This article is about the music ensemble and genre.
For other uses, see Conga (disambiguation).
|Stylistic origins||Congolese and West African traditions|
|Cultural origins||Cuba, mid-19th century|
|Typical instruments||Corneta china, trumpet, trombone, bokú, bombo, conga drums, metallic idiophones|
|Derivative forms||Ballroom conga|
The term conga refers to the music groups within Cuban comparsas and the music they play.
The instrumentation differs between congas santiagueras and congas habaneras.
Congas santiagueras include the corneta china (Chinese cornet), which is an adaptation of the Cantonese suona introduced in Oriente in 1915, and its percussion section comprises bocúes (similar to African ashiko drums), the quinto (highest pitched conga drum), galletas and the pilón, as well as brakes which are struck with metal sticks.
Congas habaneras lack the corneta china but include trumpets, trombones and saxophones, and they have a different set of percussion instruments: redoblantes (side drums), bombos (bass drums), quinto, tumbadora (the lowest pitched conga drum), and metallic idiophones such as cowbells, spoons, frying pans and rims.
Congas and comparsas have a long history which dates back to the 19th century, with musical traditions being passed down from one generation to the next.
The older comparsas are derived from cabildos de nación or other social groups, whereas the later ones, called paseos, are derived from barrios (neighbourhoods).
The conga drum, also known in Cuba as tumbadora, took its name from the congas de comparsa.
The history of the conga (also known as comparsa conga or conga de comparsa) is obscure and its origins remain largely unknown.
In the early 19th century, although the word "conga" is not found in written sources, there are references to "tumbas", and, according to Brea and Millet (1993:204), "tumba" refers to the percussion ensemble of the conga.
"Tumba" is mentioned in connection with mamarrachos (summer festivals in Santiago de Cuba) as early as 1847 (Pérez I 1988:54).
A word that may be synonymous with "tumba" is the word "tango", mentioned as early as 1856 (Pérez I 1988:79).
Unfortunately, most 19th-century writers were extremely negative towards Afro-Cuban culture and little information about the tumbas or tangos was recorded.
Relation to Kongo ethnic group
According to the rules of Spanish grammar, "congo" became a masculine noun/adjective and its feminine counterpart was formed by changing final "o" to "a."
This Spanish noun/adjective pair has been used in Cuba to designate anything pertaining to the above-mentioned African slaves and their culture.
Therefore, some have assumed that "conga" was originally an adjective (as in the expression comparsa conga), and that the comparsa was dropped and conga changed to a noun (del Carmen et al.
However, the word conga may also derive from either "maconga" (song) or "nkunga" (song, sound) in "the language of the Congo" (Ortiz 1924:118).
Ortiz (II 1952-5:34) also states that the drum called bokú (one of the instruments of the conga) is "...typical of the congos."
Goodman mentions the “comparsa conga” in conjunction with a carnaval figure known as “el Rey del Congo” (the "King of the Congo”), which seems to confirm a kongo ethnic connection to the conga (Pérez I 1988:104).
Also, the word bokú means “drum” in Kikongo (Orovio 1981:58).
Antipathy after independence
In the early years after the establishment of the Republic of Cuba in 1902, there were numerous decrees by successive mayors of Santiago de Cuba banning "African drums and tangos".
(Pérez I 1988:177, etc.) Apparently, these decrees were not faithfully enforced:
According to Pérez,
Opponents to the conga in print outnumbered defenders.
The conga was a thing of the illiterate Afro-Cuban working people, while the writers of editorials and angry letters to the editor were upper-class Hispano-Cubans.
One prominent attacker of the conga, and perhaps the most florid in his prose, was the long-time mayor of Santiago, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz II (father of American TV star Desi Arnaz), who expressed the feelings of some upper-class Cubans in a newspaper article of 1925:
On the other hand, an opinion poll of 1936 on the conga elicited the following comments:
Conga of Los Hoyos
Los Hoyos is a district in downtown Santiago de Cuba and home to the conga of Los Hoyos.
The date of the founding of this conga is unknown, but it was already in existence in 1902 (del Carmen et al.
At first, the instruments of the group were a pilón, some bocúes, a cowbell and a güiro.
Later, two redoblantes were added, the number of bocúes was increased and the cowbell and güiro were replaced by frying pans.
Later still, the frying pans were replaced by the campanas (automobile brake drums or other pieces of metal chosen for their distinct sound qualities).
Also added were the quinto and the requinto.
Los Hoyos first began using a corneta china in 1916 (del Carmen et al.
2005), one year after the instrument was introduced by the conga Los Colombianos from Tívoli.
During the carnaval season, Los Hoyos performs a traditional event known as an "invasión," in which it marches around the streets of Santiago and visits the neighborhoods where the other famous congas are located.
This "invasión" commemorates the invasion of the Army of Liberation at the end of the War of Independence.
Los Hoyos also closes the traditional parades of the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba (del Carmen et al.
Walter Goodman (1838–1912), an Englishman who lived in Santiago de Cuba from 1864 to 1869, left what may be the earliest written description of the instruments of the conga: “… an odd orchestra composed of drums, frying pans, tin utensils, graters and güiros (Pérez I 1988:102)."
The present-day instruments fall into four categories.
First are the campanas (Brea and Millet 1993:181), which are instruments of metal struck with metal beaters.
Preferably, brake drums from older model American vehicles (1950s or older) are used.
Originally, before brake drums were available, frying pans were used (Pérez I 1988:310, Pérez II 1988:23, etc.) and possibly plow blades as well (Pérez I 1988:106 and 134).
The second category is the bocuses (sing.
pl. bocúes), also called fondos ("bottoms").
Nowadays, the skin is usually held on by a metal hardware system similar to that of the commercial conga drum.
Anywhere from four to 16 bocuses are used in one conga (Brea and Millet 1993:179).
The bocuses play simple interlocking parts with few variations (however, the sum of the parts results in quite a complex drum melody).
A smaller bocú, called a quinto or bocusito, plays complex off-beat figures and improvisations.
According to Ortiz, the bocú was adopted by the conga when African drums were banned in the early years of the Republic.
A third category are the bimembranophone tambores (Brea and Millet 1993:200), mentioned in documents as early as 1916 (Pérez I 1988:217) There are three tambores: one requinto and two galletas.
The requinto (Brea and Millet 1993:198), first mentioned in writing as early as 1931 (Pérez II 1988:9), is shaped somewhat like a snare drum- about 50% wider than it is tall.
It is hung from the left shoulder with the top of the drum slightly skewed to the left and is played with a stick on the right-hand skin while the left hand mutes or opens the left-hand skin.
Its part is simple with few variations.
The galletas (also called congas- Orovio 1981:186) are like bass drums, but flatter.
They are both played with a stick in a manner similar to the requinto, except that they are hung from the shoulders in such a way that the skins are nearly horizontal to the ground.
The higher pitched of the two is called a redoblante (Brea and Millet 1993:197).
It measures approximately 2 feet in diameter and 5 inches high.
In addition to its basic pattern, there are many floreos (variations) that it can play.
The lower-pitched galleta is called a pilón (Brea and Millet 1993:196) or pilonera (Ortíz II 1952-5:242).
It measure about 2 inches larger in each dimension than the redoblante.
This drum plays a basic pattern with few variations.
All three of the drums utilize a metal hardware system for attaching the skins to the drum shells.
As with the bocú, Ortiz asserts that the tambores were not originally used in the pre-Republican congas.
“One is soon aware that these congas [galletas], like the drums of the comparsa carabalí, are ‘white’ imitations of drums whose African morphology has been disguised” (Ortíz II 1952-5:242).
The final category includes only one item: the trompetica china or corneta china (literally “Chinese trumpet/bugle”).
This double reed instrument, called suona in Chinese, was brought to Havana in the 19th century by Chinese immigrants.
It was being used to play traditional Chinese music in the Chinese theaters in Havana's Chinatown, when an Afro-Cuban comparsa named “Los Chinos Buenos” adapted it to use in place of an inspirador ("lead singer").
Although it was very difficult for anyone not standing within ten feet of the inspirador to hear him or her singing during a street performance, the trompetica china, due to its peculiar raucous and nasal sound, could usually be heard by the entire comparsa and its followers.
In 1910, the trompetica china was brought to Santiago de Cuba by soldiers of the Cuban army (Ortíz II 1952-5:451).
The first conga to incorporate its use was Paso Franco in 1915 (del Carmen et al.
By 1924, it was a well-established feature of the conga (Pérez; I 1988:310).
Today, the sound of this instrument is recognized by Cubans as the symbol of the carnavales of Oriente.
The conga is danced with small sliding steps, advancing alternately.
Imagining two measures of 4 time (the traditional time signature for the conga), if the right foot starts on the first eighth note of the first measure, then the left foot steps on the third eighth note of the first measure, the right again on the first eighth note of the second measure, the left on the third eighth note of the second measure, and so on.
This basic step is called the "arrollao."
The arms are bent at the elbow and swung opposite to the rhythm of the feet (Fernández 1974:91).
There are many variations on the basic step, as well as simple figures such as "kick," "single turn," "cutting sugar cane," "shining shoes," etc.
A common variation on the above variation is to eliminate the tie.
- Carnaval à Santiago de Cuba; Le Chant du Monde LDX-A-4250
- - this page has samples of different styles of carnaval music, including conga.
- Santiago: Calles y Congas; Egrem C557 (1996)
Credits to the contents of this page go to the authors of the corresponding Wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conga (music).