The Great Latin Sound of the Humble Cowbell

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I still remember this story from October 28, 2002.   The cowbell is the “hammer” of a tropical latin band, beating out the rhythm and heard over the top of all the other players.   Originally it was used by African cowherders to call and herd cows, hence the name.   A second use was when the cowbell was attached a cow’s neck, you could tell one herd of cows from another.

Bands started using cowbells in the 1920s.  It is now a staple in the percussion section of most orchestras, and also is an accessory to most drum kits.  But where it’s most used is in tropical latin orchestras, where there are so many syncopated rhythms (including the 3/2 and 2/3 rhythm of the clavé stick also called clavé)  that you need one steady beat to glue all the rhythms together and hold the music down on the road.  That’s the role of the cowbell.   You also often hear the cowbell mark out the initial clavé to mark the tempo at the beginning of a tropical latin number.  You also hear it marking time during the “blowing section” known as the montuno.

Some cowbells are made in factories.  But good ones are still made by hand by companies like LP (Latin Percussion is one).  The story below from NPR is about Puerto Rican native Cali Rivera, who still makes cowbells the old way, by hand in his workshop in the Bronx.  The NPR blurb is only a few seconds long, story follows right after.

Here is Cali himself talking about his work making cowbells:

Here’s one from the Latin Percussion, a major brand making congas, bongos, and cowbells:

Here’s Jorge Gonzalez talking about the amazing rhythms in tropical latin music: