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Percussion: Bongó

Percussion: Bongó
In early Cuban sextetos and septetos which interpreted the son, the bongocero (bongo player) had significant latitude in how he or she played, and was expected to add excitement through improvised percussive bursts. This took the form of accents, short riffs and solos called repiques, sitting atop a steady basic rhythm called the martillo.

Bongoceros move off the bongó and play pulse on the bongo cowbell during the montuno section to provide extra drive to the rhythm section. The increased stability lends greater freedom for both the congas and timbales to improvise. The bongocero is therefore a "two for the price of one" musician: playing bongó before and cowbell during the montuno.

The instrument
Like many AfroCuban instruments, bongó drums come as a sexed pair: the smaller drum called the macho (male) for its more aggressive sound; and the larger called the hembra (female) for its mellower tone. The two drums, held together by a centrepiece, are commonly tuned an octave apart.

The shells are either fibreglass or wood. Fibreglass has a little more flex so they are kinder to the hands, and are marginally lighter to carry, whereas wooden shells produce a warmer tone. There are two general types of rims: traditional and comfort. Misplaced strokes on a traditional rim can be an uncomfortable experience, so I would recommend the comfort rims to beginners. There should always be hardware mounted on the shells to allow tuning of the drumheads. If you want to play bongó held between your knees in the traditional seated position, check that the tuning hardware allows for comfortable long-term playing.

Skins can be natural hide or artificial. Natural skins have a great sound and touch but are vulnerable to changing conditions: humidity, perspiration, and heat from stage lighting or playing; and need to be re-tuned constantly. Get the best quality skins you can afford so that you can develop your touch - cheaper skins are thicker and require more impact force to activate a tone. Artificial skins such as the Evans Tri-Center and Remo Fiberskyn are more resistant to variations in climatic conditions and capable of producing good tones.

Cowbells for bongó players, called bongo bells, come in all shapes and sizes. The most important consideration is the size and weight in comparison to your hand; if it's too large and unwieldy, keeping time and playing the right tones will present a challenge. If you get a chance to try before you buy, that would be ideal. I personally prefer the mid-sized slimmer bells of the Meinl range since their bells are tuned to each other, so my bongo bell complements those on my timbales.

Brands to investigate as a starting point are Latin Percussion, Meinl, and Toca.

What to play
Your first port of call is to develop consistent great-sounding tones without having to think about it (unconscious competence). You want to be able just to concern yourself with
the playing of patterns and solos, without having to worry about tonal quality at the same time.

Establish a strong metronomic time-keeping march of the non-dominant hand, which will both stabilise your rhythm and provide a reference timeframe to which you can calibrate the strokes of your dominant hand.

On bongó:
The first rhythm that you should learn is the martillo (hammer) which is an elementary AfroCuban pattern (similar to a caballo on the congas). Both videos by Sulsbrück and Gajate Garcia are great for this. Progress to the book by Salloum which contains a wealth of martillo variations. You can proceed further by studying the material by Dworsky and Sansby on soloing strategies to build up your repiques.

Bongo bell:
Pulse pattern without, then with clave orientation as described by Sulsbrück.


Recommended Resources

Latin-American Percussion: Rhythms And Rhythm Instruments From Cuba And Brazil by Birger Sulsbrück. (External link)

Salsa Guidebook For Piano & Ensemble by Rebeca Mauleón. (External link)

Close-Up On Bongos And Timbales, Vol. 2 - DVD by Richie Gajate Garcia. A good video for learning the basic martillo pattern. (External link)

The Bongo Book by Trevor Salloum. Not a skills-based instruction book, more like a repository of martillo variations. (External link)

Secrets Of The Hand: Soloing Strategies For Hand Drummers by Alan Dworsky & Betsy Sansby. A very clever book teaching soloing skills, not just vocabulary. (External link)

Additional resources are available on under Instructional -> Afro-Latin Percussion (External link)


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society