Among the most recognizable hand drums in the world percussion category, congas (known originally as tumbadoras) first rose to prominence in American popular music in the 1950s, and were a central part of the fusion of Cuban son and New York jazz to create mambo, also known today as salsa. Congas are often played in sets of two or four, with different-sized drums producing complementary tones.
Historically, congas are said to have been derived from African drums, though the two differ greatly in their method of construction. Traditional African drums are carved from logs, while congas and other Cuban drums, are staved, or made by bending and fitting strips of wood, as one would for a barrel. In fact, many believe the first congas may have been constructed with pieces from old barrels.
Through the years, and with the help of players such as Richie Gajate-Garcia, who produced one of the first conga lesson DVDs called Play Cajon Now (which is still regarded as one of the best), the techniques of playing congas have been very well documented. They’re usually played using a combination of the fingers and palm of the hand, which have been categorized into five basic strokes.
The open tone (tono abierto) is played with the four fingers near the rim of the head, producing a clear resonant tone with a distinct pitch. The muffled tone (tono ahogado) is played like the open tone but holding the fingers against the head on the follow through. A pure bass tone (tono bajo) is played with the full palm on the head. A slap tone, or harmonic, is played similarly to the open tone, but with a relaxed hand. A touch tone is created by simply touching the finger or heel of the hand to the drum head.