Timbales are most often heard in Cuban music and help create the Cuban sound the world has come to know and love. They are a type of kettle drum, descended from the French timpani. Since timpani is French for “timbale”, the French refer to timbales as Latin timbales. Timbales consist of two drums mounted on a single stand. Traditionally, they are made with metal shells, but some manufacturers use wood. Often, a cowbell is attached to the stand along with the drums.
Played using wooden sticks, timbales have become part of the Cuban “percussive holy trinity”. Along with bongos and conga drums, timbales have come to symbolize Cuban music. In Cuba, itself, timbales are known by several different names, including pailas, pailitas, timbaletas, and panderetas. Of course, timbales are not only played in Cuban music. They have become an important part of Latin music, overall.
The two drums that make up the timbales are not the same size. One drum is larger and considered the female, with lower and warmer sounds than the smaller, male drum. Right-handed players should set up the drums so that the female is on the left side. These days, a timbalero (person who plays the timbales) might also add a cymbal, snare, or bass drum to their set-up.
Haitians can be credited for making timbales such a celebrated instrument. During the Haitian Revolution of 1791, many Haitian people migrated to Cuba, bringing their musical traditions with them. The French contredanse, a style of music that had gained popularity in Haiti, was brought over and became the contradanze criolla. The “criolla” was dropped soon after and the music genre eventually became known as danzón. This music helped popularize timbales, which began as small, wooden barrel drums.
The predecessors of the timbales were much bulkier and heavier than the current versions. Due to that, Cuban musicians looked for ways to make the instrument easier to transport. In the late 1800s, an Italian opera introduced Cuba to the smaller timpani drum. When bongos were banned by Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado in the early 1900s, certain bands began to use what we now call timbales. Both the drum’s name and the music style that popularized it are French holdovers from the Haitian migration.
While timbales are probably best known for their place in salsa music, various types of music and musicians have chosen to benefit from them. There have been many famous timbales drummers and they have helped popularize the sound worldwide. The cowbells are just as important to the sound as the drums, giving the timbales a distinctive sound that brings out the dancer in everyone.