Afro-Cuban percussion instruments are highly assorted and owe their existence mainly to the influx of enslaved Africans brought into Cuba during the 16th and 17th centuries. Two of the most comparable instruments in this family are the congas and the bongos, which are often confused with one another.
What are the differences between congas and bongos? In short, these are the main differences:
- Congas are larger and have a different shell design than bongos.
- The congas' sound is much deeper and has more sustain than that of bongos.
- Bongos are played mostly with the fingers, while congas can be played with the palms and other parts of the hand.
Throughout the length of this article, we'll be taking a closer look at the differences between congas and bongos just outlined. But first, let's quickly glance at their history.
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The Backgrounds Of Congas And Bongos
Drums have been around since the neolithic era (at the very least) and were first produced in China with alligator skins equipped. These drums were imported into African soil some millennia later and were redesigned in a myriad of shapes and sizes.
Congas and bongos share this common ancestry and can find their roots in Bantu culture, which was imported into Cuba many centuries later during a busy period of the European slave trade.
The Background Of Congas
Congas seem to derive from the makúta drum. Other African drums with similar characteristics include the bémbé, Ngoma, Yuka, and, to a lesser extent, Ashiko. After slavery was abolished in Cuba, a new cultural phenomenon arose that gave birth to the rumba.
Before the advent of this new genre, the instruments mentioned were majorly used in religious services. The rumba movement paved the way for the secular usage of these percussion instruments and brought together peoples from diverse backgrounds, including whites, under poorer living conditions. At that time, the rumba was consigned to the different slums scattered across the island.
The incorporation of congas in rumba was not immediate. During the genre's first stages, cajons (improvised out of wooden shelves and crates) were predominantly employed to provide the rhythm. Later, congas were designed for this purpose, using the older African instruments enumerated above as blueprints.
The Background Of Bongos
Bongos also borrowed from ancient African worship instruments, though they were devised by slaves assigned to the Eastern part of the island.
Bongos have been mostly associated with two Eastern Cuban musical genres: The Changüi and the Son. Of these two, the Son enjoyed the most success worldwide, making the bongos extremely popular across the Caribbean and beyond. The bongos eventually made their way into other Western musical expressions, such as British pop and rock cultures.
What Are The Differences Between Congas And Bongos?
In this section, we'll be disclosing more details about the differences explained at the beginning of the article.
Difference 1: Design
Earlier, I stated that:
“Congas are larger and have a different shell design than bongos.”
These differences are quite apparent once you see both instruments side-by-side. Perhaps the most glaring contrast lies in their size.
Congas have a noticeably bulkier build, with a shell almost four times as large as that of the bongos. The congas' diameter can reach 12″ easily, whereas the largest drum in the bongos (called the hembra, which is Spanish for female) measures around 8.5″. The smaller bongo drum (called macho or male) comes in at around 7.15″.
The design differences are also hard to neglect. While both instruments carry a distinctive African appeal, the conga's shell is more oblong, while the bongos' shells look more tapered, getting narrower towards the underside.
The most prominent feature of the bongos is the bridge or “center block” that binds the macho and hembra. Congas are sold as standalone drums and, hence, don't include this specific part.
Lastly, the bongos' heads are always more tightly fit than those of the congas, though this distinction is harder to capture upon a first examination.
Difference 2: Sound
Next, I pointed out the following:
“The congas' sound is much deeper and has more sustain than that of bongos.”
In this respect, there is no discussion. One only has to tap them to be able to discern the striking contrast in colour and tone.
Both instruments are membranophones, as in percussion instruments that generate their sound via the membranes attached to them. The larger the membranes are, the deeper and warmer the resulting sound will be. As the membranes are fastened, they're inclined to generate sounds with a higher frequency.
As expected, and judging from the aforementioned facts, bongos render a sharper, more piercing tone that cuts through the mix better, whereas congas are more susceptible to getting drowned. The conga's sound is renowned for possessing a more pronounced sustain, a “bassier” tone, and a more discernible pitch, in part thanks to its shell's acoustic properties.
Difference 3: Playing Method
Finally, I affirmed that:
“Bongos are played mostly with the fingers, while congas can be played with the palms and other parts of the hand.”
In that sense, the bongo's heads may be struck with either one, two, or three fingers down to their first or second joint. You could also create “rim shots” by striking the edge or using your hands to produce different effects.
Conversely, striking a conga with just the fingers is not ideal, for you could get injured. Rather, you'd want to employ the part of the hand where the palm meets the lower end of the fingers. You may also utilize the palms to engender muffled tones.
Other differences worth mentioning in passing are the following:
- Congas are used oftentimes to drive the rhythm, while bongos are frequently given a more improvisational role.
- Each drum has been traditionally played to convey diverse rhythmic patterns. Bongos are played using “Martillo” patterns (as seen here), while the congas are famously reserved for Tumbao (see example here.)
- Bongos have been increasingly more popular than congas in Western musical scenes due to their accessibility and portability. Congas are trickier to carry around and are far more expensive, for which reason they've been, for the most part, relegated to niche genres.
Read How Congas Compare To Other Instruments
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