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The conga drum and it's rhythms has it origins in Africa and Cuba and thus, it is Afro-Cuban in origin. The conga is likely a descendant of a one or more African drums, which were brought to Cuba, as well as the Cuban Cajon. The African predecessors likely include the Makuta, Ngoma, Yuka, Bembé and possibly Ashiko. At least one Cuban predecessor of the conga is the Cuban Cajon (see A History of the Congas Dr. Olavo Alén Rodriguez.) It does appear that there is more than one drum that influenced the invention and development of the conga. Accordingly, there could also be more drums than what are listed here.
The above African drums as well as the Cuban Cajon are conical shaped drums and the conga may have started as such. But by the 1930s the conga was given its now classic barrel shape (see A History of the Congas by Dr. Olavo Alén Rodriguez).
In the last decades of the 19th century Cuban cajons were made and used in Rumba music, which originated in the provinces of Havana and Matanzas. It is note worthy that even the early names of the different size congas were the names of the different size Cuban cajons. Along with adopting the names each size conga adopted the basic playing parts of each size cajon.
In the 1930s, several decades after the Cajons had became an important instrument of Rumba music, congas were applied to Rumba and carnival music. During this decade congas became a mainstay in the Cuban carnival music in urban areas of the provinces of Havana and Matanzas.
Also in the '30s, the conga migrated from Northwestern Cuba to Eastern Cuba and found use in other musical forms, including the son, bolero and guaracha. In the U.S. the term "conga" was popularized during the '30s; first it applied to the Conga Line dance and conga rhythm, both from Cuba. Also the Bokú, a Cuban drum, which was developed soon after the conga was developed, was brought to the U.S. and people typically called it "Conga" through it is not.
In the '30s American music was beginning to be strongly influenced by Latin music and that certainly continues to this day. The Cuban rhythm "La Conga" was probably first introduced in live band setting in the U.S. by the Cuban band leader Don Azpiazú in 1930. It is not certain that Azpiazú used the actual drum with the rhythm, but is reported by ethnomusicologist Nolan Warden that the drum was used in the U.S. by Frank "Machito" Grillo, circa 1937 (see A History of the Conga Drum) and it has continued to grow as an international instrument since.
In 1939 it became a permanent instrument in the famous Cuban dance group "Arcaño y Sus Maravillas".
By the early 1940s different bands and orchestras in Cuba incorported the conga into its instrumentation. In the late '30s & throughout the'40s the conga was growing in the U.S. During this time some of the greatest musicians, including Machito, Mario Bauza, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Chano Pozo and others synthesized and established one of the most creative musical forms ever, Afro-Cuban Jazz (aka Latin Jazz).
The conga has continued to grow in popularity and this humble instrument is now one of the most popular drums in the world and used in a wide variety of musical genres on virtually every continent. Rock 'n Roll bands incorporated it into their music during the Classic Rock era & there is probably no better example of this than in Santana with the late great conguera, Raul Rekow.
There are so many great congueros who have helped make the conga a universally appreciated instrument. Though it's beyond the scope of this article to mention all of them, you can see and hear many of the master congueros here. In addition to professional, as well as recreational players, the conga would not have developed as it has without skilled conga makers and quality manufacturers. As with the players, the work of drum makers and manufacturers like Latin Percussion Music, Gon Bops and many others is a history unto itself.
The conga is still the same essential barrel shape as in the 1930s, but it has gone through some changes in design and materials. Today, different conga makers and manufacturers distinguish their congas by using their own variation of the barrel form as well as different woods and materials including fiberglass; and different shaped, quality and color hardware.
The earliest congas typically used cow or mule skins for the heads, which were tacked or nailed to the top of the shell, a technique used for many African drums, including traditional Makutas & Ngomas. To tune the head one heats it to tighten and raise the pitch; or cool to loosen and lower the pitch. Today's congas are typically mechanically tuned. To tune them one simply uses a wrench to turn a nut(s) on a tuning lug(s), which controls the tension on the rim, which controls the tension and pitch of the drum head.
The head on the conga was originally made from rawhide; cow and mule skins were most commonly used in Cuba. Today, rawhide is still used; water buffalo, cow, steer and mule being the most popular. Plus, synthetic heads are also popular and of professional quality today.
The conga shell was originally made from wood; today they are still made of wood as well as fiberglass.
Three primary conga sizes and five total sizes have emerged as common place.
The name of the three primary sizes are Quinto, Conga (aka Segundo, Segunda, Tres dos and Tres golpes) & Tumbadora (aka Tumba). The other two sizes are the Requinto (aka Super Quinto) and Super Tumbadora (aka Super Tumba and Salidor) .
The sizes give insight into that drum’s functions. For instance, the names describe the drums general pitch & particular rhythms or rhythmic parts that players commonly play on them.
Of the three primary sizes the Quinto is the smallest & highest pitched and accordingly is commonly used as a solo or lead drum, but it can be used in other ways, especially when tuned to a lower pitch. The Conga is the middle size and is traditionally used to play middle drum parts, though it can & often is used to play low or high drum parts, when tuned to a lower or higher pitch.
Of the three primary sizes the Tumba is the lowed pitched and has the largest
head & widest shell belly.
The Tumba is traditionally used to play low drum parts, though it can &
often is used to play Conga parts. The Tumba is sometimes referred to as the Salidor.
When the conga was first becoming popular congueros would play only one drum at a time and the rhythm parts were firmly assigned to each drum and player. As players developed and mastered conga playing techniques the music and rhythm arrangements grew with increasing complexity. Within this development congueros began playing two and three simultaneously. Today, some players will even use a four, and even rarer, five or more.
Recommended reading for history of the congas: