Also:       cencerro      campana      mambo      cha-cha      

Contextual Associations

Clapperless metal cowbells are struck vessel-bell idiophones associated with Latin American dance music in general and Afro-Cuban music in particular. The three bells pictured in the gallery image are called (from left to right) mambocencerro or campana (usually played by the bongos player in specific sections of Cuban dance tunes), and cha-cha. The ‘Latin’ cowbell is used as a rhythmic instrument in a variety of Latin American dance band styles.


The clapperless cowbell is made from sheet metal folded, pounded, and welded into a vessel with a single ‘mouth’ opening the shape of which is rectanglar. At the apex of the vessel, which is acoustically the least active part of the bell, there can be some form of handle welded onto the bell to facilitate mounting on a stand. A drumstick or a wood dowel is used to strike these bells.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Cowbells can be either handheld or mounted for playing. The cencerro or campana (the middle bell in the gallery photo) would typically be held in the palm of one hand with its rim being struck with a beater held in the other hand. Cowbells can also be stand-mounted with other instruments all under the command of a single performer--in the first detail photo we see two cowbells like the two side bells in the gallery photo, along with a wood block, mounted on a timbales stand.  The choice of cowbell is linked to the particular repertoire being performed. Iterative rhythms are typically performed on these bells. 


The ‘Latin’ cowbell might have originated in herding activities (see second detail image, in which an East African wooden cowbell with clappers is pictured), but it is also possible that the idea of metal bells used as timeline instruments could have been brought to the New World in the minds of African slaves. For centuries single and double clapperless handheld iron bells have been used throughout vast areas of sub-Saharan Africa for music making (see dawuro and gankogui), so it seems at least possible that African bells could have resurfaced in the music making of people of African descent in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America (such as Brazil, where the agogô double bell of Yoruba origin is used in Afro-Brailian traditions) when the material resources became available.

Bibliographic Citations

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

________, and James Holland. 1984. “Cencerro,” in Grove Music Online. Accessed December 12 1914:

 ________, and James Holland. 1984. “Cowbells,” in Grove Music Online. Accessed December 12 1914:

N.A. 1984


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: Caribbean

Nation: Cuba

Formation: Afro-Cuban

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.242.121 idiophone--individual suspended bell suspended from the apex: struck from the outside (no striker is attached inside the bell), there being a separate beater

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: bell-shaped vessel - with opening

Sound objects per instrument: one

Resonator design: sonorous object itself is a general resonating space

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - direct

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - various types

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: none


5.3 in. height w/o handle (first image, left) 8.1 in. height (first image, center) 4.9 in height w/o handle (first image, right)

Primary Materials

metal - sheet


Latin Percussion


LP204A, LP Salsa, LPES9

Entry Author

Roger Vetter