What are Congas?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Congas are drums that originate in Africa but are now most identified with music of Latin America and the Caribbean. The earliest congas were made of wood, and stood fairly tall, 3-4 feet (.91-1.22m) in height. The drumheads were covered in animal hide. They have a cylindrical tear drop shape, and are often played in pairs. Congas bear some similarity to other percussion instruments like the timpani, because the drumheads can be tuned by tightening the heads, typically in perfect fourths, though this may vary.

Drumheads of congas were often covered in animal hide.
Drumheads of congas were often covered in animal hide.

As congas come in different sizes, there is some variance in names attached to them, and some disagreement over what each size should be called. The smallest size, which comes in sets of two, three or four, may be worn over the shoulder and is called a Ricardo. From smallest to largest, generally measured by diameter of drumhead, congas may also be named requintos, quintos, congas, tumbas and supertumbas. Generally, if more then one conga is paired, they are the same size.

Most conga players are skilled percussionists, and in Latin America they may be called congueros if they specialize in conga only. Even a good percussionist must master the different ways to play these drums, which are hit with the hands, rather than with any type of drumsticks. The way the head is struck significantly changes sounds produced. Hitting with the palm produces a deep base sound, and a variety of finger strikes or touches will all produce different sounds. Moreover, where you hit the drumhead can have an effect on what is heard, and some hits to the center or side of the head are used to create different effects.

You’ll find congas used in a great variety of Latin American music, and music from the Caribbean, and you may hear their different beats in samba, salsa, rumba, mambo, and numerous other musical styles. Sometimes the drums are played as part of percussion bands, and at other times, they are a necessary part of percussion in much larger bands. Congas can be used solo for dramatic effect as they are in the musical Hair, or they can provide wonderfully full percussion sounds when combined with other musical instruments.

Though congas were once solely made of wood and hide, there are now fiberglass types with heads made in a variety of synthetic materials. Quality drums can be expensive to purchase, and as with most drums, heads do need to be replaced from time to time. Average price of a single conga can range anywhere from $80 to over $500 US Dollars (USD).

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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