I spoke recently to a lady looking for hand drum tuition for her son. Whilst he loved the idea of hand drumming, he didn't really know where to start... should he get a djembe, or bongos, or congas?? Which would be most useful? We had a good chat, and I've outlined the main points here, but I must point out that this is only my opinion.... another percussionist may hold entirely different views.
There is a huge popularity in playing djembe in drum circles, and for many people this gives them all the rhythmic pleasure that they want... to meet up with others in a park and play tribal rhythms. Its a great introduction to drumming, but for me congas is the best place to start for someone looking to become a rounded percussionist, and I'll explain why.
Learning congas gives a great introduction to latin music, but this also crosses over into mainstream modern music. By studying all the different strokes on conga drums, you get a real feel for hand drumming and soon realize that you can obtain so many tones from just one drum. Understanding the clave, the bedrock of latin drumming again gives you a great musical foundation, as does learning some of the basic conga rhythms such as Tumbao... and whilst this rhythm has its roots in authentic latin american music, it is equally at home playing with a pop band. Thats the great thing about congas... versatility. You can play so many diverse rhythms and use them to play latin, jazz, pop, funk, dance music..... the list goes on. Look at some of the big name artists on tour... its very common to see a percussionist on stage alongside the drummer, and the centrepiece of the percussionists set up is congas. So no matter what your musical aspirations are, congas will fit into it.... maybe a salsa band? Or a funk band? Or maybe west end musicals?? Congas will be at the centre, and from that grounding you can start to add other instruments to your set up... bongos, timbales, bells, tambourines etc.
Maybe start by watching some of the current crop of modern conga playing - a very diverse group including Jody Linscott, Shovell, Stephan Maass, and my favourite Kati Fernandes (check her out on instagram and youtube!)