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Timbales, Conga y Bongó - A Short Historical Primer

By Bobby Sanabria

The Timbales
The timbales were developed as a portable replacement for the "timbal criollo" (creole timpani) in Cuba's Danzónera Bands. The design of the timbal criollo was based on the European timpani but was slightly smaller. The European timpani was introduced to Cuba by an Italian Opera orchestra that toured the island in the mid 1870's. The Danzóneras were brass bands that played the elegant danzón - a style of music based on the French contradanse but with clave driven rhythm propelling it.

By the mid 1930's a small cowbell was added to interpret son based music. Son is the folk root of the music we today call Salsa which is an urban contemporary interpretation of the son. The smaller timbalitos were developed in 1924 as a response to Cuba's dictator Gerardo Machado's banning of the bongó in bands which played son. It seems Machado was tired of hearing singers in these small groups making fun of him with double meaning lyrics. Machado thought that by banning the use of the bongó, it would inhibit the groups from playing the son.

He was sadly mistaken. The timbalitos were used as a replacement for the bongó until 1933 when Machado was kicked out of power. Today we use the timbalitos as a solo instrument. But there are still some players who know the "timbalito" style of accompaniment. The last two groups to use them in this way were the Sonora Matancera and the Gloria Matancera.

The French term, "Timbales", was a carry over from the influence of the French contradanse, which was instrumental in the development of the danzón and the Cuban timbales ancestry to the Euro-based timpani/kettledrum. The setup of the timbales, small drum (macho) in front of the player and large drum (hembra) to the left is also based on the French timpani style.

In Spanish the timbales are also referred to as "Paila" (bucket). This is also a synonym for the shell of the instrument that is known as cáscara. The cymbal was introduced in the 1930's from the influence of jazz. Some legendary players are Tony Escollies, Carlos Montesino, Tito Puente, Willie Bobo, Walfredo De Los Reyes, José Luis Quintana (Changuito), Orestes Vilato and Manny Oquendo. Also check out Ramón Banda with Poncho's band.

The Bongo
The word bongó is derived from the Efik word bonkó which means drum. The Efik people are from the Southern Nigeria Calabar region and are also known in Cuba as Carabali. The bongo was developed in eastern Cuba (oriente) for use in son based music where players of the instrument are revered. In Cuba there is a secret all male fraternity / religion known as Abacua that speaks the Efik language. They use in their ceremonies various hand held drums that are carried under the armpit and struck with the free bare hand. The whole Abacua percussion ensemble is called conjunto biankomekó. It is from the biankomeko ensemble that it is believed two drums were put together to make the modern day bongo.

The bongoceros function is to converse within the structure of the melody (which obviously has a clave direction) and to provide rhythmic inspiration for the dancers. These conversations are known as repiques. The basic ride pattern is known as "El Martillo" (the hammer). In the 1920's the use of a large hand held bell known as cencerro began to be used in the montuno section. Like the timbales, the small head is known as macho and the large one is known as hembra.

Some legendary players are José "Buyu" Mangual. Armando Peraza, Mongo Santamaria, Johnny Rodriguez, Ray Romero, Cándido Camero, Marcello "El Blanco" and Chino (not to be confused with Chano) Pozo. Also check out Poncho's excellent bongocero, Papo Rodriguez.

The Congas
These drums are descended from large drums that were brought to Cuba from Zaire's Bantú-Congolese people. They evolved to their present state in Havana'a slave quarters during the 19th century when the rumba tradition began. Originally the drum was only used in this context as well as the carnival celebrations and in Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies. Congas didn't appear on the bandstand until the 1930's due to suppression of Cuban music's African roots in public.

By the mid 1930's Arsenio Rodriguez (a blind virtuoso of the mandolin like tres) made it part of his conjunto (a group utilizing two trumpets). By 1938 flautist Antonio Arcaño made it part of his charanga (a flute and violin based group). By 1941 Machito and his Afro-Cubans, in NYC, where the first band to use a battery of congas, bongo and timbales simultaneously. By 1947 Cándido Camera began to experiment playing two congas and later three drums simultaneously thus developing the modern playing techniques we use today.

Some legendary players are Luciano "Chano" Pozo, Mongo Santamaria, Carlos "Patato" Valdes, Cándido, Frankie Malabe, Ray Barretto, Armando Peraza, Tata Guines, José Luis Quintana (Changuito), Giovanni Hidalgo, Miguel "Angá" Diaz and Remo's own Poncho Sanchez.

Now that you know just a bit of the history of these incredible instruments, it's time for you to go out and play!!!

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