Thursday, July 21, 2016

"B" is for Bongo

How long has it been since you saw someone playing a set of bongo drums?

Just asking rhetorically, because many of us have never seen the sight of someone beating the hell out of a pair of little drums from Cuba (by way of Africa) held between the knees.

Drum historians, of which there are not too many, trace the bongos back to late 19th-century Cuba, where the influence of African music was added to the local flavors by recent immigrants from Central Africa.  The little drums became a part of various Cuban musical forms such as nengón, changüí, and son

By the 20th century, Havana became a tourist destination and Americans who had visited the Cuban capital brought the music home with them.  Sometimes, travelers even brought souvenir bongos home with them, handing them to the kids when they got home ("Lookit! I broughtja somethin'!") just before the kids went up to their room and mastered the hand drum technique in a matter of days, if not weeks.  

James Dean, man.
And it became the instrument of choice for guys like James Dean and Marlon Brando to bring to parties in the 1950s to sit around and brood over. Like the bagpipes, it takes no musical training to play them as amateurs.

Marlon Brando, man.
I suppose the heyday of the bongos came in the 1950s, when it became illegal to have a beatnik hootenanny (a gathering of Bohemians where coffee flowed and authentic folk songs about horses named Stewball were sung by bearded young men, and when they were finished, everyone snapped their fingers instead of applauding) without someone whaling away on a set.  There was a hit record called "Bongo Rock" by Preston Epps, but his efforts at a followup hit floundered, with tunes such as "Bongo in the Congo", "Bongo Rocket", "Bootlace Bongo", "Bongo Boogie", "Flamenco Bongo", "Mr. Bongo", and "Bongo Shuffle" all being soundly rejected by an increasingly discerning audience.

A group called The Incredible Bongo Band did a new version of "Bongo Rock" in 1973, and I facetiously mentioned the other day to a good friend that it was the recessional music at our wedding that winter.  No, it was not, but one main reason why Peggy still puts up with me, almost 43 years later, is that I never owned or played a pair of bongos in our home.

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