Down the Docks

May 7, 2006

Latin Percussion

Filed under: Music, Salsa — ealing @ 10:59 am

I went to my first Latin Percussion class at City Lit yesterday afternoon, and turned my hands bright red.

The course started last Saturday, but I missed that as I was at the Heathrow congress instead. This week we were playing on congas, and learned a couple of basic rhythms.

I had a quinto, which I believe is the smallest and highest-pitched of the common conga drums. We were shown how to make the four basic tones, which is where the problems started. Three of the tones (open, muffled, and bass) are easy enough to produce, but the slap is tough. A good slap tone is produced by striking the drum head hard, close to the centre. You hit the head with your fingertips, rather than your fingers and part of the palm of your hand. The idea, I think, is to get the head of the drum vibrating at a frequency higher than its natural frequency. The sound you should get is a sharp, high, crack. This is what all you on2 dancers are dancing to.

It's difficult to hear your drum over that of ten other people when you're all in the same room. I thought I had the beginnings of a good slap tone, when the teacher played a couple that cut straight through what every one else was playing.

We tried cascara as well, and the teacher used a block mounted on a pedal to tap out clave while we did it. He counts out clave in bars of four, rather than eight, which I found confusing, but I'm sure I'll get it. Apparently we'll also be singing later on in the course. I expect that listening to my voice will be a tough test of people's dedication to learning.



  1. I would *love* to try that out one day. I studied the drums at school, but could not progress as my parents would not buy me a drum kit (understandably).

    Comment by Iain — May 7, 2006 @ 5:13 pm

  2. Cool! Cascara on what instrument? Timbales?

    So far I’ve learned the following about the timbales:

    1) I can more or less play them quietly
    2) “Quietly” still means too loud for in the house
    3) You have to lamp the crap out of them to get the authentic sounds
    4) Point (3) tends to rule out the whole “quietly” thing.

    Comment by sweavo — May 10, 2006 @ 1:39 pm

  3. No, we were doing cascara on the sides of the congas. A bit of a swizz, I thought, because cascara is probably my favourite rhythm when played properly.
    Plus, doing it with your hands instead of sticks takes away the tick-tick-tick sound of it.

    Comment by ealing — May 10, 2006 @ 1:44 pm

  4. I think the cascara pattern has origins in being played with sticks on the side of the “proto-conga” while your buddy played the skin. There’s something about this in Poncho Sanchez’ Conga Cookbook IIRC.

    The cascara is also often called the “paila” which gets translated as sticks… but if you google for it, I have a feeling it means pail or pot. I love the idea of doing all those latin rhythms on cookware…

    Comment by sweavo — May 10, 2006 @ 4:44 pm

  5. I thought “palitos” were sticks, or at least were one thing you could hit a drum with.

    Oddly enough, there was a guy at Bar Salsa on Monday who had brought along some claves. He was was playing them all wrong, though – he was holding them both tightly, so they couldn’t ring properly. I was doing some shines in front of him at one point, and was sorely tempted to grab them off him and show him how to do it right.

    Comment by ealing — May 10, 2006 @ 5:35 pm

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