A pair of bongos
(Sets of single-skin conical drums)
|Developed||19th and early 20th centuries|
|A2 – G4|
Bongos (Spanish: bongó) are an Afro-Cuban percussion instrument consisting of a pair of small open bottomed drums of different sizes. In Spanish the larger drum is called the hembra (female) and the smaller the macho (male). They are membranophones, or instruments that create sound by a vibration of a stretched membrane.
The origin of the bongo is largely unclear. Its use was first documented in the Eastern region of Cuba known as the "Oriente", during the 19th century, where it was employed in popular music styles such as Cuban son, Nengon, and Changui.
Most sources on Afro-Cuban cultural history argue that the bongo derives from Central African (Congo/Bantu) drum models, noticeable in the open bottoms. Also a Santería influence from Yoruba culture in the symbolic "twin" drum is assumed. The strong historical presence of Africans from the Congo/Angola region in Eastern Cuba (where the bongo first appeared) makes such an influence probable. Moreover, Central African/Congo influences are also documented in the Cuban son music genre, including changüí, and initially the development of the bongo drum went parallel with these genres.
From such conceptual African drum models, the bongo developed further in Cuba itself, and some historians state that the attaching of the two drums was a later invention that took place in Cuba.
Others point for several reasons at (also) other influences on the bongo's origins: a similar small double drum, called tbilat or tanan, has existed in North Africa at least since the 12th century, and so it is possible that the Cuban bongo is (partly) of Moorish rather than West African origin. Another indication of North African origin is that the traditional Cuban bongo uses metal tacks to fasten the drum skin to the head. This technique is one that has been common in the Middle East since antiquity. An argument for West African origin is on the other hand that, as mentioned, the ends of the Cuban bongo are open, whereas the ends of the Tbilat are usually closed.
Since the bongos are defined as "African in concept, but Cuban in invention" - e.g. by author Ned Sublette  -, over time some Moorish (Andalusian) or European aspects may also have partly shaped the bongos. Etymologically, Sublette traces the origin of the word "bongo" to a multipurpose word of Bantu/Congo origin.
The bongos used in changüí, known as bongó el monte, are larger and tuned lower than their modern counterparts, have tack-heads instead of tunable hardware, and play in a manner similar to rumba quinto and other folkloric lead drum parts. (Hear bongó el monte "Ritmo changüí" with Grupo Exploracion).
The bongo came to western Cuba at the turn of the 20th century, when son migrated to the capital city of Havana. As son inspired Cuban big band music gained international popularity, the Cuban bongo was exported all over the world. It is today one of the most common hand drums.
Bongo drums produce relatively high-pitched sounds compared to Conga drums, and should be held behind the knees with the larger drum on the right when right-handed. It is most often played by hand and is especially associated in Cuban music with a steady pattern or ostinato of eighth-notes known as the martillo or "hammer". (See "The Martillo Pattern" with Manny Oquendo and "Bongo Riffs" with Johnny "Dandy" Rodriguez.) They are traditionally played by striking the edge of the drumheads with the fingers and palms. The glissando used with bongó de monte 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 before rubbing it across the head. When used in art music compositions they are usually struck with drum sticks. These drums can also be played on a stand, as is the case with concert orchestras and bands.
- All about bongos: everything you need to know to start playing now!, Kalani, Page 6
- Percussion instruments and their History, James Blades, page 186
- Percussion instruments and their History, James Blades, page 153
- 'Cuba and its music : from the first drums to the mambo', by Ned Sublette, Chicago Review Press, 2004
- Lapidus, Ben (2008). Origins of Cuan Music and Dance; Changüí p. 21-23. Lanham, MA: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-6204-3
- "The Martillo Pattern" (Manny Oquendo). Unlocking Clave. Web. Facebook. http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=198532850185375
- Salloum, Trevor. The Bongo Book Mel Bay.