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A pair of bongos

Bongo drums or bongos are a Cuban percussion instrument consisting of a pair of single-headed, open-ended drums attached to each other. The drums are of different size: the larger drum is called in Spanish the hembra (female) and the smaller the macho (male). It is most often played by hand and is especially associated in Cuban music with a steady patter or ostinato of eighth-notes known as the martillo or "hammer".

Origin and history

The Atlantic slave trade brought the antecedent of the bongos to Cubamarker from Africa. The history of bongo drumming can be traced to the Cuban music styles known as salsa, changui, bolero, and son, which first developed in eastern Cubamarker (Oriente province) in the late 19th century. Some of the first recordings of bongos can be heard performed by the groups Sexteto Habanero and Septeto Nacional. They have become a popular instrument among soundtrack writers for movies and television.

The name may have evolved from the Abakua drum trio 'Bonko' and its lead drum 'Bonko Enmiwewos'. These drums are still a fundamental part of the Abakua Religion in Cuba. If joined with a wooden peck in the middle, such drums would look much like the bongos we know today.

Bongo-like pairs of drums with ceramic bodies and goatskin or rawhide heads are found in Moroccomarker where they are known as tbila (Arabic: "drums"), as well as in Egyptmarker and other Middle Eastern countries. They resemble their cousins the Indian tabla and the European timpani, both deriving partly from the Arab nakers. They can sometimes be found accompanying flamenco and other traditional Spanish music, partially because of the Moorish influence in Spain. However, all these other paired types are closed at one end, while bongos are always open ended like the conga and the goblet drum.


Bongos are typically made of wood, metal or composite materials, attached by a thick piece of wood. The drum head can be made of animal skin or synthetic. Some bongoceros prefer the sound of X-ray film as the head on the macho. Initially, bongo had tacked-on heads which were tensioned with moisture and heat. By the 1940s, metal tuning lugs developed to facilitate easier tuning.

Playing technique

Bongo drums produce relatively high-pitched sounds, and should be held between the knees with the larger drum on the right when right-handed. They are traditionally played by striking the drumheads with the fingers and palms, although some contemporary composition require drum sticks. Bongos can also be muted by placing part of the hand on top of the head while striking it. In Cuban music, bongos are usually played by the same musician as the cowbell (Spanish: cencerro). These drums can also be played on a stand, as is the case with concert orchestras and bands.

The moose call or glissando 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. Some conga players may use beeswax to help make the sound.

See also


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