of Afro-Cuban Percussion Instruments
and Their Use in Cuban Popular Music
(bongó in Spanish)
used to play son, the rustic dance music that emerged from Cuba's
Oriente province in the early 1900's to become immensely popular
in Havana and eventually the U.S.A. (where it helped start the
"rhumba craze"--for details see John Storm Roberts' The Latin
of the bongocero (bongo player) has always included a fair amount
of improvising, incorporating various African rhythmic elements
into syncopated repiques (riffs). Around 1920, the sexteto format,
which utilized tres, guitar, string bass, bongos, claves and maracas
(the latter two usually played by two singers), became popular;
in the late 20's, groups began to add a trumpet, transforming
the sexteto into the septeto.
in earlier recordings is particularly aggressive or "free," due
in part to the relatively slow tempos and the steady rhythmic
support provided by the rest of the group. In the late 1920's,
the bongosero began to switch to a hand-held cowbell to add drive
during the montuno, a call-and-response section which features
improvised vocals by the sonero (lead singer) over a repeated
A very important
change occurred in the late 1930's, when groups like Septeto La
Llave and Septeto Afrocuba began experimenting with the use of
the conga (a.k.a. tumbadora), an Afro-Cuban drum of Congolese
origin (see below), to provide extra rhythmic support.
permanent addition of the conga, piano and second and third trumpet
the conjunto was born. Tres players Niño Rivera, Eliseo Silveira
and especially Arsenio Rodriguez were early innovators in the
conjunto style. The conjunto format revolutionized the son with
the added drive provided by the conga's deep tone and the trumpet
Boys with Conga
associated with the rumba, comparsa, and palo genres. All forms
of rumba feature call and response singing; in the guaguancó and
columbia forms, three drums are generally used.
is known as the bajo (bass) or tumbadora (this term can mean the
low drum or congas in general); the middle drum is the segunda
(second), sometimes called tres golpes (three strokes) in guaguancó;
the high solo drum, the quinto, derives its name from the requinto,
a high pitched clarinet in military bands and/or solo guitar in
Spanish trios. The rumba also employs two constant interlocking
rhythms played by claves and palitos, a pair of sticks used to
strike the side of a drum (cáscara) or a piece of bamboo (guagua
or catá), and sometimes one or two shakers.
slower, form of rumba, the yambú, traditionally uses two cajónes
(wooden boxes) along with the claves and palitos; this practice
stems from a period in the early years of the Cuban Republic when
African drums were forbidden.
comparsa refers to groups that play Cuban carnival music,
as well as the rhythm they play (also known as conga, the same
one that inspired the conga line and its infamous "one, two, three,
kick" thing). Comparsas include vocalists along with a wide array
of percussion and wind instruments, including but not limited
to: bombos criollos (Cuban creole bass drums), snare drums, congas,
bells, sarténes (frying pans), saxophones, trumpets, and the trompeta
china (a Chinese reed trumpet).
Palo is the
name given to Congolese-derived religious groups in Cuba; their
music uses one to three congas and a cowbell.
Plays Timbales Onstage
were first used to play the danzón, a Cuban derivative of the
French contredanse which was brought by Haitans who immigrated
to Cuba after a slave rebellion in 1791.
In its early
days (1879--c. 1916), the danzón was interpreted by the orquesta
tipica, which included woodwind and brass instruments, violins,
acoustic bass, güiro (gourd scraper believed to be of indigenous
Caribbean origin), and the creole timpani, a smaller version of
the European timpani. During the first two decades of the 1900's
the orquesta tipica was gradually replaced by the charanga francesa,
or simply charanga, which features a creole wooden flute along
with piano, bass, violins, güiro and creole timpani which were
eventually replaced by the timbales.
(a.k.a. pailas (pails)) were invented in order to provide a more
portable, less booming replacement for the timpani. In the early
days of the charanga, timbaleros (timbale players) would tune
their drums to specific notes (usually a fourth or a fifth apart),
often changing to a new key between songs as a concert timpanist
status as a member of the "small percussion" family, the güiro
is very important in the charanga.
and band leaders played güiro, including Abelardo Valdés, who
wrote the famous danzón "Almendra." Maracas (also of indigenous
origin) and claves are also essential to Cuban music, especially
the son, because of the solid rhythmic foundation they help provide.
For a very
detailed discussion of the possible origins of the claves, see
Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz' The Xylophonic clave, translated
into English by the late Vernon Boggs.
the late 1930's
In the late
1930's, a small cowbell was added to the timbales setup; this
innovation is generally credited to Ulpiano Diaz, timbalero with
the charanga Arcaño y Sus Maravillas. This group was led by flautist
Antonio Arcaño and included Israel "Cachao" Lopez on bass and
his brother, Orestes Lopez on cello and piano.
the conga was added to the charanga for the new mambo section
(at first called nuevo ritmo (new rhythm)) which the Lopez brothers
added to the danzón. This new section featured flute improvisations
over violin and piano guajeos (syncopated patterns like those
played by the tres in son) over a foundation of conga, timbales,
güiro and bass. Another format popular from the 1930's on was
that of the jazz band, which in Cuba combined brass and reed sections
with a rhythm section that included the drumset and some of the
Cuban percussion instruments described above. It was not until
the early 1940's, however, that timbales, bongos and congas were
combined on regular basis.
The New York-based
Machito orchestra, whose musical director was the great Mario
Bauzá, is generally believed to have been the first to use this
combination, which became standard for mambo and salsa orchestras.
By the late 1940's, the timbale setup included a large mambo bell,
a smaller cha-cha bell, and a cymbal. It was also around this
time that conga players began to play two drums at once.
other percussion instruments
this article explains how the standard "salsa" rhythm section
came about, there are many other percussion instruments used in
Cuban-based popular music and Latin jazz today.
has become increasingly popular in jazz-oriented groups and those
that play Songo, a style of Cuban dance music developed by percussionist
Jorge Luis Quintana ("Changuito") and bassist-band leader Juan
Formell of Los Van Van in the late 60's and early 70's. Innovative
groups such as Irakere, Batacumbele and Zaperoko have experimented
with the sacred batá drums, which are traditionally used in Santería
Bobby Sanabria, Candido Camero
and Michael Avalosfor providing vital information.
© 1998 Nick Herman.