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Title: Ready for Freddy--Como Suena Mi Son; Carlos “Patato” Valdez, conga. Label: LP Music Group. Format: CD. Catalogue#: LPV104CD. Track: 5.

Contextual Associations

Congas are single-headed membranophones associated with Afro-Cuban and other Afro-Caribbean 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. Congas 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 instrument takes its name from the Kongo peoples of central Africa, who as slaves brought with them to Cuba a familiarity with their traditional instruments and music that could be used to reconstruct them in their new context.


The tubular drum shells of the congas pictured here, which are of slightly different diameters, are made of molded fiberglass and have basically a conical shape (their upper opening is larger than their lower one) but with a barrel-like bulge in the middle. The single rawhide head of each drum is mounted on a rigid metal flesh hoop the diameter of which is slightly greater than that of the shell rim it covers. Tensioning is accomplished by placing a metal tension collar with an inward-turning flange that functions as a counterhoop over the flesh hoop. Six holes are placed equidistantly around the side of the tension collar through which the tops of six hook-shaped metal lug bolts pass. The other, threaded ends of these lug bolts pass through holes in six metal assemblies equidistantly-spaced and securely attached to the circumference of the shell. Nuts are screwed onto the bottom ends of the lug bolts, which stick out beyond the bottom of the bolt assemblies. 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

Congas can be played individually or in sets or two or three (in which case they will vary in the diameters of their shells and heads) by a single performer either seated or standing. If standing, a metal stand (not pictured) is used to lift the instrument approximately a foot off the floor. In general their heads are fairly taut, but if two or three congas are used as a set they will be tuned relatively to one another (low-medium-high). The performer uses the palms and fingers of both hands to strike the heads at various places to produce a variety of dry and resonant sounds. Congas can be played with great virtuosity by incorporating fast rolls, syncopated accents, cross-rhythms, and even a glissando effect that is executed by applying variable pressure to a drumhead with the wrist or elbow of one hand while striking it with the other hand.


Wooden shell congas likely came into existence in Cuba before 1900 as part of a secular entertainment known as rumba. These early congas were based on Congolese drums the knowledge of which was carried to the New World by Kongo slaves from central Africa and reproduced 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. 1984. “Conga.” NGDMI v.1: 473.

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

Manuel, Peter. 2006. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae. Revised ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Moore, Robin. 2012. “Cuba and the Hispanic Caribbean,” In Robin Moore, ed., Musics of Latin America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 176-222.


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: variable number of drums

Shell design: tubular - bulging-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 brackets attached to shell

Membrane tension control: rotating screw rods or bolts

Sounding for membranophone: striking directly with both hands

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


12.2 and 11.4 in. diameter of heads (l. and r.) 28 in. height

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin


Latin Percussion



Entry Author

Roger Vetter