Percussion is a very important part of Latin American music. Many of the instruments used originated in Africa and became popular in music from the Caribbean.
There are many major instruments used in Latin American music. These include drums as well as instruments created out of what many people consider to be junk.
The bongos are the highest pitched drums in Latin American music. They consist of two small wooden shelled single headed drums. The heads are about seven and eight inches in diameter and made of calf, mule, or goatskins. Plastic and synthetic heads are also available but not necessarily recommended. Heads made of skin should be loosened to prolong the life of the head. The basic bongo pattern is called a martillo and consists of eight distinct strokes. .
Congas today are made of both wood and fiberglass shells. However, they are directly of African descent and were originally made of hollowed out tree trunks and primitive barrel drums. Conga heads are usually made of calf or mule hide, or are synthetic. Like with bongos, skin-heads should be loosened so the drum lasts longer. Congas can be played either singly or in combinations of two or more drum. Head sizes range from about 10-11 inches for the quinto, 11-12 inches for the conga, and 12-13 inches for the tumbadora. The three basic conga sounds in Latin American music are the open tone or "gung", closed, muffled or flesh tone, and the slap or "pop".
Originally made from hollowed out wooden bowls, timbales are also direct descendants of African instruments. They were brought to the Caribbean from the slave trade. Today timbales consist of two metal shell drums 13-15 inches in diameter with goatskin or plastic heads. Many times timbales will also have a mounted cowbell or woodblock. They are played with straight wooden dowels, brushes, or with the hands. The role of the timbales is to help establish basic rhythm and solo improvisation.