The so called “slap” sound is one of the dominant sounds of the conga and djembe. The technique can be applied to nearly any drum and many other surfaces. I use it on pandiero, surdo, repinique, timbau, ashiko, dumbec, frame drum, boxes, chairs, table tops …
Many people struggle to make the sound. I believe it is really one of the easiest to make, once you find the correct striking angle and hand position. I believe one key is to let your hand relax into its natural shape, which is slightly cupped. Click here is a link to my hand positions page
Nearly every drummer and teacher has their own way of teaching and making the sound. In my 20 plus years of research, mostly in the US, I’ve found many variations on the slap sound in different parts of the African Diaspora. Here is what I’ve discovered:
Ghanaian and Nigerian drummers tend to play closed slaps (fingers stay in place after striking) and sometimes with the inside of the hand and forefinger slightly raised. They also use what I call the muted slap – one hand lays flat on the skin while the other strikes, producing a very dry, short sound.
In AfroCuban drumming, all the basic patterns are played using closed slaps, and in some cases (tumbao) muted slaps. A good Rumba soloist, however, uses closed, open (see below) and muted slaps interchangeably.
Congolese (Central African) Ngoma drummers tend to play what I (and many others) call open slaps; the hand bounces off immediately after striking. They also play another slap which is made in the center of the drum in almost the same position as a bass stroke. I call it a center slap.
Djembe drummers use the open slap technique, but with less hand on the drum. Mamady Keita has at least three different open slaps that sound like distinctly different notes. There is no discernible difference in his hand position! Certain djembe rhythms (Yankadi) also use the muted slap. Sometimes a lead drummer will use a muted slap on the fourth main beat to call attention to a break, or to give the dundun or sangba extra time if they must enter before the break is finished.
Brazilian hand drummers use mostly open slaps. I have seen several use the center slap as well.
The Trinidadian drummers I’ve met use mostly open slaps. Their music has a lot in common with Manding (djembe/dundun) music.
I think anyone who is serious about the drum discovers these various techniques and uses them when appropriate. As an artist, the kind of slap I play is dictated by the kind and thickness of skin, degree of tension, degree of moisture, temperature, and the context. For example, a tumba (bass conga drum) which is tuned low, with thick skin and left in a moist, unheated studio in the winter will not make a good open slap. Therefore, I will use closed and muted slaps to distinguish them from the tones. If I bring that same drum outside in the summer and play it in direct sun, it will dry out and tune up so much that open slaps will sound good.
On a properly tuned djembe you can play open, closed or muted slaps very effectively, however the traditional music doesn’t sound or feel right if you use closed slaps.
You can use any sound or movement you want as long as you know what context you are in and what you are trying to achieve.
For exercises and patterns using various slaps in combination with other sounds, please see my book Conga Exercises.