Marlon Brando with bongos

Bongos A-Go-Go! The Backstory on the Little Drums That Will Liven Up Your Tiki Party Music Playlist

Does your tiki playlist sound a bit anemic? Do the gently swaying hulas not quite cut it once the sun sets and your rum-fueled guests have gotten up on their feet?

Well, any good island jock knows that this is the moment to play something with a beat. A bongo beat.

As I wrote in How to Create a Tiki Party Playlist, a swinging tropical party soundtrack breaks down to a few distinct, but complementary genres.

The best Hawaiian music is, or at least emulates, the stuff recorded in the pre-statehood 1920s and 30s. It often swings like mad, but there is little to no percussion to be heard. Blending in a hearty dose of ‘Exotic’ and/or Latin-infused sounds keeps things hopping.

It’s here you’ll find rhythm-a-plenty, and a lot of those bim-bams come courtesy of the Mid-Century hepcat’s favorite accessory, the bongo drum.

Before I was born, the beatnik had already been reduced to a bearded, bongo-playing caricature in a beret.

Why bongos? I always wondered.

I get that bongos may have been a staple of poetry readings, punctuating the primal, unvarnished verse like a sort of over-serious rimshot. But bongos were everywhere during the Edsel years. Why did so many take to the miniature congas?

To give the glorious bongos their proper due, let’s revisit their roots.

Their origin is Cuban, derived from traditional drums of the Bantu regions of southern Africa. The closest we can come to hearing the bongos used as they were at the dawn of their development is through the early recordings of small Afro-Cuban ensembles.

The music is marvelous.

Sexteto Habanero on Cubano record
Afro-Cuban groups key to the birth of the bongo movement:
The Sexteto Habanero
Sexteto Nacional
Lecuona Cuban Boys

Like Hawaiian, Cuban music enjoyed a surge of popularity in the early and mid-20th century among American audiences eager to hear the exciting new sounds of tropical locales.

Cutting through the surface fuzz of a shellac 78, the high-pitched peal of the bongo would have been the most distinctive sound associated with the mambo, the conga, and the cha cha cha.

When did the bongos become a common household accessory, though? When and how did they become associated with the mid-century counter-culture? With all things exotic? With tiki?

It may be a somewhat crooked line, but I think the bongo’s path from Afro-Cuban rhythm section staple to the out-there-groovy-cats scene went right through one very unique bonguero: the incomparable Chano Pozo.
Chano Pozo with his bongo
Source: New York Amsterdam News

Born in Havana in 1915, Chano Pozo was a character whose life’s story, though brief, was stranger and greater than any novelist could create.

A child of Havana’s roughest slum, Chano was by reputation a formidable knife fighter, hustler, lothario, bodyguard, fashion plate, and thief-with-a-heart-of-gold – all while still in his teens.

Oh, and one of the greatest conga and bongo players in all of Cuba.

When Chano Pozo came to New York in the 1940s to play with the jazz world’s greatest be-boppers, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, he very successfully made his instrument a part of American hip culture. It fit like a glove.

That Pozo practiced Santeria and had a reputation for wielding black magics as deftly as he did a stiletto only added to his allure – and the bongo drums along with it.

To many, Exotica music was a melding of the savage and the sensuous. And Chano Pozo, dead at 33, epitomized those characteristics.

If you wish to hear Chano Pozo in a couple of settings that very successfully bridge Afro-Cuban music with modern hip jazz, check out the following:

James Moody plays with Chano Pozo
New Sounds
James Moody and his Modernists, 1952

Dizzie Gillespie featuring Chano Pozo
Dizzy Gillespie and his Orchestra
featuring Chano Pozo, 1954

Dizzy Gillespie may very well have been the first goateed, beret-wearing hepcat associated with the bongos.

He wouldn’t be the last.

Jazz and popular bands from coast to coast soon incorporated a bongo beat to their sounds. Before anyone knew it –bingo bango – there’s Marlon Brando beating on the bongos!

Ok, so this isn’t really a dissertation. 🙂 It’s safe to say there’s more to the bongo story.

The point I’m trying to get across is that by the 1950s, bongos were big. Really big. And the best evidence for this can be found in the records – literally.

I usually stop short before recommending ready-made compilations of any type of music. My hope is to encourage you to create your own compilation playlist.

Here, though, with bongos temporarily on the brain, I feel I would be remiss not to mention Columbia Records’ terrific Ultra Lounge series of compilation albums.

There is simply no greater collection (34 volumes by my count!) of groovy, often corny, mid-century lounge, latin and exotica hits.

Ultra Lounge Bongoland music
Various artists, part of the Ultra Lounge series

Volume 17, Bongoland, is hardly the only album from this series featuring bongo beats, but it is the one where bongos are in the spotlight.

Explore the many musical relics from America’s bongo craze and pepper your tiki playlist liberally with the songs you like best!

The goatee and beret are optional. 

Richard Cervantes is an expert in Asian antiques who appears on the Antiques Roadshow and in his home tiki bar, which he shares with his wife, Alice, in Philadelphia.

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