Conga drums are an integral part of most Latin American music. In North America, everyone has heard of a conga line and unfortunately, most of us have been forced to join one at one point or another, often during a wedding reception. But the music of the conga is far too diverse to be pigeonholed as wedding reception music. These instruments are used not only in genres like salsa and rumba, but in Afro-Caribbean religious music as well. Conga drums are a very important facet of life in South America.
The bodies of conga drums are “staved,” or made of multiple strips of wood or fiberglass, similar to the construction of a barrel. Chances are that the ancestors of modern congas were, in fact, made from salvaged barrels. The drum heads are of rawhide or synthetic materials and are screw-tensioned. The height of the average conga drum is about three feet, and the instruments are usually played in sets of two to four. They can be played from either a sitting or standing position, although for the latter, the drums must be mounted on a rack. An artist who plays conga is called a “conguero.”
Although the average height of a conga drum is about three feet, there is actually enough size variation to warrant different names for different sized drums. However, there is some confusion over these names. One source maintains that the drums are called, in order of largest to smallest, the “tumba,” the “conga,” the “quinto,” the “requinto” and the “Ricardo,” the last being named for Desi Arnaz’s character of Ricky Ricardo on “I Love Lucy.”
Another source calls the largest the “tumba,” but refers to the smallest as the “nino” and gives no names for the middle sizes. Still other names include the “segundo” and the “supertumba.” Clearly, there is no standardized set of names. Even the term “conga drum” can sometimes be confusing. While some experts maintain “conga” may be used in both English and Spanish, others aver that it should be used only in English and that “tumbadoras” should be used in Spanish. All and all, it can be quite bewildering.
But there is nothing confusing about the rhythms of the conga drums. To produce these rhythms, congueros use five basic tones and techniques: the open tone, the muffled tone, the bass tone, the slap, and the touch.
The open tone is exactly what its name implies-a clear resonant tone with a distinct pitch created by striking four fingers near the rim of the head. The muffled tone is like the open tone, but the fingers are held against the head to muffle the sound. The bass tone is made by striking the head with the full palm of the hand. The slap technique produces a popping sound, and the touch, again as the name implies, is a method of barely touching the fingers or the heel of the hand to the drum head. A final technique exists in which the conguero uses his elbow to apply pressure to different parts of the head. This is not a traditional method, but it is commonly used in modern salsa and rumba.
As mentioned, the character of Ricky Ricardo helped popularize the conga, even though the instrument he played on the show was actually more similar to the Cuban “boku,” another type of drum. The music of the conga remains popular today, in part due to the current popularity of Latin music and Latin ballroom dances.