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Interesting question! Why is it the bongo antelope and the bongo drums share the same name? It seems logical to think that it’s because of the skin of the bongo drum.
Are bongo drums made from bongo skins? Bongo drums with animal skin drumheads are most typically made with goat or cow skins. Although they share the same name, bongo drums are not typically or even traditionally made from the skin of a bongo antelope.
That leaves some questions, though--what’s with these conflicting names?
Bongo Drums and Bongo Antelope
From what little is available to research, bongo drums have their distant origins somewhere in the African continent, and hit mainstream in the way we see them today in Cuba. The bongo antelope’s native lands is over several countries in Africa. (bongo drum Wikipedia) (antelope Bongo Wikipedia)
Origins of the Bongo Drum
To be frank, nobody knows where the bongo drum exactly started, but as near as anyone can guess, the drum has its roots in West Africa due to other similar drum designs that we know came from there.
We do know that the bongo drum came into more popular knowledge in Cuba, which is why we think the instrument was invented there in the way we know it now.
What About the Past?
Because the origin of bongo drums and the current stomping grounds of bongo antelopes are in the same part of the world, it’s possible that at some point, the skins of bongo antelopes have been used in the past for ancient drumheads for drums that don’t resemble the bongo drums we use today.
Since then, the skins used for bongo drums are sourced from many different types of animals.
Which Animal Skins are Used to Make Bongo Drums?
Today, however, cow and goat skins are the animal skin of choice for making drumheads.
Besides goat and cow skins, many animals are also commonly used, and in reality the skin of any animal can be used as a drumhead. FurAndHide.com, for example, makes drum skins out of goat, deer, elk, buffalo, horse, moose, cow, and even bear. (furandhide.com drumhead page).
Why Are Bongo Drums Called Bongo Drums?
So, if bongo drums are not made with bongo antelope skins, why are bongo drums called bongo drums?
Unfortunately, from my research, there isn’t a solid source with a clear answer. At some point around in the 1900s, the Bongo drums came to be, but we don’t know exactly who invented them or where the name come from. Some rumors state that an artist named Bonko led to the coining of the name “Bongo”.
Another possibility is the relation to the instrument “boungu”, played by the Lokele tribe. (source) The boungu is essentially a talking drum, which operated more like a gong rather than a typical bongo drum. The drums have different parts with different thicknesses allowing for multiple tones when struck, allowing for communication similar to Morse code systems. To learn more about the boungu percussion instruments, check out Phil Tulga’s website here.
These are just guesses though as to why bongo drums are called bongo drums. The true answer to the question is unclear.
In any case, it’s not likely that the bongo drum and the bongo antelope share anything except a first name.
What Material are Drums Made Of?
Bongo drums are typically made from wood because of wood’s rich and deeper resonance.
Doing a search on MusiciansFriend.com for bongo drums, I opened up 16 or so tabs with search results and I found the following materials used to make bongo drums:
- ABS – A thick and durable plastic – 3
- Oak – 2
- Siam oak – 2
- Unspecified (wood) – 2
- Asian Hardwood – 2
- Rubber wood
- Specialty (Burnt New Zealand Pine)
The hardware is often made with steel or aluminum.
The cheaper bongo drums tended to be made from ABS with aluminum hardware.
Many bongo drums come with rawhide drumheads, while some others come with synthetic.
Which Type of Animal Skin is Best for Bongo Drums?
Most of the time people don’t think about it and assume that whatever rawhide came with the bongo drum is all they need to worry about
Every animal has a different thickness and texture of skin which will give a different texture and timbre for the drum, as well as affect how easy they are to play. Thicker drumheads can be made more taut and will be harder to play than thinner drumheads.
From my research, it appears goat skin is a preferred skin as they are generally thinner than cow skin. Additionally, many drummers state that it’s easier to get a brighter tone from a goat skin than a cow skin.
Cow skins are reported to be more difficult to play and are harder on your hands.
However, others say that cow skins provide a richer tone. Ultimately, the player is what will make the bongo drums sound good, and whatever works best in your preference is the best choice.
In fact, you don’t have to use the same animal skin for each drum. If you want a brighter sound for the macho (the smaller drum), and a richer sound for the hembra, you can use a cow skin for the hembra and a goat skin for the macho. This can diversify your sound making your playing sound more complex and interesting.
Where to Get Bongo Drumheads
You have two general categories of animal skin drumheads that you can find:
- Tucked: Meaning the the drumhead has already been stretched and folded through a hoop so you only need to put the rim of the drumhead on top of the drum and fasten it
- Flat Rawhide Rounds: This is basically a circle of animal skin that you have to tuck between the ring and the rim of the drum without wrinkling the skin.
As you can imagine, pre-tucked drumheads are much easier to attach.
There’s multiple sources, I’ll list a few from my research:
- Amazon.com has a good selection for drumheads and they sell synthetic and animals skin drumheads. I was only able to find goatskin rawhide rounds at Amazon.
- Musiciansfriend.com – Musiciansfriend.com is a well-known reseller for musical instruments, and they sell a few pre-tucked synthetic drumheads for bongo drums at the time of this writing.
- furandhide.com is an good source for animal skins for drums. They sell a variety of non-tucked drumhead skins for a variety of animals, including goat, cow, horse, deer, elk, buffalo, moose, and even bear. You will have to tuck these yourself
How to Attach an Animal Skin Drumhead (Rawhide Round) to a Bongo Drum
I haven’t done this yet, so all my experience is from watching others do it
- Soak the rawhide round in room temperature water so the head is easier to work with
- Find the shiny side of the animal skin round and make sure it is facing out.
- Put the drumhead over the lip of the drum, as centered as you can make it.
- Put the drum hoop/ring over the drumhead so the hoop is resting on the lip.
- Position the rim that will be over the drumhead over the rim… Here comes the tricky part:
- The round should be extending off the sides of the drum, fold the drumhead between the rim of the drum, and the hoop, towards the center of the drum. You should have a decent amount of excess of skin poking out from in between the hoop and the rim.
- Pull as much slack as you can. Attach the rim to the bottom of the bongo drums as they were before you took the rim off, but do not tighten with a tool.
- Use your hands to tighten the lug nuts slightly, and then pulling the slack away from the center of the drum into the folds tucked in between the center hoop and the rim.
- Once you are getting decent tension from the tuning lug nuts, you can then start to use pliers to pull the skin in between the hoop and the rim. Make sure to pull out all the wrinkles
- Tighten with a wrench, there should be absolutely no wrinkles in the center of the drum and no folds in the excess skin
- Cut off the the excess skin
This video honestly will be easier to visualize, but it helps I think to have a visual reference. You can check it out here: