The timbales are a pair of single-headed drums used in most Latin music bands to keep time and mark changes in the music. The drum heads are between 12” and 16” in diameter, with one usually one inch larger than the other. The smaller drum is called the macho (male), while the larger drum is called the hembra (female). The macho plays at a lower pitch and typically is used for sharp sounds.
The timbalero uses stick and hand strokes as well as rim shots and rolls on the skin of the drums. The outer shell of the timbales is called the cáscara, which is Spanish for shell. Cáscara also refers to a specific rhythm that is commonly used to keep time in salsa. In addition to the drum pair, the cymbal, cowbell and/or wood block may be mounted to the timbales to play other rhythms, including the clave. Because the timbalero generally keeps time and marks changes in the music, he often serves as the bandleader, as Tito Puente did (see below).
The timbales evolved as a replacement for the timpani in Afro-Cuban orchestras of the early 1900s. Originally military drums, the timpani were widely used percussion instruments and were adapted in Latin music to be more portable. There are other modern variations in how the timbales are used and played, including the manufacture of smaller drums of 10” or less, the use of two or more timbales in Latin bands, and the timbalero strapping the timbales to himself to play them in a standing position.
The timbales are used in a variety of Latin music genres, including but not limited to salsa, merengue, rumba, mambo, cha-cha-cha, cumbia, Latin rock, reggae, bossa nova, and Latin jazz. The most famous timbalero of the 20th century was Tito Puente, who was called “King of the Timbales.”
See Related Links below for a video explaining how the timbales are played as well as a music sample that shows the different percussive elements in salsa music.