The djembe (also spelled jembe) is an African drum that has gained popularity in the Western world over the last few decades. If you have been thinking about learning to play the drums, the djembe is a good starting point. These drums are simple to play, entertaining, attractive, and have a distinct cultural and historical heritage. They are relatively inexpensive when compared with traditional Western drum sets. Djembe drums can help reduce stress and are a good way to relax. Traditional djembe players in West Africa believed that each drum had a spirit, and by playing the drum they could connect with that spirit, with nature, and with their own inner being. People young and old are forming drum circles and exploring world rhythms on the djembe and other traditional drums.
Origins of the Djembe
The djembe dates from the formation of the Mali Empire in West Africa in the 13th century. It originated with the Malinke (Mande, or Mandinka) and Susu peoples of what is today Mali and Guinea. While the djembe is believed to have been the invention of Mandinka blacksmiths known as “numu”, another story credits a woman with the invention of the drum.
The woman was pounding millet into flour one day and broke through the bottom of her wooden mortar. She mounted a goat skin on the mortar, creating a crude drum. The curved goblet shape of the djembe’s body is similar to the mortars traditionally used by African women.
Traditionally, certain instruments were restricted to certain social classes. The jeli, or professional musicians, were the only people who could play certain drums such as the kora, ngoni, and bala. The djembe, however, could be played by anyone. Most of the famous djembe players came from the Numu class or from the nobility. As the Numu migrated through West Africa, they took the djembe with them, and the drum is now associated with many West African countries.
The djembe was introduced to the West in the early 1950s by Les Ballet Africains a touring ballet company headed by Guinean Fodeba Keita. Ten years later, Ladji Camara, a lead drummer from Les Ballet Africains, relocated to the United States and helped create a widespread interest in the djembe and African drum music.
The djembe experienced another massive surge in popularity in late 1980, when Guinea president Seckou Toure died. At that time, ballet troupes from Guinea, as well as Mali and Senegal, began to migrate to western countries to teach and perform.
Another factor in the rising popularity of the djembe is the world music boom, which began in the late 1980s and continues strong today. Many djembe-based groups, such as Fatala from Guinea and Farafina from Burkina Faso, have popularized the interest.
In addition, there has been strong interest in the djembe and other African drums, as well as other aspects of African culture, by public school systems throughout the United States. Schools in many larger cities, such as New York and Chicago, have offered drumming classes and workshops. In addition, the Chicago Djembe Project offers African drumming classes and drumming circles for kids, teens, and adults alike.
Unfortunately, this mass interest in the djembe has not generally been accompanied by accurate information on its traditional use in its African homeland. Many fans of the djembe know little about settings and occasions where the djembe is played, who plays it, types of ensembles in which it is played, and other basic information on the role of the djembe in African culture. Most non-native djembe players have never visited Africa, or have spent very little time there. And, since many native African djembe players speak only native African languages and French, it is difficult for them to communicate with English-speaking people. If you are considering taking up the djembe, or if you are interested exploring its African roots, there is still much research to be done on this instrument.
Traditional Djembe Playing
Traditionally, the djembe was played for village ceremonies and gatherings, such as weddings, festivals, and holidays. There were various djembe rhythms, corresponding to dances, and each had its particular purpose, time, and place. Some honored groups of people; others were associated with specific occasions such as a circumcision or planting. A village drumming event usually lasts several hours, with the drummers and dancers concentrating on a few dances and rhythms. Everyone present dances, and there is natural flow to the dancing, alternating between fast, energetic rhythms and slower, easier rhythms accompanied by singing, where the dancers can rest and catch their breath.
Many of the djembe dances were played by groups of players, usually with a larger bass djembe, a solo djembe, and sometimes other higher pitched djembes. Each djembe played a different rhythm and followed a call-and-response pattern. Some of these dances include the Kuku, the Diansa, and the Triba.
The Kuku was originally a circle dance for women, celebrating the return of their men from fishing. Today, it is used for celebrations of all types. It has a 4/4 rhythm and was played by the Malinke people around the Ivory Coast. The rhythm was played by a bass djembe and a single large solo djembe.
The Diansa originated in southern Mali and was a competition dance for young men. Now it is a popular rhythm played all over West Africa. In earlier days, only two bass djembe drums were used, but a third drum pattern was added later. The time signature of the Diansa is also 4/4.
The Triba is from the Laduma people in the west of Guinea. Originally, it was a dance done by a single costumed dancer accompanied by a group of percussionists. While this dance is no longer danced, the rhythm is played often for various special occasions, such as initiations. One such event is a mother-daughter dance, done to celebrate a girl becoming a woman. The rhythm of this dance is ternary, in 6/8 time.
How To Play The Djembe
If you want to learn to play the djembe, there are many resources available both on the Web, at music stores, and in your local community. CDs from master players, instructional DVDs, online-based playing communities, and local drumming circles are only a few. If you haven’t found a drumming community yet, here are some basic tips to get you started on your own.
Holding The Djembe
The djembe is basically a large, hollowed wooden goblet with a drumhead attached at the top. In order for the drum to resonate, the hollow base must be tilted away from the floor. Most players sit in a chair, holding the djembe between their legs and gripping it with their thighs, with the drumhead pointing away from the body and the base tilted under the chair. The hands should be in a comfortable position, parallel to the top of the drum and pointing slightly inwards.
Producing Sounds On The Djembe
The djembe has three basic sounds—the bass, the tone, and the slap.
The bass sound carries the rhythm and it is played in the center of the drum, with a slightly cupped hand. The tone has a higher pitch, and is played by striking the edge of the drum with the fleshy part of the palm and the hand held flat. The slap is the highest pitched sound and the most difficult to play. The player must tap the rim of the drum with a cupped hand and relaxed fingers.
The tone must ring by striking like it`s a hot pan. Beginners may think of the tone and slap as fingers "together" and "apart." Advanced players will not take the time to make that obvious physical change but will rather make a less visibly obvious change from "focused" to "dispersed."
Begin by sitting comfortably, with hands and arms relaxed. Start by learning to play a steady beat using both hands, striking the center and outside edges of the drum. When you can do this easily, you then can start to vary the beat, adding long and short beats and syncopations. Now you are ready to begin making your drum sing by learning its three basic sounds.
The Three Basic Sounds
The three basic sounds on the djembe are all open tones: after you hit the skin, your hand should bounce back, allowing the note to ring. Keeping the hand in contact with the skin will produce a different sound, and is usually done as an advanced technique. As a beginning player, you should master the three basic tones first. The following are some basic guidelines for playing the basic tones of the djembe:
• Bass: The bass tone keeps the rhythm, and is played in the center of the djembe. Some players prefer to keep each hand slightly positioned toward its own side of an imaginary center line down the middle of the drum. Sometimes the bass is played slightly toward the rim of the djembe, producing a sound that is not as deep, but easier to play at high speeds since the hand has less distance to travel between the bass and the other tones.
• Tone: The tone is played with the underside of the fingers. Your hand should be placed with the joint where the fingers join the hand placed around the rim of the drum. Hit the drum skin flat, with all the fingers hitting simultaneously. Think of your hand as a straight extension of the arm, and play like you are about to do a judo chop. You should aim for a firm, solid, “thud”-like sound that produces a ringing tone. When first learning, keep the fingers together to produce the fullest and clearest tone.
• Slap: The slap is the hardest sound for beginners to do successfully. To do the slap, relax your hand and arm and hit the drum with a sharp slap. Your hand is in a position similar to that used for the tone. Hit the rim of the drum with the very edge of the padded part of your hand, just below the wrist. Fingers should be turned in slightly. Even though the hand appears to be more curved, the slap is played with the same hand position as the tone. The fingers should curl naturally, with only the tips hitting the drum, and bounce naturally off the skin. Help the bounce along by slightly lifting the hand from the drum immediately after hitting the skin.
Keep the hand position of the tone and the slap as close together as possible. This allows you to move between the two notes quickly and easily. When you are playing, there should be a strong, clear distinction between the tone and the slap. Spend extra time working on these techniques so that they can be played clearly at high speeds.
Start slower, aiming for sound quality over speed. Speed will develop naturally over time. It is also important to pay attention to your posture. Keep the body upright but relaxed, with a straight spine and loose arms. Your arms should hang naturally down your sides, and all the movement should be from your elbows, not your shoulders.
The Most Important Thing Of All
When learning to play the djembe, don’t forget the most important thing of all. Relax and enjoy yourself. Pay attention to the rhythms that come from your heart, not your head. You are not just beating on a drum; you are letting the drum speak through you.
Playing Tips for Beginners
• Keep A Steady Beat. The drum is a rhythm instrument. The most important thing you can learn with drumming is to maintain a steady, consistent beat. Start slowly and build up speed, but first and foremost, always aim for accuracy and precision in your timing.
• Start Slowly. This cannot be repeated enough. Start at a slow, comfortable pace, and aim at producing clear, distinct sounds. You should hear the difference between the bass, the tone, and the slap. When you can play a steady rhythm at a comfortable speed, then practice slowly speeding up, until you can playing at the tempo of other musicians around you.
• Listen To Other Musicians. There are many resources available on the Internet and at local music stores. Listen to CDs, YouTube videos, and teaching DVDs. Find some local drummers and attend their drum circles, just to listen.
• Play In A Group. When you have learned the basics, find a drum circle or a music session in your area and join in. Be sure to listen carefully to what the other musicians are doing, and make sure your playing fits the tone and rhythm established by the group. Your goal is to enhance the overall quality of the music being played, not to stand out like a sore thumb.
Common Playing Mistakes
Here some common mistakes beginners often make:
• Sore thumbs. This is caused by playing too far to the center of the drum, and striking the thumb with the other hand.
• Playing with the hands too parallel. Be sure to point your hands slightly inwards. If your hands are too stiffly parallel to the drum, your wrist will rotate, causing strain on the wrist and forearm, eventually leading to carpal tunnel syndrome.
• Hitting too hard. Especially when making a slap, there is a tendency for beginners to hit too hard. The volume and sound of the slap comes from the action of the wrist, not the force of the hit. You do not have to hit harder to produce a slap; the whipping sound should occur naturally.
Tuning The Djembe
You might think that, since a drum does not have strings, it does not need to be tuned. However, humidity and changes in temperature can make a drum head go slack and sound dead. Djembe drums are tuned by pulling the ropes tightly so that the metal rings bring the skin down over the drum shell evenly.
What To Look For In Buying A Djembe
Choosing A Djembe
There are many types of djembes available on the market, with prices ranging from $49 to $300 and over. The cheapest drums are manufactured, with plastic bodies and Western-style screw-mounted drumheads. The advantage to this drum is its low cost and the ease with which the drumhead can be replaced by any music store. In addition, you can easily tune the drumhead yourself simply by tightening the screws that attach it to the body. These drums have a lighter, ringing tone.
Wooden djembes are a good choice if you want a traditional African-looking drum with a warm, mellow, earthy sound. These drums are much more expensive, and many of them are imported from Africa. They feature hand-carved bodies, native designs, and have drum heads mounted in the traditional way, with ropes. These heads are tuned by tightening the ropes, a process involving some degree of skill and training. If the drum head breaks, it will be more difficult and costly to replace. On the other hand, the beautiful, warm tone of these drums and the traditional, hand-carved designs on the wooden body make these instruments decorative as well as functional. Look for a drum made from solid, seasoned wood—the harder the better. The wood should be free of cracks or holes. Often, the insects that have bored holes in the wood may still be present and can infest other wood in your home.
Where To Buy A Djembe
Since the djembe has become a very popular instrument, you might consider visiting your local music store. Chances are they may have a selection of drums for you to try out. There is nothing like being able to hold and actually play the instrument you are purchasing. In addition, there are many resources available on the Web and many websites that carry the djembe and other African drums. Prices for these drums can range from $50 to $300.
Make Sure Your Drum Is Earth-Friendly
Many West African forests are being destroyed by aggressive logging practices aimed at producing quick profits at the expense of local ecosystems. Approximately 20 percent of West African forests have now been destroyed by poor management, illegal forestation, and a desire for short-term gains. Some buyers are concerned with the source of the woods used for djembe drums. A number of major retailers are now choosing to use suppliers in countries such as Bali and Indonesia, where the government regulates forestation. You might consider choosing a company that offers fair trade drums.
Where Can I Get Lessons, Resources, Classes, Etc?
For the aspiring djembe player, there are many resources available. The Internet is a good first stop. Type “djembe” into your search engine and you will find many sites from which to choose. Or, scroll down this web page and check out the sources listed here. Many sites offer video tutorials to help you get started.
Local music stores now carry a selection of world musical instruments. Check out the stores near you. Many of these stores may carry books or offer lessons.
Books are also available online, through Amazon and other websites.
And finally, don’t forget to look for local resources in your community. Especially if you live in a large city, there may be drumming circles and local interest groups. As an aspiring musician, be on the lookout for other players and groups where you can bring your instrument and join in. While there are solo djembe players, the djembe, as well as other African instruments, are communal instruments. Traditional African music was not played in concert halls for well-mannered, polite (and half-asleep) audiences. It was played by and for groups of people dancing and making music together. Tradition teaches that each drum has its own spirit, and that spirit is best expressed in a musical community.
It has been said that the West African djembe is to the new millennium what the acoustic guitar was to the 1960s, a simple, portable, low-tech instrument that can be played for enjoyment in groups. It is played in public parks, on mountaintops and beside streams, and in dorm rooms and night clubs. It can be found on sale throughout the world, on almost every continent. Drumming is a basic form of human communication that spans cultural, social, and language barriers and brings people together in a common community. For a small expense and with a little practice, you, too, can join this community.