Conga drums are the drums most people think of when Cuban music is discussed. The formal name for conga drums is tumbadora and while it is primarily thought of as a Cuban instrument, it is of African beginnings. The ancestor of the modern conga drum likely originated in the Congo and Bantu regions of Africa. In fact, conga drums were only accepted into mainstream Cuban music in the late 1930s and 1940s. Prior to that, the only place in Cuba to hear the characteristic sound of the conga was the solares or slums.
What exactly is that sound the conga drums are known for? It’s called the tumbao rhythm and while it is the basic rhythm played upon every conga drum, there are various patterns and variations of it. The basic conga drum pattern consists of mostly open tones, meaning the drummer plays with the four fingers near the rim of the drum head. This produces a clear, resonant tone with a distinct pitch. There is also the slap tone which produces a loud and clear popping sound when played properly.
The ability to play a nice sounding tumbao rhythm is dependent upon two things: drummer skill and proper tuning. In the past, conga drumhead skins were tacked onto the body of the drum. Since the drumheads would become loose with moisture, drummers would tighten them by placing a flame next to the heads to dry them out. Over time, synthetic heads were developed and this has made it easier to properly tune conga drums. These days, most modern conga drums are tuned by a screw and lug tension system.
Another change to the conga drum over time is that many are now made of fiberglass instead of wood. The descendants of the conga drum were made from single pieces of wood and something that differentiated the conga drum from its predecessors was that it was made by joining slabs of wood, much like a barrel. This difference in construction did not affect the drum’s sound, though, allowing the tumbao rhythm to stand the test of time.
It’s important to note that the tumbao rhythm is not only played on the conga drum. It is a bass drum pattern that can be heard on other instruments, as well. In the contemporary Cuban dance music known as timba, tumbao is also the name given the rhythm produced by piano guajeos.