For many centuries, the people of South America have expressed their rich cultural heritage through music, mainly through diverse and vibrant drum and percussion traditions.
From the congas of Cuba to the Cajón of Peru, the continent boasts an incredible array of percussion instruments, many of which have played a crucial role in the evolution of South American music and dance.
Beyond South America, these instruments and styles, with their soulful and energetic expressiveness, have captivated and influenced musicians worldwide. Today, we want to take a closer look into the fascinating history of South American drums and percussion, dissecting its cultural significance for the people of South America and beyond.
Ancient Origins of South American Percussion
With a blend of inhabitants from Africa, Asia, and the Americas, the South American region produced an incredible range of percussion instruments and ethnic rhythms.
Experts trace the origins of these percussion instruments back to ancient times when indigenous communities from across the continent used percussive instruments as a way to entertain, communicate, or worship.
Archeological evidence from the northern Andes region of Colombia suggests the use of drums dates back to as early as 400 B.C. The Inca Empire, the dominating force of South America throughout the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, used percussion instruments as tools for religious ceremonies and celebrations.
Of course, these percussion instruments were not developed in isolation. The transatlantic slave trade near the start of the 16th century brought African percussion instruments and rhythms to South America, which became very evident in Brazilian music.
For example, the conga, a drum often heard in Afro-Cuban music, was said to have originated from the Central African Bantu-speaking people.
Popular South American Percussion Instruments
Some popular Latin American drums include the conga, bongo, timbales, and cajón, each with their own unique characteristics and history.
Congas are one of the most popular South American percussion instruments. They originated in Cuba and can be heard in several Latin American genres, from Afro-Cuban jazz to rumba to salsa.
These tall, narrow drums were traditionally made using wooden shells and animal skin heads, though many modern manufacturers have switched to synthetic skins.
Similar to congas, bongos also originated in Cuba. Known for their relatively high-pitched tones and warm, woody characteristics, they accentuate certain melodies or rhythms, providing unique textures.
The Cajón originated in Peru and is now widely used in Latin American music. This box-shaped drum, typically made of wood, is designed with a ported hole in the back for air to escape.
A Cajón player will sit on the box and strike the front panel with their hands to create a series of rhythms and tones, from snappy, snare-like sounds to deep, resonant bass tones.
Timbales originated in Cuba in the 19th century and are some of Latin American music’s most instantly recognizable percussion instruments, thanks to their distinct metallic sound.
These drums, which come in sets of two with one drum larger than the other, use single heads with metal shells that range from around 10 to 18 inches.
The player can produce unique tones with mallets or sticks depending on where they hit the drum. You’ll often hear timbales in larger percussion ensembles with frequent use in dance music, such as salsa.
The origin of maracas is challenging to discern, though some experts believe they originated from the Taino people of the Caribbean. Some of the earliest versions of maracas were crafted from hollowed-out gourds filled with small stones or seeds.
After the Spanish and Portuguese colonized the Americas, maracas were redefined and introduced to the rest of the world.
Players will hold maracas in each hand and shake them to create unique rhythms and sounds.
Güira (Dominican Republic)
While experts believe the güira originated among the Taino people of the Caribbean, the modern version of the instrument gained popularity in the Dominican Republic and is now a significant element of Caribbean music.
Modern güiras are metal with raised bumps or ridges along the surface. The player will rub the metal ridges using a metal scraper called a “pua” to create unique rhythms.
South American Regional Rhythmic Styles
The musical heritage of South America is vast and diverse. With influences from across the globe, each region of South America has its own distinct rhythms and musical traditions. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular styles.
Samba, a lively form of rhythm and dance that originated in Brazil, particularly in the country’s northeastern regions, such as Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, has its roots in African rhythms. However, since the 16th-century colonial era, Samba has evolved into a multifaceted art form closely associated with Brazilian culture.
In terms of its rhythmic style, Samba features a syncopated rhythm with a steady bass drum pulse and a complex interplay of the snare drum, the surdo, and several other percussive elements, including the cuica, the agogo, and the tamborim.
Most percussionists will describe Samba as having a “long-short” or “2-3” feel, creating forward momentum with a “dragged” second beat.
Tango originated in Rio de la Plata during the late 19th century, becoming popular in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. The rhythmic dance style initially found popularity among the slums of these two cities before becoming a symbol of international identity for Argentina.
The tango rhythm strongly emphasizes the second beat of each measure with slight accents on the fourth. Percussionists often describe this moderate-tempo rhythm as having a “slow-slow-quick-quick-slow” feel.
Bomba (Puerto Rico)
Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican style of music that blends African, Caribbean, and Spanish music and is also the name of a wooden cask drum that’s very popular in Puerto Rico. Three bombas are typically used in a setup, each tuned to a different pitch and played with sticks or hands.
Afro-Peruvian rhythms have deep roots in the traditional rhythms of West Africa, stemming from the colonial period when Africans were brought to Peru. Syncopated beats and complex rhythms characterize the rhythms, and you’ll often find traditional instruments, such as cajón, cajita, and quijada (jawbone), involved in the rhythm-making process.
A few of the most popular Afro-Peruvian rhythms include zamacueca, festejo, and lando.
Famous South American Percussionists
Many famous South American percussionists have made significant contributions to music, including:
- Alex Acuna – Alex Acuna is a percussionist from Peru known for his incredible versatility and ability to play various percussion instruments. He has played with many famous musicians over his lifetime, including Whitney Houston and Elvis Presley.
- Luis Conte – Luis Conte is a percussionist of Cuban descent and, like Alex Acuna, is known for his ability to play a wide range of instruments, such as bongos, congas, and timbales. He has also played with several iconic artists, including Shakira, Phil Collins, and Madonna.
- Marco Antonio da Costa – Marco Antonio da Costa is a percussionist of Brazilian descent who has played with some of the most prominent names in Brazilian music, including Caetano Veloso and Milton Nascimento. He is known for his blend of traditional rhythms and modern musical styles.
The Importance of Preserving a Rich Cultural Heritage
The history of South American drums and percussion spans thousands of years and encompasses a wide range of instruments, traditions, and musical styles. Consequently, it’s impossible to condense it down to a singular article, especially when you consider the fact that these styles of music played a dominant role in shaping music throughout the rest of the world.
When we know more about the history of the music we play, we gain a deeper appreciation for the richness and diversity of the cultures that created it, ensuring it lives on for many generations.