The conga drum is a greatly misunderstood and underrated instrument. To begin with, the Cuban name “conga” is just one of many names used for drums of this type throughout Western Africa and the Caribbean. Since it was Cuba that introduced this drum to us in various forms of Latin music, “conga” is the name by which it is known.
There are two approaches to learning the conga drum: the modern and the traditional. Using the modern approach, the percussionist— who may have no previous background in this instrument—learns two or three different sounds which can be produced on the conga, and then proceeds to make up whatever rhythmic patterns he feels may fit the music he’s accompanying. The traditional approach, however, involves learning at least five distinct sounds plus variations on each of them, bringing the total up to around fifteen. Furthermore, it involves learning possibly hundreds of rhythms which may be used individually or in various combinations.
I would like to present the traditional approach because I believe a solid understanding of fundamental concepts is necessary before one should consider inventing rhythms. Many established rhythms may fit perfectly in various modern applications. The five basic sounds and the symbols for each sound are as follows:
O — An open tone, produced by striking the edge of the head with the part of the hand stretching from the center of the palm to the fingertips, including the thumb.
M — A muffled tone or a “muff,” produced by striking the edge of the head with the full length of the fingers, except the thumb, and pressing them into the skin.
B — A bass tone, produced by striking the center of the head with the full hand, including the thumb, in a cupped position.
S — A slap, produced by striking the edge of the head with the full hand, excluding the thumb, in a cupped position.
R — A rim shot, produced by striking the edge of the head with half of the index finger.
These symbols are necessary to distinguish one sound from another in the written notation. I’ve found that standard notation is too cumbersome and not exact enough for this type of drumming. I have developed a different form of notation which is more suitable.
With my notation, graph paper is preferable to staff paper. According to the time signature, each column is assigned a number until one measure is complete. Then it repeats. Under each number, a symbol or space may appear, depending on the rhythm. Before each line of symbols, either R or L indicates which hand is used. A simple 6/8 rhythm would be written as follows:
The darker vertical lines are used to surround the downbeat. In certain cases each number is separated by a dot to show a greater number of notes per measure. A typical example of a 4/4 rhythm would be:
If it becomes necessary to show notes between the columns, they are simply written on the vertical lines as illustrated:
Once again, the downbeat is indicated with darker lines. The typical way of counting the downbeat is twice per measure.
This description of notation is to graphically explain the clave rhythm which is the most fundamental concept of all West African and Caribbean music and precedes the study of the drum itself.
Clave is a Spanish word which means keystone. A keystone is the central stone at the top of an arch which locks the other stones in place. There are other names for this type of rhythm, but clave is probably the best because its function is to hold all the accompanying rhythms locked in place.
There are several different forms of clave but they all conform to the same specifications:
A. They are two measures long.
B. The first measure can be felt as dominant or positive in comparison to the second measure which is subordinate or negative.
c. The first measure must always have a note in the column before the second downbeat, and the second measure must always have a note in column number two. Below I’ve illustrated the main forms of clave:
Because clave is the focal point of the music, it is placed either on a bell, a couple of sticks, or clapped by hand so that the sound will be sharp enough to stand out from the drums. Since it is a nondescript sound, it will be represented by the letter X.
Once the principles of clave are understood, the various drum patterns built around it can be studied. Most of these patterns are made with three differently tuned drums always placed in a specific position to the clave rhythm. Even the drum that’s soloing does so in a fixed relationship to the clave.
Let’s examine the Cuban rhythm known as Guaguanco:
The clave pattern is at the top. Below it is the low drum. A new symbol, T, is added to represent a tap played in the center of the skin with the fingers. The next pattern is the middle drum. Notice how both drums have a bass note coinciding with the second note of the clave. This is one of the main accents of the Guaguanco rhythm. The high drum which solos is at the bottom. Illustrated are just a few of the many, many patterns used in soloing. Some good recordings of this rhythm are on side B of Guaguanco (Puchito MLP-565). The Haitian Yanvalou rhythm will be our other example:
At the top is another clave pattern. Below it is the high drum, I played with sticks instead of hands. Below that is the middle drum played with hands. At the botton, the low drum is played with a stick in the right hand only. The symbol E represents the stick hit I on the edge of the drum. Also the double O° in column 4 represents I a flam. (All notation should be reversed for left-handed people.) ] A good example of this rhythm can be heard on Vaudou en Haiti (Macaya 103) in the selection entitled “Logo.”
The rhythms I have presented are just a small portion of what can be played on conga drums. It is a lifetime study as is any other instrument, but it’s well worth it whether you’re interested in making it your specialty or just looking to enhance another form of percussion