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A pair of congas Congas.JPG
A pair of congas
Front: A pair of congas.
Back: A pair of bongos. Conga's 01.jpg
Front: A pair of congas.
Back: A pair of bongos.
A pair of Latin Percussion conga drums Pair of congas.jpg
A pair of Latin Percussion conga drums

The conga, also known as tumbadora, is a tall, narrow, single-headed drum from Cuba. Congas are staved like barrels and classified into three types: quinto (lead drum, highest), tres dos or tres golpes (middle), and tumba or salidor (lowest). Congas were originally used in Afro-Cuban music genres such as conga (hence their name) and rumba, where each drummer would play a single drum. Following numerous innovations in conga drumming and construction during the mid-20th century, as well as its internationalization, it became increasingly common for drummers to play two or three drums. Congas have become a popular instrument in many forms of Latin music such as son (when played by conjuntos), descarga, Afro-Cuban jazz, salsa, songo, merengue and Latin rock.

Drum type of musical instrument of the percussion family

The drum is a member of the percussion group of musical instruments. In the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system, it is a membranophone. Drums consist of at least one membrane, called a drumhead or drum skin, that is stretched over a shell and struck, either directly with the player's hands, or with a percussion mallet, to produce sound. There is usually a resonance head on the underside of the drum, typically tuned to a slightly lower pitch than the top drumhead. Other techniques have been used to cause drums to make sound, such as the thumb roll. Drums are the world's oldest and most ubiquitous musical instruments, and the basic design has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

Stave (wood)

A stave is a narrow length of wood with a slightly bevelled edge to form the sides of barrels, tanks, tubs, vats and pipelines, originally handmade by coopers. They have been used in the construction of large holding tanks and penstocks at hydro power developments. They are also used in the construction of certain musical instruments with rounded bodies or backs.

Barrel hollow cylindrical container

A barrel, cask, or tun is a hollow cylindrical container with a bulging center, traditionally made of wooden staves bound by wooden or metal hoops. Traditionally, the barrel was a standard size of measure referring to a set capacity or weight of a given commodity. For example, in the UK a barrel of beer refers to a quantity of 36 imperial gallons. Wine was shipped in barrels of 119 litres. Barrel has also come into use as a general term for a wooden cask of any size.



Most modern congas have a staved wooden or fiberglass shell, and a screw-tensioned drumhead. They are usually played in sets of two to four with the fingers and palms of the hand. Typical congas stand approximately 75 centimetres (30 in) from the bottom of the shell to the head. The drums may be played while seated. Alternatively, the drums may be mounted on a rack or stand to permit the player to play while standing. While they originated in Cuba, their incorporation into the popular and folk music of other countries has resulted in diversification of terminology for the instruments and the players. In Cuba, congas are called tumbadoras.

Conga players are called congueros, while rumberos refers to those who dance following the path of the players. The term "conga" was popularized in the 1930s, when Latin music swept the United States. Cuban son and New York jazz fused together to create what was then termed mambo, but later became known as salsa. In that same period, the popularity of the Conga Line helped to spread this new term. Desi Arnaz also played a role in the popularization of conga drums. However, the drum he played (which everyone called a conga drum at the time) was similar to the type of drum known as bokú used in his hometown, Santiago de Cuba. The word conga came from the rhythm la conga used during carnaval (carnival) in Cuba. The drums used in carnaval could have been referred to as tambores de conga since they played the rhythm la conga, and thus translated into English as conga drums.

The music of Latin America refers to music originating from Latin America, namely the Romance-speaking countries and territories of the Americas and the Caribbean south of the United States. Latin American music also incorporates African music from slaves who were transported to the Americas by European settlers as well as music from the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Due to its highly syncretic nature, Latin American music encompasses a wide variety of styles, including influential genres such as bachata, bossa nova, merengue, rumba, salsa, samba, son, and tango. During the 20th century, many styles were influenced by the music of the United States giving rise to genres such as Latin pop, rock, jazz, hip hop, and reggaeton.

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States and thus also in the state of New York. With an estimated 2017 population of 8,622,698 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 20,320,876 people in its 2017 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 23,876,155 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and developed from roots in blues and ragtime. Jazz is seen by many as "America's classical music". Since the 1920s Jazz Age, jazz has become recognized as a major form of musical expression. It then emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage with a performance orientation. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music. Intellectuals around the world have hailed jazz as "one of America's original art forms".

Playing techniques


There are five basic strokes:

Head cephalic part of an animal

A head is the part of an organism which usually includes the ears, brain, forehead, cheeks, chin, eyes, nose, and mouth, each of which aid in various sensory functions such as sight, hearing, smell, and taste, respectively. Some very simple animals may not have a head, but many bilaterally symmetric forms do, regardless of size.

Glissando and pitch bending

The moose call or glissando is done by rubbing the third finger, supported by the thumb, across the head of the drum. The finger is sometimes moistened with saliva or sweat, and sometimes a little coat of beeswax is put on the surface of the conga head to help make the sound. [1] [2] The moose call is also done on the bongos.

In music, a glissando is a glide from one pitch to another. It is an Italianized musical term derived from the French glisser, "to glide". In some contexts, it is distinguished from the continuous portamento. Some colloquial equivalents are slide, sweep, bend, smear, rip, lip, plop, or falling hail.

To bend the pitch of the congas, a conguero sometimes uses his elbow to shift around on and apply pressure to different parts of the head; this causes the note to change. This is not a traditional stroke, but it is common in modern salsa and rumba.



Guaguancó uses three congas. The smallest conga is the lead drum known as quinto. The following nine-measure quinto excerpt is from the guaguancó “La polémica” by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas (1988). [3] This passage moves between the main modes of playing (A, B, C). The A section is the basic lock or ride, as it is known in North America. It spans one clave (measure). An alternate phrase (B) is also one measure in length. Cross-beats, the basis of the third section (C), contradict the meter. By alternating between the lock and the cross, the quinto creates larger rhythmic phrases that expand and contract over several clave cycles. The great Los Muñequintos quintero Jesús Alfonso (1949–2009) described this phenomenon as a man getting “drunk at a party, going outside for a while, and then coming back inside.” [4]

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas is a Cuban rumba and Folkloric group. Having continually recorded since 1956, Los Muñequitos is the most famous rumba group from Matanzas, and one of the most beloved rumba groups of all time.

In music, a cross-beat or cross-rhythm is a specific form of polyrhythm. The term cross rhythm was introduced in 1934 by the musicologist Arthur Morris Jones (1889–1980). It refers to when the rhythmic conflict found in polyrhythms is the basis of an entire musical piece.

All modes of quinto in context. Quinto excerpt from "La polemica" by Los Munequitos de Matanzas (1988). Rumba quinto modes.jpg
All modes of quinto in context. Quinto excerpt from “La polémica” by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas (1988).

Marcha (tumbao)


The basic son montuno conga pattern is called marcha, or tumbao. The conga was first used in bands during the late 1930s, and became a staple of mambo bands of the 1940s. The primary strokes are sounded with open tones, on the last offbeats (2&, 2a) of a two-beat cycle. The fundamental accent—2& is referred to by some musicians as ponche. [5]

1 e & a 2 e & a Count H T S T H T O O Conga L L R L L L R R Hand Used  Key:   L: Left hand   R: Right hand   H: Heel of hand   T: Tip of hand   S: Slap   O: Open Tone 


The basic tumbao sounds slaps (triangle noteheads) and open tones (regular noteheads) on the "and" offbeats. [6] There are many variations on the basic tumbao. For example, a very common variant sounds a single open tone with the third stroke of clave (ponche), and two tones preceding the three-side of clave. The specific alignment between clave and this tumbao is critical.

Top: clave. Bottom: basic conga tumbao on one drum. S: slap, O: open tone, h: palm heel, t: finger tips. Conga tumbao.jpg
Top: clave. Bottom: basic conga tumbao on one drum. S: slap, O: open tone, h: palm heel, t: finger tips.

Another common variant uses two drums and sounds bombo (1a) on the tumba (3-side of the clave). [7] For example:

1 . & . 2 . & . 3 . & . 4 . & . Count X     X     X       X   X       Son Clave X     X       X     X   X       Rumba Clave  H T S     T O O H T S T H T O O Conga       O O                       Tumba L L R R R L R R L L R L L L R R Hand Used  or  1 . & . 2 . & . 3 . & . 4 . & . Count X     X     X       X   X       Son Clave X     X       X     X   X       Rumba Clave  H T S   H T O O H T S   H T O O Conga       O               0         Tumba L L R R L L R R L L R R L L R R Hand Used 

The conga marcha can be heard on countless recordings, including these:


There is also the bolero rhythm that is used for ballads. The conga part is similar to the marcha and can be heard on these recordings:

Songo era

Beginning in the late 1960s, band conga players began incorporating elements from folkloric rhythms, especially rumba. Changuito and Raúl "el Yulo" Cárdenas of Los Van Van pioneered this approach of the songo era.

This relationship between the drums is derived from the style known as rumba. The feeling of the high drum part is like the quinto in rumba, constantly punctuating, coloring, and accenting, but not soloing until the appropriate moment (Santos 1985). [8]

Basic form of songo tumbadoras part. Triangle notehead: high-pitched drum slap; regular noteheads: high and low drum open tones. Songo congas.jpg
Basic form of songo tumbadoras part. Triangle notehead: high-pitched drum slap; regular noteheads: high and low drum open tones.

In several songo arrangements, the tumbadora ('conga') part sounds the typical tumbao on the low-pitched drum, while replicating the quinto (lead drum) of guaguancó on the high-pitched drum. The quinto-like phrases can continually change, but they are based upon a specific counter-clave motif. [9] [See: "Songo Patterns on Congas" (Changuito).

Timba era

Tomás Cruz developed several adaptions of folkloric rhythms when working in Paulito FG's timba band of the 1990s. Cruz's creations offered clever counterpoints to the bass and chorus. Many of his marchas span two or even four claves in duration, something very rarely done previously. [10] He also made more use of muted tones in his tumbaos, all the while advancing the development of . The example on the right is one of Cruz's inventos ('musical inventions'), a band adaptation of the Congolese-based Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythm makuta. He played the pattern on three congas on the Paulito song "Llamada anónima." Listen: "Llamada Anónima" by Paulito F.G.

Use in non-Cuban genres


The merengue rhythm, used in orchestral merengue, goes 1 2-1-2. It can also be heard as 1-2-1-2 1-2-1-2-1-2. Essentially, it is the rhythm of the tambora applied to conga. This can be heard on Elvis Crespo's Suavemente and Grupo Mania's Me Miras y Te Miro. In merengue tipico the rhythm is usually more complex and less standardized; it can range from simply hitting the conga on a fourth beat to playing full patterns that mark the time.

The rhythm of Palos is also representative of what we can call Afro-Dominican music. The drums are made out of hollowed-out tree trunks, and they are used both for secular and religious music in Santo Domingo and Haiti. The drums are called palos (alcahuete, palo mayor and adulon). The balsie is another drum played with both feet and hands. The player sits on it and uses a friction technique called arrugao. Panderos are also used in Dominican folk music, like congos, salve, and palos. The Dominican version of the 'clave' is 'la canoita', which are two sticks struck against each other, one with a handle. In the Gaga they also use palo drums and in the rhythm called Palo de Muerto, which is played when a member of the cofradia or brotherhood dies. The rhythm of palos is played throughout the Dominican Republic and is the national dance of the country. This music was suppressed and persecuted during Trujillo's rule due to social and racial discrimination.


The cumbia rhythm, simple and slowly played, goes 1-2-2-1, also heard as 1-2-1-2. It can be heard in Fito Olivares's Mosaico Fiestero and La Cumbia Sampuesana y La Cumbia Cienaguera by Ancieto Molino y Los Sabaneros.

Additional genres

There are many other kinds of rhythms for the conga. It is constantly applied in new genres of music, therefore taking up the rhythms of that specific style, such as punta, reggaeton, Brazilian forms such as samba and bossa nova, and even reggae, funk, go-go, and soul music.


Conga drums are tunable to different notes. The original drums were tuned by adjusting knots and tension ropes on the drumhead, or, where the drum-heads were tacked or nailed to the top of the shell, by careful heating of the head. Modern congas use a screw-and-lug tension head system, which makes them easier to tune (or detune). This modern type of tension system is attributed to Carlos "Patato" Valdes, a popular Cuban Conguero. As was discussed above, terminology for the drums varies. Here, the naming system used is a composite of those mentioned before with those currently in use by major conga manufacturers. The drums are discussed in order from largest to smallest; the sizes of the drumheads given vary considerably by manufacturer, model, and style.

Tuning systems

Congas, being percussive instruments, do not have to be tuned to any particular note in purely percussive settings. However, when playing with harmonic instruments, they may be tuned to specific notes.

Congas are often tuned using the open tone (see above). In general, the particular note will depend on the make, model, and size of the conga drum. The drum should be tuned so that the bass tone resonates, the open tone rings, and the slap pierces through the musical mix. If the tuning is too loose, the bass and slap tones will sound "flabby"; too tight, and the drums will sound unnatural and "pinched". With a single drum, it is easy to tighten the drum until it makes a pleasing sound and then tighten a little more to reach a uniform desired pitch. It is very important to ensure that tuning is uniform around the drumhead, which can be checked by placing one finger pad in the center of the head and tapping the head near the edge above each lug location to detect any change, adjusting as necessary. Uniform tightness will help "let the drum speak".

Another important consideration is that head tension can greatly impact the ease or unease of the player, and generally a looser drumhead can lead to hand injury more than a tighter one, because a looser drumhead has less rebound and more muffling effect (hence potentially bruising joints and bones under spirited playing). Also, producing a crisp slap tone is nearly impossible on a loose head. During tuning it is suggested to "let the drum speak" and to conform tuning reasonably closely to the natural resonance (pitch) that the cavity of the drum interior presents. This resonance can be heard by singing or playing loud notes near the drum opening (this is true of tuning any drum) and noticing which pitch decays slowest - that will either be the fundamental (resonant) frequency or one of its simple overtones.

When two or more drums are used, there is the potential for more variation of which notes are chosen; however, tuning between or during compositions is rare in live performance. With only two drums, it is common to find them tuned a perfect fourth apart (the same interval used in "Here Comes the Bride") as is the tradition in western classical music for the timpani. Having three drums (typically the tumba, conga, and quinto) invites experimentation and individual customization. Some congueros like using the intervals of a major chord (e.g. F, A, C). Some players use the second inversion of a major chord (e.g. G, C, E); and some prefer a major second between the quinto and conga, with a perfect 4th descending to the tumba. Raul Rekow of Santana often plays five conga drums and tunes them to the opening phrase of a Latin tune.

See also

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  1. Moose call (using beeswax)
  2. Another way to do the moose call
  3. “La polémica” (1:57), Rumba Caliente (Los Muñequitos de Matanzas) Qubadisc CD 9005 (1977, 1988).
  4. Peñalosa, David (2011: 86). Alfonso quoted by Peñalosa. Rumba Quinto. Redway, CA: Bembe Books. ISBN   1-4537-1313-1
  5. Mauleón, Rebeca (1993: 63). Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble. Petaluma, California: Sher Music. ISBN   0-9614701-9-4.
  6. Sometimes clave is written in two measures of 4/4 and the open tone of the conga drum are referred to as the last beat of the measure (see Mauleón 1993 p. 63)
  7. Mauleón (1993: 64).
  8. Santos, John (1985). "Songo," Modern Drummer Magazine. December p. 44.
  9. Peñalosa, David (2010) p. 142-144. Redway, CA: Bembe Books. ISBN   1-4537-1313-1
  10. Cruz, Tomás, with Kevin Moore (2004: 25) The Tomás Cruz Conga Method v. 3. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay.