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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Hand Techniques

It takes a lot more creativity to play congas than most people think. Look at it this way, each drum has only one tone, so a pair gives you two notes to work with. That’s it! A piano gives you 88 notes. However, by altering the way we strike the congas, we change the sonic characteristic, or timbre (pronounced tam-ber), of each drum. There are six basic hand techniques. These six form the foundation for most of your conga playing.

Fig. 1.

First of all, position yourself with one conga between your legs while sitting down. If you tilt the drum slightly away from yourself, you allow the drum to breathe from the bottom, offering better tonal qualities. This is common among seated players. Your shoulders are relaxed; so relaxed you should be able to put a drumstick under each arm and practice your techniques that way. Your forearms are parallel to the floor, and your back is straight (see Fig. 1). All of your practicing should be done with this relaxed position in mind. Finally, envision a glass shelf 6—8" above the conga head. When you practice, try not to raise your hands high enough off the surface of the head to strike that glass. You will soon learn that relaxation and good technique beats power any day of the week. Remember that everything that goes for the right hand also goes for the left hand.

Fig. 2.

Open Tone (Fig. 2) The most fundamental of all the techniques. Start with one hand resting on the head, fingers together, and knuckles aligned on the edge. Lift your hand a few inches off the head and strike the drum in the same position you started with. When you make contact, immediately release your hand from the head. Think of your wrist as the starting point making a wave like motion to the tips of your fingers – in other words, you do not want to be stiff. Stay relaxed and flexible. A full resonating tone is achieved, as well as stating the true “pitch” of the drum.

Fig. 3.

Bass Tone
(Fig. 3) This tone will yield the lowest frequencies of your conga. You can use either the base of your palm, full palm, or full hand. Your point of contact is in the center of the head, and you want to “drive though” the drum. Experiment by leaving your hand on the head then releasing for slightly different tones.

Fig. 4.

Mute or Muffled Tone
(Fig. 4) Go back to the open tone position, but slide your knuckles back about an inch, so now your fingers are the only part of your hand on the head. Strike like the open tone, but leave your fingers on the head at contact, choking the head from resonating. Press in with your fingertips to ensure good contact with the head. Try this exercise – play four alternating open tones then four alternating mute tones. Repeat these eight strokes until you really hear the difference.

Fig. 5.

Palm or Heel
(Fig. 5) Start with your full hand on the head with your palm positioned between the center and the edge of the head. Your wrist really comes into play here by lifting straight up, raising the palm, then driving straight down returning the palm and lifting the fingers.

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Fig. 6.

Fingers or Toe
(Fig. 6) Now the fingers are raised, and the wrist is still forcing the palm down. Raise the wrist quickly straight up bringing the palm back up. The fingers will hit fully on the head, not just the fingertips. Next, force the wrist down driving the palm back, raising the fingers back up. Repeat the “Palm/Finger” combination focusing on the wrist driving straight up and down. Try this exercise — play one combination of Palm/Fingers with your right hand then alternate to the left hand. Repeat this while really focusing on the wrist movement. This is the basis for Mano Secreta, or Secret Hand, which can enable you to play fast double stokes and rudiments fluidly and effortlessly.

Fig. 7.

Slap Tone
(Fig. 7) This technique is probably the most difficult. Before doing this, remember how we started: relaxed, fingers together, imaginary pane of glass 6-8" off the surface of the head. Return to that starting position with the “open tone,” and your hand resting on the conga head. Slide your hand in about 1" towards the center, and cup your hand slightly. Keep your thumb tucked into your forefinger. This is the ending position for the slap. Now raise your hand, still in that “cupped” position and remember that “wave” like motion from your wrist to your fingertips. Now strike the conga head, returning to that first position. This technique is not easy, but stay focused and relaxed and it will come. Try this exercise — slowly play one “open tone,” then one “slap tone” with the same hand, then switch to the other. Practice in front of a mirror and make sure your fundamentals are there – back straight, forearm parallel to the floor, and stay nice and relaxed.

Ex. 1.

Tumbao Rhythm

The tumbao (pronounced toom-bow) is, as J.R. Robinson says for drum set, the “money beat.” This pattern is as common as eighth-notes on the hi-hat, 1 and 3 on the bass drum, and 2 and 4 on the snare. You will find as you progress in your playing that there will always be elements of this tumbao (see Ex. 1).

Let us break this down, by thinking of that common drum set pattern I just mentioned. Look how the left hand is doing the bulk of the work, and notice what happens on beats 1 and 3. The “palm” technique used here is the equivalent of the bass drum beats. This actually can drive the tempo. Think of the “fingers” like the hi-hat providing the eighth-note subdivision. Look at the “slap” on beat 2. Picture that as the snare drum with your right hand. Then there are the two open tones at the end of the pattern that provide the feel of conclusion to the rhythm, and may remind you of a tom-tom. Play this repeatedly at different tempos, maybe even swing it a bit. You should start to hear that “money beat,” and realize the true roots of where the modern day drum set groove came from.

Have Fun

This is only the beginning of your conga-playing journey. Like any musical instrument, it’s important to learn the basic rules, then venture off on your own ideas and experimentation. There is a three-step philosophy that I follow: Practice, listen, and play. No matter what level of musician you are, you always need to follow those three steps, and most importantly, make them fun. Enjoy your congas, and now you can take your break!