch and a half of rain last week, but west of here it’s still bad, and we’re certainly not out of drought. We’re going to be hot and dry for a while yet, but the good news about that is that I may be able to finish up a big job. I don’t enjoy working in the 90s these days, but we can’t always pick and choose!

      1. Do you have trouble with humidity when applying varnish? I just sprayed a desk and hadn’t realized the humidity level which caused a little blushing in the finish. I usually run a dehumidifier for an hour or two in the summer but lost track of the date. All fixed easily enough. Of course I don’t imagine your “workshop” is furnished with humidity control plus you don’t spray. :)

        1. Humidity alone doesn’t bother me, even when it creeps into the 80-90% range. It becomes a problem when cooler temperatures result in dew (summertime) or fog. Winter is the time when blushing becomes a real issue. I often have to stop varnishing by 3 p.m. or so, unless there’s a stiff wind blowing. I did once successfully varnish in blowing sea fog, but had the wind laid, it would have been all over. In summer, when the humidity’s really high, the most difficult issue is not dropping sweat into my work.

          I use Interlux Schooner varnish, and have two additives I depend on: their brushing liquid for hot and windy conditions, and a different thinner that reduces dry time for cold and humid. Sometimes, I combine the two, depending.

          1. Dropping something in your work. In my case it’s my hair. It’s a wonder I have any left on my head. When it first started jumping out of my scalp I used to say that in the future someone will extract one of my hairs from a finish and reconstruct me from my DNA so they can ask about my method for restoration. Of course I also have beagle hair on me and that would be a joke on them.

            When I had my own shop and mixed my lacquers I had an additive for humid days. But now that I only have aerosol cans I have to use a spray retarder after the fact while the finish is drying. I lobbied for a spray booth at first but realized they were never going to get one for me. My finishes turn out well but sometimes it’s a challenge.

  10. Who knew rain sticks could be magical. I have one, bought in a jungle. I really must give it a shake or two when rain is needed. This was a fascinating post. xxx

    1. The way I see it, giving it that shake or two can’t hurt, and who’s to say it won’t help? I’ve been laughing at mine — it keeps ‘raining’ from time to time, since I didn’t shake it all the way down when I put it away. Any little vibration sets it off again.

  11. I was unfamiliar with rainsticks, but I love learning about other cultures so I very much enjoyed this. And as sometimes happens it prompted other thoughts, in this case about some commonly heard wisdom these days that it’s often better to spend your time/money on acquiring experiences instead of “stuff.” And though I generally agree with this sentiment I think this post is a perfect example of how sometimes “stuff” is intimitely tied to experience and helps bring it all back for the viewing/owner. I love your display of Liberian objects in the photo. Seems right out of a museum.

    1. I completely agree with your comment about ‘stuff’ that’s tied to experience carrying memory more vividly than purchased items. There’s a reason I drag rocks and such home from trips. It’s also the reason I disagree profoundly with people who say that giving gifts at Christmas is only a sign of commercialism. A well-chosen, tangible gift is better every time. Spare me your gift cards and donations in my name to some organization. One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received was an orange and peppermint stick left outside my door at an English inn in Salisbury.

      The other thing is, a few memory laden ‘somethings’ can be packed up for hurricane evacuations! Every June, I make sure to plan for those evacs, and make sure that I have the list of the most important things up to date.

    1. More often than not, I’ve been giving the rain stick a turn as I walked past it. Finally, some rains — minimal, but still helpful — have appeared. Who’s to say?

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