Bongo is the term for a variety of small drums, derived from African roots, most likely in Cuba around 1900. It consists of a pair of unequal sized small drums that are joined together. The smaller drum is called the "male", or minor drum, while the larger is the "female" or major drum.
Bongos are an integral part of Latin percussion, particularly as a solo instrument. They are mainly played sitting down, held between the knees. In the 1920's the bongos were lower tuned than they are today, and played with a technique more reminiscent of conga drumming, including tabla-like pitch changes. The skins were tacked on, and to maintain the tuning the "bongocero" would use a small charcoal brazier which he kept by his feet.
The modern bongo is tuned much higher as befitting its role as the soloist in the Latin rhythm Section. The modern playing technique is based on a stroking pattern called the "Martillo" (hammer). In the standard Martillo bongo pattern ...
With permission of Billy Hulting
T = thumb; F = all fingers; 1 = index finger; 2 = middle finger
...the right hand can play with the tips of all the fingers instead of just the index and middle fingers, producing this sound (sample audio clip).
The bongo player may also double on other percussion instruments such as on cowbell, particularly when the rhythmic intensity and volume grows greater.