Around The World

Traditional Percussion on Drumset

Part 2: Bongos

by Arturo Stable

In order to fully understand the function and possibilities of the instrument called bongo, you must explore the Cuban styles of changui, rumba, and son. According to musicologist Fernando Ortiz, the bongo may have originated as ancient drums built specifically to perform songs during ceremonies dedicated to the Ibeyis orishas (twin brothers). But that’s just a theory, because those ancient drums were never found.

We do, however, know of the bongo’s predecessor, the bongo de monte (“bongo from the countryside”). This older instrument can still be acquired in shops in Cuba, and it can be heard on numerous recordings in the changui style. The city of Guantanamo is the birthplace of changui, which originally meant “party” or “celebration.” In time, people started to associate the name with the kind of music that was played at these celebrations.

The original instrumentation of changui was tres guitar, marimbula, bongo de monte, and maracas. The earliest references we have of this music are from the beginning of the nineteenth century, and an African influence is obvious. The beauty of this style is that it consists of a few simple ideas that, once combined, provide a complex and intricate texture.

Here are some typical improvisation ideas played on bongo in changui.

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As far as I know, there aren’t records of changui being performed on drumset. But, often in jam sessions, if the pianist or horn player goes into a changui kind of sound, the percussionists and drummers will adapt their playing to fit that particular style. I use it in live situations from time to time, as it’s a great way to move away from more typical Afro-Cuban drumset grooves, like songo. Here are a few ideas of how to play changui on the drumset.

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As for how the bongo is played outside of changui, we must analyze two aspects: rhythm and function.

Rhythm

There are two rhythmic approaches that players use. The first is more traditional and is normally used in Cuban music, salsa, Latin jazz, and so on. The second rhythm is employed in styles foreign to the bongo, such as funk, rock, and electronic music.

In a traditional setting, there’s one main bongo rhythm: the martillo (“hammer”). (S = slap, F = fingers, O = open, P = palm.)

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In funk, rock, or electronic music, you normally hear the bongo complementing or imitating the drumset groove. The low drum is often used as if it were a bass drum, and the high drum is used as if it were a snare.

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Function

In a traditional setting, the main function of the bongo is to keep the groove going. If the bongo player happens to be performing in a larger ensemble alongside other percussionists and drummers, then he or she has the possibility of playing more open, filling out the spaces in the other players’ parts. Here are some examples of filling in the spaces on bongo.

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In order to translate these ideas to the drumset, think of the lower-pitched bongo as the bass drum and the higher-pitched bongo as the snare.

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Next time we’ll take a look at ways to apply traditional timbale patterns on the drumset.


Cuban-born percussionist Arturo Stable has performed with Dave Samuels, Esperanza Spalding, Paquito D’Rivera, David Sánchez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Miguel Zenón, and the Caribbean Jazz Project. For more info, visit arturostable.com.