What is a Djembe Drum? Uncovering the Powerful Rhythms and History

By Evan C

Uncovering the Djembe

A djembe drum is a traditional West African percussion instrument that has gained popularity worldwide for its versatile and powerful sound.

Made from a single piece of wood or individual staves, the drum features a hollowed-out/open body and an animal skin or synthetic membrane stretched across the top.

The drum gets its distinctive tone from its goblet-like shape, which produces a wide range of sounds from deep bass to sharp, high pitched tones.

Here’s a video I recently did about a specific LP Djembe – FYI – I don’t think the drum is weird despite my video title

The djembe is believed to have originated from the Mali Empire, around the 12th century, and has since been an essential instrument in the cultures of West African countries like Guinea, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, and Senegal.

Its iconic role in West African ceremonies, dances, and storytelling has contributed to its rich history and cultural significance.

Played by hand, the djembe drum offers an array of techniques and rhythms that showcase its expressive sound capabilities.

Striking the drum in various different ways allows you to produce a multitude of sounds, thus making the djembe an ideal instrument for both solo and ensemble performances.

In recent years, the djembe has crossed cultural boundaries and can now be found in music genres such as jazz, pop, and world music, demonstrating its ever-evolving presence in the global music scene.

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What Is A Djembe Drum – The History

Origins and Cultural Significance

The djembe drum has a rich history rooted in West African culture, dating back over a millennium. The first djembes were believed to have been created in the 12th century by the Mandinka people of the ancient Mali Empire.

This sub-Saharan Empire gained significant power and influence, with arts and music deeply intertwined in its culture.

Traditionally, the djembe played a vital role in West African communities, as its captivating rhythm and tonal variety served to convey significant messages, celebrate rituals, and engage in communal bonding.

The name “djembe” is derived from the saying “Anke djé, anke bé” which translates to “everyone gather together in peace.” Its cultural significance is evident through its historical use in:

  • Ceremonies
  • Celebrations
  • Harvest festivals
  • Storytelling and poetry accompaniment
  • Dance music

Evolution to Modern Djembe

Over the centuries, the djembe has evolved into what we now recognize as the modern djembe. However, the craftsmanship and artistry behind traditional djembe construction have remained consistent. The basic structure of the drum consists of:

  1. A carved wood shell, often made from a single piece of hardwood, but stave djembes are seen in the market as well.
  2. A goat or cow skin pulled tight over the shell’s opening, secured by rope. Synthetic heads are used in more modern djembes, as well hoops and tuning bolts/lugs.
What is a djembe drum in terms of modern? This stave process is being used a lot in conjunction with a metal hoop.
My Djembe – The LP Aspire – Click here to check out the price on Musician’s Friend!

The art of African drumming has preserved the djembe’s presence and relevance to this day. As African diasporas spread across the world, the djembe migrated to different countries, evolving and adapting to new musical genres and styles. The drum has become a staple instrument in a variety of musical contexts, such as:

Musical GenreUse of Djembe Drum
World MusicIntegral part in percussive ensembles
Pop and RockAdds rhythmic texture and depth
JazzProvides polyrhythmic complexity
Dance and TranceCreates driving and energetic beats

Today, the djembe remains an emblem of African culture and heritage. Djembe history is rich and evolution to the modern drum we know today continue to resonate with musicians and audiences alike, offering a captivating and powerful connection to the roots of African music and its place in the world.

Design and Construction

Materials and Craftsmanship

What is a djembe drum crated with? This West African percussion instrument is crafted from a single piece of hardwood (although stave djembes are a lot more common).

The process begins with the careful selection of a tree that holds cultural significance, often referred to as the spirit of the tree.

Master craftsmen then hollow out the tree trunk to create the drum shell which serves as the base of the djembe.

The drum shell is shaped with beautiful carvings and grooves on the surface, showcasing the exceptional skills of the artisans.

The top part of the shell is wider, forming the striking surface, while the bottom part is narrower to allow for optimal resonance.

Djembe Skin Types

There are two types of skins commonly used for djembe drums:

  1. Goat skin: Traditional djembe drums use goat skin, which is held in place using a complex tensioning system made from rope. The choice of goat skin is essential as it is believed to carry the spirit of the animal. The thickness and quality of the goat skin can vary, greatly affecting the tonal qualities and durability of the drum.
  2. Synthetic skins: In recent years, synthetic skins have become more popular due to their durability and affordability. Typically made from materials such as Mylar or Fiberskyn, these skins offer a consistent sound and are resistant to changes in humidity and temperature.

Both types of djembe skins have their unique characteristics and individual sound qualities. Traditionally, djembe players prefer the warmth and authenticity of goat skin, while some modern drummers opt for the convenience and consistency of synthetic skins.

Playing Techniques

Basic Strokes

When learning to play the djembe, a type of hand drum, mastering the basic strokes is essential. There are a few main strokes to begin with:

  • Bass: Striking the center of the drumhead with the whole hand, this produces a deep and resonant sound.
  • Tone: Aiming for the edge of the drumhead with the fingers (but closer to the center), this results in a mid-pitched, crisp sound.
  • Slap: This is achieved by snapping the fingers away at the edge of the drumhead, creating a sharp, higher-pitched loud sound.

It is important to practice these fundamentals, as they lay the foundation for more intricate rhythmic patterns.

Rhythmic Patterns

Once the basic notes have been mastered, the next step is to combine them into different rhythms. Here are three common djembe rhythm patterns:

  1. Djembe Rhythm 1
    • Bass | Tone | Tone | Bass
  2. Djembe Rhythm 2
    • Tone | Bass | Slap | Bass
  3. Djembe Rhythm 3
    • Slap | Tone | Bass | Tone

These patterns can be altered and combined to create more complexity, and experimenting will help develop a unique playing style.

Mastering the Djembe

To fully master the djembe, it is crucial to develop a strong understanding of the instrument, including the top, edge, and inside of the drum. Each part contributes to the overall sound quality.

  • Top of the drum: Focus on how the drumhead resonates and the impact of hand placement and strength.
  • Edge of the drum: Explore how the angle of finger strikes affects the sound and tone of the strokes.
  • Inside of the drum: Understand the role of the drum’s body in amplifying and projecting the sound.

Taking the time to delve into each aspect of the instrument, along with practice and dedication, will provide the tools necessary to excel as a djembe player.

Djembe in Performance

Solo and Ensemble Usage

The djembe drum is a versatile instrument, often used in both solo and ensemble settings.

In traditional West African ensembles, the djembe is typically accompanied by other percussion instruments like the dunun, kora, and balafon. After all, what is a djembe drum without more of them. They sound great in a multitude!

A common ensemble setup includes one lead djembe player performing solos, supported by a rhythm section with one or more djembe accompaniment players and dunun players.

The interplay between the lead djembe, the accompanying djembes, and dununs creates a rich and complex rhythmic masterpiece.

  • Lead Djembe: The soloist responsible for the melodic and rhythmic variations
  • Accompanying Djembes: Support the rhythmic foundation of the performance
  • Dununs: Provide the rhythmic and harmonic base of the ensemble

In contemporary contexts, the djembe has been embraced by musicians worldwide, and is often incorporated into various music styles such as jazz, rock, and pop.

In these settings, the djembe may be used as a solo instrument, or played alongside other traditional and non-traditional percussion instruments.

Traditional and Contemporary Contexts

Traditionally, the djembe has played an essential role in West African communities as an instrument of dance and a form of communication.

Djembe music is deeply integrated into various aspects of communal life, accompanying important events like weddings, funerals, and ceremonies.

The djembe has also been used to convey messages over long distances through intricate rhythmic patterns.

Traditional djembe music encompasses a vast repertoire of rhythms and songs, each with specific meanings and cultural significance. Some of the most well-known traditional rhythms include:

  1. Kuku: A rhythm played for the return of fishermen in Guinea
  2. Soli: Performed during celebrations and initiation ceremonies
  3. Dununba: A rhythm representing power and strength in the Bamana people

The African djembe has seen a surge in popularity globally, thanks to the efforts of renowned musicians like Mamady Keïta, Famoudou Konaté, and Amadou Kiénou.

As a result, the djembe has transcended its traditional roots and can now be found in various musical genres and educational settings.

Contemporary djembe music often fuses traditional West African rhythms with modern influences, creating a unique and dynamic sound. This cross-cultural exchange has led to innovative techniques and styles on the instrument, further expanding the expressive capabilities of the djembe.

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The Sound of the Djembe

Acoustic Properties

The djembe drum produces a unique sound that sets it apart from other percussion instruments. This distinct sound can be attributed to its acoustic properties.

Due to the djembe’s goblet shape and its tight drum head, it is able to produce both deep bass sounds and sharp, high-pitched tones. The drum head, typically made from animal skin such as goat or cowhide, contributes to the instrument’s sonic character.

The goblet-shaped body, usually carved from hardwood, further enhances these tones by amplifying the drum’s resonance and allowing for a broad range of sound possibilities.

Tuning and Resonance

Tuning the djembe is essential to achieving the desired tone and resonance. The tuning process involves tightening or loosening the drum head, which is typically secured to the shell with a system of ropes or metal hardware.

As the drum head tension is adjusted, the pitch and resonance of the instrument will change accordingly.

To give an idea of the relationship between the drum head tension, pitch, and resonance:

Drum Head TensionPitchResonance

Proper tuning ensures that the djembe produces a well-balanced sound, with a pleasing combination of bass, mid, and high-frequency tones.

This allows the djembe to perform exceptionally well both as a solo instrument and within the context of an ensemble.

The sound of the djembe can also be altered through the use of different drum head materials. For example, synthetic drum heads can provide additional durability and weather resistance while still offering a satisfying tonal range.

Cultural Impact

Global Influence

The Djembe drum has had a significant impact on the global music scene, transcending its roots in West African countries like Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

It has integrated into various musical genres, thanks to its unique, powerful sound and versatility. This has led to the Djembe being embraced by musicians worldwide.

  • African Drums: Traditional African drums, such as the Djembe, have been used in music, ceremonies, and rituals for thousands of years.
  • Global Adoption: The Djembe’s popularity has grown beyond its native region, being adopted by musicians in genres we mentioned earlier.
  • Workshops and Classes: The Djembe’s growing popularity has led to an increased demand for workshops and classes, where people can learn how to play and appreciate this unique instrument.

Symbolism and Spirituality

The Djembe drum carries deep cultural and spiritual significance in its native West African countries. The drum is not just a musical instrument, but also a representation of the community and its history.

  1. Symbolism: Each part of the Djembe symbolizes essential aspects of life and the community. In their beliefs, the drum’s shape, for example, represents the body, while the skin denotes humanity’s connection to nature.
  2. Spirituality: The Djembe is considered a sacred instrument, with the belief that each drum has its own spiritual presence. Playing the Djembe is a way to express and communicate with nature, ancestors, and the divine, in their beliefs.
  3. Ceremonies and Rituals: The Djembe plays a crucial role in various West African ceremonies and rituals, including weddings, funerals, and celebrations. The sound and rhythms of the Djembe are thought to have a healing and unifying effect on communities.

In conclusion, the cultural impact of the Djembe drum is profound, with its global influence reaching far beyond its West African roots.

Both as a symbol of community and spirituality and as a versatile musical instrument that has been embraced by musicians around the world, the Djembe continues to share its powerful message and sound with people everywhere.

Maintenance and Care

Caring for your djembe drum is essential to ensure its longevity and maintain its rich sound. What is a djembe drum if it’s not properly cared for? Follow these best practices for maintaining and caring for your djembe.

1. Proper Storage:

  • Store your djembe in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight or extreme temperature changes. Sudden temperature shifts can cause the drumhead to crack or the shell to warp.
  • It’s a good idea to use a padded or protective bag when transporting your djembe to prevent scratches, dents, or other damage.

2. Regular Cleaning:

  • Gently wipe down the drumhead after each use with a soft, dry cloth to remove sweat, dirt, or other residues.
  • Clean the wooden shell with a damp cloth and mild soap if necessary, and then immediately dry it to prevent moisture from seeping into the wood.

3. Tuning and Drumhead Maintenance:

  • Regularly inspect the drumhead for any damage or signs of wear, such as cracks or frays in the skin. Replace the drumhead as needed.
  • Ensure proper tension on the drumhead to maintain optimal sound quality. Tighten or loosen the ropes or tuning lugs as needed, making sure the tension is even across the head.

4. Caring for the Wooden Shell:

  • To keep the wood in good condition, apply natural oil (such as linseed or tung oil) periodically. This helps to nourish the wood and prevent it from drying out and cracking.
  • Avoid exposure to excessive moisture, as this can cause the wood to expand and the drum shell to warp.

By following these maintenance and care tips, your djembe drum will provide you with years of enjoyable playing experience while retaining its beauty and sound quality.

Notable Djembe Players

Several master drummers and master djembe players have gained recognition for their exceptional skills and contributions to the world of djembe drumming.

Among the most talented and influential artists are Mamady Keita (RIP), Alan Tauber, and others who have inspired countless individuals to appreciate and perform this West African percussion instrument.

Mamady Keita, a native of Guinea, West Africa, was a world-renowned master drummer and one of the most influential djembe players of his time.

Keita had devoted his life to the preservation, promotion, and teaching of djembe drumming. As a founding member of the professional percussion group Sewa Kan and as a solo artist, his musical expertise and vibrant performances have captivated audiences worldwide.

Mamady Keita has also authored several books and produced numerous albums, further expanding the reach and impact of his work.

Alan Tauber, an accomplished American percussionist, is another notable figure in the djembe world. With a background in jazz and ethnic drumming,

Tauber has honed his skills through extensive study and travel. He founded the DrumConnection in 1988, a renowned Boston-based school and resource center for West African drumming.

Tauber had worked closely with Mamady Keita and other master djembe players, further developing his expertise while sharing his passion for the instrument through teaching, performing, and organizing drumming events.

In addition to these prominent figures, numerous other djembe players have left their mark on the global djembe scene, contributing to the growth and evolution of this expressive art form.

Hand Drums

Hand drums are always so much fun to play and I think the Djembe, specifically, would be a great addition to any drummer’s arsenal!

So hopefully, now you don’t have to wonder what is a djembe drum! They’re pretty fun to play and I’m still learning a lot about it. I hope you have learned some things too!

Djembes And More!

What are your thoughts on Djembes? Do you prefer any other percussion instruments? Let me know in the comments below!

Want FREE drum hacks to help your drum chops foundation and get you on the right track?

Get those by clicking here.

Until next time, stay attuned!

-Evan C.

About the author

Hi there, I'm Evan and I love drums.. Also, I love music! I've been playing drums for most of my life and nothing beats the thrill I get from it. I hope to be able to provide you with insightful tips and reviews on things within the drum and music world!

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