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What is Latin Percussion?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated: May 17, 2024

Latin percussion is the term used to group a set of percussion instruments that are characteristically used in performing Latin American music.

Latin percussion often is engaged in ostinato, and agogo bells are an ostinato instrument, like the claves, and untuned metal bells, like the cowbell. They come in sets of three or four bells, and are tuned to approximately a third apart.

Bongo drums or bongos are single-headed unpitched drums, mounted in pairs. Traditionally held between the knees and played by hand, they can be mounted and played with sticks or mallets. Congas, another type of drum, are tall drums set in a stand or tilted toward the seated player so that the open bottom is not closed off by the floor. They, too, is traditionally played by hand in a variety of ways, though it can be played with mallets.

The cabaça, cabasa, cabaza, or afuche, as it is variously known, is a gourd or other container on a handle, surrounded by plastic or metal beads. The instrument is held with one hand and rotated with the other, creating a rasping sound as the beads rub against the head.

Castanets are European in origin, and are perhaps best known for their use in Georges Bizet’s “Seguidilla” in his opera Carmen. Associated with Spain, they are used to evoke that country’s culture, whether in the form of hand castanets, paddle castanets, or concert castanets, which are mounted on a board, but also now characteristically part of the Latin percussion section.

Claves are pairs of cylindrical hardwood sticks that are about 6 inches (15 cm) in length. The percussionist cradles one stick, not gripped, but resting atop the folded fingers, and the other is used to strike it. Claves contribute to the overall sound of Latin percussion, playing an ostinato in dances such as the conga, samba, and rumba.

Cowbells are considered Latin percussion even though they also have roots in European music — where the same model that is used around the cow’s neck may be used for music-making — as well as a standard place in Latin dance bands. Originally categorized roughly as low, medium, and high, pitched models have been created after twentieth century composers created a demand.

Maracas, a form of Latin percussion often used in pairs in Latin American music, but singly in other settings. Constructed of a gourd, they may be tapped, shaken, or swirled to create various sounds that often are used to contribute to ostinato patterns. The guiro is another Latin American gourd instrument, played by scraping the serrated top with a stick.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for WiseGeek, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
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Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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