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Latin American Percussion Instruments

Latin American Percussion Instruments

Percussion is a very important part of Latin American music. Many of the instruments used originated in Africa and became popular in music from the Caribbean.

There are many major instruments used in Latin American music. These include drums as well as instruments created out of what many people consider to be junk.

The bongos are the highest pitched drums in Latin American music. They consist of two small wooden shelled single headed drums. The heads are about seven and eight inches in diameter and made of calf, mule, or goatskins. Plastic and synthetic heads are also available but not necessarily recommended. Heads made of skin should be loosened to prolong the life of the head. The basic bongo pattern is called a martillo and consists of eight distinct strokes.

Congas today are made of both wood and fiberglass shells. However, they are directly of African descent and were originally made of hollowed out tree trunks and primitive barrel drums. Conga heads are usually made of calf or mule hide, or are synthetic. Like with bongos, skin-heads should be loosened so the drum lasts longer. Congas can be played either singly or in combinations of two or more drum. Head sizes range from about 10-11 inches for the quinto, 11-12 inches for the conga, and 12-13 inches for the tumbadora. The three basic conga sounds in Latin American music are the open tone or “gung”, closed, muffled or flesh tone, and the slap or “pop”.

Originally made from hollowed out wooden bowls, timbales are also direct descendants of African instruments. They were brought to the Caribbean from the slave trade. Today timbales consist of two metal shell drums 13-15 inches in diameter with goatskin or plastic heads. Many times timbales will also have a mounted cowbell or woodblock. They are played with straight wooden dowels, brushes, or with the hands. The role of the timbales is to help establish basic rhythm and solo improvisation.

Claves are made of two pieces of wood about 8 inches long and 1 inch around. They are struck together to produce a hollow click. The clave is held lightly in one hand and struck with another clave. The clave rhythm is the key to all African and Latin American music.

The cowbell, also known as the cencerro, is held in the hand by supporting the sides of the bell with the thumb and pinky. The top of the bell is cupped in the back of the hand. It is played with the end of a stick. The tone can be dampened by applying pressure with the fingers holding the sides of the bell.

The guiro made out of hollow gourd or wood. It is played by running a scraping tool across the body of the instrument. Many things can be used as scraping tools including combs and even hair picks.

Maracas are made of hollow gourd filled with seeds or beans. They produce a “chick-chick” sound when shaken. Maracas are very important in keeping a steady time in Latin American music.

The instrument that interests me most is the jawbone or quijada. First used in African folk music, the jawbone was originally made from the jawbone and teeth of a mule. It is played by striking the bone causing the loose teeth to rattle. Because the instrument was so fragile an artificial substitute called the vibra-slap was created. Many other shakers, bells, and rattles are used in Latin American music. These include the shekere, agogo bells, chocallo, and Brazilian ganza.

The steel drums, better known as the pans, originated in Trinidad and Tobago. They derived from the previous tamboo bamboo bands, which employed large bamboo shafts dropped to the ground to produce musical sounds. The first melodic pans were created in the early 1940s. The drum was held in one hand and played with a small stick. It had about eight tuned notes.

By the 1950s there were ensembles featuring melody, harmony, and even bass pans built out of old 55 gallon barrels. Today, many pans make up a standard steel band. These include the tenor (soprano), double tenor (soprano /alto), double second, double and triple guitars (alto/ tenor), quadraphonic (alto/ tenor), cello (tenor), tenor bass (tenor/ bass), and bass (bass). Though steel bands are very popular, the construction of the instruments is still not standardized.

When playing the pans one must envision a choral sound. Mallets should be held loosely between the index and middle fingers. Bass mallets should be held in the same manner as a snare drum grip. Strokes should be made from the fingers, wrists, or both, but rarely from the arm. Always avoid overplaying the pans.


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