The bongo is a hand percussion instrument with more than 200 years of rich history. Although the exact origin is unknown, the modern bongo appears to have emerged from Cuba during the early 19th century. Bongos are often mistaken for other types of hand percussion instruments, including congas and djembes, but bongos are specifically two drums side by side, one smaller than the other. Even within this small scope of instruments, there are still several unique varieties constructed out of a diversity of materials.
The original and most common type of bongo is the traditional wooden bongo. Wooden bongos were first made out of oak because of its prevalence throughout Cuba. Modern wooden bongos are made out of a variety of woods including ash, maple, mahogany and birch and even more esoteric woods such as koa and bubinga. Wooden bongos traditionally have a deeper, darker sound than other materials, but this all depends on the wood used. Harder woods such as maple and heavy ash tend to have a sharper, more percussive tone than more porous woods.
Ceramic bongos are constructed differently than their wooden counterparts, and appear much more bowl-shaped. Ceramic bongos have a few specific advantages, including not being affected by changes in temperature and humidity as well as easy repair when broken. Ceramic bongos tend to have a thuddy, deep tone, not unlike sets made out of porous wood.
A more recent incarnation of the bongo has come to us in the form of metal bongos. With a less traditional sound, metal bongos are often played with sticks, rather than hands, to take advantage of the unique percussive properties. Metal bongos are extremely durable, but they don't sound like traditional bongos. Their timbre is much closer to a timbales than anything else. Some artists use them for this reason, and some eschew them for the same reason.
The most recent type of bongos to emerge are a variety constructed out of fiberglass. Fiberglass is quickly becoming the most popular material for hand percussion, and with good reason. Fiberglass bongos offer several advantages, including durability, resistance to the elements, a base material that cannot warp like its wood counterpart and tonal qualities similar to wood bongos. Fiberglass bongos are also affordable, with prices comparable to cheaper wood models.
- "Mel Bay Presents The Bongo Book"; Trevor Salloum; 1997
B.R. Strah is a professional writer that joined the field in 2009. His work has appeared in "Kaleidoscope." He got a degree in English from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2009 and is currently enrolled in post-degree editing school.