The Conga Drum in Jazz
by Trevor Salloum
Historically, congas have been used in the jazz setting since the 1940’s. Some of the more popular band leaders who used congas and bongos included Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Art Blakey, Woody Herman, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, George Shearing, Erroll Garner, Herbie Mann, Kenny Dorham Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams, Lionel Hampton, Louis “Sabu” Martinez, J. J. Johnson, Buddy De Franco, Benny Goodman, Thelonious Monk and Randy Weston.
With the growing popularity in Afro-Latin music, more jazz ensembles are utilizing congas and bongos in the percussion section. Unfortunately many drummers and band teachers have had little or no training in the use of Latin percussion instruments.
Before the 1940’s the conga drummer played a single conga drum. Later, in popular Latin music, drummers began using two or more drums, each tuned to a different pitch. The drums should be in tune with themselves by applying equal tension to each lug. Pitch intervals between drums are a matter of personal taste although they are often tuned to fifths.
The smallest drum in diameter and pitch is called the quinto, the next is the conga and the largest and deepest is the tumba or tumbadora. These drums can be played seated or on stands. The quinto is often positioned in the center with the conga on the left of the drummer and the tumba to the right. An alternate arrangement is to place the quinto in front with the other two drums to the right in order of descending pitch.
Usually the drums are made from wood or fiberglass. The heads are usually derived from cowhide, although synthetic heads are becoming more popular.
Congas can compliment the rhythm section by providing a warm steady rhythm to a swing beat. The key is to focus on the basic pattern (marcha/tumbao) with little embellishment, unless playing a solo. In slower tunes such as ballads, a bolero with a swing feel or a slower version of the marcha/tumbao can be utilized. Although all these patterns are written with even eighths notes, they are played with a swing feel.
Note: Lower pitched drums appear lower on the musical staff for both congas and bongos.
*From Trevor Salloum’s, First Lessons Conga, Mel Bay Publications 2012
For more information please see: First Lessons Conga (Book/CD) 2012
Other Mel Bay Publications by Trevor:
The Bongo Book (Book/CD) 1997 ISBN 0-7866-2071-4
Fun with Bongos (Book/CD) 1999 ISBN 978-0786661381
Bongo Drumming (Book/CD) 2000 ISBN 0-7866-4384-6
Afro-Latin Polyrhythms (Book/CD) 2001 ISBN 0-7866-5422-8
Afro-Cuban Rhythms Vol.1 (Booklet) 2004 ISBN 0-7866-7253-6
Afro-Cuban Rhythms Vol.2 (Booklet) 2004 ISBN 0-7866-7254-4
The Art of Bongo Drumming (DVD) 2006
The Art of Arabic Drumming (DVD) 2007
Afro-Cuban Percussion (Booklet/CD) 2009 ISBN 978-078667948-5
The School of Bongo (Book/CD) 2011 ISBN 978-078668273-7
Trevor Salloum is well known internationally as a music educator who specializes in world percussion. He has taught drumming at universities, colleges and schools for over 30 years. He studied music at Notre Dame University, Banff School of Fine Arts and is a graduate of York University. He is a best selling author with international publisher Mel Bay Publications Inc. and has produced numerous books, CDs, DVDs and videos on drumming. See www.trevorsalloum.com