Hand Drumming Workshop: Conga Basics

You just finished performing in front of a packed house. With a sweat-drenched towel in one hand, and a room-temperature beverage in the other, you head off for your well-deserved break. However, before “chill-time” can begin an admirer stops you and asks, the inevitable question, “Can you teach me to play them bongos?” Sometimes you don’t even have a pair of bongos in your setup, but this generic term seems to work well for the public. If only you could teach them the terminology, history, technique, training, and musicality that goes into your passion for your instruments — all in the short time it takes to get off the stage. If you are a teacher, this is a business opportunity you cannot ignore, but the eager patron yearning for a serious education is a rarity. So if you are asked the question from henceforth, you can reply, “I don’t have time right now, but there is an article on drummagazine.com that can get you started.”

The conga is normally the foundation for most percussion setups. Originally, from African roots (Congolese), the shape and dimensions that we recognize today stem from Cuba. The Cuban term is tumbadora, which began making its mark in Cuba during the early 1930s. The conga provided more “low-end” and overall greater support offered by the bongos, or bongo’. Bongos were the primary rhythmic instrument in son (rhymes with “tone”), which is the folkloric Cuban dance music that started gaining popularity in the early 1900s. Bongos were played as a non-specific soloing and improvising instrument, and the conga soon became the anchor. Rumba, originally played on boxes, began being played on congas broken down into the following instrumentation: the lowest, or bajo, and then segunda, played an underlying rhythm and the highest drum, quinto, soloed on top. One of the more popular rumbas is the guaguanco’.

These Cuban and rumba conga parts made their way to the sizing and terminology found in common production today. The tumba is the largest, usually 12.5" head diameter, followed by the conga, 11.5", and the quinto is the smallest at 11". Some manufacturers also offer “super” tumbas, 13—14" head sizes, and a smaller “requinto” of 9—10". Today, we refer to a group or set of these hand drums as congas. Historically, you play in a seated position, so comfortable sizing of each drum is usually 28—30" tall. Though the origins are Cuban, you may hear congas in virtually all styles of popular music.

Getting Started

When shopping for congas in today’s market, you are offered generally two flavors in the sizes mentioned above: wood or fiberglass. The wood for the most part is oak, and offers a warmer “traditional” sound over the fiberglass. Fiberglass offers durability and generally has more “cutting” volume over wood. Because of these characteristics, wood model congas are usually at home in the studio, while fiberglass congas are seen more often in live music scenes. Most congas come stock with “natural” heads. These heads are most likely buffalo, and the better quality comes from the top, or back, of the animal divided by the spine. Lesser quality skins come from the underside, or belly of the animal, for the skin is thinner and may have imperfections due to how it would lie on the ground. Natural heads are traditionally the heads of choice because of the warmer tonal qualities, and overall feel. While these natural heads are common, they have some disadvantages. Because they are real skin, they are porous and subject to climate changes, such as humidity and sweat. This is the reason your congas may detune during a hot summer outdoor gig, because the heads will absorb moisture. Your heads will stretch as you continue to tune-up, drastically reducing the life and tone of your heads. Drumhead companies such as Remo and Evans offer a miraculous cure for this by manufacturing hand drum drumheads made from plastic. They feel and sound as close as you can get to natural hide, but the fact that these synthetic skins are virtually impervious to detuning and moisture makes them almost a necessity for outdoor playing. Nevertheless, if you are using natural heads, it is important to manually tune down your heads after you finish playing, especially if you are traveling.

Okay, you picked a brand, chose wood or fiberglass, and natural or synthetic skins, so now you have to decide how many and what sizes you want to play. As far as sales in today’s market, a pair of congas is the common denominator, usually a quinto and conga. However, feel free to try other combinations – maybe conga and tumba, or lately I personally have been performing live using quinto and tumba. These drums give me the sounds I need in the styles I’ve been playing.

Tuning

What notes do I tune to? This is a common question with no common answer. Each drum size has a tone, or pitch, at which it best resonates. Obviously, the tumba will be the lowest pitch, followed by the conga, then quinto. However, you can fine-tune these drums to specific pitches, or a specific key depending on the application.

  1. Start tuning with your lower drum, making sure all the nuts on the bottom of the tension hooks are loose, then finger tighten each of them until snug.
  2. Using your conga wrench, begin at one lug and tighten one half turn, working your way in one direction (clockwise or counterclockwise).
  3. Every two laps around, check the pitch by tapping on the head (we will get into the right way to “tap” a head in the next section). Check to see if one side is pulling down the head more so than the other. This is especially important when dealing with natural skins, for they have inconsistencies (slightly thicker or thinner in one spot) that tend to favor a weaker point when tuning. Keep the heads balanced and even when tuning.
  4. When you reach your desired pitch, your drum should sing and resonate loud and freely when struck (of course not on its own, you have to strike it).
  5. Repeat steps 1—4 for your next smaller drum. The common interval between pitches is a perfect fourth. You know Wagner’s Wedding March commonly titled, “Here Comes The Bride?” The pitch interval you sing starting on “here” to “comes” is a perfect fourth, or G to C on the piano. This interval relationship between the two congas is very common.
  6. Do not forget to detune after you are done playing to save the life of your natural skins (reverse the steps, 4—1). This is not necessary with synthetic, or plastic heads, however.
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