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History of Afro-Cuban Percussion Instruments

History of Afro-Cuban Percussion Instruments
and Their Use in Cuban Popular Music



The bongos
(bongó in Spanish)





Bongo Drums

Were originally 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 Tinge).

The role 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.

Bongo playing 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 chorus.


Important change

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.

With the 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 section's power.



The conga




Boys with Conga Drums

is traditionally 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.

The lowest 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.

An older, 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.



The word 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.



The timbales



Stephen Stills
Plays Timbales Onstage

The timbales 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.

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 would.


the güiro


The Güiro

Despite its status as a member of the "small percussion" family, the güiro is very important in the charanga.

Many composers 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.


In 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.

In 1938, 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.


many other percussion instruments

Although 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.

The drumset 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 religious ceremonies.



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Special thanks to
Bobby Sanabria, Candido Camero
and Michael Avalosfor providing vital information.

© 1998 Nick Herman.








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