Djembe Drum = Cries…Laughs…Talks!!!

 ***Creates A Hypnotic Influence Over Its Listeners…

  *A Malinke Djembe is a rope-tuned skin-covered goblet Drum played with bare hands, originally from West Africa. According to the Bambara people in Mali, the name of the Djembe comes from the saying “Anke djé, anke bé” which translates to “everyone gather together in peace” and defines the drum’s purpose.

The Djembe has a body – shell carved of hardwood and a Drum-head made of untreated rawhide, most commonly made from goatskin. The Djembe can produce a wide variety of sounds, making it a most versatile Drum.  The Malinké people say that a skilled drummer is one who “can make the Djembe talk”, meaning that the player can tell an emotional story.  

There is general agreement that the origin of the Djembe is associated with the Mandenka caste of blacksmiths, known as Numu. The wide dispersion of the Djembe Drum throughout West Africa may be due to Numu migrations during the first millennium AD. Despite the association of the Djembe with the Numu, there are no hereditary restrictions on who may become a Djembefola – one who plays the Djembe. This is in contrast to instruments whose use is reserved for members of the Griot caste, such as the Bala, Kora, and Ngoni. Anyone who plays Djembe is a Djembefola-the term does not imply a particular level of skill.

Geographically, the traditional distribution of the Djembe is associated with the Mali Empire,  included parts of the modern-day countries of Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gambia, and Senegal. However, due to the lack of written records in West African countries, it is unclear whether the Djembe predates or postdates the Mali Empire.  

***The goblet shape of the Djembe suggests that it originally may have been created from a mortar. Mortars are widely used throughout West Africa for food preparation… There are a number of different creation myths for the Djembe… Prior to the 1950s and the decolonization of West Africa, due to the very limited travel of native Africans outside their own ethnic group, the Djembe was known only in its original area.

The Djembe first came to the attention of audiences outside West Africa with the efforts of Fodeba Keita, who, in 1952, founded Les Ballets Africains. The ballet toured extensively in Europe and was declared Guinea’s first national ballet to be followed by two more national ballets, the Ballet d’Armee in 1961 and Ballet Djoliba in 1964. Fodeba Keita,  saw the ballets as a way to secularize traditional customs and rites of different ethnic groups in Guinea. The ballets combined rhythms and dances from widely different spiritual backgrounds in a single performance. Fodeba Keita generously supported the ballets  world-wide performance tours, which brought the Djembe to the attention of Western audiences. Other countries followed Keita’s example and founded national ballets in the 1960s, including Ivory Coast (Ballet Koteba), Mali (Les Ballets Malien), and Senegal (Le Ballet National du Senegal), each with its own attached political agenda. 

In the United States, Ladji Camara, a member of Ballets Africains in the 1950s, started teaching Djembe in the 1960s and continued to teach into the 1990s. A number of Djembefolas emigrated and made regular teaching and performance appearances in the west. Recordings of the Djembe far surpass the number of recordings of any other African drum. This is significant because these recordings are driven by the demand of western audiences: there are almost no Djembe recordings within African markets. 

Most Djembes from Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Senegal are still hand carved from traditional species of wood, using traditional tools and methods. In the 1990, Djembes started being produced elsewhere, such as in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and Indonesia. However, these woods, being softer and less dense, are not as suitable as the traditional woods.  

 Djembe players use three basic sounds: bass, tone, and slap, which have low, medium, and high pitch, respectively. These sounds are achieved by varying the striking technique and position. Other sounds are possible – Masters achieve as many as twenty-five distinctly different sounds, but these additional sounds are used rarely, mainly for special effects during a solo performance Ddjembe kan, literally, “the sound of the Djembe”. A skilled player can use the sounds to create very complex rhythmic patterns; the combination of rhythm and the differently pitched sounds often leads an inexpert listener to believe that more than one drum is being played.

The bass sound is produced by striking the Drum with the palm and flat fingers near the center of the skin. Tone and slap are produced by striking the drum closer to the edge; the contact area of the fingers determines whether the sound is a tone or a slap. For a tone, most of the area of the fingers and the edge of the palm contact the skin whereas, for a slap, the contact area is limited to the edge of the palm and the fingertips. The basic sounds are played “open”, meaning that the hands rebound immediately after a strike, so the contact time with the skin is as short as possible.

Traditionally, the Djembe forms an ensemble with a number of other Djembes and one or more Dunun. Except for the lead Djembe, all instruments play a recurring rhythmic figure that is known as an accompaniment pattern or accompaniment part. The figure repeats after a certain number of beats, known as a cycle. Cycles longer than eight beats are rare for Djembe accompaniments—longer cycles are normally played only by the Dununba or Sangban.

 Each instrument plays a different rhythmic figure, and the cycle lengths of the different instruments need not necessarily be the same. This interplay results in complex rhythmic patterns. The different accompaniment parts are played on Djembes that are tuned to different pitches; this emphasizes the poly-rhythm and creates a composite overall melody. The number of instruments in the ensemble varies with the region and occasion. In Mali, a traditional ensemble often consists of one Dunun – konkoni  and one Djembe. The konkoni and Djembe are in a rhythmic dialog, with each Drum taking turns playing accompaniment while the other instrument plays improvised solos.  

In Guinea, a typical ensemble uses three Djembes and three Dunun, called Sangban-medium pitch, Dundunba-bass pitch, and Kenkeni-high pitch, also called kensedeni. If an ensemble includes more than one Djembe, the highest pitched Djembe plays solo phrases and the other Djembes and Dunun play accompaniment. A Djembe and Dunun ensemble traditionally does not play music for people to simply sit back and listen to. Instead, the ensemble creates rhythm for people to dance, sing, clap, or work to. The western distinction between musicians and audience is inappropriate in a traditional context. A rhythm is rarely played as a performance, but is participatory: musicians, dancers, singers, and onlookers are all part of the ensemble and frequently change roles while the music is in progress. 

Musicians and participants often form a circle, with the center of the circle reserved for dancers. Depending on the particular rhythm being played, dances maybe performed by groups of men and/or women with choreographed steps, or single dancers may take turns at performing short solos. The lead Djembe’s role is to play solo phrases that accentuate the movements of the dancers. Individual solo dances are not choreographed, with the dancer freely moving in whatever way feels appropriate at that moment. Marking a solo dancer’s feet requires the lead Djembefola to have strong rapport with the dancer, and it takes many years of experience for a Djembefola to acquire the necessary rhythmic repertoire.

Traditionally crafted Djembes are carved from a single log of hardwood. A number of different wood species are used, all of which are hard and dense. Hardness and density are important factors for the sound and projection of the Djembe. The most prized Djembe wood is Lenke, not because it necessarily sounds better than other woods, but because the Malinké believe that its spiritual qualities are superior. Malinké traditional wisdom states that a spiritual energy, or Nyama, runs through all things, living or dead.  

Shells are carved soon after the tree is felled while the wood still retains some moisture and is softer. This makes the wood easier to carve and avoids radial splits that tend to develop in logs that are allowed to dry naturally. Carvers use simple hand tools, such as axes, adzes, spoke shaves, and rasps to shape the shell. A well-carved Djembe does not have a smooth interior but a texture of scallops or shallow grooves that influence the sound of the instrument. Djembes with smooth interiors have tones and slaps with too much sustain. Often, interior grooves form a spiral pattern, which indicates a carver taking pride in his work.

young djembe player

The Djembe is headed with a rawhide skin, most commonly goatskin. Other skins, such as antelope, cow, kangaroo can be used as well. Thicker skins, such as cow, have a warmer sound with more overtones in the slaps; thinner skins have a sharper sound with fewer overtones in the slaps and are louder. Thick skins make it easier to play full tones but more difficult to play sharp slaps; for thin skins, the opposite applies. Thin skins are louder than thick ones. Thick skins, such as cow, are particularly hard on the hands of the player…

Skins from dry and hot-climate areas and poorly fed goats are preferred for Djembes because of their low fat content. Skins from cold-climate goats with high-value nutrition have more than double the fat content; they tend to sound dull and lifeless in comparison. Even though the fat content of male goats is lower than that of female goats. Many players prefer female skins because they do not smell as strongly and are reputed to be softer.

 The skin is mounted with the spine running through the center of the drum head, with the line of the spine pointing at the player, so the hands strike either side of the spine. Animal skins are thicker at the spine than the sides; mounting the skin with the spine centered ensures that the left and right hand play symmetric areas of equal size and thickness. In turn, this helps to minimize differences in pitch of the notes played by the left and right hand. Normally, the head end of the spine points at the player, so the hands strike the area of the skin that used to be the shoulders of the goat. Skins may be shaved prior to mounting or afterwards.

malinke music cover

Up until the 1980, the most common mounting system used twisted strips of cowhide as rope. The skin was attached with rings made of cowhide; one ring was sown into the perimeter of the skin and a second ring placed below it, with loops holding the skin in place and securing the two rings together. A long strip of cowhide was used to lace up the drum, applying tension between the top ring and a third ring placed around the stem. To apply further tension, the vertical sections of the rope were woven into a diamond pattern that shortens the verticals. Wooden pegs wedged between the shell and the lacing could be used to increase tension still further.

The pitch of these traditional Djembes was much lower than it is today because the natural materials imposed a limit on the amount of tension that could be applied. Prior to playing, Djembefolas heated the skin near the flames of an open fire, which drives moisture out of the skin and causes it to shrink and increase the pitch of the Drum. The modern mounting system arose in the early seventies, when touring ballets came into contact with synthetic rope used by the military. Initially, the synthetic rope (Dacron 4mm) was used to replace the twisted cowhide strips. However, the rope (Dacron 4mm Djembe – 5mm Dunun) could now be tightened to the point where it tore through the skin; in response, drum makers started using steel rings instead of twisted cowhide to hold the skin in place. To prevent damage to the rope from rust flakes, as well as for aesthetic reasons, the rings are often wrapped with strips of colored cloth.

***Djembefolas frequently attach one to four metal rattles to their drum, known as sege sege (Malinké) or sesse (Susu), also called ksink ksink. The rattles serve as decoration as well as to create a richer sound.

djembe and dundun drum family

Traditionally, as today, in Africa an individual needs to spend many years accompanying his Master in ceremonies and other festivities before becoming a real Djembefola – Djembe player. Today in the communities of western civilization learning to play the Djembe generally involves finding a Master Drummer and having private lessons or lessons for small groups of people.

“A Drum-maker often chooses a tree from the side of a well–traveled road from which to carve a Drum, for such a tree will have heard much conversation and will therefore make a Drum that is especially good at talking.”


Anke Dje – Ankebe = Everyone gather together in peace. Dje verb for “gather” ….Be “peace” ===> Guinee (Ballet Africans 1952 – Ballet Army 1961  – Ballet Djoliba 1964)

Reference Sources: Wikipedia =  Michael Tivier (Wassoulou Percussions) = Google Search/Photo

5 thoughts on “Djembe Drum = Cries…Laughs…Talks!!!”

  1. Guy de Chalus = Thank you for sharing. This music had never spoken to me before but over the past few weeks my ears have finally opened to this language. It’s very playful and joyful music (to me).

  2. Great stuff. I’ll share a power point I used for a 2011 speaker presentation at Wright State University. If you are aware of any studies, I’m looking for additional research on “trance heightened states” in drumming. I’ve also written a large popular blog on the brain science of basketball based in part on my research & work with drumming. I seem unable to share links here.

  3. Yacine B Kouyate = In Bamanan we say to speak an instrument ka djembe fo ka bamanankan fo to speak Bamanan ka ngoni fo to speak the ngoni
    Hope all is well with you brother

  4. Kamau Mensah = Thank you once again to Yagbe Awolowo Onilu for continually posting such important information regarding the art, history, and cultural context of the art of drumming. You are one of the few keepers of the flame of the tradition which lights the way for many of us who are engaged in these activities on whatever level…ASHE!

  5. I am so happy to read this. I have a djembe that was chosen for me by an African priest. I was honored and she has been with me for 20 years. I am searching for the deity that is the carving on her. I think it may be Akonadi, since I was told she (the drum) was a messenger. But I am unsure and would like any help I can get for identifying the female form or deity on the side of my drum.
    Thank you for your joyful and informative site.

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