Bongos (Spanish: bongó) are an Afro-Cuban percussion instrument consisting of a pair of small open bottomed hand drums of different sizes. They are struck with both hands, most commonly in an eight-stroke pattern called martillo (hammer). They are mainly employed in the rhythm section of son cubano and salsa ensembles, often alongside other drums such as the larger congas and the stick-struck timbales. Bongo drummers (bongoseros) emerged as the only drummers of son cubano ensembles in eastern Cuba toward the end of the 19th century. The instrument remained important as son groups evolved into larger conjuntos and orchestras in Havana in the 1940s, at which point they began to share the stage with congas. Bongos later reached the United States, where they are commonly played in salsa, Afro-Cuban jazz, Latin rock and other genres. Bongo drums are about 20 centimetres (8 in) high and have diameters of approximately 20 centimetres (8 in) and 25 centimetres (10 in) (the smaller drum is called macho, male, and the larger drum, hembra, female). They are the smallest drums in Latin percussion, some models being only 15 centimetres (6 in) in diameter. The shells of the drums and the bridge (the small block that joins them) are usually made of wood, although fiberglass is also common. The heads are typically made of calfskin and attached to the shells via steel hardware that enables their tuning. Originally, metal tacks were used, so tuning had to be done by heating the skins.
The origin of the bongo is largely unclear. Its use was first documented in the Eastern region of Cuba, the Oriente Province, during the late 19th century, where it was employed in popular music styles such as nengón, changüí, and their descendant, the son cubano. According to Fernando Ortiz, the word bongó derived from the Bantu words mgombo or ngoma, meaning drum. He hypothesizes that the word evolved through metathesis and by similarity with another Bantu word, mbongo. In Holguín, certains drums which are considered possible ancestors of the bongó are known as tahona, which might have a been a generic word for drum in Cuba and also refers to an unrelated music genre.
Most sources on Afro-Cuban cultural history argue that the bongo derives from Bantu drum models from Central Africa, noticeable in the open bottoms. The strong historical presence of Africans from the Congo/Angola region in Eastern Cuba (where the bongo first appeared) makes such an influence possible. Moreover, Central African/Congo influences are also documented in both son cubano and changüí, and initially the development of the bongo drum was in parallel with these genres. From such conceptual African drum models, the bongo developed further in Cuba itself, and some historians state that the attaching of the two drums was a later invention that took place in Cuba. Therefore, the instrument has been described as "African in concept but Cuban in invention". This has been disputed, however, by several historians (most notably Haroldo Dilla Alfonso).
The bongo entered Cuban popular music as a key instrument of early son ensembles, quickly becoming—due to the increasing popularity of the son—"the first instrument with an undeniable African past to be accepted in Cuban “society” circles". This is attested, for example, in poems by Nicolás Guillén. As son evolved and distanced itself from its precursor, the changüí, so did the bongos. The bongos used in changüí, known as bongó de monte, are larger and tuned lower than their modern counterparts, have tack-heads instead of tunable hardware, and play in a manner similar to the lead conga drum (quinto) and other folkloric lead drum parts. Unlike modern son, changüí never extended its popularity beyond eastern Cuba, and hence its bongos remain a rare sight. It is commonly accepted that the son reached Havana partly as a result of the arrival of musicians members of Cuba's ejército permanente (permanent army), which brought music from eastern Cuba with them. Among the first known bongoseros to enlist in the ejército permanente in Santiago de Cuba was Mariano Mena.
During the sexteto era, son groups began performing and touring more than ever before, and for the first time, recordings were being made. It was in this context that the first great innovators of the bongo made their mark, and unlike their predecessors, their names were not lost in time. Of particular note were Óscar Sotolongo of the Sexteto Habanero and José Manuel Carriera Incharte "El Chino" of the Sexteto Nacional, the two leading groups of the 1920s and '30s. Sotolongo himself would later leave the Habanero and direct his own group, the Conjunto Típico Cubano. His replacement was Agustín Gutiérrez "Manana", who is widely considered one of the most influential bongoseros, partly due to his condition as an Abakuá member, which allowed him to develop techniques based on the ekué (secret drum) drumming of such society. In 1930, Sotolongo's son, Andrés Sotolongo replaced Gutiérrez in the Habanero. Decades later, at 82 years of age, Andrés Sotolongo was recorded for the Routes of Rhythm documentary playing alongside Isaac Oviedo.
The 1930s saw an increase in the technical skill of bongoseros, as evidenced by Clemente "Chicho" Piquero, whose virtuosic performances inspired a young Mongo Santamaría to take up the instrument. By the early 1940s, Santamaría had become a master of the instrument, performing with the Lecuona Cuban Boys, Sonora Matancera, Conjunto Matamoros and Arsenio Rodríguez's "Conjunto Segundo" among others. Arsenio had pioneered the conjunto format by incorporating a tumbadora (conga drum) into the rhythm section and having the bongosero double on cowbell. Arsenio's long-time bongosero was Antolín "Papa Kila" Suárez, who is often cited as one of the greatest of his time along with Pedro Mena of the Conjunto Matamoros. Arsenio's group also helped break the barriers of race, which particularly affected bongoseros. For example, the Orquesta Casino de la Playa did not allow their black bongosero Ramón Castro to perform on stage, nor was Arsenio allowed on the tres. The Casino de la Playa would also feature bongosero Cándido Requena, who later joined the Conjunto Kubavana and Conjunto Niágara, and became one of Cuba's foremost makers of bongos and tumbadoras. Requena, as well as the Vergara brothers, were instrumental in the technological improvement of bongos and congas. Before the advent of mechanically tunable bongos and congas in the 1940s, both instruments used to be tuned with oil or kerosene lamps. The heat of the flame was used to contract the drumhead to achieve the desired sound.
Following the popularization of the tumbadora, Santamaría switched to the instrument, while remaining a close friend of bongosero Armando Peraza. Both moved to New York City by 1950, bringing their music abilities with them. Among the bongoseros who stayed in Cuba were the aforementioned Chicho Piquero, who had become a close friend of Benny Moré in Mexico and became his Banda Gigante's bongosero back in Cuba. Also important during the 1950s were Papa Gofio of the Conjunto Rumbavana and Rogelio "Yeyo" Iglesias, the main bongo player in Havana's descarga scene. Over the course of the 20th century, the bongo spread throughout Latin America. In the Dominican Republic, the bongo became integral to bachata, a genre related to bolero that emerged in the 1960s.
Spearheaded by the iconic conguero Chano Pozo, the late 1940s saw an exodus of Afro-Cuban percussionists from Cuba to the United States. Among the leading bongoseros of Cuban origin in the United States were Armando Peraza, Chino Pozo (unrelated to Chano) and Rogelio Darias, who had a long career in Las Vegas and was known as the King of the Bongo. Many others, however, would become primarily conga players, such as Mongo Santamaría, Sabú Martínez and Cándido Camero.
The Latin music scene of New York, and the US in general, was primarily constituted by Puerto Ricans, and many influential bongoseros were Puerto Ricans who learned from Cubans. An early example is Rafael "Congo" Castro, who arrived in New York in 1924 and had a long career as a bongosero in Chicago until the 1980s. In New York, many Puerto Rican bongoseros would go on to join the pioneering Afro-Cuban jazz ensembles of the time such as Machito and his Afro-Cubans, whose singles "Tangá" and "Mango mangüé"—considered the first examples of the genre—featured José Mangual Sr. "Buyú" on bongos. Mangual's prolific career was continued by his sons José Mangual Jr. and Luis Mangual, who played in a variety of salsa groups in the 1970s. The two biggest Latin orchestras of the 1950s in New York, led by Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez, were home to two generations of bongoseros represented by Johnny "La Vaca" Rodríguez and his son Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez, of Puerto Rican ancestry.
Other Puerto Rican musicians who made a name for themselves on the bongos were Richie Bastar of El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Ralph Marzán of Johnny Pacheco's charanga, "Little" Ray Romero, Frank Colón and Roberto Roena. On the other hand, American master bongoseros include Jack Costanzo and Willie Bobo, the latter more active on timbales. Other bongoseros who had more impact as timbaleros were Manny Oquendo, Orestes Vilató and Nicky Marrero. American novelty rock acts such as Preston Epps and Michael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band capitalized on the popularity of the instrument as well as its "exotic" and rhythmic qualities.
Bongo drums produce relatively high-pitched sounds compared to conga drums, and should be held behind the knees with the larger drum on the right when right-handed. It is most often played by hand and is especially associated in Cuban music with a steady pattern or ostinato of eighth-notes known as the martillo (hammer). They are traditionally played by striking the edge of the drumheads with the fingers and palms. The glissando used with bongó de monte is done by rubbing the third finger, supported by the thumb, across the head of the drum. The finger is sometimes moistened with saliva, or sweat before rubbing it across the head.
When playing son cubano and other popular genres, the macho is on the left and the hembra on the right. In changüí, the bongó de monte is positioned the opposite way. Playing patterns are also different in changüí, where the bongó does not follow a steady beat. Instead, it usually marks offbeats and beat four while improvising. Thus, the playing technique in changüí resembles that of the congas (moreover, their pitch is often lower than both bongos and congas). This reflects it origin, since the bongó del monte evolved from pairs of bokús, a larger drum from eastern Cuba similar to the conga.
Bongos can also be played on a stand, as is the case with concert orchestras and bands. In classical music performances, bongos are usually struck with mallets or drumsticks. Examples of pieces featuring bongos include Ionisation by Varèse (1931), Le Marteau sans maître by Boulez (1955) and In seinem Garten liebt Don Perlimplin Belisa by Fortner (1962).