Bongo drums are two drums, consisting of one larger drum and one smaller drum that are joined together. They are particularly important in Latin music, specifically music deriving from Cuba. Though these drums are often said to have originated in Cuba, there are variants in Africa, particularly in Egypt, and in other Middle Eastern countries. They differ slightly from the Cuban drums, as the bases tend to be ceramic rather than wooden.
In most cases, bongo drums have a wooden or metal base, and they can be tuned by tightening the skin over the drum. Their sizes vary according to player preferences, but there is almost always a size difference between the two drums. When played, they are held between the knees and tapped with the fingers. Occasionally, they may also be played with brushes.
The two drums are each named: the larger one is called hembra and the smaller macho, which are the Spanish names for female and male respectively. Hembra has a lower tone than macho, but both are significantly higher in tone that the much large conga drums, which are also played in Latin and African music.
Bongo drums became quite popular in the late 19th century. Music including the drums inspired the salsa, mambo and the rumba dance forms, and was called son. As these dances gained in popularity, so did the music.
Watching a skilled musician play the bongos is fascinating. The hands must move exceptionally quickly to capture the staccato and quick rhythms of the music. In drum solos, the player’s hands can move so quickly that they appear to blur with the motions.
The player will usually specialize in various percussion instruments, although when a musician plays the bongo drums, he or she is called a bongocerro. There are hundreds of successful bongocerros, including Willie Bobo, who frequently records with Tito Puente. Frank Colon has performed with many groups, like Manhattan Transfer and Airto. His music is also featured in the work of solo performers like Mary J. Blige and Herbie Hancock.
Nils Fischer may be one of the most interesting bongo players in recent times. He works and records in Holland, where Latin music is now quite popular, and is helping to spread the form as a teacher at the Rotterdam’s Conservatorium.