The Djembe is a drum that has been uniquely identified as having feminine qualities. It is above all a powerful instrument of communication and healing for those who answer her call.
A djembe (/ˈdʒɛm.bɛ/ JEM-be) (also spelled djembé, jembe, jenbe, djimbe, jimbe, or dyinbe (Malinké)) 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. In the Bambara language, “djé” is the verb for “gather” and “bé” translates as “peace.”
The djembe has a body (or shell) carved of hardwood and a drumhead made of untreated (not limed) rawhide, most commonly made from goatskin. Excluding rings, djembes have an exterior diameter of 30–38 cm (12–15 in) and a height of 58–63 cm (23–25 in). The majority have a diameter in the 13 to 14 inch range. The weight of a djembe ranges from 5 kg to 13 kg (11–29 lb) and depends on size and shell material. A medium-size djembe carved from one of the traditional woods (including skin, rings, and rope) weighs around 9 kg (20 lb).
The djembe can produce a wide variety of sounds, making it a most versatile drum. The drum is very loud, allowing it to be heard clearly as a solo instrument over a large percussion ensemble. 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. (The Malinké never used the djembe as a signaling drum.)
Traditionally, the djembe is played only by men, as are the dunun that always accompany the djembe. Conversely, other percussion instruments that are commonly played as part of an ensemble, such as the shekere (a hollowed-out gourd covered with a net of beads), karignan (a tubular bell), and kese kese (a woven basket rattle), are usually played by women. Even today, it is rare to see women play djembe or dunun in West Africa, and African women express astonishment when they do see a female djembe player.
There is general agreement that the origin of the djembe is associated with the Mandinka 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 (literally, “one who plays the djembe”). This is in contrast to instruments whose use is reserved for members of the griot caste, such as the balafon, kora, and ngoni. (The djembe is not a griot instrument.) 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, which dates back to 1230 AD and included parts of the modern-day countries of Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, 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. It seems likely that the history of the djembe reaches back for at least several centuries, and possibly more than a millennium.
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.)
Sound and striking technique
In the term ‘lenké’ – the most sacred wood from which the djembe’s body is carved, ‘ké’ is the legacy conveyed from the djembe’s mouth (made out of skin) to the learner’s ear. And because the djembe is a language, it is also important to learn its alphabet: the djembe’s word at the service of tradition.
The first letter is the ‘KON’ tone, from which are derived the nine Malinke rhythms representing the polyrhythmic structure known as Bolokonondo. All other letters are built from this first letter.”
For its size, the djembe is an unusually loud drum. The volume of the drum rises with increasing skin tension. On a djembe tuned to solo pitch, skilled players can achieve sound pressure of more than 105 dB, about the same volume as a jackhammer.
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 (djembe 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.
Acoustically, a djembe is a Helmholtz resonator: the frequency of the bass is determined by the size and shape of the shell and independent of the amount of tension on the skin. In contrast, the pitch of tones and slaps rises as the tension of the skin is increased. The bass has a frequency of 65–80 Hz. Depending on the size of the drum and the amount of tension on the skin, tone frequency varies from 300 Hz to 420 Hz and slap frequency from 700 Hz to 1000 Hz, with audible overtones reaching beyond 4 kHz.