The Bongo drum, better known as the bongos, is a type of Afro-Cuban percussion instrument made up of two small open-bottomed drums of different sizes. The larger drum of this pair is called “hembra“, female in Spanish, and the smaller drum “macho“, male. The bongos, together with the conga and, to a lesser degree, the batá drum, stand as the most widely used Cuban hand drums. They appear in genres like Son Cubano, Salsa, and Afro-Cuban jazz.

The bongo’s origins are mostly unknown. First reports of its use trace back to the late nineteenth century in Cuba’s Eastern area, the Oriente Province. The name bongo comes from the Bantu terms “mgombo” or “ngoma“, which both signify drum, according to Fernando Ortiz. He theorizes that the term arose via metathesis.

The open bottoms of the bongo are reminiscent of Central African drum types, according to most authorities on Afro-Cuban cultural history. Such an influence is possible because of the historical presence of Africans from the Congo/Angola area in Eastern Cuba. Furthermore, Central African/Congo influences become evident in the Cuban Son music genre, which includes Changüi dance. The bongo’s development began simultaneously with these genres. When the Son sextets stormed Cuban cities in the early twentieth century, they carried the bongo with them. The instrument soon found acceptance into a variety of instrumental ensembles of many other musical styles, such as the “Canción cubana”, “Bolero”, and “Canción trovadoresca”, or troubadour-style song.

Execution of the bongo

The bongo player usually sits down and lays the instrument between his legs while playing. The bigger drum rests to the right. This allows for the majority of the execution to take place on the smaller drum, which rests on the left. Sometimes the musician ties a strap over his right thigh, securing each drum to one side of his leg.

The bongo’s primary musical role is to produce a complicated rhythmic accompaniment that gives the music remarkable stability. This has enabled the creation of patterns, or rhythmic systems that are unique to this instrument. One of the most well-known patterns, the toque martillo, or “hammer-style,” produces a series of eight distinct sounds and timbres.

Nonetheless, the bongos have a wide range of sound creation options, including a broad range of pitches and timbres. This has prompted players to employ the bongo as a solo instrument as well.