7/06/2009

Buying a set of congas: Vintage Congas for Rumba.


Vintage congas are truly wonderful. They are like musical pieces of history. The most well known vintage brands of congas here in America are Valje and Gon Bops. Both Valje and Gon Bops were made here in California. On the East Coast they had Junior Tirado making drums and also Martin Cohen making LP (Latin Percussion) in New Jersey before he sold out and LP moved it's production overseas.
There are other brands such as King Congas , which is trying to get back into production. Sol Drums have been out of production long enough to approach vintage status. Echotone or Ecotone congas. Also there were several varieties of Mexican made drums with La Playa and Zim Gar being the most common. There are also the rare Cuban congas made by Vergara, Requena and SONOC. You can also see all sorts of unknown vintage congas available from to time on ebay.
What is meant by vintage drums? That's kind of a hard question. In my opinion, the term vintage when applied to congas usually means a drum around 20 years old and/or made by a company that is no longer in business. LP drums qualify, because after they sold out, they weren't really the same company any more. Other companies, such as Meinl have made great products in the past, but have discontinued them. The older style Woodcraft series comes to mind. Also the Raul congas that later became Bauer congas. They modified the drums a bit when they changed names as well. Also Fat Congas in Santa Barbera; they stopped making congas and make cajons now, but they may restart the conga line again.

The distinctive feature of most vintage drums is their sound, and also the reason they are sought after. Typically the vintage drums have a sound that cannot be recreated by modern drums. Reasons for this are many, but most commonly it has to do with construction techniques and woods. Modern drums are often made differently, utilizing different techniques and can be made mostly by machines. Also some species and ages of wood are just no longer available or used. Mahogany, Caoba and the Phillipine Luan wood used by Gon Bops comes to mind. Also companies discontinue model styles, or change specifications, like changing rims from traditional to modern "comfort" curves for example.


These vintage drums are often desired for rumba because of the sound. There is often a certain nostalgia attached to these drums. Vintage drums can sound older, and resemble the older recordings more. Also for some rumberos vintage drums were the only drums available at the time they first started playing and an old Valje or Gon Bops may remind them of times gone by. Perhaps less subjective is that older drums often have a "drier" and "woody" sound, with less sustain and resonance. I have heard it expressed that this kind of tone produced by congas is ideal for rumba. The shorter tones keep the drums from speaking over each other; the tones of the rhythm are more distinct. Also this quality of sound just has that folkloric feel.
There are disadvantages associated with these older drums. They can be hard to track down, and when they are found they are rarely in perfect condition. Most have had repairs and modifications done to them, and many require further repairs or new skins. Replacement parts are frequently impossible to find. Usually they come with scratches, dents, maybe a little rust, call it a patina of use or "character". Personally I consider that an advantage; if I have a drum with a few scratches I don't worry as much about giving it another, so for me they make good drums for playing outside, at public rumbas and that sort of thing. However some vintage drums can be very valuable, like Junior Tirados or some of the older Cuban drums, and some people like to restore them to as near perfect as possible and collect them.
Another disadvantage is it may be difficult to find or build a completely matching set of 3 drums from vintage stock of the same manufacturer, model and condition. Often you see mismatched sets of vintage congas. I have such a set with a 40 year old Valje tumba and a 30 year old Gon Bops tres dos. I use an Isla quinto with this set.

The JCR representative Isaac Gutwilik has written an excellent article on the subject and I'm going to paste it here.

by Isaac Gutwilik
Tradicion Percussion / Percussionist / Instrument Design /
Authorized Rep.
JCR Percussion

Once in a while a rare percussion treasure can be found on
ebay. A lot of sellers use the word "vintage" to attract sales to their item. This does not necessarily mean that much. If it's Vintage it should have an old label shown, or some of the identifiable unique hardware designs. Some of the older pieces may have cracks and are in bad need of new heads. Consider the real costs of these repairs. Be sure to ask a few questions. If you get no answer, stay away. If you're handy with some carpentry skills, that's a big plus. A good repair project can be very rewarding and even therapeutic for some individuals with the proper tools and workspace. Be wary of sellers with no feedback or too many negative feedbacks. Sometimes good older percussion items end up being sold by people who know nothing about what they're selling. (They often incorrectly refer to them as Congos or large "African" Bongos) They may be sitting on a treasure.

Here are some questions to ask: for bongos, does the hardware still fit? Wood will always shrink over time, rendering the hardware or bands too loose. Replacement lugs are easy to obtain to replace rusted or abused old ones. Head diameters are often incorrectly measured, for example, and the age & type of wood may be unknown. Be sure to ask about cracks. If the crack is on a seam line, it can be repaired with the proper glues and clamps. A crack that runs at an angle however may be more of a problem, but any problem can be addressed if you're able to do it or pay someone else with experience. For steel bands, welding may be required. There may also be a need for an internal steel
alma ring to reinforce and put a drum back in "round" if it's been warped. Cracks in other areas can be dealt with but the sound of the drum may never be the same. In any case, always ask the questions beforehand. It usually takes a minimum of 7 years of solid welding experience for a welder to artistically
repair bongos or congas. It's more challenging than the wood repairs. Many older fiberglass congas may also be
considered vintage. Fiberglass repair kits are cheap, come with easy
instructions and available at Lowes or Home Depot, etc.

For vintage bells, similar questions should be asked - any cracks, rust, does the mounting bracket still work? For
timbales - are they still in round? are the lugs lubricated or stripped? Are there undamaged skins? Very important - is there a stand? A new stand can cost 1/2 the price of an entirely new set ! Why people buy or sell timbales without stands I'll never understand. Each set has it's own specific mounting system, so you'll be searching for a particular stand which may be next to impossible to find. Older Timbales also had no mounting brackets for bells, so you'll need to get
an attachable mounting rod.

If a piece has no cracks, investing in a new set of skins like calf, steer or the best - top of the line imported mule skins will elevate any drum' sound. Some humid climates or working situations may call for a synthetic head...which isn't a vintage sound but very practical on the road. Many pros have more than one set just for different performance styles or performance spaces, or recording. The skin is a major part of your instrument's sound and old skins usually will sound lifeless. Rest assured, the mules are not killed for skinning, but culled from the old retired work animals which are abundantly used in traditional mountain farming regions. They are available on a very limited basis only twice a year. . . . Thicker skins also enhance fiberglass congas, eliminating some of the ringing tones. The newer stock
asian water buffalo skins on todays mass produced congas & bongos may be OK for beginners, but are not the way to go for a true vintage sound. The sounds they produce are not the authentic ones, and will not do justice to a wood handcrafted instrument. For an authentic sound experience, new players should listen to some old school players like Mongo Santamaria or Tito Puente to hear what I'm talking about! Vintage isn't just a matter of looks or style - it's also a quality of sound that's hard to find new in a stores or online today. He is required listening for the beginner player. I wish you luck if your an aspiring player or an experienced player & collector.

A well made percussion instrument from an old artisan - priceless. ( They deserve their own
Mastercard commercial !)

~ ISAAC
GUTWILIK ~

I myself have a couple of vintage drums and have completely refurbished another that I sold to an artist, Max Kelley, in Florida. I love owning these old drums for the history and character they possess. They also serve as excellent conversation pieces when playing with other older rumberos who love to recall stories that these older drums remind them of. Restoring an old drum and then playing it yourself or passing it along to another to enjoy is an incredibly rewarding experience that I wholeheartedly recommend to those that are so inclined. Of course they sound wonderful as well.

17 comments:

  1. Nice article! I was reading the comment about when Martin Cohen moved production overseas and I started wondering if the conga I have is before or after the move. Do you happen to know what are the marking of the pre-move conga? I'm getting curious about the one I own.

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  2. On your LP drum there should be a bronze colored logo. It says
    Martin Cohen and LP and in the lower right hand corner it will have written either Palisades Park or Garfield, New Jersey if the drum was made in America. If there is nothing written there then it was made overseas.

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  3. Do you have any information on vintage Gon Bops gongas? They were the first "travel congas" made. I saw a set, but passed on buying them because they looked so unusual, but now regret not buying them. Are they worth going after? Thanks

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    Replies
    1. I have seen those only once; they have a "sliding" tube that fits into the top which looks just like a regular head, right? I would get them just for their rarity-they sounded different, o.k., but different.

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  4. Whats the best varnish to use on my wooden congas which I am refurbishing.They currently have a satin finish but I am thinking of a high gloss would it affect the sound if the inside of the drum was varnished to some extent.

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  5. Paul, yes it would affect the sound if you varnish the inside of the drum. Absolutely it would. I don't know of any drum maker that do that. Guitar makers don't either. As for the best varnish, they are all probably about the same. Water based polyurethane is convenient for the clean up and less smell.

    Good luck on the refurbish.

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  6. Thank you for ur isight and info.. I was looking for zim gar company to buy broken item on my conga..

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  7. I am a u.k rumbero and looking to buy just a vintage conga.
    Can anyone over in the U.S. find one for me and do the shipping.
    peter.fox400@gmail.com

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  8. Could someone tell me if the Sonocs factory still exists? I am visiting Havana next week and would love to visit if possible?

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  9. The Rhythm Traders went there a few years back, you might try and call them about it.
    http://galleries.rhythmtraders.com/2013/01/21/road-trip-cuba/

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  10. Hey, what brand is the conga below the 3 LP fiberglass congas?
    Cheers!

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  11. Hey, I would like to know what brand the conga below the 3 LP fiberglass congas is please?
    Cheers

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  12. I don't remember the exact name of the conga, it was made in the Phillipines.

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  13. Great article. thanks! I play cajon and would love to get into congas. I saw what was labeled as a vintage pair of Gon Bop congas in a music store. There was no label on the congas, they were painted black and had a few scratches. definitely old congas. Is there anyway to verify if these are old Gon Bops and if they're actually worth buying/anything? I have a few pictures if it helps. thanks.

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  14. Hi I have a Meinl Roland series set of congas that seem to be from years ago. I see they sale a Classic set of Marathon congas now that look just like them. Do you know anything about the history of these older ones? When they were made and why they were discontinued? Thanks Steve

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  15. Thanks for this article. This is the first of my searches. My neighbor just gave me a La Playa Congo drum his grandfather used to play. He was going to throw it out but I couldn't let that happen. Like you mentioned, it has some scratches and patina on the hardware but worst of all is the skin is toasted - completely shredded. I'm looking for a place where I can get a replacement skin for this. This would be the starting point of cleaning it up and getting marginally refurbished. Can someone put me in contact with a specialist? Thanks!

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