It is amazing how few reviews there are on conga drums out there new or used. And many people think that the best drums made are from the major manufacturers such as L.P., Mienl, Toca and such. So today we will show you some solid alternatives that I am sure you will find eye opening and at the very least beautiful and interesting as well.
The large manufacturers do make some good products in their mid to higher end conga drums.
Please do not get insulted or take me wrong if you own these instruments. I love my 2 sets of L.P’s! If your budget, (like most of us) is limited then they serve a great purpose.
However, in my humble opinion and as an owner, they are not the best. Contrary to popular belief the L.P. Giovanni Galaxy conga drum is not the best drum on the market. I had 4 for several years. Many develop splits and cracks very quickly.
They are very nice, I love them but simply put, all the drums listed below for my taste are MUCH better. There is no getting around the facts. There is a place for every drum, from the most inexpensive to the best. And I understand that most people out there can not afford many of the drums I am going to mention. I am not trying to discredit any drum manufacturers, just share information and my opinions as well.
I am posting various photos of some of the best drums of yesteryears that are superb, but they are not in production and often hard to find and extremely expensive.
So the question remains, “what are the best congas out there on the market today”? And I aim to answer that question right now.
To me, the best drums out there are made by small independent drum makers. And that is a fact. And here is why. Firstly, the quality control can not be the same from a large overseas company as a local drum maker. There is inconsistency in sound and quality from the large manufacturers.
If you have a problem you can bring it back to the store you bought it, but then what? With a small drum maker if there is an issue you can talk to someone on the phone. The actual person who made your drums. You are also involved in the process of your drum being made. There is a connection between the drum maker, the drum and the drum buyer/owner. It becomes a personal affair.
Something that can not happen in a mass produced product no matter whose name is stamped on the drum and made in an assembly line (or however they make them) in Thailand.
I live in Thailand part time and work and play there by the way. I am not criticising Thai workers or craftsmanship and they make a fine product. But the drums from the makers below are way better!
They are made in small numbers over time and all the makers below really put an amazing amount of love and energy into their drums. They are hand crafted individually. In the small independent companies, almost all of the people making the drums are musicians themselves or closely connected with musicians who play their actual drums. Peter Musser of PM plays congas, Ryan Manito Wendel teaches and performs regularly, Mario from Isla is a rumbero and on and on.
They can therefore monitor and even redesign products easily if necessary based on feedback from others and their own personal experience playing the drums. In a large company owned by an even larger company it is hard for feedback to get through all the channels and therefore hard to make improvements in products. You can call Peter Musser, (of PM Percussion), talk to him on the phone and go and meet him and hang out. You are now part of the process
And quoting percussionist John Hannaford, (from my Facebook group, ‘Congas and Percussion’), “the smaller producers are universally utilizing a more time and work intensive process that the end result produces a higher quality resonance in sound reproduction… which also justifies (along with smaller production numbers) a higher price point.
All the models here have either a solid single stave structure, or a solid shell. The methods and process are more difficult, and time consuming, to create than the bigger companies laminated staves (three layers for each stave). Solid or single solid staves have a greater inherent quality of resonance, that is just factual.
Also each of the drum producers mentioned make careful very selective choices in the woods they are utilizing, again for greater resonance than the overseas wood products used in laminated staves. Lastly the figure, or shape, of the drum for all of these producers is from a paramount decision of design for the creators opinion to make the best sound. So sound, as it should be, is the primary force in the woods and processes utilized by the smaller drum makers”. And I have to say, I fully agree.
Almost all of the drum manufacturers making drums in Thailand use (mostly) water buffalo skins with a few special models receiving in my opinion a poor quality cow skin. I am not a big fan of the Buffalo skins. There is a subtle rough bumpy feel compared to the smooth feel of most high end cow skins.
The water buffalo give a bright sound which is O.K. for bands, but not ideal (in my opinion) for folkloric situations. Having said that, they do work great for playing in bands when there is no microphone as does fiber or plastic heads to an even greater degree.
They also seem to hold up in humid climates like Thailand much better then other skins. Water buffalo are profuse in Thailand and therefore cheaper to use then cow as well. Whenever I have had to use Buffalo skin I sand them down smooth. Point in fact, with a change to a medium thick Manito Percussion mule or steer skin you can vastly improve the sound of any of the Thai made drums.
When you order drums from a smaller drum maker you can almost always order your drums with a choice of drum skin thickness which is a very important factor in the sound of your drums.
Please remember to research and be sure about the type and thickness of skin you use and choose. It will make all of the difference in the world so to speak. Skins are not cheap to replace so this is why you want to be sure what type and thickness you are getting.
When you order a drum from an on line distributor you are just getting a boxed drum, whatever someone in the warehouse happens to pick out. If you go to a store at least you can try out the drum skin first.
When you buy a Thailand made conga drum very little time or energy went into mounting the skin as everything is about how fast can you do it when it comes to large commercially manufactured conga drums from Thailand. I have been to the factories. It’s about “product” not art and music.
Personally, I have very specific thickness sizes (for skins) I like on my drums and if you have a set of drums and have to change the skins it is quite expensive with a minimum of $50 a head if you do it yourself. Pre mounted heads ar much more expensive as someone had to go to the trouble of mounting the skin on a drum, letting it dry then un mounting the skin.
The prices can go especially for exotic skin like camel or mule skin. Because the price of skins is high many people don’t change the skin on there drums for several years. I myself have drums that have not had skins changed for 20 years or more. But the correct skin can make all the difference in the world of sound.
So what are the best drums and who makes them? I have compiled a short list of what I feel in my experience over the last 35 years are the best drums made today by independent conga drum makers. Please note that the Gon Bops California model congas were made by Akbar by hand in California at the time I first wrote this review. He no longer works with Gon Bops. These drums can still be found new.
I am starting with drums currently available new as some of my favorite drums such as the legendary and incredible drums I own such as the drums made by the maestro Junior Tirado, (he passed away), the very solid workhorse Timba congas (out of business) and JCR’s (not sure what happened to them) are not available unless you can find some in the used marketplace.
Timba Percussion actually still has some for sale despite officially being out of business. You can contact them directly (google search) but they are quite expensive.
There are many other companies as well that are long gone such as Ismael Timbas from Puerto Rico, the classic and amazing Vergara from Cuba, Sonoc’s from Cuba and a host of others. Many collectors still have them, though this is a different topic for a later date.
My number 9 pick, Volcano are not currently available but I am told the company is being resurrected and will be available soon. Also, Sol Percussion run by Akbar will also be up and running again soon.
The Sol Percussion congas are great sounding drums and there was a short run of rumba models which had a fatter belly which I really liked a lot. They also looked somewhat like Valjes which I liked.
The drums and order of this list could be moved around depending on what you are using the drum for and personal preferences. They are all great drums for different reasons as you will see.
For example, number one could be number ten and vica versa. This is just my personal preferences. These are not the “best drums for beginners” or the cheapest best buys. They are what I consider to be the finest instruments made.
And before you write me angry letters why I did not include this or that drum, I am not trying to put down any other brands in saying these are better, I am just trying to show the best and explain a little more about them. As I said in the opening paragraphs, the major manufacturers make fine instruments, I just like these better.
Many people have never even seen or heard of these products before. It is always interesting to learn and share about new precasts and instruments as well. I am constantly looking for and finding small artists across the globe that are doing great work.
Another point to keep in mind is some drums might be better for salsa or playing in a band and others might be better for playing rumba or traditional all drumming type music situations. And of course the skins used also have a huge role in the sound as well. The drum is only going to sound as good as you can play it so don’t forget to practice your playing technique as well!
The drums in my top ten congas list all start pretty high on the price chart but surprisingly enough they are not higher (at least list price) then the major manufacturers high end models.
You will have to wait varying degrees of time to get the drums however as most of these companies are very small or one man operations. Wait times can be from one month in the a best case scenario to three years.
If you want a handcrafted one of a kind drum that will last you for life, this is the way to go and to me they are all well worth the wait and the expense! No question about it. So please do remember that you are dealing with one man operations in most cases and be patient. I had to remove one manufacturer here that was previously in my list because of numerous complaints about buyers not receiving their orders. Every time I post something about his company a few people write me and complain!
All of the drum makers here are solo artists in the true sense of the word. Making a conga drum from scratch, by hand is a very involved art form that takes a variety of skills to master. The finished product in my eyes at least is not only a finely crafted musical instrument but an art object as well.
So please keep in mind that some of the drum makers making these conga drums are hard to get in touch with as they are so swamped and so busy (often doing every part of the operation themselves), so you really have to keep trying, calling and writing. They will get back to you eventually but you may have to stick to it and call and write many times. It is just part of the process as many drum makers are a one man show so do not take it personally.
For most of the drums below it is a bit of a process to order and much different then simply walking into the store and buying a drum. Please consider this and it will take some patience to varying degrees to deal with these guys. It is simply just the way it is.
Also, some of the drums require that you help maintain the finish of the drum and are more susceptible to scratching, marring or even wood splitting unless care is taken in handling and storing the drums. You will need top of the line cases for your investment as well.
There are endless complaints in the conga forums about the long waits, especially with Matthew Smith and other beefs (like some problems with Isla quality) so be ready for that if you are serious. Please do your own do diligence, ask around and inform yourself .
I am not going to get into that too much here as this is not what the article is about. The question here
is “what are the best conga drums available”, not which are the easiest to get or buy. And please try to remember these are fine, high quality hand made products each one being an art piece in to and of itself.
There is an amazing amount of time, energy and work that goes into making each drum. The independent drum makers I have met take great pride in their work and often pay attention to details most of us will never even imagine. But it all adds up in the end to one great product.
There is very little recognition in this field, a lot of people/customers wanting something for nothing and many of these wood artists are just getting by. No one is getting rich off of making hand made conga drums one by one. It is a labor of love and an intense one at that. I go to the shops and watch these guys work. And frankly, to me it does not look like too much fun!
#1 (tie). Matthew Smith “Ritmo” If you do not already know about him, Matthew Smith in Pennsylvania is a one man operation for what most people agree is the best sounding and arguably, the best looking traditional style afro cuban drum with metal bands. I want to be careful about saying “best sound” because this is subjective and of course debatable. Having said that, I love these drums and think they are great.
They remind me of Juniors drums and when you put them back to back they look quite similar. Many people say he copied them. And he copied the traditional cuban drum. You have to wait to get one and they are not cheap starting at (allegedly) around $850 and up. There is no way around the waiting period. I know as I have tried several times! Unless you buy used like I did. I now own 3.
There are a variety of woods used and size options. If you have the time to wait and the money these might be for you. However, it took a friend of mine 3 years to get his! They are well worth the wait. If you do not want to wait they are sometimes on ebay.
Sometimes they go for more used then new! I have been following the sales of used Matthew Smith conga drums and a requinto (the smallest conga drum) sold for $1100 dollars the other day.
Also, some people have reported some problems on earlier models with skin rot, hardware and oxidation of metal parts. It could also be where the drums stay or live. So far mine are fine and free of these problems and the skins are great, too! The original owner did change the quinto head however.
Some people say the drums are a copy of the traditional cuban styling of the late great drum maker Junior Tirado. And some people say the Skin On Skin are copies of Jr.’s drums. To me both of these drums actually look much better! Juniors drums are great and considered some of the nicest and most desirable collectors items. I have three out of Honduran Mahogany and interestingly enough one of them has a Matthew smith replacement rim on it. A very interesting and beautiful combination!
Please remember as previously stated, Matthew Smith is very hard to reach on phone and e-mail but if you are serious you just need to keep calling and writing. He will eventually get back to you or answer. He told me he does all of his return calls while driving! He is that busy. By the way also does repairs, modifications and re heading for other drums or at least he has in the past. There has been an unconfirmed rumour that he is not taking any new orders but I do not know this as a fact.
His repair work and restoration work that I have seen is truly amazing. I would say he is the best person to go to if you have the time and money, especially if you need custom metal work done. You just need to have a lot of patience. I love my MS walnut drums and they have great sound and look fantastic as well. I also had a set of Quarter Sawn Oak (seen above) that were quite nice as well. Below I am playing my Matthew Smith Ritmos in walnut and then Manito Percussion Ambrosia Maple solid shell one pice conga drums for a sound comparison.
1. Manito Percussion solid shell conga drums These drums are made by Ryan “Manito” Wendel and are probably some of the most beautiful drums made. The grain of the wood in the Ambrosia Maple solid shell one piece congas is truly a beautiful sight to behold. With stainless steel “modena” (curved rims) hardware on it they are simply lovely. Every drum set is unique as they are made from individual trees.
When he can he uses reclaimed wood or wood from a tree that has fallen. Interestingly, they have little in common with the Matthew Smith drums other then they are both incredibly beautiful, intense attention to detail and both have amazing sound.
Matthew Smith “Ritmos” are made from single staves or individual pieces of wood glued together in the traditional cuban style and shape. They are amazing drums, I have a set of three in walnut.
Manito Percussion congas are made or cut out from and actual log that has fallen, is found or acquired. The log is put on a lathe and carefully carved out and shaped. Manito also hand crafts his own stainless steel hardware an makes his own lugs as well. The crown is the “Modena” style where there is a slight curve at the top. My personal preference and is similar to that of the old Fat congas.
Manito is a true artist as well as a player and performance artist and he makes a wide range of products including bongos, bomba drums, dunun, claves and so on.
This could easily be in the number one spot by itself, it just depends on which “look” you like better really.
I actually like these drums the best which is why I own 4 now! I recently got the black walnut solid shell one piece bongos as well. It really is quite an awesome set.
I love the Manito mule skin on the macho (small side of the bongos) and the Manito Percussion steer skin on the hembre (low side) of the bongos.
I would also like to point out that there is something amazing about playing a solid shell one piece drum that has been carved or come out from a log. There is a certain feel, spirit or energy they have that is different then playing a stave drum. I am not saying better or worse, just different.
You can feel the vibration and connection of the tone and bass go all the way through the drum when you hit it. From the skin to the floor and back up again! If you play djembe or other hand carved instruments you may have experienced this. There is a big difference in sound between a stave and a solid shell drum.
Manito takes another approach and uses actual trees or fallen logs instead of pieces or staves of wood that are normally used in the barrel style of conga making. The drums in a set are all made from from the same tree. A lot of people do not know that in Cuba some of the best drums are made from solid shells as well. Manito sometimes uses found or logs from trees that have fallen on their own.
The sound to my ears is one of the most beautiful and sounding if not the most beautiful out there. There is no glue or staves. The sound is uninterupted as it travels through the shell, unlike staves which have uneven surfaces and glue lines.
Manito also guarantees his drums and uses his own super high quality steer, cow and mule skins as he is also a skin importer and has the best skin sources available, especially since Bill Confers is now out of business. Bill used to supply all f the independent artisan conga makers before.
Another point I would like to make is that with people like Ryan Manito Wendel, Peter Musser of PM Percussion and Luis Vega you can call and talk to them about your needs or desires and really feel like you are part of the process. Not only that but by being involved you can also tailor the drum being made to your specific needs.
You therefore become involved and responsible in your drum project and have more of a connection to the finished product rather then just walking into a store or ordering a drum blind. Another thing to consider, a very important and interesting fact is that Ryan Manito Wendel is an accomplished percussionist and conguero. He has studied drumming and drum building with the masters in Cuba.
What does tho mean to you? This means you can talk to him about the sound you want and need and he can understand this and give you exactly what you need and want. It also helps if you are not sure what you want, he can give you recommendations on skin thickness for example based on how you are going to use your drums.
There are a variety of wood options available and the drums do take time to make as every order is a custom order. Count on at least a 6 month wait. Please click on the link in purple or bold letters below to see demos of Manito Percussion conga drums being played.
Manito Percussion has also become the premier supplier of conga drum and djembe skins in the percussion market. After Bill Confers decided to call it quits, Ryan Manito Wendell took it upon him self to find new sources of steer, cow, goat , calf and mule skins for conga drums, bongos, bomb, bata, djembes and even west african dunun drums.
He even has pre mounted skins that thou simply sip onto your drum to replace the old head. He is using a specially developed “soft soak” method when treating the skins used in the pre-mounted head system. The skins will relieve you of any unwanted ring so common in fiberglass conga drums such as the LP series. I recently put three on my own 1970′ original model congas. Please contact him directly for more information on these or other models.
Use or mention coupon code 007 and you will receive a discount on any skin for any kind of hand drum.
Manito Percussion conga drum prices start at around $900. Please click on the link directly below:
Ryan ‘Manito’ Wendel firstname.lastname@example.org 706-614-4563 P.O. Box 511 Hull, GA 30646
2. PM percussion in Petaluma California by Peter Musser A “quiet new”contender. Quiet as it is kept these are superb conga drums and a finely made handcrafted instrument. Arguably as good as the other drums before it in this list.
He pays meticulous attention to detail. Peter makes his drums from a variety of woods and even uses imported French aged wine barrels. This is actual the traditional cuban style heritage approach. His drums are quite beautiful and sound great as well. I have made several demos of his drums from my visits to California you can see on Youtube.
I recently had a chance to play the very nice Gon Bops California model quinto and some of Peter’s conga drums together and compare the two and they both sounded on equal par for great sound and construction quality as well.
Both are state of the art. Credit where credit is due! I picked up the PM drum and turned it upside down and it had an elaborate cylindrical foam cylinder hanging in the center of the drum. I am guessing it is to dampen ringing.
I had never seen anything like this before in a production model conga. Very interesting, indeed! I would say that the PM is more of a fine high end furniture quality as the finish is so beautiful and almost on par in terms of beautiful exotic wood finish and sound with the Volcano drums from Hawaii. These drums start at around $900 or more.
*Update: I have been able to visit Peter Musser half a dozen times at his shop in Petaluma and try out his drums as they have been progressing and I have to say that his work, attention to detail and craftsmanship is as good to anyone else’s out there and 2nd to none.
So good in fact that I bought a set of three. I have had them for a while now and love them. Great sounding and feeling drums. The skins are fantastic as well. I am ordering two more! Please click on the link below to see a video demo of PM Percussion conga drums being played:
Peter Musser Petaluma, CA 707/ 762-9012 http://www.pmpercussion.com/
3. Skin on Skin by Jay Berek in New York Jay Bereks drums have been around quite some time. Some people say that Mongo Santamaria recorded with them and I had a set made in 1985. Jay’s drums also follow the traditional cuban route using metal bands and staves. Jay was one of the first guys making hand drums in New York around the same time as JR. He wanted to improve on the design that the large companies were making and he really succeeded. His drums are famous all around the world now. I have seen some used on Craiglsit as single units but have not seen any full sets for sale for quite some time. They definitly maintain there resale value or actually go up in price as do most of the drums on this list.
I had 4 of the oak conga drums for over 25 years and for the most part they withstood the test of time as well as multiple trips to Hawaii and the west coast as well. Jay also used to use cherry wood as well. They are quite beautiful drums as well as great fit and finish work. A great overall product.
They have a very warm sound. Jay’s drums have prooven over time to be one of the best hand made cuban style conga drums out there. My quinto did go out of round (warped). I have heard of others having the same problems occur as well, especially with the hardware. The top ring or rim can bend a bit sometimes.
My rim is also bent on my classic Timba Percussion brand super tumba. It happens. In all fairness the quinto which is the drum that went out of round was left tuned up fully for periods of time and there was no alma (metal ring on the inside of the drum that defends against warping) inside this drum. The warping did not effect the sound, it is just a look.
I have used my Skin On Skin in almost every imaginable scenario from recording sessions with rock legend Todd Rundgren (on the “Almost Human” album) to traditional Afro Cuban rumba parties and they always excelled in every situation I put them in.
People always comment on the look, the feel and the sound as well. There is also a wait of about 6 months. At least that is what they told me when I called recently.
I am told Jay has a helper now named Josh and is no longer a one man operation. They actually answer the phone and you can speak to a real person which is very nice!
*update: Skin On Skin is no longer in business. After many long years Jay has decided to throw in the towel. There are several used Skin n Skin drums in the market place but beware of over priced drums! They are great drums but not worth the exorbitant some sellers are trying to get for their drums.
Click on the link directly below to see “My 1986 Skin On Skin congas being played by us at an after party rumba”.
*Update: Unfortunately since I wrote this article Jay has decide to retire and Skin On Skin is no longer available. I removed his contact data as he does not want to be bothered. Keep your eyes peeled on Craigslist and eBay for used Skin On Skins. The price has gone way up on used Skin On Skin congas do to him quitting though!
4. Gon Bops California series Surprised to see Gon Bops here? These drums are actually hand made by Akbar, the famous drum maker who made Sol congas as well as owned and made Valje for a while as well. I like the shape, the sound and the details on these drums. They are very well made the curved hardware and rim is superb.
There are different colors available but somehow the red does not do it for me. A lot of people do not know about these drums and should as they are far superior to other wood drums offered by the major competitors. And of course Akbar Moghaddam is one of the most knowledgable and respected drum makers in the bussiness.
A great guy, talented individual and a fantastic drum maker. He knows his stuff! I love the lage rubber bumpers over the hardware, (a great simple innovation) that protects your drums and other peoples drums from scratching. I also like the shape and feel of his drums much better then his Sol Percussion drums which did not have the curves. The street price is over $800 but they list for more then that.
Akbar makes these individualy by hand in California (not Thailand like the rest of the Gon Bops models!) and the sound of the drums are surprisingly good.To me, these are the best sounding drums offered by a major marketer.
So although the rest of the Gon Bops line is made in Thailand these are not! Akbar is putting them together himself in the L.A. area right now as you read this probably. http://www.gonbops.com/
*Update: Akbar no longer works for Gon Bops so the California Series drums he was making by hand are no longer made by him.
On a very positive note, Akbar has recently restarted Sol Percussion again! I recently ordered and received a set of his new Sol Percussion Oak bongos with natural heads and a very nice Pro Cajon and they are both incredible instruments and on par with any others on the market today. I made various recordings with these instruments on my Soundcloud page.
5. Moperc Percussion from Canada by Michel Oullet Another great drum made by a small independent company in Canada and a man named Michel is called Moperc. He has 3 different models and these drums are built to last. He has a very smooth operation and answers the phone himself and makes the drums, too. People are starting to use his drums more and more.
They are very nice looking and have a great sound quality. Very nice for playing in traditional drumming scenarios or with a band as they are very powerful. Moperc is made in Canada. Michel has really done a nice job and I am impressed with the fit and finish and overall quality, sound and reputation of Michel, his company and products. The drums staves, the piece of wood that are glued together are cut out from pieces of wood rather then steam bent into shape. This provides a very solid shell.
The resonance is excellent on these drums. The legendary Afro Cuban folkloric performance group Munequitos form Mantanzas, Cuba played them in Canada and also in Cuba and you can see the videos on Youtube. He makes the traditional afro cuban style with bands on or another model with out the metal bands as well. His staves, the slats used to create the drums are cut out of wood pieces with a bend instead of being steamed in the traditional manner. This gives the drum incredible structural integrity. His salsa series congas (not shown) uses a unique hardware system.
I would actually rate these higher except for the heavy weight of his drums and the skin choices are not to my particular liking. If you do not like carrying around heavy drums please note this fact.
6. Isla Drums made in Belize by Mario Punchard From tropical Belize with love. These drums have incredible sound, a unique shape and can be ordered with some very interesting and beautiful, exotic woods.The owners also have an exotic wood business and it shows in these exquisite designs. My friend has the bata and I have played the congas a few times as well. They are heavy duty and built to last but early models did have production issues. I do believe all the issues are resolved now but it is still good to be careful and to ask a lot of questions when ordering or buying this or any hand made conga drum.
If you are buying these used you must be very careful and inspect the drum completely. My friend received his bata cracked. He was able to contact Mario and Mario offered for someone to come and personally pick up the drums from my friend at his house to be taken back to have them fixed.
So we’ll see what happens and I will report back later on this. I really like the unique hardware and somewhat different shape of these conga drums. They are real workhorses and the sound is great.
They are made by players for players. The look as beautiful or even more so in person and have a powerful stance and melodic note. There are often Isla listed on eBay as “new” and several people have had problems with communications and purchasing them this way. So please take note before bidding on them there and proceed with caution. Having said that I saw my friends requinto recently he bought from eBay and it looked fine although he said he did have some trouble getting the drum in a timely manner. I am not sure of the wait time but the prices start a bit lower then the other companies listed above.
*Update: Mario is no longer in business or making drums
7. Resolution made by Ralph Flores The Valje tradition is carried on. If you are a Valje fan you might want to move this rating up several notches, maybe even to the top! Ralph Flores is the son of the legendary Tom FLores the originator of Valjes in Los Angeles, California. He has faithfully kept the strong drum making tradition and continued the vision his father started in L.A., Ca. in the 60’s. Valje went through many changes and many hands including the very skilled Akbar and L.P. I am not sure who owns the Valje name now, but these drums, the Resoluton brand are as close to the original thing as you will ever get (unless you buy an old used Valje). A lot of the owners like the new ones better then the old ones.
As you can see in the photo on the right these drums look like (and also sound like) the original Valje conga drums, but have more modern updates and improvements hard to see in the photos. A very sweet sounding drum and made to a very high standard. If you love the Valje shape and sound then this would be the drum for you. I have seen them used on the market in SF Bay area at around $1800 for two! I m told there is a two year wait and they also start at over $800 dollars as well. You can read all about them and Valje history here:
*Update. Ralph has obtained the Valje name again and has started manufacturing Valjes!
8. HR El Piernas made in Columbia Coming up strong! This is a new company (at least in the USA) and the distributor is situated in New Jersey. They are one of the up and coming companies if they can get it together and keep it together so to speak. There drums start at $500 a piece which makes them the “bargain” (if $500 can be considered a bargain)! I am pretty excited about these drums and their bongos as well. The drums only take one month (allegedly) to come from Columbia and are very reasonably priced. They use exotic woods and the construction seems to be quite nice.
Several people have them and are very happy with them. I think they are some of the finest looking drums on the market right now and they cost much less then most other drums of this quality. Dealing with the people distributing them so far has been a bit challenging for me personally, however. It is a small company and they are just starting out so there are going to be working out the process a bit it seems. You will need to call Naty Rocha Galvez at (201) 538-4532 or HectorRocha at (201) 478-0729 It helps if you speak spanish 🙂
9. Volcano Percussion in Hawaii.
The most exotic drum out there? Do you love rare woods and high quality furniture and design? These are some of the best sounding and most beautiful looking stave (wood slats glued together) conga drums out there. The finish on these drums is outstanding and there is simply nothing else like these drums out there on the market for stave drums that even attempt to come close (except for the the PM drums).
Unfortunately, the company shut down for a while as the owner Tom passed away but I am told that they are or will be back in business again soon. The reason they are number 9 on my list is because of the cost being twice as much as most of the other drums here per drum. For example, you could get three HR congas for the price of one of these drums.
I simply do not know anyone who can afford these drums and let’s face it, if you are going to pay $1500-$2,000 a drum are you going to take it out and play it anywhere? Not me! I am going to be very careful if I have these and then I am not going to be having fun, I am going to be worrying about my drums being scratched!
The wood choices of Monkey Pod, Koa and other rare and exotic woods are amazing. No one else on the planet is making drums (or made drums) from these woods! Surprisingly the drums were light weight as well.
A member of my ensemble Barabaja named Jesse Seymour is an endorser so I have a few years playing experience in on their bongos, bata and conga drums. We even recorded with them and I have to say they are fantastic drums all the way around. Very nice! You can hear them on our CD: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/barabajaba Volcano has a great website with some beautiful photos that are stillup: http://www.volcanopercussion.com/volcanopercussion.php
I would like to mention a few other drums worth looking into.
African Rhythm Traders in Portland. Oregon have a line of solid shell one piece congas imported from various west african countries such as Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Ghana.
They look very interesting but I have no experience or feedback from anyone on these yet. And my apologies to any company or people I may have left out or forgotten. Everyone and everything I mentioned is stuff that I have had some contact with or feedback about so of course there are going to be products that I have not heard, know about or seen yet like the Mountain Rhythm in Canada. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article I have left out the larger manufacturers and focused on the individuals.
Sol Percussion by Akbar Moghaddam These are some of my favorite drums and have fantastic sound. I am told that they will be back on the market which is very exciting. If they were available right now I would put them in the number 3 or 4 spot in terms of sound, quality and craftsmanship. I am not a fan of the slim design (in the “classic” model) in terms of apearence, though. However, there was a rumba model that had the fat belly that looked great as well as sounded incredible.
The Rumba shell produces a longer melodic resonance, coupled with strong bass and a crisp slap. Akbar is re starting up Sol again so let’s see what happens and keep our fingers crossed! He kicked butt on the Valje’s and more recently the Gon Bops California model so I am sure many good things are yet to come from Akbar and Sol!
Akbar founded Sol in 1992 after working with Valje for 3 years. The creation of Sol Drums was driven by a commitment to continue the quality drum making that so nearly disappeared in the fire that deystroyed Valje when Akbar was there. The Sol shells are made from air-dried quarter-sawn red oak. The 3/4″ solid staves are steam bent, joined with glue that is stronger than the wood, lathe turned and hand finished.
The hardware on Sols is some of the nicest looking and functioning of any drum ever made! My friend Wade has a full set of vintage Sol and each mounting plate is a different design such as a moon, a sun, etc. Very creative and artistic. I know this has nothing to do with the sound but it is an interesting feature to mention none the less.
They are very comfortable to play with rounded curve style rims very similar to the Fat Congas conga drums of the 70’s who I believe were the first to use the rounded rim, instead of the traditional flat edge. I have a set of Fats and they do indeed look identical.
To many people the rim makes a huge difference in comfort and playing. I am not sure if Akbar is going to re make the “Titanic” model which was a super huge super tumba which really sounded great. Usually such large drums don’t but he was able to pull it off. Old Website (new one up soon):http://www.eastbejesus.com/sol/index3.html
Drumskulls in Santa Cruz California by Matt Hardwick Drumskulls is know the world over for it’s full line of imported djembes from Mali, Guinee and the Ivory Coast in West Africa. I have known them personally since they first started business many moons ago in Santa Cruz and can vouch for the high quality in their products and everything they do. The conga drums here are solid shell congas being offered by Drumskulls and hand carved in Mali.
I have not seen or played these yet but the photos look very, very interesting. I also play and study west african drumming and have several djembes from Africa so I am very interested to hear these drums. There are other small companies that specialize in djembes offering hand carved congas not turned on lathe but these appear to be the nicest, at least from the photos I have seen.
Drumskulls has some of the best djembes on the market for both sound and beauty and they also do excellent repair re heading and rigging (putting together, roping and heading) drums as well. I would love to hear these congas soon.
There is a video on Youtube but the sound quality of the recording is not too good so it is impossible to tell what the drums actually sound like. Drumskulls also distributes PM’s drums interestingly enough.
They are a great buch of guys and also have skins for sale and alls orts of interesting stuff. Drumskulls can also put together a custom set of congas for you if you are willing to pay the price. They have taken drums like these from West Africa and hand Fat congas custom made rims and hardware put on their drums before. We are talking high end beauty here folks! But can you take them out to the local rumba and let the guys kick them around and knock into each other? I wouldn’t!
*Update: Matt Hardwick came by with a set of three of these beauties and I had an afternoon to play on these. Fantastic sounding drums. They had African cow skin on them and my only critique would be they need a thicker cow skin or mule.
Here is a video of the try out:
VeGA Percussion VeGa Percussion is a new company in Florida also headed by a percussionist and player, Lou Vega. I have not seen or heard these drums yet but they look to be very promising.
I love the shape and look of these drums. If they sound anywhere near as good as they look I am sure Lou will have a winner on his hands! The Price seems to be right in there in the Matthew Smith, Manito and others. I am not sure the time line for receiving drums. Here is the write up from his page: “As a musician with a passion to play fine musical instruments. I also share the passion to create fine quality musical instruments that are alsoexcellent working pieces of art. We at VeGA Drums & Percussion want to refine and bring to the next level the art of drum building. We specialize in the art of custom drum building fine instruments that are working pieces of art.
At VeGA Drums we specialize in custom built drums.Our Conga drums feature steam bent stave construction. Hand crafted in American Red Oak and polished stainless steel hardware.
Click on this link to see his web page: http://vgadrums.com/
Worth mentioning and researching more:
MD (Michel Delaporte)
Here is a French company I personally know nothing about other then seeing them on line and also seeing a set for sale. They looked to be very well made and worth checking out if you live in France or Europe. I have heard mixed reviews from people I have talked to online. They do sell these on line at a store called “http://www.rythmes-sons.com”. The MD website is all in French. MD makes at least some of their congas out of barrels (Like PM Percussion in Petaluma California). His barrel maker is Michel Dussiaux. I am very curious to hear your experience if you have these drums or know more about them please.
If you live in Europe you may want to check them out.:
I noticed their are different models. His Habana series are made from Ash. Those cost about 650 euros ($820 US).
These congas are solid shell and made by Pawl Myczkowski in Poland. I spoke with him briefly and he told me he has been in business there for 15 years making congas and djembes as well. I have never seen his work in person or heard about his work. If you have, please write in and let me know what you think. He makes solid shell one piece congas using logs/wood from Poland which is indeed very unusual. There are only 2 other non african companies I know of doing this. Some people do not like the shape of his drum. Personally I think it is fine. www.pablomusic.pl
“Munz und Simonsen” Congas
Here is another company that was mentioned to me and I have seen on line but do not have any experience with. Unfortunately their web page/site is in German with out english so hard to know what the story is but they do seem to be built well from the look of things. Again if you are in Europe already then probably worth looking into.
Shorty Palmer, Nate Velinga and Motherland Percussion all offer solid shell conga drums from west Africa including Ghana, Mali and Guinea. I have played the Lenke wood, Melina and Tweenboa. I found the Melina wood (white color wood) to be too soft and not enough projection. My personal choice would be Lenke or Khadi wood. These drums are usually tuned with ropes. You can also get them with hardware from Motherland or you would have to have your own hardware made up from someone like Manito Percussion perhaps. He has made me special hardware for my Guayacan requinto and it came out perfectly. You will have to google search for more info on these particular guys.
None of these drums I have listed above use water buffalo for skins. The water buffalo gives a bright sound which could also be interpreted as “ringy” where as cow and mule are “warmer” and produce fuller tone. These drums in my “best” list are a bit more expensive then many commercial models. I say a bit more because some of the drums actually list for the same prices, but commercial drums are almost always discounted.
However to recap, you get much more for your money interms of better sound, look and feel as well as being unique. Please do not be insulted if your drum is not here or if you do not agree with the order. It is completely subjective and based on my personal experience. I am highly opinionated when it comes to drums and somethings I may love you may not and vica versa.
The photos can not show the fine attention to detail or additional features many of these drums have so you owe it to yourself to investigate more on your own if you are attracted to any of these drums.
There is a lot of information out there by owners in forums as well as on my Facebook group page, “Conga Drums and Percussion” which you are invited to join.
Another thing I would like to mention again is that none of these drum makers are getting rich off of making drums. It is a labor of love. Wood costs are huge and the time and labour for single man and small man operations are also huge.
Occasionally some of these guys find helpers but often they do not stay so it is back to long hard hours for a single guy doing all the labour.
And no one has ever complained to me about it, I am just writing about it so you the reader can understand what goes into the making of these drums. Peter Musser was telling me the other day how hard it is to let go of the drums after he makes them and I totally understand. I regret every drum I have ever had in my collection that I sold when I needed cash.
There is very small profit margin in these drums, that’s why many small companies have gone out of busiiness. So please keep this in mind when you save up your greenbacks to buy a drum. I am not trying to sell anyone on anything, just share my opinions and what I believe to be the facts. When you speak to one of the builders I do not recommend you asking for a discount. They have set prices and they are making very small profit.
You are going to get a drum that you can keep for a lifetime and you do get what you pay for in this case. Really, “the best” is about what is best for you and your needs. Many people say, “it’s not the drum it’s the drummer”. In the big picture, the most important thing is to learn how to play and a great drummer can make any drum sound good. And I believe to some degree this is true. I like to use this comparison. If you are a carpenter you can build something with a simple hand tool or with an electric drill. Both get the job done, but one is much easier. It is about the tool. A good drum is a good tool and a great drum is a great tool.
My personal experience as a player, teacher and performer tells me that you need the proper tool for the job. The better the tool, the easier and more pleasurable the job is and the better the job becomes. And these drums are not only beautiful tools they are some nice pieces of art as well!
These are most of my favorites and I think that this is a subjective test meaning, “what do I like/love”? And I am sure we will not all have the same opinions. It’s a different strokes for different folks kind of thing. But there is no arguing that these drums are all great in their own way.
I hope this article help to shed some light on the best congas out there and also to spread the good word about these small artists making great products. There are a lot of great people involved in these companies and their goals are to get very high quality beautiful sounding high quality products out to people who need and want them, will enjoy them and respect them as well.
My goal here is to help support the individual artists and to let the public know about their work, not to discredit anyone or any other company or drum makers large or small. Any drum can serve it’s person and it is up to us to practice and play well to make whatever we have sound it’s best as well.
In an ideal world we would all have all of these drums! Yes, they are expensive. But you do get what you pay for and for many of us these conga drums are a purchase we will keep in our family forever. My philosophy is play whatever you can, whatever you have and save up for the rest. Eventually something great will come your way.
When I was in Cuba we went to visit a member of Munequitos at his apartment. My padrino and he got into an excited discussion on rumba. We all got so hyped up that he pulled out a replacement head and started to drum and sing only with that. He did not own his own drums. However, It sounded so good that we all wanted to play it! A rumba ensued with singing, dancing and hand clapping. That was an event I will never forget. We played what we had.
Thanks for reading and please feel free to write me with any feedback or questions and positive suggestions.
Here is a link to a fun comparison video I made of my Spirit In The Wood, Matthew Smith and two types of LP congas drums (wood and fiber glass congas) from the late 70’s and 80’s.
I also have included two videos of me playing sets of some of the best congas and also a video of individual quintos. Please click on the brown links to see the videos: Fun comparison of Matthew Smith, Spirit In The Wood and LP congas from the 80\’s 4 of the top ten congas played live at Drummer\’s Tradition in San Rafael California 6 of the best quintos tested and played by Michael P