Congolese slaps on a conga are very different from slaps on a djembe. To begin with, a conga drum does not have the give a djembe has. Djembes that are not made out of synthetic materials are made out of wood and goat skin, and tough as that goat skin is, there is a slight trampoline effect. The conga, synthetic or otherwise, does not budge. When I first started learning congolese, I felt like I was trying to play on rock.
With Djembe, there is base, tone and slap. With Congolese conga, there is base, tone, slap and muff. And I can tell you straight up that for almost 2 years I labored like Hercules to have any difference whatsoever soundwise between the lot of them. To make matters even more difficult, I had no stamina drumming wise with Congolese. My left hand was spastic, weaker than my right, and uncoordinated as in not doing the bidding of my brain at the same speed or quality of my right. Basically when I started learning congolese, my right hand was DUMB and my left hand was DUMBER.
Fortunately, I recognized this stage as an a starting point I’d been through before, where you simply have to assume drumming progress can be made no matter how appearances shout out the opposite. But there is no getting around it, I had to grind for about a year in congolese class before I could do much well, and it was no picnic. But I did something else that has now paid off: I started teaching myself to switch lead hands and work my left at this time.
Congolese slaps are done off the rim and more in the middle of the drum head. The hand motion required looks like a sort of stuffing motion with the fingers slightly splayed. For quite some time I was trying to do them by mimicking my teacher’s hand motions without getting the right sound at all with either hand. And I hated them for not existing, but I persevered in working on them, even as I began leading with my left to play rhythms I had with my right.
After what seemed an eternity, I had a right slap and was able to lead with my left, but I had no left slap at all. Just a faint muddy vague something aruther in the rhythm phrase. I soldiered on, focusing on growing one and finally it happened. I could hear that particular “thwack” sound that is an actual congolese slap. I began to hear it more and more while drumming for dancers and doing a rhythm phrase that ends with a slap like a tolling bell.
Then there came the sweetest and most unexpected reward for all that work of all: My master teacher Sandor actually stopped while he was leading the dancing, turned around, looked at me and smiled. He could hear it also. He said nothing, but he knew and he let me know he knew. That moment was one of the best experiences I have had drumming ever.
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