Some interesting stuff about the West African djembe drum!
The djembe, pronounced ‘JEM-bay’, is a skin-covered wood-carved hand drum.
It is shaped like a large goblet, and is played with bare hands.
Djembe drums are specifically from West Africa, although many countries now produce goblet or djembe-style drums.
According to the Bamara people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes directly from the saying “Anke dje, anke be” which literally translates to “everyone gather together” and defines the drums’ purpose. In the Bambara language, “Dje” is the verb for “gather” and “be” translates as “everyone”.
Djembes are part of the Malinke culture of West Africa. Malinke people are found mainly in Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gambia and Burkina Faso.
Djembes are indigenous to these countries.
This drum is a member of the membranophone family of percussion instruments: a frame or shell (in the djembe’s case it is a wood shell) covered by a membrane or drumhead made of animal skin.
Djembes are commonly about 12″ (30 cm) in diameter and 24″ (60 cm) in height, and can vary somewhat in size.
As a result of the goblet shape, the tube shape of the stem (or trumpet), the density of the wood, the internal carvings, and the skin, there is a wide range of tones that can be produced by the djembe.
The rounded shape of the bowl and the extended tube of the djembe stem form a device known in physics as a Helmholtz resonator, giving it its’ deep bass note.
Helmholz resonance is the phenomenon of air resonance in a cavity.
The name comes from a device created in the 1850s by Hermann von Helmholz to show the height of the various tones. An example of Helmholtz resonance is the sound created when one blows across the top of an empty bottle.
The primary notes are generally referred to as “bass”, “tone”, and “slap”, though a variety of other tones can also be produced by advanced players.
The slap has a high and sharp sound, the tone is more round and full, and the bass is low and deep.
Djembes are not part of the culture or musical traditions of countries in the far east, such as China, Indonesia, Pakistan. While those countries are rich in their own traditions, culture and music, they are not djembe countries; they produce copies of djembes which are no match in quality for authentic African drums, produced in their country of origin.
Real African djembes are hand-crafted in small workshops in Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso by specialized djembe carvers.
There are so-called ‘Indonesian djembes’ on the market. These are turned on a lathe, like a piece of furniture – they are not hand made.
A so called ‘Indonesian djembe’ is a ‘goblet’ shaped drum.
There are many types of goblet drums – for example, dumbek, darbuka, and zarb from the Middle East. They are wonderful drums – but they are not djembes.
Other people will claim to sell you a ‘Pro’ or ‘African’ djembe made in Ghana.
Ghana is extremely rich with music, culture, and tradition but the djembe drum is not part of that.
Ghana has it’s own beautiful drums and percussion, and music and dance, but no djembe playing or making tradition.
Most djembes from Ghana are cranked out to meet the need of the mass market and are not of great quality.
Djembes are made from one piece of wood.
The whole process from the forming of the shape out of a log of wood to the final shaping and design carving is done by hand.
The best types of wood are the ones that have been used traditionally for djembe production through the ages. Lenke, Akajou, Khadi or Khardi, Iroko. The names may change according to the different areas and countries.
Despite what some websites claim and misinform you – Tweneboa is not a traditional djembe wood. It is too soft but is good enough for djembe that will be used for informal drumming.
Melina or Mango wood which is a light wood traditionally used to make dunun drums and is fine for a student level or inexpensive alternative to a hardwood djembe – if it’s well made and comes from a ‘djembe country’.
Goat skins should be African skins, from Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast or Senegal.
Goat skins from Ghana are usually not good, mostly too thin.
Goat skins from the far east (such as Pakistan) are not as good for djembe heading as a West African skin. That is because of the lean diet of goats from the far east make their skins thin. Goat skins from the West African djembe-producing countries are thicker, which help create superior sound.
Many skins from the Far East are chemically treated too. And despite what some web sites claim, there is no anthrax danger in imported goat skins. All skins go through US Customs and are checked for country of origin.
A djembe has to be tuned correctly to produce the correct sounds.
Despite the fact that many new djembe players are captivated by the great bass a djembe has, tones and slaps are as every bit as important as a booming bass!
A knowledgeable dealer will be qualified to assist you in finding a properly tuned drum.
A skilled drum re-builder will be able to get your djembe tuned up satisfactorily.
Traditionally-crafted djembe drums were carved from a single section of a Lenge tree.
Lenge was used for centuries due to its acoustic and spiritual qualities among the Malinke, whose traditional wisdom states that a spiritual energy, or nyama, runs through all things, living or dead.
Other types of wood may also be substituted, depending upon the forests accessible to the drum makers.
Some West African hardwoods used for musician-quality instruments carved in Guinea, Mali, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire include djalla, dougi/dimba, khari/hare/gueni, and acajou.
Properly made drums are not smooth on the interior but have a spiral channel inside that enhances the tonal qualities.
Splinters and rough carving inside are signs of a hastily made drum.
The djembe is headed on one side with the shaved skin of a goat, antelope or cow.
Prior to the twentieth century, the skin was attached with the sinew or intestine of the animal, or by cutting and stretching a strip of rawhide.
In modern day, alpine rope is used in place of the traditional sinew.
Construction of the djembe has changed significantly over the past half-century.
The usage of industrialized materials, such as steel rings, nylon-core rope, and rubber tires, began with the advent of the West African Ballets, and has become the norm.
As djembes are increasingly exported to foreign shores, some take advantage of overseas markets by cutting corners, while others push further development and refinement of djembe construction.
In the mid 1990s furniture makers in Ghana took note of the commercial success being experienced by traditional djembe drum carvers.
The craftspeople in Ghana, where the kpanlogo and oblenten drums are the most well known traditional drums, began to carve and sell djembes from Tweneboa, a soft wood.
Using soft wood required a much thicker shell that fails to produce the resonant and explosive sound of a hardwood djembe.
The drumheads are typically made from goatskin and more rarely can be antelope, zebra, deer, or calfskin.
West African goat skins are known to djembe musicians as having a different sound than goats domesticated in more temperate climates.
Goats raised in West Africa experience a rougher existence, different climate, and different diet, which apparently toughen and harden the skins in a way that impacts their sound quality.
Goat skins from animals bred and raised in the Americas and Europe have been known to be softer and tear more easily under the extreme tension required for a properly tuned drum.
Pakistani hides are also available. They are very different from African skins in that they are chemically treated.
The djembe has also spawned a plethora of look-alikes made from synthetic materials.
The explosion of drum circles, as well as the usage of djembe within pop and rock ensembles, have led to an increase in synthetic drums.
These drums have shells formed of plastic or resin-composite materials, such as FiberSkyn, metal mechanical tuning rather than traditional ropes, and often plastic rather than goatskin heads.
These synthetic drums are popular for outdoor use because they are not harmed by rain, humidity, and extremes in temperature.
They are extremely durable and are useful in demanding circumstances such as when working with children.
Djembe drums are tuned by evenly pulling the vertical ropes very tightly so that a system of metal rings brings the skin down over the drum shell.
These verticals are tightened all the way around, perhaps taking multiple passes, and using a lever of some sort.
The traditional method is to use a stick to pull the ropes. A tool called a “rope puller” is used by many modern-day re-builders.
The next step is to use more rope to put in horizontal twists of the vertical ropes (Mali weave). These are commonly referred to as “diamonds”. It passes under two verticals (diamond pattern), back over one, under one (making a Z or S shape), then gets pulled hard and down. Uniform and parallel rows of diamonds, as low as possible, is the ideal.
When a new skin is being put on a drum, this whole pulling process is preceded by soaking a skin in water until it is very pliable.
That wet skin is placed on the drum with the ring system while the rope verticals gently pull the rings down a bit.
Then it’s left to dry completely before the vigorous pulling and twisting described above happens.
As with any instrument it’s quality will be determined by three main factors:
- Material selection
Any goblet shaped drum will have a range of tones similar to a djembe.
If what you are looking for is the sound of the traditional West African Djembe, then look for the design forms of the three main countries holding that classic tradition; Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast.
Other regional countries produce djembes (From Senegal to Nigeria) but few use or understand the traditional design principals.
Since the djembe has grown in popularity, nearly any country from Pakistan to Indonesia to Bali which has skilled wood carvers now produce African-style djembes.
These countries carvers don’t come from the same culture as djembe music does, and hence the drums they produce are often improperly designed as an instrument for West African music.
If you want the sound heard on master recordings look to the source!
Guinea produces some of the Worlds finest djembes, as well as some of the world’s master players.
Guinea djembes are known for their deep bowl, often half the height of the drum or more.
The bowl has a fairly vertical side until rapidly curving in to meet the trumpet or stem.
Looking inside the bowl, the contour at the bottom sharply curves to make a nearly horizontal shelf at the trumpet.
The opening is fairly wide, between 1/3 and 1/2 of the playing surface diameter.
The trumpet (stem) is fairly straight but widening slightly to the base.
Guinea is still blessed with ample forested areas and there are three main hardwoods preferred; Akajou, Khadi, Lenke or Lenge. Trumpets are often carved with chevron, angular or gear like bands.
Mali djembes tend to have a rounder bottomed bowl, still often half the height of the drum.
The bowl usually rounds completely to horizontal inside the bowl profile.
Most have a more flaring trumpet, often stepped with carved decoration. Trumpet opening is about a third of playing surface diameter.
Woods are often whatever is available as scarcity demands.
Ivory Coast djembes are most often carved of softer wood like Iroko.
They have a deep tapering bowl and a characteristic ledge where the bottom rope ring seats.
We have seen widely varying inside bowl profiles but most often they curve gently as a funnel to the trumpet opening. Opening vary from 1/3 playing diameter to slightly less.
The trumpets flare to a wide base, often with two or three stepped “lobes”. They often contain narrow angle chiseled bands.
Remember in West Africa many carvers have been regionally displaced, and the styles are no longer as well-defined.
A carver from Mali may end up in Senegal carving a Ivory Coast style drum!
Djembe design has been scientifically studied but is still pretty subjective.
We think there are some essentials that make up a good drum: a deep bowl, with a defined angular transition to the trumpet; an opening about 1/3 the playing surface is important, with a slightly larger one favoring clear tones and slaps, and a smaller one emphasizing bass notes.
The traditional hard wood used to make West African djembes have a resonance and richness unmatched by other materials.
The flare of the trumpet may not make too much difference alone but may be significant combined with overall design.
The important thing is to choose a drum that YOU like!
The size, shape, sound and feel that you are comfortable with is very personal.
When your drum finds you, you will know!
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