The Many Faces of Conga Drums

28th Oct 2014

Congas are Cuban drums with African roots. Originally made from barrels, over time the drums have taken on a tapered bottom. Typically, multiple conga drums are played together, but sometimes drummers only use one at a time. While most of us know the drums as congas, Cubans call the drums “tumbadoras” and the name is reflected in the many faces of congas. There are six main types of conga drums, categorized according to size and sound.

The six, typical conga drums are: supertumba, tumba, conga, quinto, requinto, and ricardo. These drums are listed by size, beginning with the largest and decreasing incrementally in head diameter. The supertumba is the largest conga drum, measuring 14” across and providing a deep bass sound. The tumba head measures 12-12.5” across and the drum is less resonant than the supertumba. The conga drum measures 11.5-12” in head diameter and provides the sound most people are familiar with when they think of congas.

When played in a set of three, it would be fine to have supertumba, tumba, and conga drums together. Of course, with the many faces of congas, it is possible to set up the drums in a variety of ways in order to produce a variety of sounds. While congas are most well-known for use in rumba and salsa music, the drums can be used in almost any genre of music and sound good. For a typical set of three, the tumba, conga, and quinto tripling would be most common. The quinto drum measures 11” across the head and is used for accent tones.

The requinto drum is a smaller and higher pitched version of the quinto. Next is the smallest conga drum, measuring 9” across and usually played while strapped onto the drummer’s shoulder. The small ricardo drum has a sound similar to bongos, with the highest pitch. When playing multiple conga drums, the drums are tuned to one another so that their notes are complementary and sound good together. It is also helpful to keep in mind that what is considered standard here with regard to the congas may not be standard in Cuba, home of the congas.

When thinking of the many faces of congas, we need to take into consideration cultural differences where the instrument has gained popularity. Just as congas are known as tumbadoras in Cuba, requinto may not be a drum size with which Cubans are familiar. In fact, there are plenty of differences between what has come to be known about these drums outside of Cuba and what is standard within Cuba. That may just be part of the instrument’s beauty.