From salsa and meringue to mambo and samba, rhythm is an essential part of nearly all Latin American music. So it's no surprise that there are numerous percussion instruments that add to the array of rhythmic sounds that drive the music.
The conga is a single-headed hand drum that has its roots in Cuba. Congas usually come in sets of two, with each drum tuned to a different pitch. This gives the drums a musical overtone as well as a rhythmic beat. Depending on where the drum head is struck and what part of the hand is used, a multitude of sounds can be created. Some of the most famous conga players are Desi Arnaz and Jack Costanzo, both of whom were in their prime in the mid-20th century.
The pandeiro is one of the most popular percussive instruments in Brazilian music, particularly samba and capoeira. It is similar to a tambourine in that it is a hand-held drum-skin with mini cymbals around the side. The pandeiro can be tuned, however, which unlike the congas, makes it more musical and certainly more versatile. The pandeiro can be played in a number of ways, from using just one's finger tips to the entire palm.
The güiro is a hand-held instrument that is played somewhat like a washboard. The güiro itself is a hollowed out cylindrical piece of wood or metal with several grooves running horizontally down the side. The player holds the güiro in one hand and, with a stick, scrapes along the instrument, creating a rattling sound. It can also be struck with the stick, which creates a sound that is amplified by the hollow device. Although the güiro originated in Cuba, it can be heard in the background of music from numerous Latin American countries.
Similar to the conga, the timbale is a single-headed drum, usually played in pairs, raised on stands. The timbale drum is much more shallow than the conga, however, and has metal rims. The drum-heads themselves are also tuned very high, which creates a more resonant, bell-like tone. Timbales are usually played with sticks, which can be used to strike the head or as a rim-shot on the metal casing. These are essential percussive instruments in Latin American genres, such as salsa, mambo and meringue.
The clave is one of the simplest yet most distinct of all Latin American percussion instruments. It is merely a hand-held wooden block, roughly the size of a large cigar. Two claves are struck together to create the sound. The instrument even has a particular rhythm named after it, which is most commonly found in Cuban music.
While claves may be the most simply built Latin American percussion instruments, the maracas are among the simplest to play. They always come in pairs and are made up of a handle topped with a hollowed-out shell filled with dried seeds. The result, when the maracas are shaken, is the sound of a rattle. These instruments have their roots in many countries, from Puerto Rico to Venezuela. Although they are distinctly Latin American, maracas have become popular around the world as back-up percussion instruments.