Many people have problems identifying the bongos and congas. While both being hand drums, they are very different and are approached differently. Bongos are the small high pitched drums that are joined together by a block. The smaller of the two is called the macho and the large drum is called the hembra. The bongos originated in Cuba. They were originally played in Changui and Son groups. There were no other drums used in those groups until the 1940’s when Congas were introduced into the ensemble. Bongos are used in many genres of music today. The bongos are primarily an improvisational instrument. Traditionally the bongos are played seated with the pair being held between the knees. A right handed player would have the macho (small drum) on the left and the hembra (large drum) on the right. The bongocero (bongo player) would also switch to playing a large hand-held cowbell (Campana) during certain sections of music within the ensemble. In general, the bongocero would play bongos during the introduction, the verses, and during lower volume solos such as bass or piano solos. The campana would be played for the Montuno section as well as during solos that were higher in dynamics.
There is one main bongo pattern that is used to improvise around. This groove is called the Martillo pattern. Martillo means hammer in Spanish. One is hammering out the downbeats in the groove which helps maintain the tempo. There are a few different tones that one needs to know before starting to play. The main tones are the slap, the heel (thumb), the toe (finger), and the open tone. In the Martillo pattern below, the macho is the drum that most of the pattern is played on while one note is played on the hembra. The note played on the hembra corresponds to the congas’ tumbaó pattern.
Slap = S Right = R
Heel = H Left = L
Toe = T
Open = O
There are many variations to this pattern so be creative, listen to the other musicians around you, and “hammer away.”
– Meg Thomas
Meg Thomas Bio
Drummer and percussionist Meg Thomas has performed in musical realms that range from rock to calypso, avant-garde to spoken word, Latin-jazz to punk, and dance ensembles to percussion ensembles. Her drum and percussion set-ups range from the traditional ideas to unique set-ups that incorporate a vast range of percussion instruments. She received her degree in Music from Millikin University and she founded and runs the Chicago Women’s Drumming Group. Meg is a Vic Firth Private Drum and Percussion Teacher and teaches lessons out of her studio in Chicago. She plays recording sessions, performs with an array of bands and ensembles, and has toured the U.S. and Europe. Meg won a Drummie in Drum! Magazine’s 2010 Drummie Awards as runner-up “Rising Star Percussionist,” was named “Musician of the Month” for January 2013 by the Chicago Music Guide, and is endorsed by Sabian Cymbals, Vic Firth Sticks and Mallets, Evans Drumheads, LP Percussion, PureSound Percussion, and Humes & Berg Cases.
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