When the goatee-sporting, turtleneck-wearing beatniks first took the stage with their spoken word nihilism set to bongo beats, it may have been the first time many Americans saw a bongo drum. The fact is, though, bongo drums predate the cool cats of the 1950s and the clubs of New York's East Village. Africa can lay claim to inventing the bongo drums, although no one can pinpoint exactly where on the continent and when in the late 1800s the history of bongo drums began.
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Throughout the African continent, bongo drums of different sizes, types and materials were played. During this time, the bringing of slaves from Africa to South America included the migration of bongo drums. Cuba was and is enamoured with the bongo drum, as evidenced in the musical genres of changui and son.
Most bongos consist of two small drums that are connected. Typically, one drum will be larger than the other. Bongo drums are made of wood, metal or a combination of elements, while the drum head is either animal skin or a man-made material. Bongo players--called bongocerros--have a professional types of bongo drum that most novices do not. Their bongos have a skin that can be stretched and adjusted to create diverse sounds. The professional bongo drums fit into drum stands for prolonged and improved instrumentation.
Bongo drums vary by location. In Morocco and Egypt, they were historically constructed with ceramic bodies while the drum skin would be made of rawhide or goatskin. While the Middle Eastern tradition includes ceramic bongos, South American bongos are typically made of wood, due to the fact that the wooden bongos were brought there from Africa.
Bongo drums have a distinct sound, higher pitched than larger drums. Like the beatnik poets of old, many a bongocerro holds the drums between the knees, placing the larger drum head beneath the hand they favour. The musicians use their fingertips as well as their palms. Modern bongo drummers may wield sticks or brushes. To tone down the sound of a bongo, the player can lay his palm on the drum skin while striking it.
Bongo drums have the versatility to stand on their own, accompany an ensemble or influence musical genres, as they have historically done in Afro-Caribbean music, pop and jazz. Bongo drums are easy to play, affordable to buy and enjoyable to jam with in a band or drum circle. Top bongocerros have earned a name in the music business, most notably Willie Bobo, Frank Colon and Nils Fischer.
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