The bongos sold today have a rich history that dates back hundreds of years to Cuba, but the construction of this universally-known set of drums has remained in the hands of skilled artisans with knowledge and techniques that have been passed down for generations. While fiberglass bongos are known for their durability and style choices in terms of colors and patterns, most bongoceros agree that the sound of a set of wooden bongos cannot be beat by man-made materials.
The shell of wooden bongos can be constructed two ways: hollowing out a thick piece of wood or constructing the shell from a number of evenly colored wooden staves. The stave method is more suited for mass-produced bongos, especially those sold by world-renowned drum manufacturers like Meinl Percussion Bongos. By constructing the drum from staves, the sound quality becomes more uniform, making it easier for percussionists to determine their favorite brand and size of bongos.
After the correct number of staves are inspected for quality, color and grain consistency, they are glued together into a solid, yet hollow cup-shaped block. Once the glue dries, the block is placed on a lathe to shape to the required proportions. Since, at this point, both the hembra and macho are one piece, the proportions are carefully measured in order to keep the sounds uniform and complimentary between the two drums. After the initial shaping, the bongos are cut to precise measurements, ensuring the sound and tone of the drums remains harmonic to both the particular model of drums, as well as between the drums themselves. From there, the bongos are also given their footing and then sanded by hand in preparation for paint or stain.
After painting or staining the shell of the bongos, the head of the drums are then attached. Some bongo heads are created from the skins of animals like buffalo, calf or cowhide. The rawhide is soaked, placed over the shell of the drum and held in place by a metal hoop until it is dried. For synthetic heads, the same process is used, without the need for soaking and drying the skin. After the head is in place, it is tightened down by the metal lugs and any excess skin or skin material is trimmed.
Bongos are a time-honored traditional percussion instrument adapted into the various genres of music, but are best known for their influence in the world music scene. Whether the bongocero prefers a man-made, fiberglass or precision-crafted set of bongos, the investment in the instrument and its contribution to the sound of any performance, whether professional or within a casual drum circle, is priceless.