The conga, also known as tumbadora, is a tall, narrow, single-headed drum from Cuba. Congas are staved like barrels and classified into three types: quinto (lead drum, highest), tres dos or tres golpes (middle), and tumba or salidor (lowest). Congas were originally used in Afro-Cuban music genres such as conga (hence their name) and rumba, where each drummer would play a single drum. Following numerous innovations in conga drumming and construction during the mid-20th century, as well as its internationalization, it became increasingly common for drummers to play two or three drums. Congas have become a popular instrument in many forms of Latin music such as son (when played by conjuntos), descarga, Afro-Cuban jazz, salsa, songo, merengue and Latin rock.
Although the exact origins of the conga drum are unknown, researchers agree that it was developed by Cuban people of African descent during the late 19th century or early 20th century. Its direct ancestors are thought to be the yuka and makuta (of Bantu origin) and the bembé drums (of Yoruba origin). In Cuba and Latin America, congas are primarily played as hand drums. In Trinidadian calypso and soca, congas are sometimes struck with mallets, while in the Congos, they are often struck with one hand and one mallet.
Most modern congas have a staved wooden or fibreglass shell and a screw-tensioned drumhead. Since 1950, congas are usually played in sets of two to four, except for traditional rumba and conga, in which each drummer plays one conga. The drums are played with the fingers and palms of the hand. Typical congas stand approximately 75 centimetres (30 in) from the bottom of the shell to the head. The drums may be played while seated. Alternatively, the drums may be mounted on a rack or stand to permit the player to play while standing. While they originated in Cuba, their incorporation into the popular and folk music of other countries has resulted in the diversification of terminology for the instruments and the players. In Cuba, congas are called tumbadoras.
Conga players are called congueros, while rumberos refers to those who dance following the path of the players. The term "conga" was popularized in the 1930s when Latin music swept the United States. Cuban son and New York jazz fused together to create what was then termed mambo, but later became known as salsa. In that same period, the popularity of the Conga Line helped to spread this new term. Desi Arnaz also played a role in the popularization of conga drums. However, the drum he played (which everyone called a conga drum at the time) was similar to the type of drum known as bokú used in his hometown, Santiago de Cuba. The word conga came from the rhythm la conga used during Carnaval(carnival) in Cuba. The drums used in Carnaval could have been referred to as tambores de conga since they played the rhythm la conga, and thus translated into English as conga drums.