Tips for choosing your first drum
I get a lot of calls from people trying to decide whether to buy a conga or a djembe as their first drum. Of course that decision is ultimately subjective and personal, but I can at least offer some tips to help you decide.
The first thing you should do is to listen to each drum to see if the sound speaks to you. One way to do that is to listen to CDs that feature congas--like Totico y sus Rumberos or Santana--and CDs that feature djembes--like Mamady Keita or Fatala-- to see if you have a strong preference for the sound of one drum or the other.
Trying to describe the sound of a drum is a little like trying to describe the taste of a food--it's not something that can easily be put into words. But there are a few things that can be said about congas and djembes that I think most drummers would agree on.
Played with equal force, the djembe is louder than the conga. That makes the djembe a great drum for playing outdoors, but it can get almost painfully loud when played indoors. The volume level of a conga is more conversational, so it's more comfortable to listen to indoors. The conga also has a sweeter, more distinctly-pitched tone. The djembe's big selling point is that it has a louder, deeper bass.
The different sound of the two drums is partly due to their different shapes and partly due to the different skins used for their drumheads. The goatskin head used on a djembe is thinner than the cowhide used on a conga. If your hands are strong and beefy you should have no problem playing either drum. But if your hands are fragile for any reason--maybe because of your age or an injury--you can get more sound with less effort out of a djembe.
Djembes are lighter than congas and easier to carry around. In fact, djembes are light enough to be strapped on so you can play standing up and move around while you play if you want to. To play a conga standing up, you have to put it on a metal stand and even though this allows you to stand while you play it doesn't allow you to walk around freely.
Congas are easier to tune than traditional djembes. You use a wrench to tune a conga by tightening the metal lugs that hold the head in place. It's pretty simple and straightforward. To tune a djembe strung with ropes, you need to learn how to pull the ropes in a particular pattern, which can be confusing at first and strenuous even after you know how. However, mass-produced djembes such as the Remo or LP djembes are tuned with wrenches and are as easy to tune as congas.
Now that you know what to look and listen for in the two drums, it's time for you to head down to your local drum store and try them out for yourself. Every individual drum is different, so it's better to buy a drum that you've played rather than to take a chance ordering one out of a catalog. Find the drum that speaks to you. And looks are important too. If your drum is beautiful to you, it will call to you to come play it.