If we told you that the cuica is named after a species of opossum, would you believe it? Hopefully so, because it's true! Since these drums make a sound that's high-pitched - squeaky, even - they were given the name of a critter that does the same thing. But that's where the similarities end, and the sound of the cuica is certainly a lot more musical than the opossum of the same name. In fact, their unique sound has earned the cuicas (or qweekas, as they're sometimes spelled) a firm place in the samba percussionist's toolbox. That's not to say their only place is samba, however: no matter what sort of music you play, if you want to add a little Brazilian flavor to it, the cuicas are here for you.
There is one important feature that sets the cuicas apart from other drums, even similarly high-pitched ones that are close in size: they're played with a completely different technique. Instead of rapping on the head with hands or mallets, the cuica player uses one hand to put pressure on the head and, with the other hand, rubs a wooden stick attached to the underside of it to produce sound. Adjusting the tension of the head on-the-fly allows the drummer to set the pitch, and the vibrations sent up through that stick are what give the cuica its characteristic voice.
In most other respects, choosing your cuicas (or qweekas) comes down to similar factors as other drums. For instance, shell material: most cuicas are metal, but Meinl's Floatune Fiberglass Qweeka / Cuica Drum changes that up a little to deliver a mellower sound. And even with the more common metal shells, not all are created equal. The Toca Professional Cuica, for example, is made of aluminum while the LP Brass Cuica 8in. is made, as the name implies, of brass. The difference in tone between these two is more subtle, but it's definitely there.
Of course, it's safe to say that the differences between any two individual cuicas or qweekas are nothing compared to the differences between these and other drums. But being so unique has worked out well for the cuica: it's given this little drum a role in samba music than no other percussion can fill, not to mention its one-of-a-kind sound that makes a great accent to just about any other genre you could think of. Not bad for such a humble instrument!