What is Tumbao?

Tumbao is a distinctive drum pattern found in most salsa and cha cha music, typically played on conga drums.


The word tumbao can be seen in Celia Cruz’s famous album and song “la negra tiene tumbao”. In this context, as well as in many others, tumbao refers to the sensuality with which a woman moves and walks. The base rhythm of tumbao is meant to draw out that feeling in dancers so that their moves are influenced and transformed by it.

While tumbao can take various bass patterns, the following video demonstrates the basic tumbao pattern in detail:

Bass Patterns

  • Clave-neutral: The basic tumbao pattern on conga drums was first used in the late 1930s. It became more common among mambo bands in the 1940s. In an 8 count of salsa music, two open tones are played in quick succession on the counts of (4, and, 8, and).
  • Clave-aligned: Arsenio Rodriguez is known to have introduced conga drum tumbao patterns in a specific alignment with clave. This gave way for variations such as a single open tone being played with the third stroke of clave. While many variations are possible, each relies heavily on the alignment between clave and tumbao.