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Latin Music: The Beat of The Heart

Updated on August 2, 2013

Romance Lives in the Beats of Latin Music

Latin Percussion is the term used to group a set of percussion instruments that are characteristically used in performing Latin American music. Within Latin Percussion expression fit a large number of percussion instruments that are used heavily in the interpretation of that music. Many of them have come from a legacy of tribal rhythms of African music. Congas and Bongos are perhaps the clearest expression of Latin music and have been extremely popular instruments built into the vast majority of musical groups and have even managed to gain a special role as soloists.

Latin Percussion Musical Instruments

An Exciting Experience for the Percussionist and the Audience

You could spend a lifetime exploring Latin music, and there would still be magic to discover. Latin music is at the heart of Latin culture. It is a love affair with rhythm. If you are fortunate enough to hear this passionate music played live, you cannot help but feel the joy expressed by the musicians. You can't help but respond to the beat.

Percussion is the foundation of Latin music. If it can make noise, a percussionist will find a way to do it rhythmically. Many of the instruments have evolved from encounters with natural noise makers. The conga, or tumbadora, is an excellent example. It is a Cuban instrument, with a Latin American history and heavy African influence. The conga can trace its roots back to pieces of hollow logs and barrels. It has evolved into a professional quality instrument made from various materials, each with a distinctive sound. It is used in rhythmic music including merengue, salsa, and Reggaeton.

The bongo drums were developed to respond to the musical needs of Cuban music known as Changüi and Son cubano. Again, the African influence can't be missed, and the musical style known as salsa is one of the beneficiaries. Maracas, once made from dried gourd shells or coconut shells and filled with dried beans or seeds, can also be made of wood, leather or, even, plastic. Clay maracas may have been used by Colombian natives as long as 1,500 years ago. This simple instrument, sometimes created with different pitches, offers a current of sound that can be handled by dancers as well as musicians.

Timbales are an integral part of Cuban music which can trace its lineage to African musical culture. There are usually two drums, one larger than the other. They are constructed to provide a softer percussion sound. A stick is used to play them. Jam blocks are made of wood or plastic. Each has its own pitch. They add a distinctive flavor to a musical composition.

There are more bells than you can shake a stick at. As the name would suggest, ice bells create a sharp, clipped sound. Each has its own pitch and tone which allow the percussionist to get creative. Sleigh bells, Agogo bells, bar chimes, and a bell tree are just a few of the bells used in Latin percussion.

Latin music relies, heavily, on a variety of percussive sounds to create an overall musical experience. Musical groups, frequently, have a large number of band members because one person may be responsible for only one instrument at a time. Percussionists have to be able to play many instruments so they can be flexible and contribute to the overall function of the band.

The Latin flavor of music is unique and its presence can be felt in music from many cultures just like the music of many times and places, especially Africa, are reflected in Latin music. In addition, music from different Latin cultures scattered all over South America, Central America, and the Caribbean make their unique contribution to Latin music.


The Heart of Latin Music

If you have been fortunate enough to see a live musical performance of hand drums, then you can’t help but feel the passion that melds the musician and the instrument into one rhythmic force. Hands that move like lightening create a driving beat that takes you along for the ride. Such is the magic of Latin percussion. Conga drums, more accurately referred to as tumbadoras, are one of the mainstays of this musical art form.

To the eye of the novice, all conga drums look the same, but they are not. Regardless of whether you construct one yourself, or purchase one, different materials can be used to create different sounds. The drum body can be made of staves, small curved pieces of wood that form a barrel or cask shape; a solid, hollow piece of wood; or synthetic material like fiberglass. The body of the instrument contributes to the sound it makes.

The drum head has the greatest influence on the kind of sound the drum produces. Conga drum heads are, traditionally, made from animal skins including cowhide and bull hide. They can also be made of synthetic materials. Animal skins respond to humidity and stretch, naturally, over time. Synthetic materials never change and require less attention. The sound of a natural material is warmer, and there is a range of tones. The musician’s hand can feel the difference, and many believe that natural materials are more responsive to the touch of the hand.

There are different hand strokes used to create a number of the sounds that are part of the world of Latin percussion. An open hand, the palm, the fingers, and a combination of these can be used to generate a number of sounds. Strokes can be combined in a way that allows the conga drum to support a musical piece or drive the composition as a solo instrument.

Congas To Make Desi Arnaz Proud

A GREAT Conga Solo

The Ubiquitous Bongo

There are conflicting theories with respect to the origins and evolution of bongo drums. Regardless, there is no question but that these versatile musical instruments are a welcome addition to contemporary Latin percussion. Bongo drums come in pairs. They are permanently connected and are an integral part of Latin percussion, especially Cuban music. The musician and the instrument have a special relationship because the drums are held between the knees with the larger drum, or hembra (female), on the side of the dominant hand and the smaller, or macho (male), on the other side, leaning against the calf. As these hand drums are played, the vibration of the instrument resonates through the musician's body binding instrument and player, together, in a unique way.

The shell is constructed of hardwood or a material like fiberglass. The head is made of an animal skin like cowhide or goat skin. At first, the skin was attached to the wood, and heat was used to stretch the skin. This changed the tension of the material which, in turn, changed the tone of the instrument. Today, lugs are used to adjust the skin tension and, thus, the tone. In addition, synthetic materials can be used, as well.

Bongos have a single head and are open ended. They are hand drums but, as you might expect from percussionists who are extremely creative, some composers have written music using drumsticks with bongos. Still, hand techniques are detailed, complicated, and numerous. For instance, the drum head can be hit with the fingers or the palms. The sound can be muted by placing part of the other hand on the drum head to reduce the vibration. Hitting parts of the instrument with varying strength creates a variety of sounds. By applying pressure to the center of the drum head, the tone of the sound can be changed. Quick, precise wrist movements are used to create the numerous sounds. The instrument is extremely versatile and portable which is why it is so ubiquitous in Latin music.

How to Play Your First Rhythm on Bongos--A Lesson for Beginners

A Master at Work

Try the Timbale

Who would think that a shallow, metal drum with a single head could cause such a reaction? Ask any lover of Latin music, and you will find out why. If you enjoy Latin jazz, Salsa, the Mambo, Reggae, or Merengue, then you are familiar with timbales or, as they are also called, pailas criollas. Timbales trace their origin to Cuba and, like many Latin percussive instruments, have a significant African influence.

Cuban orchestras, which were styled after the European classical symphony orchestras, included percussive instruments called timpani. They were massive, kettle-shaped drums. After a time, Cuban music adapted the timpani and, thus, the timbale was born.

Today, while most timbales have metal casings made of steel, bronze, or brass, some shells are made of wood. The drums are tuned high considering their size. Timbales, traditionally, are played while the musician is standing. The male, or macho, drum is smaller and has a sharper sound than the female, or hembra, drum which has a more mellow and, somewhat, deeper sound. Many musicians include them as part of their drum kit. Timbales are, often, combined with a cowbell or two, mambo, and/or chacha, which give the musician a broader dimension of sound. Occasionally, they can be found in marching bands as replacements for quints or quads although it is becoming rare.

The drum head is made of plastic. Like timpani, a drum key is required to tighten the drum head. After the drum head is loosely attached to the metal or wood base, the key is used to tighten each of the lugs, a turn at a time for each lug, to keep the tension consistent as it is tightened.

Timbale sticks are unique. They have no head or shoulder and are straight instead of having the distinctive drumstick shape. They hit against the drum head, shell, or rim to create diverse, rich rhythms that are guaranteed to bring an audience to its feet.

In Latin music, an instrument has a role to play. Timbales, typically, serve to underscore changes in a musical composition or keep a steady rhythm. In Latin percussion pieces, timbales can serve as solo instruments. The timbale sticks that move faster than hummingbird wings contribute to the joy that is Latin percussion. Do yourself a favor, spend as much time as you can listening to this wonderful music. It's as close to the fountain of youth as a mortal can come.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the One and Only Tito Puente!

The Magic of Maracas

Maracas provide more musical fun than you can shake a stick at. If you understand percussionists, then you know they will find a way to make music. It’s no surprise that dried gourds filled with dried seeds was the beginning of a beautiful relationship; however, the origins of maracas are lost in antiquity.

These instruments, often referred to as rumba shakers or shac-shacs, are inextricably tied to Latin America and Latin percussion. Generally played as pairs, today, they are made of a variety of materials including wood, leather, or synthetic. Small stones, dried seeds, beans, pits, or pellets of many kinds are encased in the shell in order to create sound. They are oval shaped with a handle and, because of the different types of construction, maracas can have different pitches, tones, and sounds. Many are elaborately decorated.

Maracas are deceptively easy to play but, in the hands of a percussionist, they are magical. Not only do they provide an underlying rhythm, it is virtually impossible for the musician to remain still. While the instruments, usually one in each hand, are shaken, the musician is compelled to move to the music. Because a beginner can make a rhythmic sound, people of all ages are able to participate in the world of music.

Maracas can be shaken or hit against different areas of the human body like the hand, thigh, or hip. Because an instant is required for the objects inside the shell to move from one side to the other, the musician must move just a bit ahead of the music. It is imperceptible to the average viewer but, in the hands of a master, maracas provide a layer of depth to Latin percussion. While they are, traditionally, shaken, there have been compositions that employed them as drumsticks adding another dimension to the instrument. They are especially popular in Brazil, Cuba, Columbia, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. These highly portable and versatile instruments make a welcome addition to any rhythmic music including Latin jazz and salsa.

Great Maracas Demo

Drum Your Way Into My Heart and Leave a Comment!

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    • jamesdesalvo lm profile imageAUTHOR

      jamesdesalvo lm 

      7 years ago

      @Heidi Vincent: Thanks so much. I have a few more in the works about each instrument.

    • Heidi Vincent profile image

      Heidi Vincent 

      7 years ago from GRENADA

      Percussion instruments are seldom given attention but form an integral part of African, Caribbean & Latin music. Great percussion lens!

    • jamesdesalvo lm profile imageAUTHOR

      jamesdesalvo lm 

      7 years ago

      @aesta1: Good for him. It's a lot of work and a lot of fun. The blisters are well worth it.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Our grandson is a drummer and really devotes time to it.

    • jamesdesalvo lm profile imageAUTHOR

      jamesdesalvo lm 

      7 years ago

      @CrossCreations: Thanks. Glad you liked it. What was harder-the drums or living with a drummer? My wife would say the latter!

    • CrossCreations profile image

      Carolan Ross 

      7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I've always wanted to learn to play drums, tried learning for awhile when I lived with a drummer and found it way harder than I had imagined. Love Latin music, nice work on this page.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Love drums and drumming!

    • jamesdesalvo lm profile imageAUTHOR

      jamesdesalvo lm 

      7 years ago

      @D_L_Harbin: Thanks. My dad gave Desi a ride in his cab in NYC decades ago.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great lens! My first memory of conga's was Desi Arnaz!

    • onyesvic profile image


      7 years ago

      Great stuff

    • jamesdesalvo lm profile imageAUTHOR

      jamesdesalvo lm 

      7 years ago

      @anonymous: Thanks for the like. I just liked one of yours.


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Awesome page. I loved the content and I've gave it a Squid Like. Can you return the favor on one of mine?


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