Buying a set of congas: Artisan Conga Makers

Contemplating a purchase of an artisan-crafted set of congas can be exciting and fun. It can also be daunting and confusing. The first step is deciding whether or not you should buy a set of congas like this. Artisan crafted congas come with several advantages but there are also drawbacks.

Congas of this type can be hard to try before you order them. So, many, are left to reviews, research and opinions. This kind of information can be very subjective. Everyone that just spent $800 for a conga wants to believe it is the best money can buy. So the first risk is potentially not knowing exactly what you’re going to get for your money. Drum makers will also change their designs, so their end product may be different than what is seen in pictures.

Another thing about handcrafted drums is they come with a waiting period. Are you the type of person that has the patience for that? 6 month or even 9 month waiting periods are not uncommon. Also not uncommon are unseen delays; skins become unavailable, shells can develop defects in the manufacturing, etc. I’ve known people to wait over a year for drums.

A related issue is parts and repairs. If something should happen to your drum and you need a repair or a new part, you would be required to ship the drum back or wait for a new part to be manufactured. Granted drum makers are usually very conscientious in this regard, but shipping costs are ofen involved and waiting. Compare this to either getting a brand new drum on the spot, or simply walking into a shop and having the part you need hanging on the wall, which is possible with other types of drums.

The main reason why people choose handcrafted drums is for the sound. In my opinion they do sound better. They all sound good. They almost all sound very good. I’ve heard a lot of these types of drums and I can’t really say that one artisan's drums are better sounding than the a different artisan's. Maybe I could describe subtle difference, but a good sounding drum is a good sounding drum. In fact, my experience with these types of drums, is that they sound more similar than disimilar when compared to each other, even drums of different woods and makers. However, the person you’re playing with may have a crappy sounding drum, or are you going to have your drums played as a set most of the time? Then you have 3 good sounding drums playing together. So the context of where you are playing most should also be considered.

The way I have chosen all my drums from the many choices is that there was something that resonated with me about the drum maker. Sometimes it is their history, sometimes it is their particular approach to design and fabrication, it could be personality, reputation; many reasons. I am of the opinion that there should be something you like about the drum maker and this will transfer to your ownership of the drums. I’ve played and heard a lot of these kinds of drums, and I can’t say that one sounds better than the other, and you can drive yourself crazy thinking along those lines. These guys usually just don’t let poorly sounding drums out of their shop. However, as you research the different manufacturers surely something about how the drums look, the way they are built, the history of the company will stand out. That is how I’ve chosen my drums and I’ve never regretted it.

Always remember that there are other choices out there, cheaper and more readily available choices that don’t rely on faith. Keep these other choices in mind, but if they just don’t seem to grab your attention, if they lack the appeal, or just don’t seem to satisfy; if you are willing to endure the wait and the cost; if you want a handcrafted conga with a history, a status, and reputation; something not everybody else has; if you need that level of sound; then you should probably get yourself this kind of drum.


Buying a set of congas.

I've been asked for advice by a local musician who is studying rumba. He is considering what congas he should buy. This is a big decision. Congas can be expensive and some makes of congas require a big commitment in both time and faith as well as money.

I will be making a series of posts this week comparing the different pros and cons of what I can see are 3 different choices facing a musician purchasing a new set congas.
  1. Congas made by artisan craftsmen such as Skin on Skin, Ritmo (Matt Smith), Isla Percussions, Volcano Percussion, Moperc, Resolution Drums, JCR ,etc, etc
  2. Vintage congas made by companies that no longer exist, such as Gon Bops, Valje, King Congas, Sol Percussion, Junior Tirado, etc.
  3. Congas manufactured by the large companies such as Meinl, LP, Pearl, Toca, , etc.
I won't be discussing which makes or models I think are the best or which is better than the other, all that is subjective. What is more important and matters the most is getting the drums that meet your needs; drums that will suit you as an individual conguero, rumbero and percussionist the best.

I don't have my camera at the moment, this series of posts should begin on Monday.


Two new guaguas / catas just completed.

I made a couple of guaguas for a reader and his brother. These two will be going to the wonderful city of Vancouver in Canada.

I try to make my guaguas as durable as possible. I wrap them with strong string; a technique I got from a book on how to make shakuhachis (Japanese bamboo flutes). I also coat them with Watco Danish oil which works well. I cut out round holes, instead of making a slit, to help prevent splitting and cracking.

These instruments take a beating and bamboo likes to split. Since musicians are paying me money for them I try and make them to last. Of course if your banging away on them with thick and hard rock and roll drum sticks, they are going to break. Timbale sticks are good, also softer wood dowels cut to size from a hardware store.

The thing is in Cuba, I assume you can just take a walk and chop down a stalk of bamboo anytime you want to make a guagua. That's not really possible in Vancouver, B.C. There are other alternatives, but nothing quite gives the authentic sound like a chunk of bamboo to get your rumba really driving hard.


Why rumba?

I get asked frequently why I started to play rumba and Afro-Cuban music and rhythms. I realize everyone has his or her own path. For some people it is part of their culture, for others it is a form of de-colonization. Others are looking for a spiritual path and for some it is all about the music.

For me I am a lover of jazz music, and also enjoy what some people call exotica and lounge music. I began to notice that the bongos feature heavily in the later two genres and I would also hear them in jazz music every now and then. So I bought a set of bongos and began to practice.

Well, the conga drums are the brother to the bongo, and after a while I became attracted to the sound of the conga. I bought a conga and started to practice. Well a funny thing happened. Once I started taking lessons with Carlos Aldama, his other students, who are rumberos, well they just pulled me in, dragged me into the world of rumba, as we know it in San Francisco.

There was a lot to appreciate about rumba. A big one for me is I very much enjoy the physical activity of playing drums. I like moving my arms, striking the drums with my hand, and of course there is the energy that enters your body, mind and heart when the rhythm and the feeling is right.

The history and culture of rumba and Afro-Cuban music is also a very fascinating subject. The perseverance and creativity of the early rumberos is admirable and remarkable. Learning about this music’s history both in Cuba and Africa is a very deep and interesting study for me.

A wonderful thing about rumba is it’s social nature. It’s a participatory musical form. By learning and playing this music I have become acquainted with several very interesting people I would probably never have met in my white-collar career and background. This aspect of the music is incredibly rewarding for me.

I have also fallen in love with the instruments that this blog is dedicated to. I love to tinker, as my friend puts it. Coming from working on bicycles and surfboards, the ability to craft and customize my instruments is a lot of fun. Playing an instrument that you made yourself is incredible. If I were a pianist, I would have missed out on that experience.

And of course, I love the sound of the music.


My shekeres in Manchester

I made a couple of shekeres for a friend in Manchester a while back. He just posted an image of them along with a shekere he already had. I made these two for him to make a complete agbe set of 3 shekeres (agbes). Here they are sitting on top of his beautiful set of Isla Percussion drums.

What he has now is a set of three shekeres in ascending (or descending) sizes and tones. This set up is ideal for playing guiro/bembe, where three shekeres are played accompanied by a guataca or bell and usually a single conga drum. The three shekeres and their different tones play rhythmic melodies similar to how three congas are played. Traditionally the shekeres are referred to by the same names as bata drums; okonkolo, itotele and iya, but now it is also common to refer to the instruments as cachimbo, mula and caja as well. The traditional names reflect the African and spiritual origins of the shekere and it's music. In rumba, which is a secular musical form, typically only one shekere is played, however sometimes you can hear two shekeres being played in a rumba.

It is incredibly rewarding for me to think of this fine gentleman making music for others to enjoy 1/2 way around the world with instruments I made in my Haight Ashbury apartment in S.F.


Chano Pozo

I came across this very rare image of the great rumbero and composer Chano Pozo, with the famous jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Chano Pozo is playing a conga in the style used for carnaval/comparsa which is the origin of the conga drum and the term conga. The drum is known by the name conga because if it's historic relationship to carnaval/comparsa.

It's a great picture, Chano Pozo playing the drum and Dizzy Gillespie playing claves. Beautiful!


Saying goodbye to an old friend.

Today I will be selling the first shekere I ever made. I got lucky with a very wonderful gourd from eBay. This particular instrument used 1,5oo beads and a bunch of string, and took me a couple of months to eventually finish. The round shape gives it an incredibly easy action. It's a loud shekere when played by itself, but in the context of a rumba or a guiro it is perfect.

I've had the pleasure of watching many local rumberos use this shekere, including Sandy Perez and Carlos Aldama even gave it approval.

I'm letting it go to Larry a rumbero from Oakland who has always praised this shekere and plays it very well. It's really impossible to put a price on this instrument (materials, construction time and sentimental value), and if I did Larry would not be able to afford it. I told him to give me what he could afford. Sometimes it is not about the money, the value of having this elderly gentleman making wonderful music will be a greater reward.


Rest in peace, Jesús Alfonso Miró

Sadly, the great artist and rumbero, Jesús Alfonso Miró passed away yesterday June 4, 2009. He was 60 years old. Jesús Alfonso Miró was the musical director and quintocero for the most famous rumba group of all time:

Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.

For many American players of rumba, the albums by Los Muñequitos were the number one source for the music, with rumberos learning directly from the albums tracks how to play the music.

I have always enjoyed Jesús Alfonso Miró's distinct style, what has always stood out is his distinctive use of nkembi while playing quinto. The nkembi are little shakers strapped to the wrists from the Yuka tradition.

The photo of Jesús used for the cover of the Congo Yambumba album playing what has got to be the tiniest requinto ever (!), has in my opinion, always encapsulated the very essence of rumba and Jesús' artistry.

Please read more about this great artist in Mark Sander's, Barry Cox's and Rafael Duque's blogs.


Canto y Coro (Song and Chorus)

I'm going to go out on a limb and express my opinion that the most important element of rumba is song. I have been in countless of situations where there were only percussionists and no singers, and while that is fun for a while, the percussion loses direction after a few minutes and it becomes time to change to a new rhythm. In contrast I have played a guaguanco part for what seemed like forever while singer after singer started up and the energy was maintained and the "feeling" was there.

One of the greatest aspects of rumba is it's participatory nature; if you know the part you can play. The number of instruments are limited, but the amount of people that can join in the choro is limitless, the more the better actually, each voice adding to the energy of the rumba.

Berta Jottar has some very wonderful videos where the voice completely replaces the instruments and also a nice video of rumba being sung a capella, with the only accompnaiment being clave played on a bottle.

Not only can rumba exist as song and voice solamente, but the singing makes the drums better. Without a singer to respond to and play around, the quinto can easily either lose inspiration and run out of things to play, or conversely the quinto can overplay and play over the other two drums.

The voice also gives the rumba direction as it progresses from diana, to the decima then the coro or rompe de la rumba, marking each section giving each one it's own feeling and flavor.

Singing is probably the most daunting skill to acquire in rumba. Not only are the songs in Spanish, a foreign language for many, there is the task of singing in clave or playing clave simultaneously. What makes a great rumba singer (gallo) is the ability to improvise in a call and response with the coro, a truly difficult skill. But take heart, the indomitable Barry Cox from New York has compiled and encyclopedic collection of rumba song lyrics. While it is nice to be able to improvise in Spanish beautiful and poetic lyrics, simply singing a well known song with an easy choro will go a long way.



I just picked up a nice little pair of erikundi, small little shakers a little like maracas. These are also called caxixi in Brasil. I got them from a Ghanaian who was selling some imported artworks and instruments from Africa. I was planning on making my own set, but these were so nice, better than I could probably make. This particular set is made of woven reed or grass with a leather bottom. I have seen the bottoms made from pieces of gourd shell as well. I don't know what is inside could be a variety of things.

Erikundi are not traditionally an instrument used in rumba. In Cuba they are most closely associated with the Abakua tradition. However Abakua has a strong relationship to rumba, and the erikundi pattern played in Abakua can be seen in the palitos / guagua pattern in Columbia, so the vestigial remnants of Abakua are retained in Columbia but transferred to a different instrument.

This particular pair that I picked up is a little on the large and louder side, which is what I wanted. They don't sound like maracas which have a fuller sharper sound, nor do they have the sound presence of a shekere. These erundi have a little more subtle sound, just enough to be heard and drive the rhythms, but not overpowering. They will definitely give my abakua a distinctive sound, which is what I wanted. They are very well made with attractive colors and I'm happy to have been able to purchase them from an independent African importer.

(click on this image to enlarge, a very beautiful artwork I scanned from the cover of the book "From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz" by Raul Fernandex. The artist is Viredo Espinosa and the piece is called Orquestra Abakua, the player in the foreground is playing erikundi)