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The misunderstood drum
What North Americans call conga drums are actually "tumbadoras."
The origin of the word "conga" is disputed; it may be derived from the Bantu word nkonga meaning "navel" or "umbilical"--perhaps a reference to Mother Africa. There are several other naming theories. There are also many pronunciations thrown about, but the correct way to say it: CONE-gah. A conga drummer is a conguero (cone-GARE-oh).
In the US, conga drums were mistakenly associated with a particular rhythm called "la conga," but the drums used for that dance are actually a different kind of drum used only for Carnaval. Tumbadoras were built to play a drum pattern called tumbao.
Congas are uniquely Cuban, probably first made by covering empty rum barrels with animal hides, and tuned by heating the hides with a flame. Prior to the 1950s, congueros generally played only one drum. After the development of tuning systems with lugs and bolts and drum heads made of synthetic materials, playing congas as a set of two, three, or four became easier logistically, and allowed for a melodic component and for improvisation. That opened the door to using the drums in a wide range of different musical styles.
Thanks to Nolan Warden, whose well-researched article "The History of the Conga Drum" appeared in the February 2005 edition of Percussive Notes, a publication of the Percussive Arts Society.
Listen for conga drum masters and more on Jazz Caliente, Thursdays at 2pm on KPLU's Mid Day Jazz!
Let's take a short conga drum lesson from Sheila E: