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Atlas de los Instrumentos Folklórico -Popular de Cuba

A History of the Congas, by Dr. Olavo Alén Rodriguez, 11/02

Centro de Investigación y 
Desarrollo de la Música
(CIDMUC)

These folks and their director,  Dr. Olavo Alén Rodriguez, have done outstanding work in capturing on record the most folkloric, traditional groups in Cuba.  Thank you! Thank you!

Under the aegis of: INSTITUTO CUBANO DE LA MÚSICA
Address : G # 505, VEDADO, PLAZA DE LA REVOLUCIÓN CIUDAD HABANA.
Telephone : 3-9697 30-4290
Director : OLAVO ALÉN RODRÍGUEZ

Misión de la institución: realizar investigaciones científicas de la herencia cultural y de los fenómenos contemporáneos vinculados con la música.

Mission of the institution: carry out scientific investigations of our cultural heritage and contemporary phenomena associated with music.

"Atlas de los Instrumentos Folklórico-Popular de Cuba". El precio es $120.00 USD. The famed Atlas of the Folkloric-Popular Instruments of Cuba. $120 in Cuba. With many beautiful and informative maps.  Some copies available through AfroCubaWeb for $200, prepay with 6 weeks delivery.

A History of the Congas, by Dr. Olavo Alén Rodriguez, 11/02up.gif (925 bytes)

The conga or tumbadora originated as a musical instrument in Cuba as part and parcel of the rumba, yet the instrument is nowhere found in the early days of this important Cuban musical genre.

The word rumba was used originally in Cuban music as a synonym for fiesta. To "make a rumba" was to throw a party, however this usage was limited solely to certain segments of the nineteenth century Cuban populace, for in Cuba many expressions were used as synonyms for party. Farmers in the island’s eastern region called their parties changüí, whereas farmers in the central and eastern areas called them guateques. Many ethnic groups of the complex that nurtured Afro-Cuban music called their parties tumbas. For this purpose other expressions were adopted too, such as: bembé, macumbas, mambos and, of course, rumbas.

Rumba as a synonym for party was an expression used by a segment of the populace concentrated in the inner-city zones of Havana and Matanzas. These were mainly neighborhoods that harbored unskilled laborers and other economically underprivileged groups.

In 1886 Cuba utterly abolished slavery and the slave trade. Thus about a quarter of a million individuals obtained their freedom. However this did little for their economic situation. These people couldn’t remain in the country because they weren’t the owners of the land. But it was also difficult for them, owing to the scarcity of economic resources, to become city dwellers. The frequent outcome was that such people drifted into the outskirts of several western Cuban cities where they built themselves very rudimentary dwellings out of whatever materials they could lay hands on, or else rented rundown houses where a number of families would all live together. This gave rise to a type of housing known in Cuba by the name of solar (slum) or cuartería. In these surroundings the Cuban rumba was born.

The musical instruments on which the rumba was first played were the side board of a cabinet and the emptied and overturned drawer from a dressing table. A pair of spoons served as drumsticks and also to beat rhythms on the bottom of a frying pan taken from the kitchen. The aim was to create a complex cross-rhythm to accompany those who sang and above all to liven things up for the dancers.

From the outset this rumba scenario brought together descendants of widely dissimilar African tribes and peoples who had arrived in Cuba as slaves. Other participants were members of a poor white population who had come to Cuba seeking work and who had become laborers or small business people such as dyers, fruit or meat vendors and the like.

In these slum neighborhoods some of the rhythms, styles and ways of singing and making music began to take on unique characteristics, perhaps because those taking part were from such widely varied backgrounds. Although these festivities certainly had their origins in the slave compound the new environment lent them a totally new kind of expression, so that rumba ceased to be simply another word for party and took on the meaning both of a defined Cuban musical genre and also of a very specific form of dance, quite distinct from other strata of Cuba’s population.

Regularization through repetition of musical elements, rhythmic and melodic phrasing and stabilization of highly unique performance styles on improvised musical instruments brought about the birth of a highly original way of making music. However this crystalized into distinct styles, each with determined manerisms and particular social and musical behaviors. Thus were born the rumba forms: guaguancó, yambú, columbia and such now-extinct variants as jiribilla and resedá. What differentiated them was the different ethnic mix of each town, city or rural locality.

Evolution led to necessary changes, and so the sideboard, drawer and frying pan were superceded by "cajones" or "boxes" of different sizes which were rumba’s first true musical instruments. This must have occurred in the last decades of the 19th century in the provinces of Havana and Matanzas.

The cajón is played directly with the hands using both fingers and palms. On occasions spoons are also used as drumsticks. The largest cajón is placed on the ground and the musician sits on it to beat with his hands on the back and one of the sides. The second, smaller-sized cajón is placed across the legs of a player seated on a chair or bench. Generally it is beaten on its sides although the front can also be played. The third cajón is the smallest of the ensemble. It is played by holding it between the legs and beating on the upper edge. In this case nearly the entire instrument is beaten, seeking the best possible range of tones and exploiting the different sounds obtained by striking different points between the center and the edge of the lid. Sometimes the player attaches small tin plate or metal maracas to his wrists, considerably enriching the polyrhythms obtained.

The large and medium cajones play repetitive rhythm patterns while the smallest, having the brightest sounds, improvises rhythmic fragments and variations of striking virtuosity. A fourth player is frequently found playing with two spoons on one side of the large cajón or some other object a repetitive rhythm in the high frequency range which serves occasionally to keep time for the group.

The largest cajón is often called the salidor, the mid-sized one the tres-dos and the smallest the quinto. Evidently these names allude to the functions each one fulfills in producing the characteristic cross-rhythms of rumba.

The cajones are therefore the historical precursors of the tumbadoras (congas) in the rumba fiesta. However the congas’ natural forebears are from a very different sort of place.

We have observed a marked morphological similarity between the oldest forms of the conga drum and the ngoma drum. Likewise there are resemblances to various versions of the makuta drums. Most important perhaps is the barrel shape of the drum; moreover the fact that both the ngoma and makuta drums have heads of tacked-on cowhide makes them likely ancestors of the Cuban conga drum. The first tumbadoras had their skins or heads tacked directly to the upper opening of the shell in a manner similar to drums brought by people of Congo or Bantu origin to Cuba.

The ngoma drums, also known as palo ("stick") drums, were the instruments used in ceremonies and celebrations of the Palo Order. This religion was brought to Cuba by various ethnic groups of the Bantu peoples. The ngoma ensemble may have two, three or four drums of different sizes which together produce complicated cross-rhythms. In general these drums are barrel-shaped, although sometimes they may also be of a tubular cylindrical shape. They have a single head stretched over the upper opening while the lower end is open. The head is tacked to the wooden body of the instrument and its tone is brightened by placing it near a fire.

It is noteworthy that the name each drum receives makes reference to the function it fulfills, in a manner quite like the later naming of the rumba cajones.

The biggest drum bears the name caja, although is it also called llamador ("caller"). The mid-sized drum is called mula but also segundo and dos y dos. The smallest is called the cachimbo or sometimes quinto. The similarity to the names of the rumba cajones is self-evident.

To play, the musician remains seated with the drum between the legs and resting on the ground. The drumhead is struck with both hands using both palms and fingers. Occasionally the drummer might strike the head with one or two sticks.

The resulting cross-rhythms underlay the improvisations of a singer alternating with responses sung by a chorus. The music may serve a religious purpose for a ritual of the Palo Order, although it is also used for secular celebrations staged by people of Congo heritage.

The ngoma or palo drums are also used to accompany the kinfuiti drum. This practice, however, survives only in the village of Quiebra Hacha in the province of Havana. 

The makuta drums, also brought to Cuba by Congo or Bantu people, are yet another forebear of the conga drums. These drums may have a tubular, cylindrical or barrel-shaped body. They have a single head with the lower end open. The head is tensioned by the heat of a fire since the membrane is tacked onto the shell of the drum. Recently produced models are commonly tensioned with a more complex system of lugs and turnscrews.

Makuta festivals are ceremonial celebrations which originated and still exist in societies of the Congo people and their descendants. They were very common during the 19th century and were still not infrequent during the early decades of the 20th. In Cuba the word makuta indicates a festive gathering. The term also refers to a kind of ritual staff to which is attached a spherical receptacle containing magical elements or objects. This staff or makuta is used at certain moments in the ceremony to strike the ground in a rhythmic accompaniment to a song or dance. According to believers it is houses the supernatural power on which are centered all the activities of the Palo Order.

However the individual names of the drums - caja, ngoma and nsumbi - make no allusion to those of the rumba cajones.

The shape of the drum’s body and the system for tuning the ngoma and makuta drums provided the Congo people and their descendants with the construction elements needed for the conception of a drum such as the conga. Polyrhythms based on the combination of three different sized drums with well defined individual functions are likewise linked to the tumbadora by these African drums. Moreover the tacked head and the practice of brightening the tone with heat from a fire which characterized the early congas had their antecedents in the ngoma and makuta drums. The head played on directly with the hands may be linked to almost any drum of African origin, however the nature of rumba’s cross-rhythms and many details of way they are played remind us again of what we have heard on drums of Congo origin.

The observed practice with ngoma drums of striking with two sticks on the wooden shell of the instrument is surely the precursor of the two spoons strking the side of one of the rumba cajones, as earlier described. This practice was passed on to the congas and in rumba received the name of cáscara.

It is worthy of note that in the voluminous work, "Instruments of Afro-Cuban Music" by Fernando Ortiz, published in Havana in 1954, the term tumbadora does not appear. The expression tumbador appears as a term for "certain drums in rumba and conga orchestras" (Ortiz, F. 1954: IV-168). In this same work Ortiz indicates that one of the congas - conga drums - is given the name of tumbadora.

Evidently Ortiz is referring to congas since he himself later indicates that these instruments "have been introduced into orchestras and popular combos which today are styled for boleros, guarachas, mambos etc." (Ortiz, F. 1954: IV - 168).

There appears, however, an extensive article by Ortiz in the third volume of the work aforementioned under the title "The Conga" where it is evident that here the author is referring to Cuban tumbadoras.

Ortiz describes the word conga as "an African drum, but this word is also applied to a dance, a song, the music played, danced or sung with this beat and to the street bands which use such instruments" (Ortiz, F. 1954: III - 392). When Ortiz describes the instruments he indicates that they are "drums made nearly always of staves with iron hoops, about a metre long, somewhat barrel-shaped, open with a single oxhide head affixed with tacks. They are essentially heat-tuned drums which must be repeatedly re-tuned at the fire" (Ortiz, F. 1954: III - 392).

At first only two congas were played. The first was given the name caja or mambisa and the second was called salidor or tumbador. Ortiz himself states that only later was a third drum incorporated which was designated by the name quinto. He states also that the three drums are of approximately the same size, although he does not indicate that the difference in pitch of each relative to the other two is determined by the difference in head diameter of each drum.

It is remarkable that Ortiz should indicate in 1954 that "the term conga is of relatively modern introduction in Cuba" (Ortiz, F. 1954: III - 398). For him it is only near the end of the 19th century that in Cuba’s eastern region drums called congas are played in the carnival street bands. However he also indicates later that "the conga was born in Havana in times of Spanish rule" (Ortiz, F. 1954: III - 400). He furthermore states that purpose of the stave-built drum was to differentiate it from African drums - generally made from hollowed tree trunks - because of the prohibition to which they were subject. If we take into account all of Fernando Ortiz’s aforementioned descriptions and assertions, we can conclude that the name tumbadora or conga to designate these drums is a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century. We can further conclude that there was a certain connection between the instruments used for congas and carnival street bands and those used for the rumbas. It is fitting to mention that both musical streams originated in the marginalized and peripheral barrios of Havana and Matanzas and in the same segment of the populace.

It is significant that Ortiz asserts, "Nowadays special drums are not required for playing rumba. Rumba is a dance and a rhythm but not a drum," and goes on to say that the drums used for rumba are not historically related to the drums called congas, inasmuch as the fashionability of the latter has all but eliminated the former, and that in present-day popular dance bands when rumbas are played congas are used, creating a certain confusion since today many are unaware that there were special drums called rumba drums (Ortiz, F. 1954: IV - 104).up.gif (925 bytes)

From this we can infer that the advent of the conga in Cuban music is not an event remote in time. The earliest mention of the instrument dates from the first decades of the 20th century.

All the available information suggests that the most primitive congas first appeared in carnival street bands. However the rhythms and style elements that characterized their debut as musical instruments came from the rumba cajones. It is also in the rumba context that the conga reaches its definitive form and acquires the head tensioning system that it presently possesses. For this reason we prefer to place the birth of the conga in the context of rumba, and to see the drums of the carnival street bands as just one more predecessor of these instruments. The evolution of the old-time conga drums brought about the birth of another type of drum called bokú, which did develop into a form suitable for playing in the street marches which the carnival demands.

Some authors state, I think rightly, that during the third decade of the 20th century the first congas began to be introduced at rumba gatherings. This occasioned less frequent use of the cajones at such gatherings. Furthermore each conga took over the job of one of the cajones so that there were three congas, each quite different in size and function. Each of the congas similarly took over the name of the cajón it had replaced.

The phonetic antecedent of the the word tumbadora we find in the expression tumba, an Afro-American word denoting drums in general. Both words - tumba and tumbadora - contain the phoneme mba which is evidently of Bantu or semi-Bantu origin. This is one more clue leading us toward the large Bantu group of peoples in our search for the historical predecessors of the Cuban instrument.

In the 1930s the congas’ use at rumba festivals became systematized. The instruments had the barrel shape obtained by stave construction - just as we see today - but the head was attached to the body of the drum. This was in urban areas of the provinces of Havana and Matanzas.

This period was characterized by a strong migratory movement toward eastern Cuba, since the sugar industry was growing in that direction and with it the Cuban railway system. This offered job opportunities to many living in western Cuba, who moved eastward principally during the time of the sugar harvest.

This internal migration shifted the conga into the eastern parts of the country. In fact congas are found during that era in the remote mountain regions of Baracoa.

Perhaps it is worth noting that the spread of the conga’s use throughout the country is not linked to the development of rumba. The rumba fiesta as such remained, with numerically insignificant exceptions, a western Cuban happening. The spread of the conga itself beyond the fiestas in which it originated was because the instrument outgrew its rumba setting to become part of very different Cuban musical groups and ensembles focused most often on playing son, bolero and guaracha.

The son, a traditional music genre of rural eastern Cuba, had reached Havana during the 1920s and there taken on new forms of interpretation. Among the instruments that were quickly adopted for playing urban son music were the piano and the conga.

Thus the conga became known among communities of people who had no connection with the rumba fiestas and thereby it encountered more widely generalized forms of Cuban popular dance in that period.

From 1939 on the famous dance orchestra "Arcaño y Sus Maravillas" included the conga permanently in its lineup. This lead was to be followed by other orchestras and by bands and combos playing the popular dance music of that time. Perhaps the first to make the conga part his group and hence of the so-called Cuban conjunto was the famous musician and composer Arsenio Rodriguez. From that time on the conga became a key voice for playing son, guaracha and later bolero.

The conga rapidly became fashionable and was included in ensembles and typical groups throughout nearly all of the country.

Studies carried out by the Center for the Study and Development of Cuban Music reveal that the orchestra "Renovación de Jiguaní" in what is now Granma Province was using a stave-built and tacked-head conga as early as 1942. Elsewhere these studies reveal that in 1940 a band in the village of Ensenada de Cortés in Pinar del Río was already using its first conga.

The culmination of the conga’s rise in popular Cuban dance music of the 1940s was when it outgrew its national boundaries. In 1947 the famous Dizzy Gillespie jazz band engaged the outstanding percussionist Chano Pozo as the band’s conga player. This was a crossroad for American jazz and brought about the rise of a new stream now known as Afro-Cuban Jazz.

In that era the conga still had its tacked-on head but its international triumph in the field of jazz necessitated improvements over the unreliable skin tensioning system. Thence came the complicated tensioning system with its metal head rim, hooked screws and tensioning lugs, ensuring that the instrument did not gradually slip out of tune during extended periods of performance. It also made it possible to tune the head far higher than ever before, greatly brightening the drum’s sound.

By the 1950s the new tuning system was widespread and was even in use by many rumba ensembles in Cuba. The famous rumba group "Los Muñequitos de Matanzas" was by 1954 playing congas with the new tuning system when it burst onto Cuba’s music scene, mainly via radio programs heard throughout the country.

In the 70s the conga with its new tuning system was showing up in the most diverse groups in international music, especially North American music. By then the conga possessed all the required qualities to take its place among musical instruments of acknowledged international stature. Its tuning system enabled it to play with instruments requiring tempered tuning. Its repertoire thus included nearly all of Cuba’s musical genres and it was easily adapted to many other popular music genres throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Important also was the fact that it had been taken into the mainstream of American jazz, which in turn served as a bridge to the rock and pop music of today.

Since the rise in the mid 1950s of the nationalist movement in Cuban concert music the conga has been heard as an instrument of the symphony orchestra. But in the 1970s the instrument also began to appear in the writing of non-Cuban composers.

Some important Cuban concert music works in which the conga appears are: Rítmicas IV and VI for Cuban percussion instruments and La Rebambaramba, an African ballet, both by Amadeo Roldán; Three Cuban Dances for symphony orchestra and the opera Manita en el Suelo by Alejandro García Caturla; Music Alive no. 1, for percussion instruments, by José Loyola; and Yagruma, for symphony orchestra, by Carlos Fariñas.

In the 1980s and 90s the conga became more of a presence on the international music scene, not only because of the strong growth of Cuban music on that scene but also because nowadays it appears ever more frequently in a wide range of international pop music settings.

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