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Djembe Drums

djembe drumA djembe (pronounced “JEM-bay”) also known as djimbe, jembe, jenbe, yembe or sanbanyi in Susu; is a skin covered drum shaped like a large goblet and is meant to be played with bare hands. It is a member of the membranophone family of musical instruments: a frame covered by a membrane made of one of many products, usually animal skin. The djembe originated in West Africa, where it became an integral part of the area’s music and tradition.

As a result of the goblet shape, 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 primary tones are generally referred to as “bass,” “tone” (or open tone), and “slap.” Striking the skin near the center with the palm produces a bass note; striking the skin nearer the rim with the fingers flat produces a tone, and the same position with the fingers relaxed so that the fingertips snap to the head of the drum produces a slap. The slap has a high, sharp sound and the tone is more “round” and full. Other notes exist, but only advanced drummers can consistently create sound distinct from the others.

Traditionally, djembes are about 12″ (30cm) in diameter, varying an inch or two, but can be found in sizes from 5″ (13cm) up to 18″ (46cm) depending on the size of the player.

The djembe is a secular Mandé drum. It is found in all of West Africa, where it is one of the most common instruments. There is general agreement that the origin of the djembe is associated with a class of Mandinka/Susu blacksmiths known as Numu. The wide dispersion of the djembe drums throughout West Africa may be due to Numu migrations dating from the first millennium A.D. Despite the associations of the djembe with the Numu, there do not appear to be hereditary restrictions upon who can play the djembe as occurs with some other African Instruments. The rounded shape with the extended tube of the djembe body forms a device known in physics as a Helmholtz resonator, giving it the deep bass note.

The djembe spelling with the “dj” comes from the fact that French has no hard “j” sound like that found in English. The “dj” is used to indicate the hard “j” pronunciation. The fact that the French spelling has been retained as traditional is largely due to the generally open policies in the French African colonies toward native culture and traditions, whereby the French were instrumental in studying and describing African drumming to the world.

The djembe first made an impact outside West Africa in Paris of the 1940s and more widely in the 1950s and 1960s with the filming and world tours of Les Ballets Africains featuring a young Papa Ladji Camara and led by Fodeba Keita of Guinea. The “national ballet” movement where a number of drumming/dancing companies have adapted traditional African drumming/dancing events to the Western-style stage has resulted in a surge of interest in African drumming, especially djembe drumming.

Acoustic shell djembeSome consider the djembe female and the ashiko to be male. The djembe is actually much more closely related in tone and design to the family of drums known as sabar, which are played with one hand and one stick, most closely to the Bung Bung Baal, and N’der drums.

Beginning in the late 20th century, the djembe became very popular in drum circles all around the world. In proper form, however, its played in ensemble with the dunun drum, bells, and sometimes tama, with individuals playing different parts that lace together intricately to weave a delicate rhythmic tapestry. Dancers are actually accompanied by a lead drummer, or soloist who will play rhythms which align with the dancer’s movements as they make them, and whose playing will signal changes in the dance steps, as well as the beginning and end of a piece.

The djembe is said to contain three spirits: the spirit of the tree, the spirit of the animal of which the drum head is made, and the spirit of the instrument maker. The djembe is also known as the magical drum, mushroom shaped drum, and the Devil Drum. It is legend that the djimbe and/or the tree from which it is created was a gift from a Djinn or malevolent demigod, male counterpart to the more familiar Genie. Properly crafted djembe drums are carved in one single piece from hollowed out trees called Dimba, or Devil Wood. Drums made from slats or segments of wood glued together are considered by traditionalists to have no soul of the tree. Properly made drums are not smooth on the interior but have a series of teardrop shaped divots inside that enhances the tonal qualities. The drumheads are typically made from goatskin, but more rarely can be antelope, zebra, deer or calf. In all cases the female is preferred and adult cow is never used. In earlier times and still in some rural areas djembe were used to send messages over long distances.

A master djembe player is referred to as a djembefola.



1. christashjian - December 14, 2009

I love the sound of authentic djembe drums. The sound of hand carved drums is definitly unique. I work for a company now that carries imported African drums including djembes. Check it out at http://www.africaimports.com

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