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Bongos – The Most Cuban Instrument

By Olavo Alén Rodríguez
© 2009 Jon Griffin

A unique Cuban instrument, the bongos were born in the mountains of Eastern Cuba. The complex musical styles of the Cuban son shaped their development.

They consist of two different sized small drums. A strap or piece of wood or metal separates their bodies, or sound boxes. Each drum possesses a single membrane, or skin, and each tuned to a different pitch. Metal rings and screws formed in the shapes of hook and nuts tune the skins in modern bongos. Historical instruments used nails and a candle or some form of heat to change the pitch. Unlike most other drums, bongos are never played separate.

Bongos are usually played sitting down with the instrument placed between the knees. Squeezing the external edge of each drum with the skins facing up holds them in place. The larger drum is placed to the side of your dominant hand. This makes most of the execution carried out on the smaller drum opposite of the dominant hand.

Drums joined by a strap use a different method of playing. The seated player places the strap on his right thigh settling each drum to a respective side of his leg. Again, with the larger drum on the dominant hand side.

The bongos main musical function is to create complex rhythmic accompaniment. It also provides stability to the music. Because of this, rhythmic patterns were created for this instrument. The toque martillo, or “hammer-style,” is one of the best-known patterns. It can create a sequence of eight different sounds and timbres. Even so, the bongos are capable of enormous sonic possibilities. Bongos can produce sounds with different pitches and diverse timbres. This has inspired the bongos us as a solo instrument. It’s an ideal instrument to fill spaces dedicated to rhythmic improvisation.

Since its historic beginnings, the bongo adapted to the expressive needs of son. Perhaps this was the reason two different styles exist: 1. Son Montuno, that covers the regions of Santiago de Cuba and of Manzanillo; and, 2. changüí, in the territory of Guantánamo. The only real difference is the changüí-style bongo is larger. It is also know as bongó de monte (or mountain-style bongo). This produces tones lower in pitch than its counterpart used in the son montuno.

When the son sextets invaded the cities of Cuba in the first decades of the 20th century they brought the bongo. They were then utilized in many diverse music forms adopted from the urban son. Bongos were soon used in other, diverse, accompaniment and musical styles. Examples include: the canción cubana (or the Cuban song),the bolero and the canción trovadoresca (or troubadour-style song). Bongos are also used in the countryside in western Cuba, and used in punto guajiro or punto cubano.

The bongo is one of the national musical instruments that was born in Cuba. The bongos popularity goes beyond its roots in son. Bongos are now used in various genres of rock music and international pop music, as well as, jazz and salsa.

Image of Cuban Changui bongos