Congas and djembes have quite a lot in common, and, at times, individuals with no training or formation in Afro-Cuban instrumentation may confuse the two. Notwithstanding, there are several differences worth pointing out.
What are the differences between congas and djembes? These are, in a nutshell, the main distinctions:
- Congas are taller than djembes and have a different shell design and tuning mechanism.
- Djembes deliver a slightly sharper sound than congas, especially near the edge.
- Djembes require more maintenance than congas.
In this article, we'll unpack these differences between congas and djembes. But, first, let's flesh out a bit of their background.
The Backgrounds Of Congas And Djembes
Congas and djembes are instruments that, while deeply grounded in African culture and ethos, don't originate from the same location. They may share a common ancestor in the primitive African drums that were developed around the Bronze Age, but beyond that point, their evolutionary paths have been widely divergent.
The Background Of Congas
In line with what was stated in the previous paragraph, the congas were developed much later. What's more, they were not even developed in Africa.
Rather, they were devised sometime after the abolition of slavery in 19th-century Cuba. However, it's said that they can trace their origin from instruments employed by the Bantu people during their religious ceremonies (such as the makúta drum).
Many of these Bantus were brought to Cuba as slaves from the Congo and other Central African territories, taking their traditional instruments with them.
The conga has been developed more specifically for use in rumba dances (of a strictly secular nature), slowly taking up a portion of the role assumed by the cajon.
The Background Of Djembes
The djembe is originally from Western Africa and is supposedly about 800 years old. According to several historians, this drum would have been created and played by the Mandé people during the Mali Empire. The goblet housing the membrane was normally engraved with drawings carrying deep spiritual significance. The drum is said to contain three spirits: Of the tree whose wood was utilized in its making, the animal whose skin gets struck, and the man who made the instrument.
The djembe has only been under the spotlight in later times amidst the more recent global craze for world music and African rhythms in particular.
What Are The Differences Between Congas And Djembes?
We'll now proceed to elaborate on the differences between congas and djembes that were outlined at the beginning of the article.
Let's start with:
Difference 1: Design
Earlier, I stated that:
“Congas are taller than djembes and have a different shell design and tuning mechanism.”
There's a lot to unpack here, but we'll start by highlighting that djembes are much more compact than congas, both with regard to size and weight, being much more portable as a result. On the flip side, congas are far more inconvenient to carry around.
Another aspect to notice is the design of the shells. Whereas the shell in the djembe resembles a goblet/cup, conga shells are more oblong. This may mildly impact the sound profile of each instrument.
Perhaps more importantly, the tuning mechanism of each drum also varies quite a bit. The conga uses a more modern mechanism consisting of tuning lugs. The skin is fitted to the shell by a hoop, and the lugs would fasten or loosen the hoop's grip on the skip.
Meanwhile, the djembe's tuning system is a bit rougher around the edges. The skinhead is fastened via ropes stretched towards the base of the bowl-like portion. You'd have to undo knots and tie them again to stretch the verticals. The process can be highly cumbersome for people accustomed to modern tuning rods.
I didn't address drumhead size in the initial answer. Still, it bears pointing out that the djembe tends to be roughly the same width as the conga or, sometimes, even wider, stretching towards the 16″ range. Standard conga heads measure around 12″ by contrast.
Difference 2: Sound
Next, I stated the following:
“Djembes deliver a slightly sharper sound than congas, especially near the edge.”
The djembes, like the congas, have two basic tones: The center bass and the edge sound, which is its most resounding beat. You can also play with muffled tones by placing your palm on the skin while slapping it with the other hand.
Nevertheless, djembes tend to have a less defined pitch, with a sound that resembles that of a snare drum or the bongo to a degree. Another word to describe the sound coming out of djembes is “snappy”. Djembes tend to cut through the mix and stand out among other percussion instruments.
On the contrary, the sound delivered by congas has a more “melodic” tinge to it. It's also generally lower-pitched, whereas the djembe's sound is more towards the mid-range frequencies. For these reasons, the conga's sound is susceptible to blending with other instruments (especially the bass guitar).
Difference 3: Maintenance
Lastly, I pointed out that:
“Djembes require more maintenance than congas.”
Djembe skins are far more exposed to atmospheric changes and moisture than conga skins because they use a specific type of goat skin. Also, since the mechanism for stretching the skin is more rudimentary, it can easily flex, especially with weather changes. Accidentally wetting a djembe skin or subjecting it to extreme heat can jeopardize its life cycle considerably.
Another handicap that djembes have is that they're more difficult to assemble due to the rope system they sport. You'd have to learn how to tie the knots, which is quite an intricate process. The congas, apart from being more resistant overall, don't require as much busywork or dexterity once you've adjusted the hoop.
Here are other distinctions worth highlighting:
- “Tumbao” patterns on the conga are a bit more difficult to pull off than the regular “pa ti pa” rhythm on the djembe.
- Djembes are traditionally not coupled with other djembes. Conversely, congas are often accompanied by other congas of dissimilar sizes (up to two more) to create different notes.
- Djembes are usually adorned with symbolic design patterns that convey African cultural and religious values. Meanwhile, it's less common to witness conga designs with complex carvings or depictions.
Read How Congas Compare To Other Instruments
- What Are The Differences Between Snare Drums & Congas?
- What Are The Differences Between Congas & Bongos?
- What Are The Differences Between Tom Drums & Congas?