Introduction to djembe
By Gordon Nunn
The djembe is a goblet-shaped hand drum developed by Mande societies in West Africa (Mande-related peoples populate the nation-states of Mali, Guinea, Senegal, the Gambia, and Cote dIvoire). Historically, the jembe primarily functioned as the lead or master drum in ensembles that featured one to four accompanying djembes, and one to three dunduns (conical drums in graduated sizes played with a stick and often combined with a bell). The purpose of the drum ensemble was to provide accompaniment for song and dance at communal events celebrating various occasions within Mande society. In contemporary West Africa djembe drumming is performed in a variety of settings ranging from the traditional to the modern. Djembe drumming has maintained its traditional role of performing at communal events, and has become a staple in state-sponsored folkloric ensembles, which have become popular since the 1960s. The solo djembe is regularly featured in popular music recordings, which emanate from the urban centers Abidjan in Cote d’ Ivoire, Bamako in Mali, Conakry in Guinea, and Dakar in Senegal. Over the past three decades, djembe artists like Ladji Camara, Famoudou Konate, Mamady Keita, Adama Drame, Soungalo Coulibaly and Les Percussions de Guinea began teaching and performing in parts of Europe and North America. The result of their performances and subsequent recording elevated the instrument’s popularity on a global level.
For years the only way to acquire a djembe was via import from West Africa. In the past decade or so, European and American drum companies have begun producing replica instruments made from synthetic materials or built with a stave (barrel construction) design and covered with plastic heads. Traditionally, jembes are carved from a solid piece of wood, and the head is made of goat or antelope skin. The heads are fastened using a system of metal hoops and of rope, in which the rope is passed through a set of loops that have been formed around circumference of two rings – a small one around the base of the bowl-shape and a larger one, which holds the skin in place. One the rope has been fed through all of the loops it is pulled as tight as possible and then tied off. The tension on the rope can be created by weaving a second rope through its vertical strands, causing them to turn over each other in pairs.
The manufactured versions feature tuning systems closer to that of conga drums or conventional drums. The manufactured drums are mush easier to maintain, however, the sound is much different that the traditional drums. They ring more and their sound is less focused.
The technique used for playing djembe is similar to the conga. The performer can produce a variety of sounds by striking the drum in different ways and in different places on the playing surface. In performance practice three basic sounds are used: a high piercing tone (slap), a lower more focused sound (tone), a low resonant tone (bass). The construction of the jembe is different from than the conga therefore the techniques are not identical.
To gain an understanding of how these sounds are performed, and how the rhythmic patterns are executed in the drumming ensemble, the author recommends seeking a competent instructor.