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Contextual Associations

Bongos are a pair of conjoined, tubular, single-headed membranophone hand drums associated with Afro-Cuban dance music. Today they are found distributed broadly around the world wherever Latin American popular music has taken root, and are played both by professionals and amateurs. Bongos are part of a battery of idiophones and membranophones that provide the distinctive rhythmic patterns underlying Latin American dances. They are also used in contemporary solo mixed-percussion and percussion ensemble works and in ‘world music’ hand drumming ensembles.


The tubular drum shells, which are of slightly different diameters, are conical shaped and made of molded fiberglass. They are conjoined side-by-side with a block of fiberglass that is securely screwed to the sidewalls of the two shells. The rawhide heads, one for each shell, are mounted on rigid metal flesh hoops the diameters of which are slightly greater than that of the shell rims they cover. The tensioning of each drumhead is accomplished by placing a metal tension collar with an inward-turning flange that functions as a counterhoop over the flesh hoop. Four holes are placed equidistantly around the tension collar through which the tops of four hook-shaped metal lug bolts pass (see detail image). The other, threaded ends of these lug bolts pass through holes in a second counterhoop that runs around the bottom of the shell. This counterhoop is restricted from sliding up the shell by the shell’s increasing diameter and by a ridge molded into its exterior surface. Nuts are screwed onto the bottom ends of the lug bolts, which stick out beyond the bottom of this lower counterhoop. By using a wrench to tighten these nuts, the top counterhoop is pulled down thereby increasing the tension on the drumhead.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer can either hold the bongos squeezed between their knees while seated with the drumheads tilted slightly forward from horizontal, or attach them to a stand (see the second gallery photo) the height of which can be adjusted for playing while either seated or standing. The two high-pitched drums are tuned differently, the smaller one higher than the larger. The performer uses the fingers of both hands to strike the heads, mostly near the rims, to produce a characteristic shape, dry tone. Bongos can be played with great virtuosity, a performer producing subtle differences of tone, fast rolls, and even a glissando effect that is executed by applying variable pressure to one drumhead with the fingers of one hand while striking it with the other hand. Occasionally, the drumheads are struck with thin wooden stick beaters.


Wooden shell bongos came into being around 1900 in Cuba. Since then, manufacturers have produced many models of the drum using a range of materials for the shell and many different tensioning systems.

Bibliographic Citations

Blades, James. 1970. Percussion Instruments and their History. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

________. 1984. “Bongos [bongo drums].” NGDMI v.1: 250.

Brindle, Reginald Smith. 1991. Contemporary Percussion. London: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold

Holland, James. 1978. Percussion. New York: Schirmer Books.

Montagu, Jeremy. 2002. Timpani and Percussion. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: Caribbean

Nation: Cuba

Formation: Afro-Cuban

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.251.2 membranophone--set of single-skin conical drums

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: pair of drums

Shell design: tubular - conical

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: framed with rigid flesh hoop

Membrane attachment: counterhoop, lapped over framed membrane hoop, connected by lacing or tension rods to counterhoop encircling shell

Membrane tension control: rotating screw rods or bolts

Sounding for membranophone: striking directly with both hands

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


8.3 and 6.9 in. diameter of heads 6 in. depth of shell

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin


Latin Percussion



Entry Author

Roger Vetter