When "I Love Lucy" debuted on network TV in the 50s, the American public quickly grew to recognise the spicy beats emanating from the bongo drums of Desi Arnaz. The popularity of bongos has never diminished and, these days, bongos are delightful additions to all bands and orchestras - particularly those emphasising Latin music. Percussionists seeking to add bongo drums to their instrument library have a variety of brands from which to choose, but in the end, remember that the selection of bongos is in the ear (and pocketbook) of the beholder. Experts recommend trying out several brands before deciding which sounds and plays best for you.
Bongo drums have their origins in the South American slave trade. The portable, two-sided drum could be transported from place to place with ease. A properly constructed set of bongos features a large drum called the hembra (female) and a smaller one known as the macho. The best bongos continue to be made of wood covered with animal skin and always includes a bridge between the hembra and macho to help the drummer hold and adjust the instrument. According to bongo aficionados, the ideal bongo is made of Siam oak and topped by a drumhead of stretched buffalo hide. Traditionally, bongos measure six and seven inches or seven and eight inches, but over time, instrument makers have experimented with slightly larger drum dimensions.
Getting all bongo players to agree on a single brand of drum is like asking football fans to pick a team. Not everyone is going to agree on one. That said, we found the highest praise among drummers to come from a company called Tycoon Percussion. Traveling to the Tycoon Percussion factory in Bangkok was once the only way to obtain one of these babies, but diehard musicians with a penchant for this brand were willing to go the distance to acquire a Tycoon. After 20 years of manufacturing and importing their bongos from Thailand, Tycoon is beginning to mine the U.S. market, so if you wish to own the Cadillac of bongo drums you can now get one without a passport.
Drummers who are equally as committed to their brand as the Tycoon fans recommend considering the Brazilian Bauer Bongo. These bongos are hard to get in the U.S., but according to Bauer fans, the trip to Rio is worth the effort. Bauers have the distinction of being called the only correctly shaped bongo on the world market, and we took the word of those waxing poetic about the brand. Also rated highly by the music community are these occasionally hard-to-find brands: Pan Con Queso Bongos (made in Venezuela), Sol Percussion Bongos, Gonbops, and Columbian-made Hector Rocha drums.
Looking for a bongo set that meets modest budgetary limits and is easy to find? Consider LP, Toca and Remo brand bongos. All are top sellers and offer myriad quality and sound differentials. Like all commodities, you'll find extremes as you shop for your drum. We located £520 bongos and £11 bongo sets -- spanning the material gamut from pricey rosewood to plastic. Embellishments and extras drive pricing skyward, so if you're seeking deluxe rims, high-quality tuning lugs, powder coatings, specific ranges of sound (e.g. a tenor bongo), expect to pay serious bucks for them. Just starting out? Check out metal drums with synthetic heads. Regardless of price, be sure the model you pick has multiple gloss coatings to keep the drum's sound consistent.
Bongo players of all levels are called bongoceros and may choose the old-fashioned hand/finger method of drumming or may experiment with sticks and brushes to search for unique sounds while making music. As for the types of music suited to the bongo, the sky's the limit: salsa, merengue, Latin jazz, mambo, reggae, rumba, funk, soul, guaracha and more are likely found on any percussionist's play list.
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