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I have a few Djembes ranging from little ones right up to a big monster that I am currently resting my laptop on to type this review....
There are loads of these on the market and most are rubbish to be honest as they are factory made and usually are horrible sounding things. A decent hand crafted Djembe drum should cost a LOT more than a £20 ebay job. The cheapie drums also do not possess the deep rumbling bass sound that feels like it is moving in your body so if you are into the idea of owning a Djembe, I would advise that you save up from a proper handcrafted one, preferable made (like mine is) by some Rasta dudes in Ghana :)
The Djembe is an traditional African instrument which is hugely popular all over Africa but particularly in Ghana where the Djembe and other traditional drums form the rhythmic backbone to much of the African and Hip life music. The typical quality Djembe features a goblet shape, and a hand carved base and top which is carved from a solid piece of African hardwood, often a wood called Lenke. This is a beautiful smooth wood which has a golden and red tone with a very tight grain. A Djembe can range in size from tiny lap drums right up to monsters like mine which can be 18" diameter across the drum head. It is more usual to find Djembe drums in the 12" range.
Djembes are very often decorated with tribal patterns and animals which are relevant to the area from which they are made. Mine was made by a Rasta and features a large moon carving with a star on the other side which are symbolic to the people on the beaches of Accra where this was made. There are two iron or steel rings that hold the goatskin drum top to the drum, one ring slightly inside the other makes the skin very tight. The skin of a Djembe will often have scrape marks on it from where the majority of the goat hair was removed by a blade so don't be deterred if you see this on the drum head. The drum is tuned by adjusting the rope knots which run around the top of the drum but this is unlikely to concern a beginner. The ropes are woven in a repetitive way which serves both practical and decorative purposes. When you have a good look at the construction of the knotwork it is boggling to an outsider but I am assured that it is easy to do when you know how...
The inside of the drum is of course hollow to allow the sound to reverberate and travel around the drum, and the inside is carved in a way that affects tone rather than just haphazardly. A skilled drum maker will intuitively know how much wood to leave and how much to remove for optimum tone quality.
The Djembe is a highly decorative instrument. Mine lives in my kitchen which might sound strange but then my kitchen is also full of violins and has chrome wheel hubs from classic cars hanging on the wall. It is an easy thing to pick up and play but it takes skill to play it well.
PLAYING THE DJEMBE:
Due to the size and weight of the instrument a Djembe is often played whilst seated. There are harnesses available for people to play standing up should you wish to but I could no way do this. The drum is placed between the knees at an angle and the base rests near your feet. There are three sounds produced by a Djembe which are called the bass, the tone and the slap. The hand position is important as it is the way to transfer intonation and pressure to the drum skin.
This drum is a loud drum with lots of presence and reverb. Generally the bigger the drum the bigger the noise and the one I have makes a racket that can be heard all over the house which makes it brilliant for gigs as it can be heard over other acoustic instruments. A group of Djembes playing in rhythm is something to behold....
The bass: This tone comes from the heart of the drum and the centre of the skin. You use the flat of your palm to hit it. It is very deep and very evocative.
The tone: This tone utilises the steel rings to produce a sound of a different timbre, fuller and sharper than the rest. This is usually used for definition and is usually produced by hitting the skin nearer or on the rim of the drum.
The slap: This is a higher sound than the bass and is played with an relaxed open hand on the drum skin, usually the fingers are used rather than the palm.
It all sounds horribly complicated but once you sit with a Djembe in front of you, the tones produced are easy to find and define as they are all quite different. The bass sound of a Djembe is the one that you can feel right through your body like a heartbeat and it can make my hair stand on end when I hear it played. The sound of the Djembe evokes a tribal vibe and I love it so much that I actually had an Djembe party at my local family centre for my daughter's 2nd birthday party. Led by the Rasta who made my drum, we had 14 mothers and 6 children drumming for over an hour without boredom. The kids loved it.
BUYING A DRUM:
I recommend that if you are looking to buy one of these amazing drums that you look for genuine African made instruments. Ideally you want it to be hand crafted. There are a variety of sellers who import drums from Ghana to sell over here and those are the ones that I would go to. I would avoid Ebay unless you can find a seller who has genuine handcrafted Djembes for sale and has good feedback. A bad drum will not inspire you to play it....
Expect to pay over £130 minimum for a 12" Djembe of quality.
A final thought..
The sound of the Djembe has been used locally (Wales) with severely Autistic children and adults with huge success. The noise, the repetition and the texture of the drum have been very calming to some individuals which has been wonderful to witness. When I worked in a dual diagnosis unit, we ran drum groups that were a massive success and seemed to lull everyone who attended into a state of lulled mellowness.... including the staff! I have also found that babies love the sound too and it seems to hypnotise them.
I recommend this drum to play for the joy of the sound that it creates and the fact that it looks stunning when not being played. The sound is phenomenal in a good one and it is a very sociable instrument that is wonderful for jamming on with friends.
The Djembe drum is an original African traditional instrument first used in Benin for voodoo rituals. In earlier times and still in some rural areas djembe drums were used to send messages over long distances. In Europe Djembe drums grew in popularity during the post war period especially in Paris as African musicians from the West coast began to tour with national ballet companies. Nowadays they enliven celebrations around the world. I bought my drum from a friend who had brought it back from Ghana.
Traditionally, Djembe drums 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 wood from my drum is carved from tweneboa, a local hardwood from Ghana. The grain of the wood has a golden hue that highlights the engaging hand carved designs at the base of the drum. Iron rod rings are attached around the top of the drum through which double-woven nylon ropes securely fasten the goatskin drumhead. These nylon ropes can be adjusted in order to tune the instrument, something that requires an expert touch.
Traditional djembe drums are carved out of a single piece of wood from a hollowed out tree. Drums are usually adorned with carvings on the outside of the base but there is also carving on the interior usually in the form of teardrop shaped divots that serve to enhance the final tone that the drum produces. When the drum is made the goat skin is firstly soaked in water for about two hours to soften it before stretching. The skin is firmly pulled through the iron rings to cover the mouth of the drum and this ensures that it comes out with a good sound. The drum is then left in the sun to dry after which it is tested for sound and tone quality.
The drum is not simply an ornament but a genuine musical instrument. To play the drum properly you should sit down on the edge of a chair with your ankles crossed. The top of the drum should be placed securely between the knees and the base should rest behind the heels so that the drum is at an angle away from the player. Three basic sounds can be produced by the Djembe: bass, tone, and slap. By sitting up straight with your hands resting on the drum's playing surface, the wrists should remain flat in order to produce the genuine Djembe rhythm. Tones are rounded fuller sounds that are produced by striking the skin nearer the rim with flattened fingers. The slap is a high, acute sound and is produced from a similar position but this time with the fingers relaxed so that the fingertips briskly hit the head of the drum. Striking near the center with the palm produces a bass sound.
There are various places on line where you can buy these drums and the prices vary a lot from about £50 to a couple of hundred or so. There are dealers in the UK but you can also import direct from Africa. There is a long list on Ebay but be sure that you are buying an original instrument (if thats what you want) and not just a pretty ornament. The Djembe drum is an exotic and ornamental intrument that can bring many hours of therapeutic pleasure.
From Ghana. The Djembe is the drum of the Mandinka people, and its origins dates back to the great Mali Empire of the 12th century.