Instruments | Conga & Bongo | Percussion

Barrel-shaped drums are usually constructed either from a single log, which is carved into a barrel shape like Japanese byou-daiko drums, or made like a wine barrel from staves of wood glued together or bound with metal strips, as in conga and bongo drums. Barrel drums can have two heads or a single head, and are played with hands or beaters.


The conga, or tumbadora (25–30 cm/10–15 in diameter, 50–60 cm/20–24 in long), is a single-headed Latin-American barrel drum used throughout South America, and in pop and jazz fusion music. The conga is the largest hand drum used in Latin America, and may be descended from Congolese makuta drums.

In modern congas and bongos, the body is made from wooden staves glued and clamped together, or it is moulded from fibreglass, with the calfskin head held in place by a metal ring bolted to the body of the drum with tension rods. The drum is not tuned, but the skin is tightened to give a high ringing sound when played. When played singly, the drummer tilts the conga towards them to allow sound to resonate from the open end. When played in groups of two or three they are placed in a stand.

Conga-playing technique is very similar to the djembe. The player produces three tones: by slapping the middle of the drumhead with a cupped hand to get a bass tone; by playing an open slap on the side of the head to produce a medium tone; and by playing a closed slap on the rim of the drum to get a dry, high tone. The side of the drum can also be played with a stick.


Bongos are a pair of small, single-headed drums joined together (15 cm/6 in diameter, 20 cm/8 in long; 20 cm/8 in diameter, 30 cm/15 in long). Both the larger (hembra) or female drum and the smaller (macho) drum are truncated cones. They also have calfskin heads, but these are thinner than conga heads, and tuned to a higher pitch. The bongos are held between the knees or placed on a stand.

Both congas and bongos are widely used in Cuban son, which originated in the late-nineteenth century. This combined Spanish music with African drumming styles and is the ancestor of salsa. A typical son ensemble includes a vocalist, guitars and string bass; and bongos, congas, maracas, guiro and claves. Bongos also are played in salsa, rumba, mambo, and cha-cha music. Within an ensemble, the bongo player leads the other percussion with improvised solos and decorations on the main rhythm. Throughout Latin America, the term ‘bongo’ is also used for timbales, a pair of single-headed cylindrical drums invented in Cuba in the 1940s, and commonly used in many styles of Afro-Latin music.

Introduction | Percussion Instruments
Instruments | Timpani | Percussion

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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