The expressiveness of hand-drums comes from the ability to get a wide variety of sounds according to the manner in which the hands strike the head. The following is no substitute for being shown how to get the various sounds from someone who knows how, but may give the beginner a hint on to how to proceed.
Every person is different and the true test of any drum "note" is the sound you get out of the drum. If the note sounds great, you are doing it "right" no matter what anyone says. If you hear some other player getting a great tone that you don't, perhaps you'd better ask how he/she is doing it! The ability to call up the various drum sounds (notes) at will in a pattern is called "tone separation".
The bass note is the lowest pitched sound you can get from any given drum. The basic move is simulated by having the hand and arm held out and then allowing the hand to fall onto the drumhead. It is the palm of the hand that produces the most bass so that is most important.
Some people teach that the whole hand should fall onto the head but a Cuban player told me that he prefers to slightly flex the hand backwards ("as if controlling a, how you say, marionette"). In that technique only the palm tends to produce the bass note with the fingers perhaps touching but not actually hitting the drumhead. In any case, a conga head is quite strong and thick so that the bass note continues to vibrate even when the hand stays on the head after the strike.
This is unlike a thin-headed djembe, for example, where the hand must be immediately lifted or the note is damped out. Since the hand in conga playing is not immediately lifted except in the case of open tones, it is commonly said that one plays "into" a conga drum head. It is most important for the player to understand that the shell of the conga drum forms a low frequency resonant chamber.
In physics this particular device is known as a Helmholtz resonator. [Although the principle was actually discovered and applied in the construction of djembe drums in the Mali Empire of Africa long before Herr Doktor Helmholtz came on the scene] Because of this structure, the hole in the bottom of the conga drum, which is an essential part of the resonator, must not be obstructed or the drum will not produce a full rich bass tone.
Conga players often recognize three separate bass tones.
It might be mentioned that lifting modern conga drums with your legs can be something of a trick. The problem is that Americans love to make instruments all glossy and shiny! If you examine older authentic Cuban congas you will observe that not only are they a somewhat smaller diameter, but also are crappy looking and rough on the outside side as well.
However, these features do make them much easier to lift with the legs than say heavy, glossy, fiberglass modern congas. Wearing shorts so the bare legs can grab the drum can help in drum lifting.
The open tone is the characteristic song of the conga. It is the open notes of the conga that most tend to "cut through the mix" and add the conga flavor to the music
An open tone is produced by keeping the fingers close together and bringing the hand down such that the crease where the fingers join the hand comes down on the bearing edge (bend) of the drumhead.
The fat pads on the bottoms of the first and second phalanges (segments) of the fingers strike the head just inside the rim producing a loud clear melodic tone from the drum. Since this is the note that "cuts through" it needs to be practiced until is it loud and strong. In this note, however, the hand must be quickly removed from the head to let the note "sing" otherwise the note becomes a "muff" which is different.
To get the hand position, it helps to think of making a military salute and then bringing your "salute" down and strike the drumhead as described.
Usually a conga is tuned according to the open tone. When playing two drums (conga and a tumba) a typical tuning would be an interval of a 4th (as in "here comes the bride"). And the conga is often tuned to a "C" and the tumba to a "G". However this tuning may vary to fit the keys typical for the music being played.
Some dual conga players prefer an interval of a 3rd rather than a 4th. Be sure to tilt the conga off the floor when tuning the open note or the note may be found to be tuned sharp when you play later with the drum tilted. While the open tone does change slightly as the bottom opening is obstructed or the drum is lifted, it does not change radically in pitch like the bass tone. This is why the open tone is used for tuning.
When playing tumbao "melodically" or perhaps just as a show-off solo trick, the pitch of the open tone can be "bent". This is done by playing the open note with one hand and using the elbow of the other arm to raise the pitch of the note by pressing on the drum head.
You press with the hard bone at the end of the elbow to keep from damping out the open tone and you place your elbow just inside the rim of the drumhead. You do not place it in the center of the drumhead as is done when pitch bending certain other types of drums. A "bent" tone is not a commonly used tone in patterns.
A "muff" describes a drum note where the hand is pressed into the head after the initial note to damp it out quickly. In conga playing this is typically an open tone in which continued finger pressure damps it out quickly. The key is to regulate the damping of the note to just the right amount. You should always hear the pitch of the open tone but it should damp out quickly. If there is no pitch to the note you have damped it too much. If it rings nearly as long as a normal open tone, you haven't damped it enough. While muff notes are common, they are much less common that the standard bass, open and slap notes.
"Closed" Conga Slap Note:
The usual conga slap note is done with the fingers slightly curved and the idea is that the palm comes into the rim of the drum and the fingertips "slap" down against the head. There is a slight "grabbing" action to this as well as a certain wrist motion. In conga slaps (unlike djembe slaps where the fingers bounce back off the head) the fingers stay "stopped" against the drum head in a style analogous to the bass note. Except with the slap only the fingertips remain touching the head. It takes some practice to get nice slaps easily. One teacher has described the wrist action as "slapping your little sister's arm when she gets into your toys" The sound should be a single bright "crack" with no ring. and
Open or djembe-style slaps are not common on congas though certain players can be seen using a slap that is slightly more open than that above. Usually they keep the hand quite low to the drum.
Open slaps on a conga tend to create a lot of the characteristic open tone pitch in the sound. For this reason open slaps on a conga are usually played muted to kill the open tone ring. In playing this note the one hand is simply laid on the drumhead and an open or closed slap is played as usual with the other hand. The hand damps the open slap into a more traditional conga slap sound.
Beginners often find it easier to get a nice sound with a muted slap first. The advantage of using open slaps with a mute is that executing fast double stroke open slaps is much easier than doing closed slaps, while the mute still insures a traditional conga slap sound. Obviously the "heel-toe" hand can easily play the muting role.
A "touch" is simply where the fingertips are brought down against the head to make a sound. Unlike a slap where the tips are slammed against the head to make a sharp sound, here the fingertips are pressed flatter, with the pressure going further back from the tips. Usually the fingers are together as in an open tone. A "touch" should never produce any open-like tone. If you hear an open tone pitch the note you are playing is a "muff" rather than a "touch". A "touch" is also the "toe" half of the Heel-Toe technique. Whether or not the "heel" of the hand is on the drumhead when a finger "touch" is done will also modify the sound of a "toe" stroke.
When a louder "touch" note is desired it is sometimes played by bunching the thumb and four fingers together and then bringing them straight down tips first into the head. Cuban players often do a "touch" with the whole hand quite flat so that it appears to the observer as a bass note, but the palm does not strike the drum, or does so lightly, so the note is actually a "touch" sound rather than a bass note.
At other times these players will play a "heel" (see below) where even though the hand appears flat the base of the palm strikes first giving a bass-like tone. One has to listen to determine which note is being played as both moves can appear quite identical to the eye. The location of the "touch" on the drumhead will help determine the exact sound of the given note.
"Heel-toe" is a Cuban playing technique essential to the rhythmic patterns known collectively as "tumbao". In Spanish the technique is often called "mano secreta" which means "Secret of the hands" in English. The basic idea is to use a single hand to produce rapid successive notes. The technique produces rapid patterns that in a sense can simulate the rapid beats of the snare drum of the drumset player.
The "heel-toe" name refers to the similarity to tapping one's foot by first stomping the heel into the floor and then tapping the toe which raises the heel. For playing tumbao, Heel-Toe is typically played with the player's weak hand, but nevertheless needs to be practiced with both hands. There are two ways to practice.
Practice both ways with a metronome starting at a slow tempo and then gradually raising it. Also practice starting with the weak hand.
Rim Shots and Harmonics:
Other notes commonly used for solos are "rim shots and head "harmonics". For a "harmonic" a finger of one hand is lightly pressed on the head at it's center while the tips of the fingers of the other hand come down on the rim of the drum in a manner typical of a bongo-playing "rim shot". The finger damps the normal pitches of the head while the rim shot excites higher-order harmonics in the drumhead which are not damped by the finger, giving a pitch considerably higher than the normal open tone.
Doing the same thing again, but lifting the center finger gives a similar note but this time with more of the same pitch as normal open tones present. This note without the center damping finger is called a "rim shot" and is performed by striking the drum rim with just the tip of the first or second finger. Think of this as a kind of "miniature" open tone, but here just one finger is used and only the first phalange (segment of the finger) extends onto the head and the first finger joint hits at the bend in the head. The stroke is such that the finger slides off the head as it finishes and is like a "glancing" blow even when done straight at the head.
Harmonic notes and conga rim shots tend to be rather thin sounding. For this reason they are not notes used in bread and butter rhythms.
This sound from a conga drum, while not especially significant musically, is often seen in "flash and trash" solos. And by "flash and trash" I mean drum solos designed to bring the audience enthusiastically to their feet by show and chops rather than musical content. ["chops" is a musician term originally applied to horn players meaning the possession of playing ability in terms of speed, command of techniques and skill. Usually ultra-fast playing is implied.] "Flash and trash" solos are often characterized by such showmanship as exaggerated arm motions such as raising the hands so high as to be over the player's head after each stroke.
...is typically done by wetting the first finger and then placing the thumb and first finger together and running the fleshy pad of the finger diagonally across the drum head in such a manner that a tone is produced. It is similar to the manner in which a violin string produces a tone when rubbed with a bow. It takes some practice, but the sound is always a big hit with the crowd.
"Ghost" notes are very light taps which are not really to be heard but often "played" by the conguero to keep the rhythm of his/her hands going. Typically tumbao does not have ghost notes because of its nature of every beat being played. However, an exception to this rule does happen when the double open note at the end of the tumbao phrase is played as a single note such that the usual second open tone is reduced to a ghost note. The term for ghost notes in Spanish is Notas "fantasmas". "Ghost" notes played on the metal rim of the conga for "rests" can be a big help when learning a new rhythm. This insures that the drummer "plays the spaces" so that the rhythm does not become rushed.
"Cascara" (KAHS-kah-rah) is Spanish for "shell" and in Latin music refers to a rhythm played on the shell of the timbales (Spanish teem-BAH-less). Such rhythms are also commonly played on the conga shell. Usually a timbale stick or a portion of one is used and the conga is struck either on the side of the shell or on the tuning bolts. The two sounds are slightly different but some players prefer not to hit an expensive drum shell. A common cascara rhythm is given below. The Xs refer to shell strokes. Here italic letters indicate accented beats.
The author strongly suggests that the player investigate the fiber-composite timbale sticks manufactured by Mainline. They produce an unsurpassed cascara sound on conga shells.