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THE CONGA DRUMS

Congas belong to the range of instruments that have transcended the aesthetic bounds of the geo-historic context which originated it, and has become a drum that can adapt to genres and ensembles different from, and at times even alien to, those that had initially defined it.

 

As a drum, its African origins can be traced with a good degree of accuracy, and for this purpose I’d like to refer the reader to the invaluable encyclopaedia Los Instrumentos de la Música Afrocubana by Fernando Ortiz; at any rate, what we today know and recognise as conga drum, its barrel-shaped body and the hooked bolts tuning system, is an urban product which made its first appearance in Cuba towards the end of the first half of the XX century, and it consolidated into its final shape in the 1960s.

 

Ortiz lived in Cuba and was writing on the subject in the 1940s as a middle-aged man; he is therefore a priceless source of first-hand informations about processes of cultural transformation that were taking place during his lifetime.

Ortiz divides the typologies of African drums transplanted to Cuba into four main groups, differentiated by their ethnical provenance, but, more importantly for our purpose, by the system of body construction and tension of the skin. These groups are: the Bantú, the Carabalí (or Semibantú), the Arará and the Yoruba (or Lucumí).

 

Out of these four groups, the drums built by the Bantú are arguably the most simple, with a straight hollowed tree trunk body, and they are the only ones where the skin is simply nailed to the wood, without the auxiliary use of ropes or wedges. This skin mounting system is also the one employed in the first drums which appeared to be built using barrels, an item much easier to come by in the urban environment of a port town like La Havana than tree trunks, which in addition need a great deal of labour to be hollowed. This legacy of barrel-shaped drums with the Bantú culture is also reflected in the genres of music that these drums were employed on during the early stages of their existence, and which were crucial in defining the elemental components of its lexicon, palpable in styles like the guaguancó, rumba columbia, and eventually chachacha, son monuno and the tumbao.

 

The fact that the Bantú drums were used in predominantly recreational music situations, as opposed to religious ones, likely facilitated its early introduction into popular ensembles and orchestras. Also the fact that congas were not obviously “African” drums contributed to their diffusion and relatively undisturbed use even in periods and circumstances where the whims of the colonisers were forbidding the use of such instruments. This factors were also conducive to their utilisation in new styles, indigenous to the colonial territories, and all this conjured to their universal, non-specific nature from their very inception.

 

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the first congas made out of barrels (often used for the transportation of olives, wine, oil and what have you) had their skin nailed to the wooden body, similarly to the Bantú prototype, and often one of the barrel’s metal hoops was employed to cover the row of nails, thus preventing them from snapping off as a result of the skin’s tension and the players’ action.

The introduction of hooked bolts as a system of tension, a technology imported from the European drums, was implemented gradually during the first half of the XX century, and the conga settled into its final contemporary shape between the 1950s and ‘60s, crucially consolidating into a standardised model in the ’70s, thanks greatly to the dedication of Martin Cohen, founder of the LP (Latin Percussion) brand.

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