Bongo drums, usually just called bongos, are one of the most recognizable of percussion instruments. Due to the pervasive popularity of Latin music (thank you, “Dancing With the Stars”), the sounds of these little drums are familiar to people around the world. Bongos, as the name implies, always come in attached sets of two. One drum is slightly bigger than the other; the larger is the “hembra” (the Spanish word for “female), while the smaller is the “macho” (the Spanish word for “male”). Bongo drums are capable of a great deal of versatility and their music is usually upbeat and rapid.
Like some other drums of the Americas, such as the steel drum, bongo drums were originally brought to South America from Africa via the Atlantic slave trade. The African nations of Nigeria and Cameroon had fraternal organizations that utilized a trio of drums called “bonko.” When the Africans were brought to the Americas, vestiges of these organizations and their traditions came with them. The Abakua is a society of Afro-Cuban men that evolved from those fraternal organizations. It continued to use the bonko drums, but the instruments eventually spread beyond the fraternity. It is believed that this was the origin of the bongo in South America. The Abakua still exists in modern Cuba and it still uses bonkos that, if joined together in pairs, very closely resemble bongo drums.
The bodies of bongo drums are usually made of wood, metal or composite materials attached by a thick piece of wood. The head is traditionally of animal skin, but as with other modern drums, synthetic materials are commonly used in modern times. Originally, in the late 19th century, the heads of bongo drums were tacked on and tuned with a heat source. But since the 1940s, metal tuning lugs have been used to allow for easier tuning.
The sound of the bongo drums is high-pitched and as mentioned, the tempo is generally fast. When played, the drums should be held between the player’s knees; the larger drum should be on the side of the player’s dominant hand, which is usually the right one. The drum heads are struck with both the fingers, palms, and sometimes sticks and brushes, although these last are contemporary innovations. The sound of the bongo drum can be muted by placing part of one hand on the drum head while striking with the other hand.
Some of the most famous dance styles of Latin America, including the mambo, salsa and conga, utilize the music of the bongo drum. The instrument’s capacity for distinct percussion is essential to these styles, which showcase distinct and often rapid rhythms. In fact, the music of the bongos is often used as a solo instrument in such music, a tactic that highlights the importance of a song’s rhythm.
On a side note, although bongo drums are generally considered instruments of Latin America, drums resembling bongos can be found in Morocco, Egypt and some Middle Eastern countries. These drums have rawhide heads like their American counterparts, but the bodies are of a ceramic nature. Such drums can also be heard in some traditional Spanish music, such as flamenco, probably due to the Moorish influence in that country.