Education Feature

Alex Pertout
Alex Pertout is recognised as one of Australia’s leading percussionists and with credits on hundreds of albums, soundtracks and jingles is undeniably one of Australia’s most recorded musicians. Alex has also attained credits with television orchestras, in countless live performances, as a respected educator, as a multi-instrumentalist/ composer and cd producer, as an author, and is endorsed internationally by Meinl percussion, Sabian cymbals and Vater sticks. Recent work includes performances with the Australian Art Orchestra led by Paul Grabowsky, Paul Kelly, Kutcha Edwards, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter, with his personal ensembles Alex & Nilusha, Orquesta Frenesi and Coro Yambu, as well as on recordings on up and coming releases by Powderfinger and jazz pianist Joe Chindamo. Alex is the Head of Improvisation at the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Music at The University of Melbourne. the skin up, in time raising the pitch. Peraza observes that he had to be very careful, as if you ended up too close to the skin, there was a danger of splitting the skin. Although Peraza acknowledges and praises the invention of the tuning hardware for the conga drum, he recalls that the heated drums had “a beautiful rich sound that the hardware controlled drums could never duplicate.”12 Due to the many demands the conga drum was attaining in the diverse styles it was incorporated in, a new head and tuning system was developed around the early 1950s. This consisted of a metal rim, hooked screws and tuning lugs, which enriched the tuning possibilities of the drum, allowing the conga drum to reach high tuning registers not previously available.13 According to Peraza, metal hardware was first featured on bongos, then on the conga drum. He believes that two Cubans, Candido Requena and Severino invented the bongo hardware and later Cuban drum maker Gonzalo Vergara developed the hardware for the conga drum, as Fig. 1.2.14 depicts.15 Gonzalo Vergara’s highly praised Vergara brand of conga drums, featured his own metal hardware and stave shells made out of actual Spanish wine barrels, which were then cut down to size. According to Tommy Saito who owns a set of Vergara conga drums ‘borrowed’ by Santamaria for 30 years for his concerts and recordings, “they still smell of wine too.”16 Confusion abounds in regards to the internationally adopted name of the drum, its Spanish equivalent and also the names of each particular drum in

Education Feature

11. F. Ortiz, Los Instrumentos de la Musica Afrocubana, Volumen II, 41. 12. Luis Ernesto, “A Conversation with Armando Peraza,” SalsaWeb , 8 September 2006 <>. 13. O. A. Rodriguez, “History of the Congas,” Introduction, The Conga Cookbook, 12. 14. Fig. 1.2. Conga drum with traditional rim, Caribbean Education, 1 August 2006 <http://>. 15. Ernesto, “A Conversation with Armando Peraza.” 16. Tommy Saito, telephone interview, 3 February 2007. 17. F. Ortiz, Los Instrumentos de la Musica Afrocubana, Volumen II, 41.17.

This is the first in a series of articles based on excerpts from my thesis titled The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria, for which I was recently awarded a Master of Philosophy in Music at the ANU.
Part I - THE CONGA DRUM: A Historical Perspective
The conga drum or its original counterpart, arrived in the Americas with the onset of the slave trade, during the colonisation of the ‘new world’ as it was then known by the Spaniards. According to Olavo Alen Rodriguez, many historians connect the evolution of the Afro-Cuban conga drum directly with the arrival of the African ngoma and makuta drums, brought to Cuba by the Bantu and Congo people.1 In Cuba, with the permission of the colonial masters, African slaves preserved their culture by establishing cabildos, a type of social centre aimed at assisting indigenous Africans from distinctively diverse ethnic backgrounds.2 In these settings, drumming flourished, as instruments were made and played, perhaps from prototypes carried across the ocean, but more than likely by drum makers who constructed African drums from memory. The ngoma and makuta drums as found in Cuba, were constructed in a tubular cylindrical shape and at times in a barrel shape. They were made from a carved solid log, with an open bottom and a single head tacked on to the wooden shell of the drum.3 According to O. Rodriguez many drums influenced the development of the conga drum in Cuba. The conga drum was not merely recreated in Cuba and/ or linked to any specific drum type of African provenance, but rather it was born in Cuba out of many influences or antecedents.4 In his writings, Ned Sublette suggests the conga drum to be a quintessential Cuban adaptation of a Congo instrument, and explains that it has close cousins such as the buleador barrel drum from Puerto Rico and the atabaque from Brazil, among other types found in the musical traditions of Latin America, where some shard of the Bantu heritage is preserved.5 In terms of the subsequent barrel adopted shape, Luis Tamargo observes that the conga drum could not have developed in Cuba, without the help of the manufacturing techniques that Europeans brought to the Americas. He suggests that the body of the conga drum, was influenced directly by the shape and the actual manufacturing methods employed by Spanish wine barrel makers.6 According to Joseph Howard, this proved to be a faster method of construction, and the wood easier to obtain in smaller cuts. The drum in turn became lighter, easier to repair and practically more portable.7 The disassembled barrels of wine or lard, were glued back together, adding a stretched hide skin across the top section tacked on to the body of the barrel, as Fig.1.18 depicts.9 Tamargo observes that this manufacturing and development of a barrel style stave drum, offered drummers a new creole instrument, one born in Cuba out of a mixed background. And as the colonial authorities continued their oppression and African drum prohibition, this ‘new drum’ allowed the freedom to execute traditional repertoire, while not playing an authentic African instrument.10 As far as the skin of the drums is concerned, the early drum skins were tacked to the upper body opening. In order to get the desired sound, the player
1. Olavo Alen Rodriguez, “History of the Congas,” Introduction, The Conga Cookbook, by Poncho Sanchez with Chuck Silverman (New York: Cherry Lane Music, 2002) 8. 2. Maria Teresa Velez, Drumming for the Gods: The Life and Times of Felipe Garcia Villamil, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press: 2000) 7-9. 3. O. A. Rodriguez, “History of the Congas,” Introduction, The Conga Cookbook, 8-9. 4. Nolan Warden, “Thesis: Origin vs Antecedent,” Online Posting, 19 November 2006, Latin Perc Group, 20 November 2006 < group/latinperc/>. 5. Sublette, Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, 266. 6. Luis Tamargo, “Tumbadora Icons,” 1998, Latin Beat Magazine, 1 June 2006, < ai_53925547>. 7. Joseph Howard, Drums in the Americas, (New York: Oak Publications. 1967) 16-17. 8. Fig.1.1. Tacked skin conga, 2006, Latin Jazz Discussion List, 10 March 2008 < da63?b=10>. 9. Sublette, Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, 265. 10. F. Ortiz, Los Instrumentos de la Musica Afrocubana, Volumen II, 44.

the family. The drums are internationally collectively known as conga drums. In Spanish they are known as tumbadoras. There are multiple connotations for the internationally adopted name of conga. This can be quite misleading, as it is not only the name given to the drum, but also to a dance style, to a rhythmic style, as well as to the carnival style ensemble that parades and makes use of that instrument. F. Ortiz explains that the word conga could have come from the words ma-ma-kongo meaning ‘chant’, or nkunga or ma-kunga also meaning ‘chant’ in Congolese.17 The current standard set in the family of conga drums or tumbadoras, incorporates a set of three drums of diverse circumferential sizes. The smallest drum known as quinto, is 11” in head size, the middle drum, known as conga is 11¾” in head size, while the lowest drum known as tumbadora is 12½” in head size. Although these are the standard names and head measurements, many drum manufacturers offer variants such as: super quinto 9”, requinto 9 ¾”, quinto 10” and 10.5”, conga or segundo 11”, tumba or tumbadora 11.75” and 12”, and super tumbas at 13.5” and 14”. In the next issue Part II - THE CONGA DRUM: Technical Development

had to place the skin close to a fire, the skin would warm up and tighten, and the pitch would rise. Depending on the atmospheric climate and the changes it would bring to the pitch of the drum, this process had to often be re-applied several times, even during performances. Due to the skin warming method employed, F. Ortiz described these types of drums as being tambores de candela (“candle drums”).11 Armando Peraza remembers that period well. His method involved a little kerosene lamp that was put close to the skins to heat


DRUMscene Issue 59

Issue 59 DRUMscene


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