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A pair of congas
A pair of congas

The conga is a tall, narrow, single-headed Cuban drum of African origin, probably derived from the Congolese Makuta drums. A person who plays conga is called a "conguero".

Although ultimately derived from African drums made from hollowed logs, the Cuban conga is staved, like a barrel. These drums were probably made from salvaged barrels originally.

They were used both in Afro-Caribbean religious music and as the principal instrument in Rumba. Congas are now very common in Latin music, including salsa music, as well as many other forms of American popular music.

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 cm 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.


[edit] Terminology

Because congas are an understudied instrument, opinions vary on the names of the drums. Although 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. A sampling of current conga websites finds the following:

  • Ben F. Jacoby's Introduction to the Conga Drum holds that the drums are called congas in English, but tumbadoras in Spanish. The drums, in order of size from largest to smallest, are the tumba, conga, quinto, the rare requinto, and the side-strap mounted ricardo.
  • The Conga Page at Rhythm Web agrees with the congas vs. tumbadoras terminology.
  • Music of Puerto Rico refers to the drums only as congas, but gives the names as tumba for the largest, niño for the smallest, and does not provide names for the two middle drums.
  • Alex Pertout's The Conga Drum: an Introduction points out that the names for the individual drums vary even in Cuba, and gives the names of three drums: tumbadora (largest), conga or segundo (middle), and quinto (smallest).
  • The Glossary Of Latin Music Terms agrees with tumba / conga / quinto, but defines the extra super quinto drum, smaller than the quinto. The term tres golpes may also be used for the conga.
  •'s History of Conga Drums also agrees with the terms tumba / conga / quinto, but allows the synonyms segundo (for conga) and tumbadora or salidor (for tumba).
  • Poncho Sanchez, in his Conga Cookbook, added a drum below the tumba, which he called the supertumba.

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 1950's, 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 boku 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.

[edit] Playing the Congas

[edit] Strokes

There are five basic strokes:

  • Open tone: played with the four fingers near the rim of the head, producing a clear resonant tone with a distinct pitch.
  • Muffled tone: like the open tone, is made by striking the drum with the four fingers, but holding the fingers against the head to muffle the tone
  • Bass tone: played with the full palm on the head. It produces a low muted sound.
  • Slap: most difficult technique producing a loud clear "popping" sound (when played at fast and short intervals is called floreo, played to instill emotions on the dancer).
  • Touch: as implied by the name, this tone is produced by just touching the fingers or heel of the palm to the drum head. It is possible to combine the a touch of the palm with a touch of the fingers in a maneuver called heel-toe, which can be used to produce the conga equivalent of drumrolls.

Also, to bend the pitch of the conga, 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.

[edit] Rhythms

There are various rhythms for the conga, the most well-known being the tumbao. The tumbao rhythm is as follows: 1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2. Both of the 1-2-3's are played using muffled tones, and the 1-2 is played using open tones. This rhythm is commonly played on 1 to 3 congas, but has no true limit for the amount used. The tumbao is the most common rhythm in Salsa, Latin Jazz, Rumba, Chachacha, Mambo, and other similar Cuban or Puerto Rican styles. Some songs that include the tumbao or slight variations of the rhythm are:

Countless other songs use this rhythm.

There is also the bolero rhythm, which goes 1-2-3 1-2 1-2-3. Being very similar to the tumbao, it involves a minimum of two congas and can be heard on:

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. Essentialy, 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.

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, cumbia, reggaeton, Brazilian forms such as samba and bossa nova, and even reggae and country music.

[edit] Tuning the Congas

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).

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.

  • The supertumba can be as large as 14 inches across (35.5 cm).
  • The tumba is typically 12 to 12.5 inches across (30.5 to 31.8 cm).
  • The conga is typically 11.5 to 12 inches across (29.2 to 30.5 cm).
  • The quinto is typically around 11 inches across (about 28 cm).
  • The requinto can be smaller than 10 inches across (24.8 cm).
  • The ricardo can be as small as 9 inches across (22.9 cm). Since this drum is typically played while hanging from a shoulder strap, it is considerably shorter and narrower than a traditional conga.

[edit] 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. Generally congas are 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 slaps pierce 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 difficult to go wrong with tightening the drum until it makes a pleasing sound.

When two or more drums are used, however, there is much variation on which two notes are chosen. With two drums, it is not unusual to find them tuned a perfect fourth apart (the same interval used in "Here Comes the Bride").

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 use the second inversion of a major chord (eg. 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 choses to tune them to the opening phrase of a Latin tune he likes.

[edit] Famous players

[edit] References

  • Dworsky, Alan; Betty Sansby (1995). Conga Drumming: A Beginner's Guide to Playing with Time. Dancing Hands. ISBN 0-9638801-0-1. 
  • Sanchez, Poncho; Chuck Silverman (2002). Poncho Sanchez' Conga Cookbook. Cherry Lane Music. ISBN 1-57560-363-2. 

[edit] See also

  • Caribbean music
  • La Conga Nights (1940 film)
  • Kickin' the Conga Round (1942 animation)

[edit] External links