Making My Own Calabash Mate Gourd (Brazil) September 29 2015, 5 Comments

Hand crafted cuia (gourd) with map of Africa, by Jair

I had been told that there were a few families living in these mountains who earn a living from making calabash mate gourds, called "cuias" in Brazil. With the hope of learning the basics of their trade, my only means to contact them was by going there in the flesh. I decided to hitch-hike the 70km from Palmeira das Missoes to the quiet mountain pass known as "O Vale Das Cuias" (Valley of Gourds) in the north of the province of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

I set out early and hitch hiked lift by lift, taking anything that I could get instead of demanding a lift that would take me all the way to my destination in one go. Beggars can't be choosers. I was picked up by some soil scientists, a truck carrying rice and then a radio presenter who eventually dropped me on the other side of Federico Westphalen where I started to walk the 25km which was meant to be the area where these "cuia" making families lived and worked

It wasn't before long before I managed to get a fourth lift in an old dirty blue bakkie. The man inside was blue-eyed with dusty ash-brown hair, he was quite thin and wore old work clothes with sandles. He was probably about 40 years old but his hard sun-tanned complexion made it difficult to tell. I told him that I had come in the hope of finding the people who made gourds in that region, and just as God would have it, he happened to be one of them. In fact, his cousins, brothers, nieces and nephews all worked with "cuias" in that same area. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was chopping, cutting, grinding and polishing gourds.

Before leaving, my gourd mentor told me that I could simply not leave the region without meeting his cousin, the famous cuia artist. I took his advice and set off in the direction I had come from equipped with a verbal description of how the artist's house should look. A retired military general picked me up and dropped me in a spot where I could see what looked like the farm house that had been described to me. There were six people sitting in fold-up chairs outside in front of the small square wooden house drinking chimarrão (mate). I decided to try my luck and say, "hi". "At least there should be a serving of chimarrão for me if all else fails", I thought. As I got closer, I noticed that one of them was leaning over his own lap banging away at a large cuia using a steel nail and a short wooden club. "It has to be him!", I thought, and sure enough it was. I could not believe my own eyes when I saw the result the bashing he had been giving the cuia. In fact, he was meticulously chipping beautiful images of the Brazilian country-side into them. I was flabbergasted. This man had been chipping art into calabash for 25 years, and there was nobody better than this pioneer of the nail & club technique, as far as I was concerned. 


Step 01 - Select a Calabash

A mound of rough calabash gourds after 3 months of drying in the sun

Step 02 - Shape the Gourd

Shaping the mouth of the cuia in the initial stages of production 

Step 03 - Clean the Inside and Outside of Cuia

Increasing the volume of the cuia by grinding away some of the interior wall

Step 04 -  Polish

Polishing the outside of the cuia on a fabric wheel laden in polish 

Step 05 - Finishing Touches

Final smoothing of inside of cuia with fast rotating sanding tool 

Trimming and leveling the mouth of the cuia

Step 06: Handover to Artist

Jair knocking art into the cuia with nail and club