News | Releases | Discography | Studio | Lessons | Biography | Contact

CONGA DRUM An Introduction
The conga drum is a single headed barrel shaped Afro-Cuban drum which is popular around the world. Originally from Africa and descendant of the makuta drums of Congolese origin, the conga finds its place in the music world today in countless settings, from the concert hall, club and recording studio to the park and streets where the traditional Cuban comparsas (carnival groups) and rumba (drum, vocal and dance) groups perform. The names of the set or the individual drums vary throughout Cuba, with tumbadora for the individual drum, and tumbadoras for the set of three drums, being the most popular. Around the world the most popular name adopted is that of conga for the individual drum, and congas for the set of three drums. The set includes a high pitched drum known as quinto, the middle size drum known as conga or segundo, and the low drum known as tumbadora.

The conga drum is played with both hands and is capable of a variety of sounds which have to be developed fully before moving to the rhythmic repertoire available. The main sounds employed are: open tone, muffled tone, slap, open slap, muffled slap, bass tone, fingers and palm. I usually give my students many exercises which are first of all aimed at developing sound, hand co-ordination, and then rhythm. These exercises include simple quarter note and eighth note patterns where the student plays the written part:

a) right hand only
b) left hand only
c) alternating right and left
d) incorporating double strokes right, right, left, left

This is a very important part of the developmental process, much like a woodwind student works on developing a good tone on the instrument by slowly playing long even notes. The following are examples of these exercises, the first one combines open tones with muffled tones, while the second open tones and slaps. These exercises are to be played very slowly, concentrating on developing a good, even and round tone, with both hands throughout.

Exercise 1

exercise 1

Exercise 2

exercise 2

Once you feel comfortable in playing the sounds with both hands it is time to move on to the basic Afro-Cuban conga drum pattern known as tumbao. This pattern is traditionally incorporated in a variety of styles. The tempi vary from fairly slow cha cha chas, and guarachas, to very fast mambos. One of the important features to be mastered is the steady flow played by the left hand (in right handed players) of 'palm/fingers'. This is unfortunately often neglected by the beginner player, making the rhythm sound rather weak, as too much emphasis is placed on achieving the muffled slap on beat 'two' and the open tones on beats 'four' and 'four-and' by the right hand.

In order to develop the 'palm/fingers' flow I tell my students to work one hand at a time on a simple two quarter note exercise. The routine is to: a) play the full palm on the head (beat one), then b) lift the fingers but leave the heel on the skin, c) play the finger tips (beat two), and finally d) lift the hand off the skin. Once you are comfortable with the 'palm/fingers' flow, start adding the other sounds played by the right hand, eventually arriving at the full one drum tumbao pattern as written below.

Basic Tumbao


For further information and some conga patterns please refer to the following articles CLAVE CONCEPTS Afro-Cuban Rhythms, CLAVE CONCEPTS Tito Puente's Para Los Rumberos, GUAGUANCO Afro-Cuban Rumba, BOMBA Afro-Puerto Rican Treasure and MOZAMBIQUE The Manny Oquendo Touch.

© Alex Pertout.
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, without the prior written permission from the author. This article was first published in Drumscene magazine.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.